Gray Wielebinski

Gray Wielebinski works in a variety of media, spanning from collage and textile works to video and performance. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Wielebinski investigates American mythologies, exploring the semiotics of sports, fashion, and gender. 

Wielebinski lives and works in London and Los Angeles. 

What drew you to London?

I went to a liberal arts school outside of Los Angeles and was living in LA. I was really close with my teachers and had a nice support system there in the art world. But after a few years I wanted to go to grad school, and I wanted to leave and have a connection in another city. I'm excited about the art world here, it's really supportive and I’ve made loads of friends. Going to a liberal arts school, most of my friends were not artists which I appreciated in some ways, but it's been really nice to feel really involved in a community here.

I saw that you’re from Dallas. I’m from New Orleans, which is obviously super close. Do you feel like that cultural specificity has an influence on your practice?

It's helpful that you're from the South. In London, and sometimes even with my American friends, it can be hard to get into the weeds regarding the identities and the politics of the South, how specific they are, and what each one means and not to have them pigeonholed or lumped together because the conversations are a lot more complicated. I’m also very interested in cities and their identities, both real and imagined. Dallas has a very particular mythology and narrative for itself, particularly in relation to cowboy mythology which I have been interested in lately. There’s so much decoration, costume, and dressing up.

So this is the silliest question I have, but I've been asking it, because it's fun. Do you have a Rose and Thorn of the past week?

Oh my god, I feel like I went my whole life not being asked that but I’ve been asked that twice already this week. This week has been very up and down, I was feeling quite overwhelmed and anxious so I guess that’s my thorn. And then my rose is that I saw a lot of genuinely great art exhibitions and being able to see art in person now feels like a special experience. It was also supposed to be Frieze week this week so the specter looms large.

I went to see a retrospective of the photographer Sunil Gupta at The Photographers’ Gallery. I found it super moving and beautiful and I kind of cried during the exhibition and had a little breakdown in the bathroom afterwards but in what felt like a cathartic way, I was already feeling emotional so his work intertwined with a lot of those feelings in a lovely way. I sort of enjoy crying in public, because I think it's ultimately a pretty weird, awkward, vulnerable thing that, when you’re doing it, you’re usually at the point where you can't really help it so you just have no choice but to lean into it. And then to have this ambiguous intimacy with whoever sees you and is like what the hell is wrong with you. So I was walking around in a bit of a daze and going in and out of different emotional states and just had a really moving experience with it ultimately. The series are very much time capsules and of their own time, but so politically contemporary and relevant so it felt a bit like time traveling.

How has quarantine influenced your work? Do you feel more or less productive?

At the beginning of quarantine it was hard to create. I was going to have a show with Hales in November, which was postponed, but now things are back on track. I did have a solo show in Dallas, at 12.26 Gallery. Before quarantine, I had started making work around the Greek myth of Tiresias the prophet in part as a trans allegory in relation to this iconography of the western cowboy. I found this vintage advertisement for cowboy boots that included these beautiful images of hyper-masculine men in their boots wrestling with animals and the wilderness in various forms. In the myth of Tiresias, he sees two snakes fornicating and attacks them, and because of this act of violence, Hera turned him into a woman for seven years. Then the story continues, and for all intents and purposes, he has this very fulfilling life as a woman. He gets married, has children, and becomes a priestess to Hera, and he's turned back to a man after he sees snakes fornicating again, and lets them be. I was really interested in the queerness of this myth and the potential to queer this hyper-masculine image in relation to gender, but also more broadly this idea of letting one’s narrative continue. It’s queering by virtue of being put in the context of Tiresias and then recontextualizing its potential interpretation and how the image itself and its narrative can continue and extend.

That was really helpful at the beginning of quarantine, I was super happy with that show, and I'm really grateful that it happened. At the same time, I was separately making other works when we were still in full lockdown, and feeling super overwhelmed every day, as most people were. I was making mainly paintings and collages in a very routine, simple way. It almost felt like when you're a kid and you need to do something to pass the time and not have a panic attack basically. It was helpful to get out of my head, but I could only use whatever I had in my house, since you couldn't go to shops and get supplies. It's been interesting to look back at those works. I don't know how I feel about them, because they are part of this weird time of corona. After the show in Dallas, and after some time, I think I'm finally taking some time to regroup and plan for the future. But I think it's difficult to to know exactly how I'm feeling, in part because I think this time is a bit like limbo.

Was it fulfilling to show in Dallas? Do you think people understand the work differently within there?

Yeah, I was really excited and a bit nervous, because it felt like a return. It was the first time that people from my upbringing would see my work in person and get to experience it. I do think, in some ways, the references maybe mean more. It feels nice to think that the works will be living in Dallas. It felt very full circle. I've been living in London, and mainly been showing in Europe and London in the last three years or so. So it was really nice, but also intimidating to show back in America, because as you said, my work is very interested in Americana and so it takes on new meaning there.

Did you play sports as a kid?

