Intersections and Boundaries: Interview with Whitney Lynn

I can’t remember exactly how I found the website of Whitney Lynn—one of those following links of links things—but as soon as I saw images of her sculptures of pillow fort/military bunkers I knew I wanted to talk with her. Luckily for me, she was about to install a solo show at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco. I went over to the gallery to talk with her about the new work, a series of traps entitled Sculptures Involontaires.

Whitney Lynn, Death Parties (2011) Plastic, glass, alcohol, chrome-laminated birch shelf, 21 x 36 x 6 in.

Bean Gilsdorf: How did this new body of work begin?

Whitney Lynn: It started with Southern Exposure in 2009, they had a show called “Bellwether” and they were asking artists to predict or envision the future. I was looking at the way in which do-it-yourself and sustainability movements overlap with survivalism. I started picking up these images about how to trap your own food, skin your own squirrels, eat your own rats, and those sorts of things. Then when I was doing a later project I was also thinking about containment, and I started thinking about trapping systems. I was not quite sure what I was going to do with all of it, and then there was the realization, oh, there’s a project here.

BG: Do you think of your work as post-apocalyptic? Has anyone ever framed your work that way?

WL: Maybe a little, with the survivalist stuff. I think there’s something kind of sinister about a lot of the pieces, but I think they’re funny.

BG: What are the general trends of your interests?

WL: The earlier works that were dealing with military were very autobiographical, and I was navigating my own personal history. Then things shifted, and I was thinking about how these intersections of politics or military are really interconnected into all kinds of aspects of life. That changed my focus, to see where those messy intersections or boundaries existed. For this particular show I was thinking about metaphors of traps and their relationship to sculpture.

Whitney Lynn, Prepared Position with Disturbance Ventilation and Luminous Signal (2010) Mixed media (furniture, cement, tv, fan) 7 x 8 x 4 feet

BG: Do you feel like that’s freeing, to get away from making autobiographical work?

WL: Well, it’s always connected. For me, it’s impossible to get away from some sort of personal thread. It’s extending from a different kind of autobiography. These traps are placed in a setting where there’s the possibility of a different kind of question: what’s the prey and what’s the bait, the lure? Part of the work is about futility—nothing’s ever going to be trapped with these. And that’s where I see some of the humor, too. It relates back to some of my earlier work…I made a bug-out location that would never actually survive anything. It was made for one person and had food supplies, but they were capers, so it was this empty gesture of preparation. And there were all these weapons that would never actually hurt you. It was all pretty pathetic. It was part of the question, “How can you prepare for the ultimate disaster when you don’t know what that is?”

Whitney Lynn, BOL (Bug-Out-Location) (2009) Mixed media installation with performance elements

BG: What’s next for you?

WL: One project that I’ve been doing on the side and that will probably come to the fore is street performance. I think that’s really a place of intersections and boundaries. My interest is in that area where street performance is performance art. I’ve been really obsessed with the Bush Man in Fisherman’s Wharf for along time, so I shot a video with him recently. I’m sure there will be a development that leads me back to the traps project.

BG: I can see the borders and boundaries that you’re flirting with in your work…some are more literal and explicit, like with the sculptures, and some are more subtle, just the feeling is there, but on the whole it creates a thread through the work.

WL: There’s something exciting about allowing that thread through the work, but to let it play itself out naturally. There can be these connections, but they don’t have to be calculated. For years I was like, “I make work that’s about intersections with military and political cultures,” and it was almost like I had written an artist statement and I didn’t want to write it again, and I’d better make things that fit into that. There was pressure to define myself, to say okay so I this is what I do, but I got tired of making fifteen different kinds of bunkers, that’s not all I think about. I was eliminating possibilities because I was stuck in the idea that my work needed to be concise.

Whitney Lynn, Trap no. 001 (2011) Acrylic, polished tree branch, 21 x 17 x 16 in.

BG: When you’re making the work, you’re so close to it. What feels like an enormous left-hand turn to you is, in reality, a slight detour to others. But you wonder how you’ll explain your decisions to the world.

WL: Right, yeah, and I think there’s something important about separating the making from the talking about it. I feel sometimes I have to justify what I’m doing before I even finish making and that can be disruptive. I try not to worry in advance how to articulate the work…it’s a matter of knowing that there’s a difference between the process and its final articulation.

BG: Sometimes you can frame the work loosely by saying that, for example, it’s about control: attempting to control the situation of a disaster, or the actions of another person or animal, or even the definition of an action on the street, where you decide if it’s performance art or not. And then in each new iteration of your work, you decide how it fits in—or not—to that broad category.

WL: I think a lot of the work is this attempt at control that is usurped, the rug gets pulled, in the face of all these systems, these attempts to corral, contain, or understand something. Where I find it interesting is where that’s not possible.

Whitney Lynn, Silver Equivalent (2011) Clay bricks, silver-plated steel nail, 7 x 14.5 x 23 in.

BG: Why did you title the show Sculptures Involontaires?

WL: The legend goes that Brassaï was hanging out with Dali at a café, and Dali pulled a rolled-up ticket stub out of his pocket. A conversation ensued about how you could photograph anything and it becomes sculpture: ticket stubs, and chewing gum, and debris…photographed, they look like landscapes or unknown objects. Through the photograph anything can become unfamiliar and strange. I love that idea. I was looking at traps and seeing how traps are sculptures just by themselves. I started buying traps—someone tracking my Amazon purchases would be really scared of me!—I was getting them and seeing how they function, admiring the beautiful ingenuity of them, all this creative thought that is put into something so sinister. So there’s this involuntary way in which they are already sculptures. My work here functions as traps and as sculptures. I’m loosely pulling from that idea of context, that by changing the context you can re-look at the form.