CatFight, 2011-14. 2 replica sabertooth tiger skeletons, silver leaf, monofilament, and hardware, approx. 15 x 15 x 15 ft

Exploding Restraints: A Conversation with E.V. Day

After several years of working for private art dealers and artists in their studios, and generally pounding the pavement as young artists do, E.V. Day was content exhibiting in nonprofit venues when the thunderbolt struck. A curator who had shown her work while she was still in grad school at Yale called out of the blue, inviting her to participate in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. As you might imagine, Day’s life took a somewhat different trajectory after that call. She had never had a solo exhibition. She had no gallery representation. She actually asked the curator if she was with Publisher’s Clearing House, like Ed McMahon announcing an oversized check. Artist friends started treating Day differently, while dealers and curators began to seek her out. Her most recent solo show opened at Mary Boone in September 2014.

CatFight, 2011–14. 2 replica saber-toothed tiger skeletons, silver leaf, monofilament, and hardware, approx. 15 x 15 x 15 ft

Christopher Hart Chambers: Do you attempt to please the public, or do you try to shock them? 

E.V. Day: When I was between college and grad school, I worked for an artist in Los Angeles. He said, “E.V., if you wanted to be famous, you know how to do it, you’re smart enough to do it. You have a choice.” I wasn’t trying to—he was dealing with his own ego—but he was saying that I could do it: take these things that are seductive to an audience and make something shocking. 

Artists come from all different places in terms of how they make work, and I’m responding to things as I relate to the world. I grew up around a lot of superficial beauty, some of which I found humorous—you just can’t believe it because it’s so packaged. How could that not just be boring? When I went to college, I studied painting, drawing, and sculpture at the very, very end. After my third year, I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get out of school, paint figures, and make a living and pay rent, there’s just no way.” Delivering pizzas wasn’t going to cut it either. I decided that I was doing sculpture because I didn’t believe in the illusion of painting. I felt very strongly about it, and I attached ideas to Constructivist and Deconstructivist architecture and art, which gave me a place to start. 

I had some strange experiences, being young in the city. It wasn’t like I was putting myself into these situations, but you attract people. Once, when I was in Midtown temping, a guy, who looked like my dad, grabbed my boobs. So, I wanted to put together the violence and the humor of that—it’s just so funny. Why would someone grab your boobs? It’s hilarious in a way, and weird. 

I had a background in Modernist painting, which I really appreciated when I got to grad school because, though I felt my aesthetic moving on, I still felt related to it; formalism wasn’t so much a put-on for me as with some artists. They like to change their styles. I change my materials, but my work still conveys things that I’m interested in.

Cherry Bomb Vortex, 2002. Red sequin dresses, stainless steel mirror, mono­filament, and turnbuckles, approx. 9.58 x 8.5 x 8.5 ft.

CHC: So you jumped to sculpture from a conceptual platform rather than training traditionally? 

EVD: I never wanted to sculpt like I had painted a figure. I never wanted to sculpt a figure or solid things—I realized I couldn’t. I wanted to make spatial things, and I wanted to use more literal objects in the sense of “this is a bowl of nuts, and you put it there.” 

CHC: So, your materials are purchased rather than found and rearranged. It’s almost like three-dimensional collage. 

EVD: They’re also found. 

CHC: But never actually made. You wouldn’t sculpt a femur, for example. 

EVD: No, though I look for ways of doing that because I like the process. I am actually good at it, and it’s very satisfying as a craft, but it’s never the entire piece. I love doing pencil drawings of nude figures, but I haven’t found a way that they make sense to me as complete artworks. 

CHC: So, you don’t make sketches for the sculptures? 

EVD: I do, but they’re more like notes, not what I consider a “drawing.”CHC: Your work has been described as “feminist.” I don’t really get what that word means in relation to your art. Can you remark on that? Or maybe you disagree. 

EVD: I can remark on it. My dad once asked me, “Are you a feminist, like are you a dyke?” Feminist to me means pro-female, as opposed to saying anti-female. 

CHC: Would you say your work is feminine, but not necessarily feminist? 

EVD: I would definitely say feminist because I believe in the word; it’s straightforward, not exclusionary. 

CHC: I am still not sure I understand it in relation to your work. I can see the exploding bridal gowns as a rebellious stance, but not the cat fights. 

