Joy is a Boundless Form of Resistance: A short interview with Brooklyn-Based Artist Judy Giera
My grandmother used to say: you can laugh or cry, but you must choose. She passed when she was 101 years young, at home in her own bed, sound of mind, body, and spirit. Despite that life offers inconveniences, perhaps daily, and sometimes, mind-bending tragedy, her strategy of pursuing joy throughout her life appeared to work.
Brooklyn-based artist Judy Giera is convinced we must choose joy, and by way of joy, also laughter and irreverence. Parallel with joy, the artist explains, flow power, safety and self-preservation. When I first visited Waterloo Arts, the door to the gallery was wide open, and the foil fringe curtain on Judy Giera’s tryptic at the far end was literally blowing in the wind. It was a welcoming, jubilant fold.
Sure enough, within a few minutes of meeting Judy in person on the deinstallation day of her recent solo exhibition, And it can give some joy (April 7 – May 20) at Waterloo Arts, I was laughing with surprise as I learned she’s from Cleveland. “Get out of town!” I say, to which she retorts, “No, I don’t want to get out of town, I just got here!” We are immediately bound into conversation.
Though she grew up on the near south side of Cleveland, Judy Giera has called New York City home for more than a decade now. Still, she says Cleveland remains her close second place. She earned her BFA in Musical Theatre from Kent State University in 2010, and then an MFA in Art from Lehman College, City University of New York, and later an MFA in Theatre from Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University. She also spent a year in the graduate Performance + Performance Studies program at Pratt Institute. A consummate museum and gallery professional whose work continues to be exhibited widely, Judy Giera traverses painting, performance, and video to visualize and embody transgender joy through physical objects, to examine transmisogyny, and ultimately, to survive (and thrive) as a transgender woman in America today. In the hour we spent together, we moved from chit chat about Cleveland and brunching at Cordelia’s, to working artists in the 21st century, to transness and performance art, to painting, the body, and its audience. The dialog below is excerpted from the hour-long conversation about her multi-faceted practice.
IKL: Art historical literature often references painting (and the late 1950s/early 60s Happenings scene) as the source of performance art; and much has been made of the differences between performance art and theatre. With your background in theatre and performance art, talk about how these paintings relate to performance and what comes first for you. Is there a hierarchy between painting and performance in your work?
JG: I used to think there a was a hierarchy, but the more I live between painting and performance and keep conceptually bouncing between both, there is a playful reflexivity between the two. For me, the frame, or the edge of painting is no different than a proscenium or a stage. It’s a way to frame and make a moment and to guide your audience to see something and experience something as you want them to. It’s the same way that I, as a painter, in my practice, make things on the canvas with that in mind. It’s the same process as you have in rehearsal. You’re finding that moment you want to present. And much like theatre, there is also the idea of the fourth wall and breaking out of the fourth wall, and I strive for that in my paintings. The sculptural elements that move forward – the frames and the Peep Show series that have these bulbous and bodily forms coming off of the wall […] it’s the same when an actor is coming off the stage and directly addressing an audience, breaking that membrane between.
IKL: Explain the fourth wall, for those who aren’t familiar.
JG: The fourth wall is a standard theatre concept. When you are watching a play, you, as the audience, can see through an imaginary, transparent wall. You can see into this world that exists outside of you.
IKL: Amy [Waterloo Arts director Amy Callahan] was telling me that when you hosted your artist talk here at Waterloo Arts, you made a joke and the audience wanted to laugh, but didn’t give a full-on chuckle. Tell me about permission to be joyful and humorous and how that works.
JG: Yes, first of all, I think humor is an underutilized part of the art world. I love seriousness, I love that, I love dedication, but if you can’t laugh at yourself a little bit, oh – c’mon, loosen up. So, to me, humor, even down to the materials I use, they’re humorous: fringe, river rock, needles that have been in my body. And there is the joy itself, in the work. Joy is a boundless form of resistance. Joy doesn’t mean you’re always happy. Joy doesn’t mean you’re not angry and you’re not upset, and you’re not fighting for what’s going on. Joy is a power source. It is an undergirding for existence—for me as a trans person—so that I can fight. So that I can be who I am. If I didn’t have that joy, I would not feel like fighting; I would just give up. It’s overwhelming otherwise. So, I infuse that into the works, because that’s what I want to give. That’s what I want my work to do.
IKL: You have worked as a curator, teacher, an archivist, and now as Collections Manager at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Art in Soho (Manhattan, NY). Maybe this role affects your approach to materials, but for any artist, working in the art world is always an interesting intersection. How does this slice of your life intersect with making?
JG: I very much push back against that notion that you have your day job and your art practice, and these are separate. That’s a very old school art world way of functioning. Whereas, in this economy, I have to have a job, that’s just part of life. So, for me, to work with this 25,000-object collection of queer art [at the Leslie Lohman Museum] —from three centuries ago to new work made this year, I get to see the variable ways people make and express and move through the process of making. On the one hand, materially, I see work that hasn’t physically held up—material impulses that I love but the awareness of thinking ahead wasn’t necessarily there. I think in many ways my use of resin and the notion of preserving feels important.
IKL: Let’s talk about resin and the Peep Show series. I immediately felt that these works became mirror-like, with these almost reflective surfaces. Resin is difficult to work with, and it’s difficult to make it look good.
JG: Resin definitely has a learning curve and it took me about a year to master. I have a box of failures, of things that didn’t quite work, that I keep in my studio as reminders. But once you master it, it’s a pretty forgiving substance. And resin of twenty or thirty years ago was so toxic; it was the same stuff they put on boats. Whereas now I use specifically an art resin; it’s low odor, no toxicity, it’s water-based. And I obviously still take precautions, like a respirator and I have a box that I dry things in, so it’s contained. But the glossiness, that mirror quality, the plasticity, the availability of materials … it’s that reflective quality that I love – that cheap capitalism, that party store capitalism. And in some works, the resin becomes part of the layering. So, I would pour a layer of resin and then paint or draw into it.
IKL: Earlier we started talking about the body. Let’s return to that and talk about how the body is represented or abstracted in your work.
JG: I don’t paint figurative work—and I have nothing against it—there is a lot of great figurative work out there. But for me, as a trans person, my body is constantly accessible to everyone. It’s conversation. The amount of grabbing and touching that happens to trans people is absurd. It’s an unfortunate reality that people feel they have that consent. So, for me to think about the body and embodiment, I created these alternative forms—puffy clouds, snail-like figures, these tubular anti-phalluses, as I like to call them, to sort of represent the body and explore embodiment without giving my body away, since it’s already so pawed after, for lack of a better word. It’s my way of elevating that conversation so that I’m in control.
IKL: Let me ask you one final question. What are you doing in your studio now? What’s next?
JG: Five of these works are being shown this summer in a group exhibition at a non-profit in New Jersey. So that’s coming up. But in terms of new work, I received a residency in New York City for August and September called the New York City Crit Club, which is an artist educational critique organization where they offer classes and workshops and opportunity to gain community. They offer this residency twice a year, so I’ll be in residence there. And I have a solo project opening in the fall which continues these kinds of body paintings. So that’s what I’m working on. And in early 2024, I’ll have work in the Bronx Biennale at the Bronx Museum of Art. So busy time coming up. I’m also co-curating a show at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Art which will also open in January and is based on our new acquisitions and collections.
IKL: Well, congratulations! I’m so glad you made it back to Cleveland.
JG: Thank you! I do love it here. I’ll be back some more.