Shyra De Sousa’s studio is a scavengers heaven, she’s apologizing as I arrive that it is not more organized, that there is not more work on display. For me however, it’s in this state that I want to see a studio, in the midst of chaos, bits and pieces of current and former projects piled on top of each-other, providing a glimpse into the process, as well as a visual timeline of a working process, rather than the wiped clean and display-ready finished work.
In the hallways is a shelf full of tubs, each tub contains a different category of objects culled from a thrift store, flea market or garage sale; this one is all pearly swans, this one all fleshy pink vases and bathroom fixtures; a cabinet of curiosities. There is an area with a collection of mid-century modern furniture that Shyra is refinishing “on the side”. A giant sheet covers a pile of previous work in a back corner, and in the centre of the room, faux mahogany furniture with it’s faux brass fixings, more boxes of ceramics, a counter with a selection of swan plaques. We look through a collection craft manuals bound in beautiful, brightly coloured retro textiles for nifty hippy illustrations of macramé and crochet. I keep spotting tiny things all over the floor too, miniature ladders, figurines, carefully clipped collage images. There are snacks, and beers, and a conversation about a taste test club involving bacon.
I’m drawn to Shyra’s process because of her scavenging habit, and because most of the objects she works with are produced to satisfy personal domestic tastes inside of a home, rather than being intended for broader public display. These objects are kitsch to the point of ridiculous, unapologetically domestic and embarrassingly, stereotypically feminine. There is something obsessive about needing to buy all the ceramic swans one can find, something that would seem silly until you see her work.
From these materials she creates sculptures and installations that are forceful and mythic, the graceful swan necks becoming tentacles sprouting from the spine of some prehistoric skeleton, ostentatious trophies carried home from safaris on other planets. The finished works manage to be both seductive and threatening in a way that is at odds with the “pleasant” domestic objects from which they are made. It is arresting and overwhelming to see so much of something familiar and mass produced transformed into something entirely other and completely original; and yet there remains with her chosen material a wiff of something private, unsettlingly personal and domestic that cannot quite be shaken.
Learn more about Shyra’s work on her website.
Jennifer: Tell me about the process and the culture of collecting that obviously forms an important part of your work?
Shyra: I’ve always been a collector. It came naturally as a kid. I used to collect things that would fit into various other interesting things I was doing, such as items I would find things that looked like scaled down versions of other things, and I would use them in my barbie house. Like those little sock hangers you get when you buy socks. I would fish them out of the garbage and hang barbie clothes on them. I would pick up certain types of bottle caps from the ground and use them as barbie plates and other dishes. I think a lot of kids did that sort of thing, but I never played barbie mind you, I was perpetually setting up to play barbie, but I don’t think I ever got to the doll-playing part.
When I got older I tried some more formal structures for collecting things (stamps and coins mainly) but they didn’t really stick. I think they lacked the creative element of defining for myself how and what to collect, and what items belong in one collection as opposed to another. I suppose I was less interested in indexing and recording items than I am in making decisions about how they are related, and how they should be displayed, and enjoying a flexible process of determining how they inform one-another.
Although, there is still some interest for me in seeing the sheer expanse of things available, that come in pretty much any shape, size, and material. I often think in sequences, and this turns up in my work a lot without me really planning it. There is something interesting in acquiring things that are very different from each other, but then finding every possible iteration of form/size/material in between. I guess that’s one reason I am attracted to the cheap side of the consumer goods; there is just anything and everything, and how does one handle the problem of addressing such a glut of stuff?
J: Do you have some interesting stories about Kijiji and Flea Market transactions? Have you ever encountered buying something that was obviously precious to someone that you intended to basically destroy?
S: Not specifically. Usually I get things from thrift shops so they have been discarded at that point. Mostly I’m just surprised by the lack of notice people take (from the cashier for instance) when I’m buying something strange, such as a basket full of ceramic swans. It seems when there is no immediately evident explanation for the odd purchase they don’t engage. When I was attending ACAD I once went to a grocery store and went up and down the aisles and bought one of everything that was green. Green produce, green bottles, green boxes, green cans. I took my green-filled shopping cart to the check out and nobody said a thing. When I’m making a purchase of what looks like a random collection of objects (usually things that are rather gaudy, or overly ornate) I often get others in the lineup telling me what beautiful things I’ve found. I’m terrible at lying so I don’t quite know how to respond sometimes because I rarely think the things I find are beautiful, but I think the responses I get feed the work I’m doing.
