In her far-ranging interdisciplinary work, artist Sidney Mullis manages to strike an intriguing balance between humor and visceral discomfort, examining aspects of the everyday at such odd angles as to make them alien. This may take the form of “mating ritual” video works, choreographed by Mullis in a nod to her childhood roots as a dancer, and performed by the artist in hilarious self-made costumes, falling somewhere at the nexus of nature documentary, K-pop music video, and meme. Then there are her upside-down, drippy teddy bears, which Mullis has lately taken to wax-coating into surreal candles on commission (one can almost see them labeled “Nostalgia” scent in a Twin Peaksian Yankee Candle outlet). In “Preservation of Forgetting” (2017), she assembled objects that “people did not want” into large, sculptural works, unifying disparate materials with a neutralizing layer of brown papier-mâché, the application of which feeds her self-described “haptic obsession” with repetitive touch in art making.
Recently, Mullis synthesized many of these interests in a body of large-scale sculptural, video, and intermedia works, united under the collective title Who is Puberty and How Does She Hit?, on display at the Bucknell University’s Samek Art Museum earlier this year. Most prominently, the exhibition featured a custom make-up tutorial commissioned from 14-year-old YouTube star and aspiring makeup artist Caden Levene. Mullis has continued the project in various forms, including the recent translation of her unsettling sculptures into T-shirt images. I interviewed the artist via email about how she approached the most universal of human experiences: puberty.
* * *
Sarah Rose Sharp: You’re able to deal with gender very directly, but also very abstractly. It’s almost like distilling the naturally occurring flavor of a fruit into an artificial fruit flavoring — it resembles the original thing, somehow, but is also totally different and set apart from how it is normally seen. Does this resonate with you?
Sidney Mullis: I do bounce around with how the content will be delivered. I think it has to do with how we learn what something is and what it is not. Sometimes you come to know a thing the first time you lay eyes on it. Bam, that’s it. Sometimes it’s through a creeping feeling that reappears infrequently. You come to realize what it is slowly, carefully. Sometimes it’s through hearing bits and pieces that have been doctored by socially sanctioned ideals.
I relate the “naturally occurring and artificial flavor” bit to how gender is constructed. When you are little, you don’t know why you love pink. You just LOVE PINK. You don’t know why you role play as a princess. You just want to be a PRINCESS. It all seems natural. As I got older and felt really strange about my gender, I was introduced to writing by people like Judith Butler and Peggy Orenstein that showed the constructed, or artificial nature, of gender. It showed me how I exist within the confines of already existing directives and how I am always on stage within the terms of the performance. It made me feel loads better honestly.
SRS: How do you do this? It strikes me as an incredibly tricky balance, but one that gives your work this awkward tension.
SM: Oh man, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s conscious. I make this body of work from a personal place balanced with respect for all the bodies that could come in contact with it. The tension, I think, just comes through how I feel about the narrow bandwidth in which we can perform ourselves, safely and without scrutiny.
SRS: Speaking of awkward tension — puberty! What inspired you to take on this particular phase of life?
SM: I just have really vivid memories from my puberty. I don’t seem to be able to reconcile them.
SRS: I love the part of your artist statement for the show where you characterize this performance as: “bodies learn to repeat the gestures that communicate gender.” I suppose another way of asking the previous question is: How do you notice these gestures?
SM: I grew up in a military family and my constant was dancing. I was always enrolled in dance classes. I think this made me really susceptible to how bodies are in space, how they move through space, and how parts of those bodies make that movement occur. In dance classes, you are concentrating on so many parts of your body to perform … There is even tension in asking the body to move in a way that is opposite to its physiology AND without the look of any effort being enforced by that very body to move.
SRS: Can you unpack the concept of “haptic obsession” and its relationship to your making process?
SM: I didn’t realize how much I was motivated by haptics until grad school when I had a personal studio and people would enter and begin touching everything. They couldn’t help it. There were strokes, pats, hugs, pokes, probes. And perhaps unknowingly, too. They would be talking to me about something, but their body and hands were doing something totally different. Everyone was so teased by my materials. This made me realize the relationship I, too, was having with my materials. A really intimate one. I was, and still do, move toward materials instinctually, being moved by how they feel. I realized I was navigating building my sculptures through how they physically and emotionally felt.
I also think this came directly from dancing because you are so linked with how your body feels. This movement feels good, this one hurts my knee, this one feels effortless, this one feels unattainable, this one gives me a pinch in the hip. Because building a sculpture engages all the senses and 360 degrees, that history of moving through space is brought to the sculpture. I am aware of how things feel outwardly to the touch and how that transfers inwardly to the bones.
SRS: Can you explain what Caden is up to, and how he became involved with the Puberty exhibition? How complicit do you think he was in your idea of performative gender?
SM: Caden’s involvement came about when Bucknell University wanted me to plan “outreach” in tandem with the exhibition. So, workshops and the like. I had a piece in the exhibition that was a book of poems called Foundation. All the language in the book was transcribed from YouTube makeup tutorials from girls aged five to 12. There, videos were uploaded from 2012 to 2014 and had a title that indicated what grade or age the look was intended for. For example, “Natural makeup for fourth grade” was one title. I erased any kind of authorship and separated all the language from the videos and divided it into what product they were talking about. Foundation. Blush. Mascara. Lip Gloss. Eye Shadow. Each video I watched and re-watched for transcription always pressed upon the fact that they wanted to just look “natural.” They just wanted to “feel a bit more confident.” They didn’t want too much because “they were just a kid.” It was heartbreaking singling out this text. I even kept every “uhm” and “uh.” People really have a lot of feelings toward the book.
I really align with the girls in the video as I was doing the same as a kid. The difference was that the performance was private, in the home. This is online, public, and most likely uploaded with the help or knowledge of the parents. I was realizing that it was so easy to scoff at these girls. And boy, people do when they come in contact with the book. Scoffing at how they adhere to their script and by feeling sorry for them. I was curious how I could make this dialogue more challenging because, so far, condemnation of the girls was what I was getting from the book.
The girl’s makeup videos were a part of our culture, young boys interested in makeup were on the Youtube rise as well. However, they were taking a more professional approach. Most of their profiles were presented as businesses. These kids were for hire and wanted “business inquiries only.” Caden had been someone I was following on Instagram and I reached out to him and others seeing if anyone was interested. You know, this was a business inquiry.
I told Caden about the exhibition. I shared with him images of all the artwork in the exhibition. I explained that it was queer-positive and touched upon growing up not heteronormative. I sent him my website and bio, too. I wanted to hire him for a look that would be on view in the gallery and on his channel (if he wanted). It was him using his expertise to share a look inspired by the artwork.
Bucknell did a closing reception that played on the idea of a sleepover, which is also the title of one of my pieces. Gallery goers were invited to the show in their pajamas and could do the look in the gallery with makeup supplied by the gallery and prompted by Caden’s lesson. What I liked is that the liberal goers of the gallery were supporting Caden and his endeavor, but feeling sorry for the girls. I am really interested in this reaction. Look how we as a liberal art group are engaging with the makeup application script. Boo for girls. She is too young. Yay that this boy is going for it! How old is he?! Wow, he is so good for his age.