Lindsey Mendick: on being honest and fragile, and her work – leaky and grotesque

Lindsey Mendick is frank; about sex, body politics and the trials and tribulations of working with clay.

Lindsey’s sculptures are unruly and grotesque. They recast the female body as a fatal formlessness that violates masculinity by enveloping the male form. Her art celebrates the femme fatale who consumes male projections of female sensuality and sentimentality with her mutinous sexuality. She refuses to be defined by the male gaze, oozing and leaking beyond her borders.

Lindsey says that the creatures in her art are extensions of herself and narrating her experience as a female artist. Drawing reference from mythical woman from history and a smorgasbord of popular culture, they tell a defiant story that is at once both vulnerable and resilient, much like the medium of ceramics itself.

Ceramics is a medium of dualities. It sits comfortably between the disciplines of art and craft, and is equally associated with precious decorative heirlooms and banal functional objects. It is versatile and unforgiving, and simultaneously fragile and incredibly enduring. Its association with domestic and ornamental objects raises feminine discourse, which Lindsey manipulates, twists and recasts. Her work is garish and unashamedly female. Lindsey puts femininity on a pedestal in her work, but unlike most of classical art history, to challenge and provoke the male gaze. Her self-deprecating humour is a message of defiance, a middle finger to patriarchy, power and history.

AMM: Hi Lindsey! Do you remember the first piece of art you made? What was it and how old were you? What’s shaped your artistic journey since then?

LM: I do remember! But I’m loath to share with you some of the intensely emo pieces I made (for your sake not mine). I had always been interested in the old masters (aged 8 I wrote some phenomenally bad poetry based on Monet’s Lilies) but when I was 14 my art teacher, Mr Wooley, introduced me to the YBAs [Young British Artists]. I was so charged by their hedonism and brit pop superstardom; I had never seen art like it. Tracy Emin had such a major impact on me. For once I was looking at work that didn’t belittle the emotions and horror of adolescence. I made a piece that was inspired by (and when I say inspired I mean ripped off in its entirety) her work. It was a massive wall hanging with all my emotions sewn into it and it was my first foray into contemporary fine art.

I feel a bit sick thinking about its vulnerability and general awfulness. But I suppose my work has never stopped having that sense of honesty and emotional fragility. It’s that desire to connect with others that drives me to create.

AMM: A scroll through your Instagram feed shows your appreciation of memes and internet humour. Where do you look for daily inspiration and how does this feed into your art?

LM: Oh I’ve had a lot of people tell me how I should be doing my Instagram feed. Probably because I’m such a spammer and I also show the work before it has been exhibited. They give me tips on how to just ‘give a taste’ and to only post every 4 days. But I’m too excited to be restrained like that. I think it’s hilarious how people expect you to turn something so intrinsically personal into a well-oiled machine. I mean I really don’t care. Actually I care about the likes but not about what people think of my Instagram. I’ll put up memes that I find funny when I’m hungover in the hope that someone else will laugh at them too. My Instagram feed is everything that I’m thinking about, inspired by and interested in. It’s reactionary and it’s confessional like the work.

AMM: Medusa heads sit cheek by jowl with pop culture references in your art. Can you tell us about some of the motifs in your work and what they represent?

LM: I always describe myself as having a magpie-like affinity to popular culture. The everyday feeds into the work through osmosis.

I pick out events and moments from my personal history that I feel have had a considerable impact on me and my sensibility. This can range from the mass hysteria of Princess Diana’s death to the garish aspirational designs of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen on Changing Rooms. My practice embraces the subjects and moments that are deemed to be low culture, interweaving their iconography and ebullience with high culture methods of construction.

I’ve always had such an adoration of the greats in fine art. When being taught to draw as a child, we were always made to copy paintings by great men. Botticelli, Matisse, Monet and Rembrandt. Whenever I went to the National Gallery with school we had a guide who would point out secrets within the paintings and explain to us the story of their creation. I was fascinated by the feeling of kinship and understanding I had when looking at something that seemed to be so unfathomably ancient. But then as I grew older I began to realise that although my gender was represented in image, it was not in production. These huge galleries were filled with work by men depicting villainous and tragic females (such as Salome, Medusa and Persephone) from a mythology that was also forged by men. I am so drawn to these stories in Greek that talk of the danger of the female presence, with mythical women frequently violating masculinity by enveloping the male form in their fatal formlessness: melting, morphing and freezing them in sexual desire. I find myself feeling paradoxically comforted and horrified by the idea of history repeating itself and feel that by combining ancient myth or classical painting with modern iconography in my work I am able to highlight the disparity that I feel is ingrained within our culture.

