Gracelee Lawrence is a sculptor based in Troy, New York whose work deals with relationships between food, the body, and technology. Born in the transfigurative space between physical and digital reality, her work explores the ways bodies are gendered and metaphorically fragmented in terms of capitalist-driven material desires, physical sustenance, and the digital spaces we inhabit. After earning her MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, Lawrence entered the itinerant world of visiting professorships and residencies, which took her across the country and as far as Chiang Mai, Thailand. Currently, Lawrence is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the State University of New York at Albany, and has been enjoying burgeoning success in New York. In June, she opened a solo show at Postmasters Gallery (reviewed by Roberta Smith in the New York Times), followed by a solo show at Heroes Gallery in September, which is open through October 22. Here, Hannah Rotwein speaks with Lawrence about her time in Texas, the role that digital technology plays in her work, and her recent influences.
Hannah Rotwein (HR): To start, I’m interested in what drew you to Texas for graduate school, and how attending school at the University of Texas at Austin shaped your current interests, especially because you’re not a native Texan.
Gracelee Lawrence (GL): I’m from North Carolina originally. I had managed to avoid a wild amount of debt in undergrad, and early on I made the decision that clout was less important to me than a sustainable life. I was drawn to the fact that UT has a wildly large art department — something like 30 full time professors when I was there — which is unheard of. The ability to work with a huge range of people and understand different corners of the art world was really exciting to me, and I also wanted to work with Amy Hauft. I recognized pretty early on in researching UT that many of the faculty have strong ties to New York. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Austin long term, but I felt that attending UT would be a great way to get connected with the local community and set myself up for the future. I fell in love with Austin when I visited, and it was a really wonderful place to go for graduate school.
HR: That leads into my next question, which is about relocating to New York. I’m wondering what that transition has been like coming out of an MFA program that isn’t located on one of the coasts.
GL: Right out of grad school — literally two weeks after I graduated — I moved to Thailand on a fellowship. I was there for a little over a year and a half teaching at Chiang Mai University. Being given a teaching opportunity there ended up leading me into the world of visiting professorships upon returning to the U.S. Between when I returned from Thailand in 2017 and when I got my job at Kenyon College in 2019, I was going back and forth between residencies and my home in North Carolina. From North Carolina, I would drive to New York all the time. Because of the relationships I formed while at UT, I had a built-in community in the city. I had couches to crash on and openings to go to. I was very much in the scene, but not permanently. I had a really flirtatious relationship with New York City.
HR: Right! And now you teach in Albany, New York, right?
GL: Yeah, I teach at SUNY Albany, and so now I live in Troy. I can go down to the city all the time on the train. But I don’t have the constraints of the city proper. I had a studio in the city for a while, but it became kind of impossible for me to maintain cost-wise. I think it’s a really good and interesting thing to think about the ways in which one’s practice can be adjacent to a major urban city. You don’t have to necessarily be in it. I’ve kind of found weird ways to skirt around it but still be part of that world.
You didn’t ask me this, but if I was going to give someone advice who’s at a previous stage of my career, I’d say do not become New York-centric, do not become LA-centric. Look to other places. What’s happening in Montreal, what’s happening in Vienna, what’s happening in Toronto, what’s happening in Seattle? Cool stuff is happening in all of those places. And the community is a lot more willing to have folks come in and experience that world than the New York art scene. I think it’s really important to recognize that there are so many different little nooks. By happenstance, I fell into this big one. It’s cool. But it’s not the only one. There are so many different worlds that you can put your work and your intentions into.
HR: And they’re all interconnected, as I think you’ve shown by the way you’re living and making work. You don’t have to be tied to one place.
HR: I understand that at UT you were already beginning to incorporate digital methods into your practice, especially when you were preparing for the Umlauf Prize show. But I’ve read that the digital side became even more critical when you were in Chiang Mai, because you didn’t have access to traditional sculpture tools. I’m wondering what that process was like: going from making physical objects with your hands to figuring out how to make physical objects on a screen.
GL: I started understanding the very front edge digital fabrication when I was at UT, and my professor Eric McMaster taught me the basics of 3D printing, CNC routing, and file preparation the summer before my Umlauf Prize show. I also took a digital fabrication course while there. Then I arrived in Chiang Mai and there was no equipment at the university.
HR: That’s wild to me, but then again it’s a different place with a different context.
GL: Exactly. The department is very conceptually based. And also, fabrication is a huge thing there. You can completely and accurately make your plans into reality by working with a craftsperson. The relationship to physical labor is totally different, but at the same time, we didn’t have tools, which was hard. I had purchased a 3D printer using funds from a few pieces that sold from my thesis show. I also had a 3D scanner and my computer, and that’s pretty much all that was in the studio. Being there was this perfect combination of having enough knowledge of digital fabrication and having a lot of time to think about it and mess with it.
