Installation view of “Trick,” Lyles & King, New York, 2024. Photo: Jason Mandella

Courting Contradiction: A Conversation with Catalina Ouyang

Engaging critically with precarity, power, and history, Catalina Ouyang challenges images, image-making, material assumptions, and dominant narratives with humility as well as deep visceral and theoretical conviction. Rather than signaling finite meaning, their sculptures engage the flow and erosion of ideas and intensities harbored in any constellation of things. For instance, toward the center of “Trick,” Ouyang’s current exhibition at Lyles & King in New York, an Untitled work from 2024 features a pair of platform boots standing on top of a piece of fabric stiff with resin and placed over a long, weathered, boxy cushion. What looks like cleaned-up driftwood emerges from the cushion, like a co-pilot for the boots, entwining with a mangled weapon, maybe a spear. Ouyang and I sat in the gallery late one May afternoon, surrounded by 16 new sculptures and paintings that seem pulled from real life, from dreamscapes, from history, and from the earth itself. After taking a break for a year in 2023, Ouyang is now embracing an intuitive, embodied, and fluid way of putting objects together, often working with a wide range of psychologically rich source material—from medieval prayer books to experimental cinema.

Finders, 2024. Glass, textile, and plywood, 70 x 24 x 36 in. Photo: Jake Holler

Marcus Civin: Finders (2024) includes two long, limb-like fabric forms and related tubular glass forms almost like oversize, bottomless laboratory beakers or glass stockings. Is it too literal to read these shapes, which also appear in Heads and some of your Untitled works, as legs?
Catalina Ouyang: No, the figure is irrefutable in my work. The supine body recurs, with varying degrees of abstraction, in Finders, the painting of the actor Amira Casar in Deed, and Untitled, the work with a child’s figure writhing on an industrial palette. The long tradition of the recumbent figure goes back not just to representations of Venus and odalisques—often modeled after sex workers—but also to ritual objects like sarcophagi and the reclining Buddha. Architecture and tools (as with the scythes in Heads) contour to the body, so it makes sense that limbs emerge in my interventions with them. I take up the form of the pillar or appendage and then neuter it, strip it of purpose or context, and construct it with the wrong materials. I have been thinking about misremembering as a way of resisting Modernist presumptions of truth.

MC: What is an example of something you misremembered?
CO: The indistinct forms of sleeping dogs and facial features. The shape of a foot. The form of an apple box, crate, or cart. The glass tubes in Finders as perversions of an essential geometric form. In our memory palace, images melt and become destabilized. I was drawn to glass as a medium because, with heat, it does a similar thing.

Installation view of “Trick,” Lyles & King, New York, 2024. Photo: Jason Mandella

MC: Can we talk about the form that resembles an incredibly long snake? It’s about 30 feet long and created from pressed-together circles cut from drywall sheets.
CO: I had a bunch of drywall left over from a studio buildout. Drywall is a weak material, basically useless. It is a bastardized descendant of the plaster and lathe traditionally used to construct houses—a cheap, modern alternative that afforded the dream of the nuclear suburban family home to people like my parents at the cost of durability and safety. After Hurricane Katrina, many of the old plaster houses survived, but the drywall houses molded and disintegrated. So the material, as well as its completely inefficient application in the sculpture, is imbued with aspiration and foiled desire.

MC: For me, part of what’s powerful about your work is the sense of it existing in a ghost world adjacent to ours where time is compressed, where aspects of things we know as historical, or think we know as historical, come right up against things that are contemporary. I don’t know the history, or past life, of the boots you’ve wrapped in twine and horse hair and filled with concrete, but they feel somewhat contemporary to me. Then, in the slideshow that’s part of your sculpture Trick, I think I’m seeing historical images. In this world that you’ve created, various temporalities are pulled together. Materially, I think that’s addressed, too, with the concrete shape that’s holding up the display case in Heads. It feels like an excavation. The figures also feel excavated, like their flesh is pulled from the earth.
CO: I try to do my learning on the final object. I rarely work with sketches, models, or material tests. I like how an object wears the attempts, recalibrations, failures, and discoveries that went into its making. To make the child-size figures in Heads and Untitled, I made papier-mâché in a food blender and worked out color compositions with different mixtures of paper pulp, joint compound, wood glue, and plaster directly on their skin. I knew that I wanted to cast one of the pedestals in Heads in concrete, but I hate wasting plywood to build a box for a mold, and I wanted to limit the amount of concrete used, so I used leftover cardboard for the mold and filled part of the cast with scrap Styrofoam, which saved material and gave the object a ruined patina.

