Can you talk a little bit about your personal experience and how it’s led you to the work you make?
Sure. Most of that comes from a place of grappling with gender identity and how I navigate through public and private spaces identifying as a trans non-binary person. Most of my work can strike as very celebratory and very colorful, but it often starts from a place of grappling with violence and oppression.
If I'm working with a material, I'm interested in researching its history, and what conversations that material comes with. I get most of my content from materials, and allow them to speak for themselves.
So I have two main modes in my studio: that personal experience where the work really comes from and research.
How do those interact with each other? Because those feel like two different things: work that draws from your own personal experience and work that draws from research.
Usually the materials that I draw from are Elizabethan, Victorian, or colonial American, because I find their conversations on gender and sexuality to still be very current in our culture. By pulling content from material, it’s an exercise in gender studies through economy and the home: the site of the reproduction of a gender binary in a patriarchal structure. A lot of materials that seem benign really have a strong presence in historical conversations about the performance of those structures.
All acts of producing work are personal as well as political. I don’t believe in the myth that I can be personally separated from my work. And so the further I develop the work, the more I enter these conversations through experience.
Why do you choose to recast those histories in an outwardly celebratory way?
Well, oftentimes, textiles and needlework from those periods are opulent. They reflect and perform capitalist values. These aesthetics and their economy are a direct result of forced, free labor. So why do we admire them so much? I’m using the visual language directly.
It's also a tool for me. I like using that blind greed and desire as a way to draw in a broader audience to engage that conversation.
To get them questioning both the materials and why they have that “blind greed and desire,” as you put it, in the first place.
Yes. And how those structures, which are inherent in the material, oppress. How can we break our conditioning, which fools us through desire? What, then, are our options for dismantling understanding, and building anew?
You’ve also, in the past, embroidered over gay pornography, and the subjects in the photos you were working with were usually cis, able-bodied white men. Are there structures inherent there as well? That choice of subject feels very deliberate.
In that particular series I was really interested in representation and space within the community and politically. Cis white men still dominate the current queer political conversation. And mainstream gay culture can be very misogynistic.
In that period, I was also really grappling with a lot of gender dysphoria. So researching and collecting specific materials, breaking down their historical and contemporary narratives, and then working with crewel embroidery on them — that was a very personal exercise in my practice. I found that historical conversations that came out of crewel embroidery and contemporary narratives around the photographs I was taking functioned as a series of echoes. So I was interested in producing multiple framings of the same conversation, to examine how violent and oppressive structures are performed in many contexts.
In that series you were also at various points embroidering, painting, or beading a given photo. Do each of those do something or say something different for you? How do you decide whether or not a given image should be embroidered, painted, or beaded?
That broader series began with a small series of paintings that really just acted as studies. Embroidery takes a very, very long time, so I was able to develop my ideas and develop the visual language through a series of painting studies relatively quickly. The paintings are also copies of crewel embroideries, so the embroideries came naturally after that.
The beadings were somewhere in between. The beading designs are really more American from the mid-20th century, so it’s a different conversation. They were an exercise of a new visual language that helped me move towards a large series of sculptures.
Okay, so it wasn't necessarily that you were working on embroideries, beadings, and paintings at the same time, but more that there was a progression towards embroidery. What was the large series of sculptures that that led to, then?
It’s a broad series of, at this point, about 85 sculptures, which I’ve titled They consume each other. They’re pretty intimate — the size of an altar piece. That work just started out of a couple of simple references: I still wanted to deal with conversations on gender and sexuality, but I also wanted to frame them within a conversation on Christian ceremony and ritual. These references in the objects also pull in art historical conversations on precious object-making, which I’m interested in queer-ing.
Why did you want to introduce that religious dimension to the work?
I think that came really organically from my personal experience. I was around Catholics a lot for most of my life, and that has in many ways informed my experience and my understanding of place, especially in regards to gender. I use mostly American and English materials in an effort to mine their histories. The majority of those materials are inextricable from Christianity’s role in colonialism, patriarchy, and our understanding of art.
Yeah, it feels like a natural progression. But these pieces in the studio are obviously not from that series. So what have you been working on in Wassaic?
I was interested in a couple of things. I wanted to make some two-dimensional work that was in concert with those sculptures, and I wanted to develop some new ideas. I've done a lot of sculptural work, so I was really excited to take the work in a new direction.
I also wanted to work in portraiture, and these are really funny as portraits. These reference objects that are usually used to commemorate or to honor, but they're also very referential of funeral wreaths and funerary ceremony.
How do you think of these in a broader conversation about portraiture? Because they don't immediately read as portraits — people’s conception of a portrait is usually just a person in a frame.
They’re still very anthropomorphic. In their upholstery and technical aspects — and also as an extension of an individual, and the performance of that individual in a formal structure. There’s also a series of framings in these: there's a very small condensed area, a sequin-patched area, toile, and flowers.
But the language around these works is still developing for me.
Colby’s maximal work in textiles and painting reframe conversations on domesticity, power, and gender from a trans perspective. She hasbeen shown internationally at Museum Rijswijk, Temp Gallery, and LoBo, among others. Colby was recently an artist in residence at MASS MoCA and a Leslie-Lohman Museum Queer Artists’ Fellow. Born in West Palm Beach, Colby received their BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University. She lives and work in Brooklyn.
2019 Summer Residency