At the same time, I was in this place that was quite far removed from my original community, and I was staying in touch with digital means. I started dealing with this idea of the translation between digital and physical space in my work, and the implications of what it means to be between those spaces, which the majority of the world is at this point. Coupled with the limited tool situation at the university, it was the perfect storm that forced me into this different direction.
I fell in love with the methods and equipment and technology, and for seven years now I have been actively and attentively working to undermine the way digital technology behaves. That’s a really fun part of my process. The printers I use were not designed for art. They were really designed to be rapid prototyping devices, for product design or engineering design studios. And I love that I’m able to use these systems and software in order to change people’s expectations around what digital fabrication can mean — how it can be bodily and organic and have this very strong relationship to our physical understanding. It’s not cold and distant. It’s made by us. It’s just as human as anything else, at the end of the day.
HR: Can you speak further to the specific technologies you’re using?
GL: I’m using consumer-grade desktop printers by Prusa that are a thousand dollars apiece. They’re good quality, but they’re not fancy. It’s really important to me that there’s not this huge rift between the professional and consumer level within my work. I primarily use low cost and open source software for the same reason. Part of it is an ethical stance on how technology is affected by the market.
I think it’s really productive to work within limitations. One of the limitations that I’m working with is the scale of my printers, and it’s brought me to some really interesting conclusions that I would not have come to if I had a big, perfect printer. I’m working with these limitations in order to find something that’s relatable because of the way that it’s built.
HR: Your work deals with the ways humans occupy both physical and digital space, and how these spaces bleed into each other and become difficult to disentangle. Yet, your work is sculpture, not video or another digital form more typical to new media art. Why does it still make sense for you to make physical objects?
GL: I am still a physical being. I still exist in the physical world, and I still have physical needs. I have always been drawn to the way that materials behave, and the way that humans interact with the physical world around them. And even though I’m able to escape into digital space from time to time, I still have to come back to my physical self. At the end of the day, you turn your phone off and you have to go to bed and you’re a physical body crawling between the sheets. It’s very important to me that my work has a physical conclusion, because it feels related to the way that our realities are constructed between digital and physical means. I want the sculptures to have a level of confrontation–you can turn off a screen, but you can’t turn off a sculpture.
HR: Right. But at the same time, I’m here in Texas, and I can only see your work on a computer, which is another interesting wrinkle.
GL: I feel like that’s an undeniable part of how the world behaves now. It is ironic that I’m doing all these digital-physical processes and making a physical thing, and then it’s mostly understood through digital space. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. The work can behave in all kinds of different ways. It’s also important to me that the work almost reads as a rendering when it’s photographed. There’s a little bit of visual confusion. I find it effective when the work is able to disrupt one’s sense of stability.
HR: How do you see your shows at Postmasters Gallery and Heroes Gallery in relation to each other? The shows opened three months apart, and the galleries are only a mile away from each other.
GL: The premises of those shows were super different. The Postmasters show was two years in the making, and I was thinking about scale. The gallery is huge, and I wanted the work to have a similarly cavernous, monumental feeling. I also wanted the show to display the range of my practice, and I was thinking about how the newer and older work interacted. At the Heroes show, everything was basically brand new, made in the months after the Postmasters show opened. I was very much responding to Marisol Escobar’s work. The show was about experimentation and palette, and thinking about her as part of my lineage and as a predecessor. She is someone whose work has been on my mind for years, and who has played a really foundational role in how I think about myself as a female-identifying sculptor in the world.
HR: I appreciate the way you recognize artists who came before you. Oftentimes, it seems like the commercial side of the art world tries to present artists as one-of-a-kind creative geniuses, but in reality, artists are constantly studying other artists and their work.
GL: Exactly. I get so much visual and verbal information from my friends and fellow artists. Cross-pollination is essential. The idea of the singular genius is such a marketing tool. It’s not real at all.
HR: It’s such a ridiculous concept! Do you have any post-show blues after such a busy summer?
GL: I haven’t had time to feel blue because I started teaching almost immediately. I mostly feel tired. But I also feel excited about future work. I have a show coming up in Barcelona, and another in Vienna in December.
HR: In December! That’s very soon.
GL: Yeah, it’s really soon. It’s a three-show year.
HR: That’s fantastic.
GL: I love continuing to have reasons to push these ideas forward, and see what the boundaries of my thoughts and these technologies are. I make all the work myself, in my studio and without assistants. Occasionally, I’ll have a grad student help out, but that’s on an as-needed basis. The labor comes down to the decisions I’m making, and I work without assistants because that’s what I’m able to afford. I don’t think people often talk about their circumstances. There are a lot of independently wealthy people in the art world, but that’s not me. I have a job.
HR: I hear you. But the fact that you work without assistants also feels relevant to your work. The work doesn’t emerge from the printer fully-formed, but rather is assembled by your hand, and gets a surface treatment by your hand. It gets back to that idea of the negotiation between the digital and the physical, and the fact that we’re still physical beings at the end of the day.
My next question is about galleries and representation. How have you navigated that, especially given that you’ve had shows with a number of different galleries?