I think the strangest thing that has developed from my thrifting is that I do believe I have inadvertently artificially inflated the ceramic swan market. For more than a year I bought every ceramic swan I could find. I think a certain thrift store that shall remain nameless has some system that enables them to price things at the highest possible sale price, based on what things sold for previously. When I first started buying these swans they were two or three dollars. Now I gasp at the prices, often upwards of eight dollars each. It can get pretty expensive when you need hundreds of these things!
J: As you are amassing a huge collection of say, rose pink objects, or ceramic swans, what’s usually going through your head?
S: Heh, you caught me! I have quantities of objects in boxes stacked in my shelves with labels telling me what’s in them. Other boxes on my studio floor for projects I’m currently working on. By the time I’m collecting specific types of objects I have come to the point where I have a game-plan for the project, and a vision. A lot of my thinking happens in the thrift stores. You will often find me in these places playing with the various items, finding different ways they connect, and how they change one-another when arranged or amassed in various ways. I may bring some of them to the studio and play further with them, and sometimes break them or see what sorts of things they do when I think of them as a material, rather than found objects. The studio is where I do the hard core construction. The pink objects are for a project where I plan to refire masses of these often highly gendered, cliche forms. I think of it as a sort of self-portrait. The swans I’ve been collecting for some time, and used them in a previous work, but I have continued collecting them for a new work that plays with the orientation of these specific forms, which changes the viewers reading of their implied movement and meaning.
J: There seems to be a kind of fascination with objects that are stylistic imitations of other more historical things, like faux mahogany furniture?
S: When seeing such masses of discarded items many patterns become quite obvious. One pattern is the way we elevate the sense of value of these objects (regardless of the total lack of quality or craftsmanship they embody) by mimicking forms related to ideas we value as a society. One of these ideas is that of knowledge. Much of the wooden furniture you see in thrift stores has this faux cherry wood museum cabinetry appearance. It’s an interesting feedback loop actually because the museums were probably originally influenced by the high quality mahogany and cherry wood furniture of times past, and used that to contextualize their collections in this high society fashion. But the items available now in this look are usually heavily painted composite wood. It’s interesting how these ideas circulate until the resulting products are funnelled down to a mere facade.
J: When we met in your studio you had two kinds of collections, the things you were looking for more of (those that fit a specific material theme) and those that you found while you were looking for other things?
S: I guess I’m always picking up new things. I often don’t know what I am picking up just because I like something about it, what just seems strange and I need to keep it around to think about it, and what gives me a sense that it could fit into a specific project. I really have to figure these things out as I go. Often I will purchase a few things and realize that they too closely represent some of the ideas I’m trying to get at. Those are more inspirational (I hate that word) or influential objects I think.
An example is a ceramic piece in the form of two deer, and glazed in a bright, completely unnatural, lime green colour. It already contained so much of the absurdity I see (extreme control of nature, kitsch treatment of the surface, terrible quality of the overall piece), but that absurdity usually comes in smaller doses in the objects I collect for a particular work. Part of my practice is bringing these objects together in such a way that the viewer is guided in constructing these senses of absurdity, and anxiety, and the time element to this construction is important to experiencing the work. This bright green oddity sort of conveyed all these heavy-handed qualities at once, and so it seems a shame to alter it, but at the same time it wasn’t suitable to put into the work. It just sits in my little studio shelf now. I’ve also collected items that, for example, would be highly ornate, or a blatant copy of a greek form. Again, I sometimes find myself initially misguided in thinking that they belong in my work, but often they get relegated to an example of something I’m trying to touch on in more subtle ways, with many entry points.
J: Is there something in that inability to pass up such an object, in keeping it in your workspace and pondering its oddness that often leads to new work, or refines the reasons you are making the work in the first place? Could such a work simply be displayed in a show alongside other works without alteration?
S: Sometimes objects seem to be asking me to experience them in the way the person who once owned them did, and so I keep them around, on display in my personal space. It helps to catch an elusive thought about them upon a glance, through the corner of my eye, rather than only when I’m actively thinking about it. I think that casual, unplanned interaction with things helps to avoid getting too heavy-handed with the content in my work.
Exhibiting such an object would be missing a time element that is important in the experience of looking and perceiving I think. The process of interpretation does not happen all at once, it is a sequence of events within the viewer. I think this is the importance in developing a visual language in terms of taking a viewer through a process. These objects that seem to throw everything out at once denies a process that makes art art. I suppose they could potentially be displayed as is, but perhaps require a specific context that I haven’t thought about to get my idea across, but changing the context is still an alteration of sorts.