Yeah, I did play sports as a kid. They were a big part of my identity, especially when I was younger. I played for a really long time and there was a lot I took from it. In some ways I’ve diverged a bit, but I'm very much invested in dispelling the belief that art and sports are completely separate. At that age, in high school, I did begin to focus more on art and in some ways it feels like I’m reclaiming that, because sports become gendered as you get older in a way that I think I wasn’t ready to or able to interrogate properly, particularly in the 2000s when I was growing up. A lot of conversations were not in the place that they are now, and I am also in a very different headspace with myself. It's been really helpful to reconnect with my relationship to sports as an adult both in relationship to my own body and also as an arena of interest culturally and through my work.

What materials did you initially work with? I'm really interested in how you began using textiles.

I think collage has always been an integral thread throughout my practice. In high school I was making digital collages and some video. In college I focused on printmaking and stop motion animation, but there's always an element of layering and combination and recontextualizing. I'm interested in collage both conceptually and materially, and I think about my textile works in that way too.

In coming out and coming to terms with my transness, I found it a bit difficult after a little while to make fully representational work–particularly when the body is being literally represented– it could sometimes feel too didactic. I also wanted to take up physical space and have a presence in the room, so I became interested in installation and sculpture, I wanted it to be more open-ended and abstracted and also have my audience consider their own bodies within space. Particularly with identity, both transness and queerness, I am interested in working with textiles and clothing. With sports, gender, and queerness, there’s a lot to interrogate and dissect around ideas of outfits and uniforms and materiality in relation to different identities. In childhood as well, clothes are central to identity construction and also a way that we learn to relate to and understand the world and place ourselves within it. My girlfriend at the time helped me learn to sew and figure out how to translate my ideas to make these creatures. 

Do the creatures have personalities?

Definitely. I really like that they consciously and subconsciously tap into concepts of body language and that they can be interpreted subjectively in that sense. It’s really important that my audience can engage with it in other ways and bring something to it.

Ultimately, they become more than the sum of their parts once they're completed. What I love about them is the happy accidents. The way they sit and the way they hold themselves has a specificity and personality that I can’t always foresee while I’m making them. I feel like I don’t really get to meet them properly until they’re finished.

For my degree show at Slade [School of Fine Art], I made this installation of a queer locker room space which featured the creatures. There's this Toy Story element to it because they’re stuffed animals – this idea of how you treat an inanimate object once they’re seemingly sentient. Is it when they have eyes or is it when they have a face? For the locker room, it was important to have this latent gaze that was not necessarily insidious, but always present, particularly in terms of the locker room as a psychic space. Which, on a side note, relates to what we were saying before: this particular motif of a locker room doesn't really exist in the same way in the UK, but it was actually more successful than I would have thought considering that reference wasn't as literal. The locker room is very much about the gaze, and this overarching homoeroticism. There's also just the idea of watching other bodies, looking at them, and knowing that your body is being looked at.

Your other textile works like Chop Shop (2019), and the ones for the “Young Monsters” show, are really interesting because there’s this idea of clothing and getting dressed, which is closely  intertwined with the body without actually featuring a body.

I'm making the creatures with this Frankenstein quality, even in the way I make the stitches. It's this act of literally stitching bodies together, which is grotesque but also because of this relationship to textiles the grotesque quality is not so overt. For the torsos, I was thinking about armor, Greco Roman torsos, and sculptural poses as well as more contemporary work, like that of Paul Thek. Then there’s the layered interpretation of a torso relating to top surgery and that relationship to cutting and stitching as well. It's a fine line when you're making a disembodied torso though rather than a full creature, I wanted to be careful to not have it be too violent in a way that wasn’t thoughtful.

The first one I did was Chop Shop, and I was thinking a lot about the mythologies and characters within the world I'd already created. Especially with sports and mascots, I'm referencing this weird relationship we have to animals, how we anthropomorphize them, and make them either cute or masculine; feminine or fierce. We're projecting all of these things onto them. I was thinking, “what kind of mascot would exist for these creatures?” It's a motorcycle jacket, which has its own iconography, a kind of group identity. I was playing on that, making this weird, old muscly monster who is somehow kind of a mascot for the other creatures.

What does performance mean to you? Would you consider performance again?

The first video I made was with a very talented dancer named Chester Hayes, who's in several of my video works. I had him destroying my childhood baseball card collection, shredding them and taunting me in a way that’s sexual and enticing and also a bit repulsive, and in the end he lights them on fire. Then I worked with another dancer, Ted Rogers, and they became this kind of duo. I was thinking of them as these mischievous, angel/devils on my shoulder, as well as proxies of me since I don't really appear in my own work. There's different reasons why that is. I never say never and at some point maybe I will be more comfortable appearing in them, but I quite like working with dancers as they have this way of embodying language and narrative and meaning in a more ambiguous way.

With performance and video, there's a lot more work that goes into it, particularly a different type of work. You're relying on other people, and there's more planning, but I find it extremely rewarding. It really helps me get out of my own head and think differently. For water bb (2019), I was commissioned by Deptford X Festival in London, which gave me access to all these new spaces. There was this lovely, amazing, weird indoor pool complex with a dance studio that overlooks it through huge glass windows. That's where the audience watched the performance. I co-directed it with Hannah Hopkins, who also helped me with the costumes, and then Holly Blakey did the choreography. Collaboration is a really important element of my practice and my process. Maybe I should do it again soon, because I've been having a block and it does help get things moving in a different way.

