Hair and Skin, the third annual summer show organized by Derek Eller Gallery’s associate director Isaac Lyles, is a group exhibition featuring the works of over a dozen artists. Fascinated by developing research on mirror neurons found in the brain and their role in triggering empathetic emotions, Lyles chose works that “present the body in extremes to explore the potential of physical empathy and bodily resonance.”
While this research suggests that the brain actually simulates the experience of what it sees, the work of art historian David Freedberg and neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese emphasizes “the primacy of cognition in responses to art.” Lyles’ dissatisfaction with this characterization, which he believes reduces the experience of viewing art to a merely intellectual one, was largely the impetus for this exhibition. Instead, Lyles proposes a way of looking that doesn’t give primacy to a disembodied mind, but to the embodied mind and the embodied vision.
Tell me about your background and your introduction to the art world.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, the son of a Protestant pastor turned decorative artist. I grew up around art as something that was integrated with everyday life. My father actually co-founded an artisan’s guild of ironworkers, people making mosaics and tapestries—all these things to enrich daily experience. I went into art history, which I thought of as an undisciplined discipline. You know art is about life, which means art addresses everything—politics, rock & roll, history, gender, race, love, the body. I went to the University of Texas and studied art history. Then, I moved to Berlin. I lived in Berlin, London, a small fishing village in Scotland named Ballantrae. I wore Calhoun tartan and carried silver platters at a castle turned posh hotel.
That’s not something many people can say they have done.
I wanted to have some experiences. I didn’t want to do things the right way—graduate, go to New York, work my way up the ladder from one point to another. I felt that if I were going to work with art then I would need to have experiences. I needed to be alive, I needed to feel—different perspectives, have some freedom, and see some things beyond what everyone else is seeing. Just to enjoy being alive because that’s when you really see what art is about. You know, it gives you the best for your moments to paraphrase a guy named Walter Pater. You have a limited interval on this planet and you try to get as many sensations as you can within this limited interval. That’s why I love art and working with art.
As Associate Director at Derek Eller, it seems like that philosophy has served you well thus far.
I’ve been very lucky. Working with Derek Eller and Abby Messitte is amazing. They’ve been running the gallery for over 15 years. They are amazing people and have an amazing eye. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities. This is the third exhibition I have curated here.
Can you tell me a bit about the process of a curator—from the brainstorming stage to the opening, what goes on?
It’s funny, one of the artists in the exhibition, Maria Petschnig asked me, “how long were you working on the exhibition?” I said, in a sense, the last decade. In another sense, the beginning of March. So much of this is an outgrowth of what I have worked on before. To that, I would say curating a show needs to begin somewhere personal. For me, I am deeply personally invested in all of my shows. I have an intellectual interest, but I am not guided by using art to prove a thesis. Curating a show is, like writing, a process of discovery. You ultimately don’t know what the show is until you have it done and everything is relating to each other. Only then you realize, oh wait, this is what I did. To believe otherwise is a little disingenuous and art’s ability to surprise you shouldn’t be underestimated. That said, I think it always begins with, what am I excited about? What am I connecting with right here—what am I connecting with personally and what have I not explored? For me, I hadn’t done a show that represented the body. So, I felt that it would be a bit daring and difficult to do a show about something so common as the body and to do it in a way that had both verve, sensitivity, and was very alive and aggressive at the same time. I wanted the show to hit several notes from loud to soft, abrasive to gentle, large to small—to pull you in, to push you out to where it is a very physical experience and to where the artworks bring things out in each other. I think the great test of a curator is in putting the art in other contexts. You have a responsibility to the artists and to the artworks In this context, you draw certain ideas, certain feelings, certain experiences that you may have not otherwise by creating certain juxtapositions. Put a Hans Bellmer across from a Davina Semo, suddenly the Davina Semo has that much more of a figurative quality. It puts it into relation with this history, there’s a lot that can go on there. It brings out the more figurative quality; if I put that in a show of geometric abstraction, you would not think about the human figure, you would think about geometric abstraction. I think it’s a process of what excites me and what can work together to make an exciting and unexpected exhibition.
This exhibition was partially inspired by ongoing research on mirror neurons, which suggests that humans have the ability to sympathize with others in a way that is “what I see is what I feel.” Can you elaborate on that?
I think art writing is often disingenuous. Our first experience of looking is something that is physical; we process are through our senses. It isn’t a pure intellectual experience, nor would we want it to be. It doesn’t come from that place even though it has it’s own intelligence. With mirror neurons, some of the science helped me articulate what I already felt and what many people I have relationships with have felt. The experience of looking is not one that is disembodied, which is very much the discourse that the discussion of vision has centered on in art history—that it’s a disembodied thing, that it is an objectifying thing when it’s really not. It’s more of an exchange. What mirror neurons are designed for is essentially that if you do something, my mirror neurons fire as if I were doing the same thing you were doing. This is something they believe to be true, but research is still ongoing. One, how we learn to do things is through imitation. Two, it’s also how we have empathy for others. I see you cry, the mirror neurons fire as though I am crying. That’s how I feel what you feel, think what you think, or maybe do what you do. They found that it also works with imagery, like a photo of something or a video of something. Not only that, but in paintings and art works, there is a certain way that we process things in a much more embodied engaged way. I wanted to explore representations of the body in extremes—the body fragmented, the body broken as a means to explore that feeling of what that empathy could be, of what it could to, of that bodily resonance that one can have with artwork. I wanted to try to set up situations where the viewer does have that.