J: When it comes to ready-made mass produced “decorative” objects, what transformation needs to take place to be able to successfully use of those things in your own original works of art?
S: As I briefly mentioned earlier I have to think of these things as material, rather than things. The surface treatment, the angles and curves the forms contain, the shadows that are cast are all characteristics of a material. I think that is where the transformation occurs. I am guided by a critical/analytical process when I am seeking out these forms, and I keep art history and cultural thoughts in mind as I do so, but once I get to the studio I have to be willing to manipulate them and recognize them as materials with their own qualities, just like paint on canvas has certain qualities, and it is partially the job of the painter to determine what those qualities are and how to use them. In my case I often use these objects/materials in such a way that shifts the lens on them.
J: What for you is the most challenging part of being a working artist (and why)?
S: I find it all a bit on the challenging side, which is why I love being an artist. I get bored very easily. There has to be a little bit of a struggle for me to feel that the task or goal is worthwhile.
I think the thing I struggle with most is the interpersonal side of the profession. Being an artist has a heavy social component, and admittedly I’ve never been terribly skilled at such things. I find openings can be very strange social environments where my minor social improprieties become amplified. It’s pretty weird being a chatty hermit. I take comfort in knowing a lot of other artists have similar experiences.
J: What kinds of things happen in your studio on a productive workday?
S: Working, snacking, playing, cleaning, organizing, listening to music or a podcast. I am most productive when I am not rushing, and have time to take little breaks. I keep good cheese, beer, and tea in the studio. I like to make a larger sensory experience available there. I find those little breaks, or the ability to have a beer while I’m trying to make creative decisions is a release, and helps reduce little stresses and gives me time to think in the spaces between actions. Often if I don’t feel like working I’ll do something for myself, or even just fix something from home that has broken, or tent to something that needs a new paint job, or whatever. I find it helps to put my hands to work, which is a kind of thinking in itself. Once the wheels are greased a bit I can move into more complex problems and get some work done. I just have to get my hands moving.
J: What would be your ideal setting for a show?
S: My work has relied on the white cube fairly significantly as I do find it a good tool for creating a focus, but I would like to make work for some non-gallery spaces. I tried contacting the Tyrell Museum about displaying my work to no avail. I like that when we are faced with traces of a body, we try to fill in the blanks in our mind to form a complete picture, like what a dinosaur looked like. It’s like reading a book and visualizing the story in the mind. There is something about this kind of thought process that gives me a slight lonely feeling, I guess because the understanding comes from something internal, rather than external. I try to tap into this with my work (despite not really knowing what it is I’m tapping into) and I feel that people might understand that aspect of the work if they had been preconditioned, or placed in a context that guided them to actively read it in such a way.
I do not make work that is simply decorative. I like to sort of lure the viewer in, and then subject them to some slight discomfort, typically a discomfort about the things we often think of as reassuring. It seems to cause people to stay with the work for just a little longer. I could see some of my work fitting into a public context, but I feel that I would have to lie about my intentions with the work to ever have it accepted. Otherwise I’d love to make/show work at a refuse centre or some where that there was an abundance of stuff to use. Currently I’m looking for some interesting residency opportunities or other places where they might tolerate, or even facilitate these creative obsessions.
J: What is the power for you in bringing objects created for display primarily in private domestic settings into the public realm of the art exhibition, how does the method of display alter their destiny as decorative things?
S: Most of my work is simply an expression of my own sense of anxiety. As a three-dimensional thinker I have a sort of love/hate relationship with these highly sensualized forms, so my practice is a way of navigating those sensations. The power is in recontextualizing these things to create a new experience; one that the viewer can go through different stages of recognition when viewing the piece, and also afterwards in their daily life if, hopefully, I’ve created a memorable experience. My work does not provide solutions, or any sort of conclusion, so it opens up a greater conversation about how individuals feel about their own belongings, as well as their feelings of desire, and if the piece changes those feelings and perceptions, or simply brings some awareness to these sensations.
The typical white cube space certainly does support that refocusing of the content. However, I typically work in a combination of assemblage/installation as well as sculpture, often making the sculptures simply another object within the assemblage. I think this blurs the line between what is being displayed and what is the display mechanism. It would be interesting to try some of these strategies in a non-white cube environment to see how it changes or heightens the effect.