Lindsey Mendick, “The Spectre at the Feast”, ceramic, papier mache, tights, 125h x 60w cm

AMM: How do you explore and engage themes of gender, sex and the body in your work?

LM: When I first began making I never confronted any of those themes. I was young and extremely naïve and thought that my work could just speak for itself regardless of my gender. Then when I started at the Royal College of Art there were a series of events that shaped my artistic practice. In a crit, one of my (male) contemporaries said that he couldn’t comment on my work because it was too feminine and he couldn’t relate to it. This was 2015. He said it unquestioned. Then I was attacked in the back of an Uber by two men who were sharing an Uberpool and my confidence was totally shattered. I felt so weak and I felt so utterly angry. I had had enough. My work began to be more political and less apologetic. I stopped trying to make my practice palatable and contained. I focused on being honest and fragile. Leaky and grotesque. I wanted to make work that was uncomfortable for the viewer and dispel this horrific myth that art related to the feminine is inferior.

Sex and the desire for intimacy plagues my mind constantly. I think people try to pretend that the more ingrained in culture you are, the less you worry about ‘trivial’ things like lovers and partners. But it’s just not true. I revel in the trivial.

Where sex is concerned I think that female desire is political. There seems to be a stupid myth that women don’t get as horny like men; or that if they do, they aren’t ‘horny’ they’re ‘aroused’. Once in an all-female peer led crit we were talking about ‘female desire’ and how women are turned on by the gesture; a caress of the neck, the arch of a back, the taking off of an earring and I just thought it was bullshit. Why does female sexuality have to be disregarded as poetry to make it palatable? It’s so Pre-Raphaelite and demeaning. When I talk about sex I am often described as being masculine in my approach because I am not coy or apologetic about talking about fucking or masturbating or watching porn. It’s unfair that female sexuality has to be pretty whilst men’s can be vulgar and primal. Why can’t it be individual?

Lindsey Mendick, “Don’t Look at Me”, 2018, ceramic, 120cm h x 30cm w x 40cm d

AMM: Your piece Don’t Look At Me is a study of the abject. Please tell us about how you play with the grotesque and humour in your work, and to what intended effect?

LM: That’s probably one of the best descriptions of my work I’ve heard. I’m stealing that. I’ve suffered from obsessive thoughts, depression and anxiety from a young age. It would always come in waves and as I got better I would get confused by what was an obtrusive thought and what was a normal thing to think and feel. I would ask my best friends and my family ‘is this normal’ and they’d say ‘yes everyone feels like that’. Then why didn’t they say so? I couldn’t understand why there was this distinct lack of honesty in humans and why we always wanted to pretend that we didn’t have these intense feelings of guilt, shame and remorse. Or that we weren’t disgusting and primal at times. I often think of my pieces as sacrificial lambs. Moments that have eaten at me until I have processed them through clay and owned them as an intrinsic part of myself.

Lindsey Mendick, “Don’t Look at Me”, 2018, ceramic, 120cm h x 30cm w x 40cm d

AMM: Please can you tell us a little about your interest in the materiality and corporeality of clay, and how this might translate thematically in your work?

LM: Before working in clay, I had used a lot of found objects, so my work was totally dependent on scavenger hunts in charity shops and car boot sales. The entities were always a disappointment, never entirely capturing my sensibility. It was then that I experienced Rebecca Warren’s immense and gluttonously anthropomorphic clay sculptures. I was instantly drawn to this medium and the way that it solidified and eternalised the artist’s manipulation. I started hand building in clay, creating monstrous deities to popular culture, extrapolating and deciphering the confusing and at times burdening world around me. As a naturally visceral medium, clay allows me to feed my neuroses and fears into the work through osmosis. I create entities that I see as extensions of myself, protagonists in my installations and storytellers of my narrative. But the act of making them itself also has a therapeutic function.

Now I make in clay out of necessity. As an adult, I am still being treated for OTD, depression and anxiety, but making in clay is extremely cathartic. When I am in the studio, I am able to shut out the world and delve into this tactile medium, creating anything that
I desire. It is total escapism and my respite from the anxiety of the day to day.

AMM: Ceramics is often regarded as functional or decorative. Your installation Must Try Harder and other works offer playfully ironic responses to this notion. What’s your relationship to clay and ceramics?