Heads, 2024. Mid-century display case, plywood, concrete, deconstructed scythes, papier-mâché, plaster, handmade eye, found textiles, artist’s skirt, and shaving mirror, 76 x 71 x 32 in. Photo: Jake Holler

MC: Is there more experimentation in these works?
CO: I don’t know if I would call it “experimentation” because I don’t think my work is very process-based, but there is more freedom and confidence in how the configurations come together. You have to make room for risk. When I was creating the slumped glass piece that drapes over the laminated drywall, I knew only that I wanted to coax the glass into performing wet fabric. I built the metal armature inside the kiln and chose to use industrial float glass, which is not typically what you would use for fusing at this scale. Due to a series of near-disastrous hiccups, the glass element wasn’t done until a couple of days before my shipping deadline, and there were surprises in its final form. So, I had to restructure the piece quickly. You go in hoping that the poetic collision will work, and then you have to be nimble with the results.

MC: This is your first time showing paintings in their own right. How do you feel about the relationships between the two modes? Are the sculptures different when paintings are in the room?
Every time I make a show, it feels like it’s time to perform a trick again. Artists ultimately are obliged to be jesters. Painting, which was my childhood introduction to art-making, is a skill that I have largely kept private, and my decision to reprise it now is tinged with antagonism. In selling sex, which, of course, is a throughline in the work, the relationship between provider and client is inherently antagonistic because of how commodification—however empowering, however advantageous to the worker—reifies extraction. For me, painting also triggers a reaction against established metrics of value. How do I engage with a discipline that I internally regard with apprehension, even derision, but also pursue it seriously, in good faith, and with pleasure? The relationship between the sculptures, paintings, and other mediums is not diagrammatic or expository; it feels libidinal in ways that language cannot account for.

Untitled, 2024. Steel, apple wood, canvas, gesso, artist’s shoes, concrete, soapstone, plywood, twine, gel medium, horse hair, fabric, and resin, 36 x 56 x 26.5 in. Photo: Jake Holler

MC: The word “libidinal” makes sense to me in describing your work. Is it important that the two figures are children?
The figures are sized as children but proportioned as adults. I did not like being a child. I was overly precocious. I am both awed and disgusted by the fact of having a past. The idea that I am the same being, and of the same consciousness that I had when I was five or eight years old, is horrifying. The idea that the child I was would go on to live through the things I eventually did is horrifying. It feels inappropriate. Children are complex, desirous, and morally ambiguous beings; and this is denied in popular discourse because we think the innocence of a child has to be protected. How do you recognize the intelligence and agency of a child, while not subjecting them to horrors beyond their comprehension and ability to integrate?

MC: Did you not like being a child, or did you not like the way the world treated you when you were a child?
I think both. I was a product of my environment. I watched my first Playboy tape when I was three, and my absent father’s collection of erotica filled our home—the walls, his abandoned office, my parents’ bedroom, the basement. Not only was I intellectually curious and hungry beyond what my suburban environment could fulfill, but my entire childhood was steeped in concupiscence beyond my understanding. I felt underestimated because of my age and exasperated by the repression of my supposed role models: teachers, parents, coaches, counselors, community leaders.

Untitled, 2024. Found wood, projection scrim, ink, acrylic, textile, steel, glass, soapstone, and alabaster, 59.5 x 27 x 10 in. Photo: Jake Holler

MC: I wonder if you want to talk about dreams? I found a zine you made in 2014, Some Dreams, where, for each entry, you wrote a description of a dream. Do you record your dreams?
Intermittently. My ability to recall dreams depends on my stress level, sleep patterns, sleep medication, and level of heartbreak. When I’m heartbroken, I go through periods of having incredibly vivid dreams with almost full recall. When I started taking Zoloft a couple of years ago, things started happening in my dreams that had never happened before. I had never eaten food before in my dreams. I had never had sex before in my dreams. As with the relationship between my sculptures, paintings, films, and writing, it is likely that my dreams inform my creative practice by virtue of passing collectively through the vessel of me. But again, the connection is not causal or illustrative. The beauty of courting contradiction is that you relinquish the compulsion to reconcile all the selves, lives, and associations of the objects you work with, techniques you use, and your own subjecthood.

MC: What are the images in the slideshow that forms part of Trick?
I had been thinking about medieval prayer books, which were intimately scaled and ornately illustrated, used by laypeople for private devotional practice. A recurring motif in these manuscripts is the mandorla, an almond shape that represents the wound of Christ and also resembles a bleeding vulva. Sometimes these images are well-rubbed, which suggests that the reader’s engagement was tactile, even erotic. For the slideshow, I collected images of these vaginal mandorlas as well as images where Christ is framed within a mandorla. These transition into images of wounds on beasts of burden—cows, sheep, horses, dogs—and video footage of surgical operations on human retinas. There are also sequences of vintage spreads from Penthouse and classical Chinese erotic illustrations.

