Alyssa Lempesis’s Dark Gallery
Feeling my way through the uncanny, weirdly sublime world of the Oakland sculptor
“So, you like to touch weird things?”
“I do like to touch weird things.”
I arrive at Aggregate Space Gallery in West Oakland on a Wednesday night, nauseous. I’d cancelled my studio visit last weekend with Bay Area artist Alyssa Lempesis because of food poisoning, and my stomach is still tied up in knots. But within the nausea, I think of Alyssa’s works. Her sculptures and videos dance fluidly between disgust and pleasure, conjuring forms that looks like innards, sea life and other organic material. I was reminded of how arbitrary our bodies are — how they accept, reject, and do as they please.
Alyssa and I meet outside the nondescript building, and she leads me into a dark, expansive gallery. The lights are off and I am immediately disoriented and transported. We exchange introductions and walk over to her Keurig machine. It aggressively shoots out coffee from the spout, sputtering its last dregs into a Styrofoam cup.
I lean on the wall and look at her. Because of her bold artwork, I’d envisioned a more angsty-looking artist, but she seems shy and speaks gently and genuinely, with an easy comfort. She’s younger than I thought. And I like her boots. They look sturdy and are randomly studded with paint marks. Alyssa tells me that she substitute-teaches eighth grade history on the side and that it’s been a rough few days because of the recent election.
She then leads the way up to her studio upstairs. Across the thick darkness, my eyes make out a large, wooden table stacked with art supplies and hardware tools. Lofted on top of the gallery rests her studio, a haven of light. As we go up the stairs, I spot a semi-finished bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey. “That must come in handy, huh?” She nervously mumbles a response and laughs; I silently kick myself.
Alyssa turns on a portable heater for us and I sit dangerously close to her piece, Flick, a leg made out of plaster. As I reach back to retrieve my phone from my bag, my hands graze its attached, coral-like tentacles. They sparkle in forgiving response, and I am reminded of this fantastical world that Alyssa creates.
I soon recognize the pieces I’ve studied on her website, and am surprised that that they look a lot less gross and more fragile in real life than in pictures. Her sculptures invite touch, and I want to touch everything. All around us, strange textures and appendages dramatically bulge out of each piece.
As I carefully tiptoe around the pieces, I ask her if she ever breaks her things on accident. She casually grabs a random sculpture that is in arm’s reach and bangs it a few times on the table. “Yeah, all the time. But it’s not even just breaking them. I just move them around because they’re so resilient. Nothing can break these things. It’s super light and it’s filled with foam.”
Random separate pieces line the front of her studio. She compulsively creates small objects, making things happen as she feels and pleases. Alyssa then brings over a tube-like sculpture and tells me that a fly recently got stuck in the resin and died inside the hole. “I’ve been taking portraits of him. He’s stuck in there. Poor guy.”
She shows me her new project of bleaching conch shells, gifts from her mother who collected them from the beaches of Miami. But inside these shells resided another life. As she was rinsing these shells with hot water, a horde of semi-dead snails came pouring out. Lempesis wishes to share these hilariously disturbing experiences; she wants viewers to feel the rush of odd feelings, the pull of the uncomfortable and the strange. She gushes, “I really enjoy that feeling…shrieking with the snails, ‘Oh, no!’ But at the same time, ‘Oh, this is so cool — I’m going to remember this image for a really long time.’”
I ask her about moments when she grosses herself out in the creative process and she tells me that it is most pronounced when filming her stop-motion animations:
“It only really happens when I’m filming because there’s some kind of special fiction that happens when you add lights and a camera…it becomes this other world. I shoot everything with a macro-lens, so I have moments where I look through that lens and it freaks me out… but it also depends on how I’m doing that day what I can handle mentally. If I’m going through something really hard certain things are going to trigger stronger emotions.”
She then hands me a ceramic brush with long spikes: “For if I ever have a bad hair day.”
I tell her it looks deadly, and she agrees but explains that the “color also seems soft.” This purple, aquamarine color dreamily coats much of Lempesis’s works. And it indeed softens some of the uncomfortable realism that her pieces often mimic.
“Sometimes you come in the studio and your brain is tired and you just want to do something repetitive or meditative,” she says. “For me it was making these spikes at this point of my life and it became a fun surface treatment for another piece.” Her preferred color palettes remind me of the sea, as do some of her sculptures.
Alyssa tells me that her obsession with underwater life started when she was young and growing up in Miami. She now frequently visits the aquarium to touch a variety of sea life. “You can touch all these things and they’re just…weird! I like to touch weird things. I always liked gross things as a kid. I like being grossed out,” she explains with a dry voice and expression. A playful smirk soon escapes her mouth, and she laughs.
I am most surprised when she admits that she is deadly afraid of fish. I ask her why and she simply tells me that “As a kid, I was just horrified of going in the water and having them touch me…I’m still kind of like that. I go to the Monterey Aquarium and I go to the Deep Sea Room and I just feel this wave of horror…like these things exist and they’re so alien, strange, scary and way bigger than you ever imagined.” I am confused. For someone who obsessively hunts for the disgusting, she is most afraid of fishes. It’s these conflicting feelings of fear and awe that translate into the sense of the sublime in her works. The artist who invites touch doesn’t seem to enjoy being touched herself.
Lempesis’s fascination with underwater life also mirrors her fascination with human organs. She is constantly asking herself: What’s under there? What’s going on? Before her recent fascination with the ocean, she explains, a lot of her work was about her guts. “So into my guts. So into guts in general. Same reason why I like sea life. Texture. And having stuff in your body you can’t see… you’re walking around with all this gunk that you just don’t know what’s going on.”
While getting her MFA at UC Davis, she received animal guts for her projects. When asked if she ever felt grossed out, she quickly responds, “Oh, I felt like I was going to die. It was terrible. They gave me this whole gut so I got to empty out all the stomachs, drain the intestines and pull out the spleen. Just touching the stuff made me feel so uncomfortable. But the stomach with the goo…It was beautiful.” Another contradiction noted.
This tension between repulsion and beauty is a feeling that Lempesis wishes to share with viewers, and because most of her work is realistically body-sized, it is easy to think about and see ourselves in the work.
Yet she’s wary of asking her audience to take her art in any specific way. “It’s not my job to tell people what to think or feel. I want to create a certain vibe, a certain sort of space, but I don’t want to tell people, ‘this is the truth.’” Asked about her creative process, she relates it to playing lacrosse and basketball in high school. “There were moments when you play sports where everything goes away and when you’re shooting a free throw, you’re like, ‘fuck everything. I need to make this shot right now.’ That happens in the studio. You kind of feel this calm. You know what you’re doing. Your body takes over.” The body seems to constantly pervade our conversation, her work, and her life.
Before I leave, she grabs and cradles a rubber mold of her hands into her own, urging me to feel. I run my fleshy fingers through artificially gelatinous ones, marveling at the disgusting, warm texture and at how meta this whole experience is: Lempesis’s “real,” human hands holding her molded ones, as I am simultaneously feeling them with my own.
I say bye to her and the dark gallery — my nausea gone and my stomach feeling better. I think I get her now — get her viscerally. It seems I, too, have been disgusted to the point of pleasure and recovery.