LM: I quite often have this internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud when I think of how my work sits in relation to the history of ceramics. It’s definitely got worse as I have become more successful in my field and people’s expectation of the works have increased. I have become more unsure of myself, with intrusive and cruel thoughts creeping through the cracks in my ceramics and attacking my capability and successes. I think that due to the often critical and perfectionist nature of ceramics, this feeling can be magnified, as the work can receive criticality from both a craft and fine art background. There is this language to ceramics that even though I adore working in clay I just can’t permeate. I know a lot of artists who work in ceramics are interested in the craft and science of firings and glazings. But I’m not ashamed to say I’m not. I am happy with buying botz pots and throwing the glazes on without any idea of the outcome. I am not a ceramicist, I’m an artist.

In the piece ‘Must Try Harder’ I used the stamps that teachers imprinted on the bottom of their pupils’ work. Those empathetic inspirational messages like ‘Getting There!’ and ‘Keep It Up’ that as a child (and probably as an adult) you live for. In my work I often shun perfection for tenderness and those cracked and earnest pots were a testament to that.

Lindsey Mendick, “Booze Makes the Heart Grow Fonder”, ceramic, 40cm h x 32cm w x 5cm d

AMM: You rarely produce standalone pieces, preferring immersive installations. What is your process of working? Do you envisage the final image at the start, or work more organically? How do you integrate found objects into the mix?

LM: Oh it’s really uncool. My sculpture takes the form of theatrical, set-like structures; stages for storytelling and platforms for nostalgic imagery. I would like to think the installations give the impression of being hedonistic and decadent but they’re wholly fastidious. I’m a complete control freak and I plan them methodically. I have all of these sketchbooks of installation ideas, some terrible and some that result in being imagined. I think of each one as a story and then I think of how to tell the tale.

AMM: Clay is a very temperamental medium. Can you share any standout calamities/pleasant surprises? How has working with it influenced your approach to making art?

LM: Oh god, I’ve had so many disasters in clay it’s hard to know where to start. But clay definitely is a medium that teaches you not to be too precious. I think perhaps the massive octopus (RIP) I made for the Zabludowicz show was probably the worst trial I’ve had.

I had made what I thought was my best piece and was feeling like an absolute big man for achieving my biggest liker on Instagram. But when I moved it, the octopus split down the middle of its bulbous head and I was left standing holding one lone tentacle. I cried and mourned the work for a day. But then I had to think about why it broke and how I could make the work better. In the end I created a more technical piece than I had ever imagined I could.

Lindsey Mendick, “Proudick”

Lindsey Mendick, “Proudick”

Lindsey Mendick, “Proudick”

AMM: What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ in your art?

LM: Probably the technical skill of making the work in clay. The material has such an ingrained set of rules that it’s easy to get carried away and make utterly stupid mistakes that can ruin a whole piece.

AMM: What ideas or directions are you exploring in your current work?

LM: I’m just about to start work on a duo show with my best friend and studio mate Paloma Proudfoot at Hannah Barry Gallery London. The show is our first collaborative exhibition and I’m thrilled to be working with her. Drawing from the tradition of celebrity couple portmanteaus, we will be rebranding ourselves as Proudick for the duration of the exhibition. Like the personal lives of Kimye, Brangelina and Bennifer, we are going to offer up our disastrous private lives as tabloid fodder through still-life installation and performance, drawing from both Greek myth, as well as the work of Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas.

AMM: What keeps you awake at night?

LM: Money, thinking people don’t like me, loneliness, shame, hypochondria about health, pregnancy fears, fears I won’t get pregnant, wondering why someone won’t text me back and my housemates when they come in drunk on a Friday night.

AMM: What’s next?

LM: I was recently awarded the Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award to work alongside The Turnpike, Leigh to create pottery for local children. The aim of the pottery was to introduce young people to contemporary artists, develop their skills in ceramics and give them a nurturing, creative space where they can express their ideas. To me, it is so important that the hierarchy and pedagogical lines were blurred in this project. I feel that in arts education, the children are not integrated into the gallery programme or given the opportunity to show their work in the same manner that we would. The children came into the pottery as artists and they will be displaying their work alongside anything that I or the invited artists make in The Turnpike’s main gallery space. It’s been such an emotional and heartwarming experience to see these young people come in and grow in confidence. They are incredible artists and such special people to work alongside. Now that all the sculptures are made it’s time for me to step up and create an environment that does their beauty justice. I’m terrified.

Find out more about the artist: www.lindseymendick.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Lindsey Mendick, “Proudick”