GL: I think that’s a good question, and I don’t think it should be something that people hide, because it’s part of how things work. There’s so much opacity in the art market. And really, it’s to ensure that the gatekeepers continue to hold power. That’s not okay, and that’s not the way that I want to live. My short answer is that I was lucky not to have questions about representation early on in my career. I was lucky to have shows and opportunities to get my work out there, but I was not brought into a contract or a situation that would have made broad strokes decisions about my work over time. I’m really glad that has not been the case, and I think it has to do with the fact that sculpture’s hard to sell.
HR: That makes sense. It seems like you’ve been able to figure out what you like about different galleries by having shows with different places over the years.
GL: Exactly. At this point, I’m also very clear about my boundaries, and I’m learning how to set them. For example, the ability to have open edition print sales is super important to me. I have to have an ability to connect to people who care about my work, and who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend. I want those people to be able to physically bring the work into their world. If a gallery is not willing to let me do that, then it’s not a good fit. At this point, I’ve mostly had extended, positive relationships with gallerists who aren’t representing me but with whom I’ve worked closely across several shows. That feels good, too! I think that the myth of representation being the ultimate goal is actually perpetuated by market rather than reality.
HR: And now there’s Instagram. You can market yourself, too. And you do.
GL: Yes. And galleries do have their place. I don’t want to talk to collectors, for example. That’s something they do. But I also want galleries to recognize that we don’t live in the same world as we used to. I have more agency and autonomy because of that, for better and for worse.
Recently, I’ve met gallerists — most located outside the U.S., although a handful are in New York — who are so open about their intentions. They really want to take care of their artists, and they care about ideas. However, they are operating in markets that are not as cutthroat as New York.
HR: How do you think about your labor as an artist in terms of setting schedules and boundaries for yourself? It seems like every artist has a different approach to this, especially because you are your own work, in a way. You are making everything that comes out of your studio.
GL: It’s immensely hard. I’m so bad at it. I do have to say, though, that living with my partner, Ben Seretan, has changed my relationship to working. We moved in together when we relocated to Troy in July of 2020. He’s a musician and writer, and we’ve learned to orient ourselves around each other’s practices. I’m still in the studio for eight or more hours on the days I’m not teaching, but I am prioritizing things differently. For example, eating dinner together is important, so I go home by 8 pm every day.
But I also love doing what I do, and it doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s what I want to be doing with my days. I try to be as efficient as I can in pretty much everything except being in the studio. Being unhurried in the studio is really important to me. If I don’t have more than three hours to be here, I feel rushed. And I hate that feeling. I’m a real time optimist, too, so I always think there’s plenty of time to get things done. I have to make sure there’s plenty of time. Otherwise, I’m going to get myself in trouble.
HR: It seems like you’ve been making it work!
GL: I’m trying. That’s a really good question. It’s hard. We make our own schedules – it’s not like we’re clocking in.
HR: Right, exactly. You’re the only one accountable to yourself, for better or for worse. As an artist, everything is fodder. How do you make space to come across influences outside of the studio?
GL: A few Saturdays ago, I spent the evening at my friend Leah Guadagnoli’s house. She lives in this big, beautiful church that’s now her home and studio, and she threw this gorgeous harvest moon dinner. Before I left, she handed me produce from her garden: magenta beans, a bright yellow cucumber, and a striped, mottled tomato. She’s a painter, but part of her practice is gardening, and she extended that work to me by sharing her produce. Those kinds of moments are really special. As part of my own practice, I look at different fruits and vegetables and try to understand their histories, including where they came from, and how and why I can access them. I’m constantly scoping my surroundings for edible plants.
HR: That makes sense, given the organic, biomorphic quality of many of your sculptures. As we touched on, you also teach. How is teaching informing your practice?
GL: At SUNY Albany, I’m primarily teaching graduate students. It’s exciting to watch people develop at this really quick pace and understand themselves in relation to their peers. I love working with grads. It’s not an art school, though, for undergrads. We offer a BA, but not a BFA. I’ve had to change my expectations when teaching undergraduate courses. For many of these students, it’s the first time they’ve ever thought about what sculpture means. That was really difficult at first, but I think it’s fantastic. Because even if these students never do sculpture again, maybe they know a little bit more about what it is.
I don’t think that the day-to-day actions of teaching undergrads informs my work, but the prompts that I give them absolutely do. A couple of years ago, I started this prompt that was specifically focused on making non-standard pedestals, and then I started making all these really wild pedestals. That feels pretty directly related.
HR: That does feel related. Is there anything upcoming that you’re looking forward to?
GL: Every year in the fall, my partner Ben and I go to Sustain-Release, which is a techno festival in Monticello, New York. For four days, we camp and listen to pretty hard techno in the woods. It’s not a vacation, but it’s close enough.
HR: It’s something different from regular life. A departure.
GL: It’s exhausting, but it’s not the same as working. That’s the next thing that I’m really looking forward to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.