Artist Interview: Leeza Meksin
Working with fabrics such as spandex, latex and toole, artist Leeza Meksin transforms buildings into bodies, structures into architectural drag, and fabric into stark statements about the falseness of binaries. Meksin demonstrates the fragility of the gender binary—the Western idea that there are only two genders in this world: man and woman—by challenging the ways in which people view social and physical structures around them, and by confusing the lines between male and female. Meksin’s Tip Cozy covers the glass structure on top of UMOCA’s building, and in the Main Gallery, Meksin’s work is hard to miss: a giant, grainy picture of the LDS Temple, surrounded by layers of colorful ropes, mesh and toole. Entry and Tip Cozy are two pieces of UMOCA’s Object[ed]: Shaping Sculpture in Contemporary Art exhibit.
“I was already working with spandex and fabric [in grad school],” says Meksin. “I was getting feedback from my professors—surprisingly from the female professors—saying, ‘Be careful as a queer woman using fabric. It might be career suicide.’ I was concerned and stunned that a woman working with fabric in ’05, ’06, and ’07 would get that kind of feedback.” Rather than attempting to work with another material, Meksin challenged the idea of gender binaries in art and wondered what she could do with fabric that would allow her to comment on women’s work in a unique frame. “I thought about buildings,” she says. “All the adjectives I thought of when I thought ‘architecture’ were very, stereotypically male: They’re quintessentially hard and respectable. Not to mention that architecture, as a field, has long been dominated by men.” Meksin began daydreaming about ways in which she could use fabrics to dress up buildings and create a dichotomy between soft and hard, dressed and naked—the ways in which society views men and women.
“Humans, in relationship to the dwellings we build, are female,” she says. “They’re soft, vulnerable, and flexible—whereas buildings are hard, durable, and typically stay the same.”
Meksin delights in creating false binaries. Her work criticizes the ways in which society uses and trusts in binary systems—even though these systems always fail us. “We create divisions between people and put ideas into categories,” she says. “By creating this playful, dress-up situation where a building puts on a costume and transforms through clothing hints at the idea that categories are malleable and meant to be played with. Nothing is so set in stone.” The idea of making ideologies malleable reminded Meksin about the fundamental foundations of drag—a form of performance that debunks gender on a heightened and playful level. “Drag is free and smart and is given to you in this package of glitter and fabulousness,” says Meksin. “I wanted to take that attitude and bring it to this very serious domain of architecture.” Meksin’s ideas about gender began with reading adventure novels as a child—which are dominated by masculine and male lead characters—as well as using art to reclaim spaces of imagination and possibility. “As a female-bodied person, it’s really hard for me to get across my masculine qualities,” she says.
“It’s restrictive and destructive when people expect a certain kind of behavior from me. I’m seen as a ‘woman.’ I think a lot of my work stems from wanting to be viewed as a human.”
During her initial site visit to Salt Lake City for UMOCA’s exhibition, Meksin was struck by the the LDS Temple. “I felt invited everywhere in Temple Square: You could take tours, visit the Tabernacle or the Conference Center,” she says, “but the Temple is this closed body. Because I think of temples as bodies, I was thinking, ‘Oh—this is really sexual.’ I can’t enter this building unless I sign a formal document, a formal allegiance saying that I’m Mormon and seriously commit to that to gain entry. That immediately reminded me of a marriage contract and religion, where you can only have access to someone’s body if you legally bind yourself to them and inform the world through a legal document that you’re committed to being with that person.” Meksin was also interested in temple’s gothic, fairytale-like illusion regarding its architecture. “It has a theme-park quality that is both fairytale and fake,” she says. “There’s a lot of faux finishes: fake wood, fake gold, fake marble. The theatricality of it made me think about drag.”
The connection between the LDS Church, the Temple and drag performance led Meksin to having serious discourses with the community, especially young artists in SLC, about the Church’s views of the LGBTQIA community. “They don’t even know how queer they are,” says Meksin. “If they processed that, maybe it wouldn’t be such a leap to accept these people for who they are instead of punishing them and making them choose between family, their calling as artists, and their sexual orientation.” The paradox between the architecture and the ideas behind it led Meksin to creating Entry and Tip Cozy, two artworks that incorporate playfulness into an uncomfortable discourse. “I never feel in a position to lecture anyone and I’m not interested in didactic work that tells you what you should be or do,” says Meksin.
“Playfulness has a bigger potential than any kind of lecturing or finger-pointing to actually change people’s minds. As soon as you start thinking playfully about something, things open up.”
The experience of creating Entry involved a lot of changing and sitting on ideas. Meksin expected the picture of the temple to look more “degraded” than it ended up being. “I was hoping this image would look kind of crappy: I took it through a window, on a rainy day, and I’m not a photographer,” she says. “But when I put it up and really liked the picture, I was stunned. I changed my idea.” Initially, the veil was supposed to be less transparent and highlight images in the photograph that were other than the Temple—such as the buildings behind it. Instead, Meksin decided to make the fabric more transparent by using toole. “Spandex is a performance material for acrobats, athletes, and Dolly Parton,” she says. “Changing to toole makes it more princess-like and wedding-like and takes it out of this performance level.” Meksin also appreciates the help she received from UMOCA staff in making Entry a possibility. “I had the amazing help from John [Burdick] and Jared [Steffensen]. They were so helpful and great to work with. If I had a crew like this every time, I could imagine even more ambitious projects.”
Meksin is notorious for taking on big projects that seem impossible or too ambitious, and she loves the idea of a challenge. For her next great project, she wants to take on one of the greatest symbols of America: “I’ve been thinking about making a spandex burka for the Statue of Liberty,” she says. Fearless and bold, Meksin’s projects reveal her passion for pushing boundaries and creating conversations with the community. “I feel like there’s a social and communal aspect to the work,” she says. “I love how expansive ideas become when you start a discourse about it. I never limit my work to mean something specific. It’s always open to everyone’s interpretation.” It wasn’t until Meksin was twenty-five that she admitted to herself that she wanted to make her living and life’s work through art. “When I finally said I really want this to be my life and didn’t want to separate it into a little thing on the side, I felt so liberated,” she said. “Every time something bad happens, I think back to that glee I felt when I told myself, ‘I have the right to be an artist and I am the person who gets to decide that.’” Viewing art as a way to reinvent yourself and your life, Meksin is a positive figure for anyone who is thinking about taking up art as their career.
“Don’t ever give up,” Meksin says. “No one can tell you that you are not talented or that you’re not good enough to be an artist. Being an artist is something that you can choose and as long as you stick with it, you will get there.”
View Leeza Meksin’s works, Entry and Tip Cozy in UMOCA’s Object[ed]: Shaping Sculpture in Contemporary Art until December 17th. For more information, visit utahmoca.org/portfolio/objected/
More About the Artist
A New York based interdisciplinary artist, Meksin makes paintings, installations, public art and multiples. After immigrating to the U.S. with her family in 1989, she received her B.F.A. and M.F.A. in art and has exhibit her work various galleries across the nation. In 2015, Meksin was appointed to the faculty at Columbia University School of Art—but even in between her courses and in-studio works, Meksin has not stopped creating powerful, on-site installations that have reshaped and challenged people’s ideologies. View more of her work here.