EVD: It’s funny. People will see CatFight and ask, “What’s up with the dinosaur bones?” That’s what they see. Bride Fight, which clearly included wedding dresses, was about exploding the idea of what a bride is; and a bride isn’t necessarily female anymore, thank god. You don’t have to be gender female; it’s about the props and the styling. That’s the way I’ve seen the world since I don’t know when. There are no figures, so it’s crystal clear that the feminine, princess-bride stuff does not assign to a gender. It’s a trope, it’s a style, it’s a way of being. It’s not about your gender—it’s about masking. It’s about masquerade, like so much about gender and sexuality and partners. For me, androgyny is freedom. When I was growing up, I was expected to be a girly girl, and I never related to it. I was at friction with that whole concept—being stuffed into a dress—and most women just take it as a given because they’re not even thinking about it. Being uncomfortable in the frills made me aware of being judged just for being female as a kid, in graduate school, and beyond. The women who came before me are most important to me. I was born in the late ’60s. My generation of women is freer than any previous generation. I didn’t have to burn my bra. I owe these people so much. They paved the way for us to develop our voices. So, I believe in the word feminist. I go to schools, lecture about my work, and do studio visits, and many times young students raise their hands and ask, “Don’t you feel pigeonholed by being called a feminist? That’s so retro.” I always answer, “If there weren’t feminists, you wouldn’t be in school here today, honey.” 

CHC: So, if you were to pigeonhole your work in a category or label, that’s what you would call it? 

G-Force, 2001–present. Thongs, resin, faux pearl, monofilament, and hardware, dimensions variable.

EVD: I would be proud to. And I would hope to have a couple of other categories there, too. 

CHC: Could you describe your creative process? Do things come to you in a flash? 

EVD: I usually have a lot of different materials that I’m thinking about. A lot of times, they’re something new that I want to work with; I’ll see an image flash, and that’ll be a starting point. Or I’ll have something in my mind, and it is like a flash. But then, I’ll get into it and develop it. It needs to have levels and layers, really two opposing aspects, before it all comes together. There’s a lot of research to do—like with Butterfly, a commission for Lincoln Center. I knew very little about opera. I’d seen Madame Butterfly—the story is just painful. I learned about the characters from the wardrobe designers, and it was the costumes of the characters who suffer that were worth revising or twisting. 

CHC: Do you think your work could have been done 50 or 25 years ago? 

EVD: Maybe 25, but I’d be a lot lonelier. I’d be dead already. 

CHC: Speaking of posthumous concerns, are your installations mapped out for posterity? 

EVD: Yes, I make very detailed instruction guides for the placement of points and so forth. Catfight has a whole book. It’s built so that every line goes in a sequential order. Now we can throw the book away because we’re never going to install it in the same space again. We’ll keep the method of the system, but we don’t need to keep every single measurement. 

CHC: The cages are basically smaller versions of the room. 

EVD: Ideally, I would like the cage to be the actual size of the room so that the gallery becomes the cage. In some works, I would like the strings to continue their trajectory beyond the building, through the walls and the ceiling. But it’s a problem to do that in public spaces. Say you scale the cage up so that the walls are 10 feet high. Strings are going from the walls to the ceiling. I wouldn’t have to worry about people passing through or the walls falling down. I would like to work that way. 

CHC: The smaller ones are more object-oriented and therefore saleable. What is the financial rubric for your enterprise, especially the larger installations? I suppose there are some zany zillionaires who might like to have saber-toothed tigers fighting over their living room, but there can’t be all that many of them. 

EVD: I’m hoping that Mary Boone knows them. I originally made CatFight at Artpace, the residency in San Antonio. They commission you to make a work in about three months. They give you a huge studio, and that becomes your exhibition space. You can do whatever the hell you want. They also give you money, a stipend, materials, and people to make stuff. I have been very fortunate to continue making a living from my work. I sort of envy artists who make their 20 paintings a year, and a collage and a photo of the same images, and send them out into the world at three different price points. But I don’t work that way. I haven’t been able to make sense of doing that or why you would need so many of them. My work is hand-labor intensive. One gallerist told me, “You’ve got to get your hands off your work or you will be held back in the marketplace.” But the way I work, after I’ve got a piece going, there’s a gesture; and it surprises me that it’s helpful, but it has to keep going. I haven’t figured out how to manufacture a spatial installation without my hands. It has to be natural and spontaneous. I should be more career-minded in how I make my work if I’m going to keep doing it. 

Christopher Hart Chambers is an artist and writer living in New York.