Installation view of “Trick,” with (left) Trick, 2024. Steel, pine lumber, apple wood, plywood, motors, and projectors, dimensions variable. Photo: Jason Mandella

MC: Is it important that the images are obscured? The title, Trick, which is also the title of the show, leads me to wonder if there is something to find there.
I am always interested in ways of interrupting an image. How much abuse can an image withstand? The long wooden forms cradling the steel cage split the projection into unstable planes, fracturing it like an early Modernist collage. But if you look only at the wall beyond the steel grating, the images are more legible. I’ve been thinking about Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas and how he was doing affect theory before affect theory. He was looking for patterns and returns, the gestalt they create, and so am I. The vaginal wound of Christ looks like the incision in the side of an animal, which is carnal and open in the way of Penthouse spreads.

MC: I am trying to figure out what feels so different about Brank, which is installed outside. It’s basically a massive metal scold’s bridle, once used as a public punishment for speaking out, or out of turn. Do you think of Brank as part of a separate body of work?
Some works emerge in a circuitous and exploratory way from the textures of living and accumulation; some from a feeling that I’m chasing; but other times—rarely—a work arrives in a vision, fully formed. Brank came to me like that. As an object, it feels autonomous and self-evident. But we had a poetry reading inside of it, and when it was activated, it felt a lot more like the other works: searching and unruly. I learned about the scold’s bridle from Brimstone, a 2016 film in which a fanatical reverend puts a bridle on his daughter and rapes her in a field. That scene was seared into my memory. I watched the film in the year after I was raped; it was the same year that I started doing sex work. Caught in this miasma of suffering and injustice, the only way that I could feel like an erotic being was by plunging headlong into terror and degradation. That scene with the bridle and rape became my go-to masturbatory fantasy.

Brank, 2024. Steel, 16 ft. 4 in. x 11 ft. 6 in. x 13 ft. 5 in. Photo: Jake Holler

MC: I imagine you collaborated with a team to make the sculpture.
I worked with Eric Coolidge, a fabricator from Ohio. I gave him different photo references and verbally described the aspects I wanted to re-create from each one. I drew up the bridle bit myself. Eric’s team did the rest, as well as the installation with a scissor lift.

I often hear, “Your work is so generous, it’s so brave.” Mostly I choose to believe that this is meant sincerely, but sometimes it feels, if not maliciously underhanded, somehow double-edged, like when someone compliments your outfit but qualifies it with, “I could never pull that off.” It implies that you are somehow brazen. My ethos behind making is more, and. Everything, everything. Art is not a zero-sum game. It is not a finite resource, it doesn’t have to be so jealously protected. If you’re an artist and you have a modicum of self-knowledge, I don’t think there’s any reason to deny the truth of what drives you or how this practice sustains you, your sanity, your joy. Being a part of a social fabric, in relation to other people, is inherently vulnerable. It’s astounding to me that people live in willful, violent denial of that fact. I took last year off from exhibiting to recalibrate because I saw my work going in a direction I did not like, toward prescriptiveness and false conceptual promises. I am really trying to protect a space of mystery, wondering, uncertainty, and becoming, where I let the material inform me.

MC: Very few of us see the desirability of our own story. To us, it’s mostly the pain and suffering.
Or boredom.

Untitled (detail), 2024. Found wood, projection scrim, ink, acrylic, textile, steel, glass, soapstone, and alabaster, 59.5 x 27 x 10 in. Photo: Jake Holler

MC: In this work, it seems that you are measuring, stacking up, cataloging, comparing.
I think there’s something about taking stock. The scythes I use in Heads are interesting to me not only because of their pairing with the Grim Reaper, but also because they are real farm tools. Agriculture was the beginning of the end for women. In its long departure from communalism, agriculture is about counting, multiplication, expansion, and control. The scythes measure the body and reap the land. Interestingly, “longhouse,” which technically refers to communal dwellings common among tribal, often matriarchal societies, has become a term deployed by the alt-right to describe contemporary society as “gynocentric,” “woke,” and oppressive to masculinity and individualism. With the long drywall piece, in a way, I was trying to make the longest house in the dumbest way, maybe as an act of transgressive regression.

MC: There is certainly an earthiness in this show.
That’s my inescapable Taurus sun. I love working with my hands; it is as sensual and transcendent as making love, which I also love doing. My ethos right now is to work beyond my skill set and stop before I reach understanding or resolution. A lot of the self-work I have done over the past year has involved finding the confidence to embrace the humility of not knowing.

Catalina Ouyang’s “Trick” is on view at Lyles & King in New York through June 15, 2024.