What is your relationship to fashion and textiles?

There is an element both professionally, with my work, and also personally. Since moving to London, I became more interested in fashion. In recent years, clothes have been important in helping me feel more confident and comfortable in terms of gender presentation. There’s an amazing fashion scene in London that sits in tandem with the art world.

Then there’s fashion in terms of the actual materials. I'm very interested in childhood and memory and their relevance to identity construction. There are certain things which serve as a transport to contextualize things in a specific way, like smell or taste, but textures and materials can also serve as this reference. It’s really helpful to be able to make these references materially rather than explicitly, which helps me avoid being overly didactic. For example, none of my creatures have particularly explicit markers of gender. They just have personality. One in particular, called Minnie, is made out of this perforated, slick, kind of sexy, kind of gross black leather which references sexuality in a way that isn't literally putting genitals on them. I also use a lot of denim, which carries certain references.

I think that’s true of sports too. When I first started looking at baseball, which is stereotypically the average American pastime, I was thinking about sports as a spectacle or performance, and the uniforms as these beautifully-designed fashion objects. For example, the corset is stunning and it's really interesting in a fashion sense but when it's in the realm of sports, we think of it as utilitarian. I was playing with taking it out of that context and appreciating it for its beauty in that sense. That was a big breakthrough.

Going back to an older work of yours, The Great American (2017), what drew you to the eclipse, and is it in conversation with Trump's election? Is it in reference to these huge monumental events that we're powerless to?

That's exactly right, I'm happy you caught that. I was thinking about that one the other day, and I'm confused with where it sits with the rest of my work. I have complex feelings towards it, I think that’s because it’s personal. You asked about whether I appear in my work, and I think that's one example where my voice plays a role. It feels intimate and vulnerable, and it also features my parents. But yes, it definitely has to do with all of that, and it felt fortuitous to have Trump be referenced on the radio while I was filming.

I had received a grant from Slade to do some research in Kansas City, so I went to a puppet factory and some outsider art compounds, and I wanted it to coincide with the eclipse. My parents came and met me, which was really nice but super bizarre as well. I was definitely thinking about these larger events that are out of our control that we’re subject to, but it also felt like a very American experience because it was akin to tailgating for a big game, there were people selling t-shirts outside this mall, all for this natural occurrence.

It was also really moving, there was this sense of being beside yourself. At the time, I was really interested in what it means to be out of your body, the idea of the glitch and Legacy Russell’s glitch feminism, and then the eclipse became part of it. That's seen in a lot of ways with the discourse of transness, but to be beside oneself is also one of the most human experiences. At that point, I was trying to find ways to connect my experiences in a way that didn't feel so myopic. I can't imagine opening things up much more universally and broadly than with something like an eclipse.

It’s also fascinating in relation to the history of Texas, watching NASA spaceships blast off and the space race.

I'm interested in spectacle, particularly the idea of shared spectacle and unifying spectacle, which relates much more to our parents’ generation. The way we consume media now is much more disjointed. We don't necessarily have something that we're all watching at the same time. There's so many amazing elements that come from that, but it does change how we come together to experience a sense of community and what it means. I'm interested in what is left out of the narrative when people mythologize “how things used to be.” Sports are like that, too, whether or not you actually enjoy them. I have an anthropological interest in them, they are a ritualistic way of coming together in a belief system but its often in a more complex ways than we sometimes think at first glance.

Especially now, there isn't a cohesive idea of what it means to be an American. It's so faceted, and I can't think of anything else that would bring together such a large spectrum of people.

I think that's why it was also so beautiful and bizarre. There was this weirdness of it being both nationalizing and localizing.

Are there any projects that you tried to complete but weren't able to for any reason?

Yeah, the next thing I want to make is much larger in scale, so I'm applying for funding for it. I want to make rocking horses. I won't get into it too much, but I was thinking a lot about LA and Dallas and the psychic landscape of both cities. Both cities came to be because of a syphoning or pillaging of sorts of natural resources as a sort of original sin, Dallas because of oil and LA with the California water wars. For example, in Dallas, they have these pump jacks that litter the Texas landscape, which are used when you dig for oil but as a child they seem quite innocuous and innocent and almost meditative.

Those weird little bird things?

Yeah exactly, they are a symbol of my childhood and are a part of my psychic landscape growing up and at the same time their movement references the undulation and repetition of rocking horses. And then the horse in parts of American culture has become a symbol of cowboys, machismo, rugged individualism, and narratives around Going West and manifest destiny. At the same time a rocking horse is the epitome of impotence, it doesn't go anywhere. I really want to make them and I still will at some point, I just need to have the right time and space and the funding for it.

And do you have a dream project?

Oh, I definitely do. I don't know if I can think of it right now. I’ve got to keep some secrets. I've given you too much.

Visit Gray Wielebinski’s artist page.

︎: @gray_wielebinski

all images (c) Gray Wielebinski