You said that your dissatisfaction with what David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese characterize as “the primacy of cognition in responses to art” was the impetus for this exhibition.
David Freedberg is an art historian that worked at Columbia and Vittorio Gallese is a neuroscientist and they’ve been working together. Essentially what they are talking about is, again, that art historical discourse that reduces art to an intellectual pawn. I am deeply involved and deeply interested in politics and social issues; I’m a news junkie. I think those things are engaged with art, but I don’t feel the primary experience, with art, is a political or sociological one. I think it’s something that is more sensorial. What is troubling to writers and intellectuals is that it automatically puts that as a subjective experience, though you want to prove something—maybe you have some sort of hypothesis and you’re dealing with something that is slippery because you’re in subjective territory. And, again, I think that’s what is exciting about art, the destabilizing effect. Art is about disorientation, about the unknown. D.H. Lawrence said, “To know a thing is to kill it.” I think that’s why great art, every time you go see it, is still alive—it’s still shifting, moving, and your relation to it changes, but it’s still fresh.
So you seem to be conflicted with the need to objectify art as a purely intellectual experience to reduce its potential for subjectivity.
I come from an art historian background, so it’s not an anti-intellectual attitude. For me, I am interested in science pointing towards a way of looking that doesn’t give primacy to a disembodied mind, but to an embodied mind. And that is really what this is about, about the embodied mind and the embodied vision. The show itself and the art isn’t about that and that doesn’t have to be part of the experience. That is me being forthcoming and putting the show within a certain discourse if someone chooses to be interested in that. For some people, they may not give a damn about that and that’s fine. Other people have been very responsive and have said, “this is fascinating, and this articulates something I’ve thought for a while.” That’s why I thought it was necessary to put it out there when at first I was thinking about burying it.
Why do you believe art is such a powerful vehicle for communicating and inciting emotion in the viewer?
I think, again, art comes out of a need to express the inexpressible, to give shape and form to the ineffable. I think that is an extraordinary thing that will continue to evolve and change, but that’s part of our human history. It’s a joy to be part of that and to be able to facilitate that.
Are you an artist yourself?
No, I never have been. I put my hand in a lot of cookie jars. I’ve been in random synth punk improv bands that wore costumes in Austin, Texas. I’ve written and done zines and things like this. I’m still very much interested in doing more writing, but for me, I think I’m too social to be an academic. I like being in the trenches. I like being where things are happening, where art history is being made, rather than sorting through the ashes afterward. Again, I think it’s about being able to work with an amazing community of people that are by and large intelligent and welcoming, that are engaged with the meat of existence. But being able to constantly be around art requires a certain honing and love of the senses. To be able to be better and better at looking at art is all about constantly cleaning. William Blake wrote,“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” When so much of our lives get frittered away by detail, to be able to focus and lock in and look at something and experience something and always having to be able to say, I have to be open to this right now—and I can be open to it and say, this sucks.
For someone who is not as well read in art history and experienced with looking at art, would you say there is a particular way to view art? Is there a way we are supposed to look at art?
I feel like the first key to looking at art is to look at a lot of it. Just like with certain music, you may have heard it the first time and it may have sounded like noise. You listen to it more; suddenly a structure or melody emerges. I think art is that way as well. First of all, there is, like music, a lot of shit, but there are great things, too. I think one of the most important things for someone starting out looking at art and isn’t fully confident yet is to be able to feel comfortable hating something. I think it’s really important because people feel uncertain. Certain people want easier pleasures, whether that is food—they only eat hamburgers, but then there are amazing, exciting things to eat if you open your mind a little more and train your palette. With clothes, you could always wear a shitty t-shirt and jeans, but maybe there’s something exciting about the world of fashion. And with art, if you spend a little more time with it and train your eyes to seeing—it doesn’t happen immediately but there’s also a reason why a lot of people get seduced into this world. Not everyone here was born into it. There are a lot of people from Oklahoma or Ohio that, for them, art was something far away and they embraced it. Art is a means out of the banality of their circumstances. I think the thing is having a certain self-certainty that you can dislike what you dislike, and you can what you like. I think what art also teaches us is certain humility in that what you see now and dislike, you may like later. What you dislike could also turn out to be great. You could be wrong about certain things.
That’s interesting. I’ve asked other artists a similar question before. Is the image of an artwork something you should carry with you as you change and grow? Could it take on new meaning in new contexts of your life?
Yeah, it’s always true. With everything, you learn a lot from the things you hate. If I dislike that, this is why and it helps hone my sense of why I love what I love—because it’s not that.
Information about the exhibition
Featuring the work of artists Hans Bellmer, Louise Bourgeois, Günter Brus, Borden Capalino, David Dupuis, Daniel Gordon, Aneta Grzeszykowska, Kineko Ivic, Lionel Maunz, Maria Petschnig, Chloe Piene, Adam Putnam, Aura Rosenberg, Davina Semo, Bobbi Woods, Rona Yefman