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Queering everything: Marval A. Rex discusses his art


Marval A. Rex is a trans man whose cross-disciplinary, norms-confounding work is currently on view as part of “Peripheral Of: The Periphery” at Flower City Arts Center.  For a review of the show, click here.

Rex's work reflects a mind that connects a lot of dots, introducing new constellations from stars that have always been there. But he's also incredibly playful and funny. Signs posted around the exhibition room create innuendo-associations for different components of the show: "FILL ME UP" is posted near his raw clay, temporal sculptures, instructing visitors to pour water from a provided pitcher into glass cylinders; "PLEASE COME INSIDE ME" invites viewers to step into the tent of Rex's "Alter Altogether Now" installation, to view a two-channel video component; and "PLEASE CONSIDER TAKING ME HOME" is posted in proximity to shelves of mugs and cups created by him and fellow ceramics artist-in-residence Ryana Lawson.

The following is an edited chunk of a lengthy conversation we had while walking through the show last week.

Marval A. Rex with fellow ceramics artist in residence Ryana Lawson at Flower City Arts Center. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Marval A. Rex with fellow ceramics artist in residence Ryana Lawson at Flower City Arts Center.

CITY: Tell me a little bit about your background and artistic practice.
Marval A. Rex: I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. Not Mormon — I’m a Jew that was raised Catholic. And I am classically trained as a cellist. So that was my exposure to art — I drew compulsively, but didn’t do any fine arts training until college. I wasn’t planning on being an artist; I was planning on being a social activist.

What was your entry point for social activism, and what changed?
I took a women’s studies class because it was required, and they did this thing called Act to End Sexualized Violence at the school I was going to in California. I was watching how much rape was happening on campus in the dorms, and was super provoked by it. And then I worked with survivors for two or three years, doing performative work with a group of people — we did skits about nuances of rape culture and performed them from the campus. We focused on what consent was and how sexism is really deeply involved in rape culture; how much agency certain people have.

Didn’t really practice a lot of self-care, got super in my head, having too many panic attacks. And then I took a drawing class, and was sort of freaked out by how much my soul was like, “Dude, you need to do this.” I had worked so much in the social realm that I felt like I was kind of abandoning it. I felt like there would be some judgement from the people within my major, but I just jumped.

I’m starting to bridge back into the social, and this installation at Flower City actually is one of the first installations for me ever where I’m starting to look at things outside of myself — related to myself, but also trying to take apart socially constricting ideas. For a while I was just making abstractions, but now I’m much more interested in making socially provocative work.

This is a ceramics residency, but your art practice is more medium-serves-the-message than a strict adherence to one material.
I’m just starting to lean into the fact that, because I’m cross-disciplinary and engage in a variety of media, it’s actually a queer practice in and of itself. The idea that I’m not based in one medium, I can dabble and adapt to what I need in terms of what concept, feeling, or emotion I want to get across.

For a long time, I identified as a ceramics artist, because I fell in love with clay — clay sort of healed a lot of broken things inside of me, and to a large degree clay helped me understand my gender identity. There’s something about the medium I’m very attached to, in all of its forms: fired and vitrified or raw and wet. But I’m leaning a lot more into performance than I have before.

How do you think that will manifest in the future?
I’ve recently been recruited to go to grad school at the University of Southern California, and the faculty and myself are interested in how I can hybridize video and ceramics. Because ceramics has been very much reduced to craft, and has a very capitalist nature — it’s a trade and bartering system where you build cups, you trade items, you buy items.

What I’m starting to realize about my work is that it has a sort of communist function to it, where a lot of the pieces here are not purchasable. There’s no way. But there’s still value in them, it’s just not economic. So I’m starting to queer the idea of what ceramic work is. And that’s provoking for the community, for sure.

And there is a performative aspect to the “Solid” series; they’re temporal.
Yeah. And the cool part that I did with one is that I filled a pitcher with water, and I left it here, with this sexual innuendo-style demand. But it’s not me — I’m not standing here asking people to do it; the sculpture is actually demanding people. I’m giving the object agency, which fucks with people because they’re like, “Is it a subject?” all of a sudden. It kind of becomes a subject.

The only people who filled it up were women, which I thought was really interesting, and they were laughing and giggling. I’m very interested in how people respond emotionally to my work.
Rex's ephemeral sculpture, "We're 2 Solid, U and I," post-disintegration. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Rex's ephemeral sculpture, "We're 2 Solid, U and I," post-disintegration.

How were these pieces constructed, and how have they altered over time?
I build really quickly — and I do it all at once, and I don’t stop and come back to it — I build basically a large column of raw clay; it’s very phallic. I generally either fill them with certain objects that are going to appear after it dissolves, or I put objects on top. I cover them with spray paint or acrylic, and you can actually see the difference between the two as it disintegrates — acrylic is very much like a snake skin or like an organ, like pigskin, and then the spray paint tends to just flake. The whole thing is bone dry, and I put it in this cylinder, and then pour water in. They typically dissolve within one or two hours, depending how large they are.

It’s kind of like bodies within bodies. Are the hidden-inside objects found objects?
Totally. The way I make my work is spontaneous; I’m in the flow of something. This one in particular: I’m obsessed with the Virgin Mary, always have been. I got her at Goodwill. I wasn’t looking for her. I came in to look for something totally random, and there she was.

So within this clay phallus is this also made out of clay — made out of porcelain, which has its own connotations and legacy — it’s solid, vitrified. And then the phallus dissolves, and there she is. When she appeared during the opening it was fucking epic.

As someone who’s trans, and who fucks with gender and thinks that gender is way more complicated and interesting than what I was taught and how I was raised — most of my phalluses have slits down the middle and aren’t “true” phalluses, the way that they would be represented in buildings and architecture. I’m dissolving the ideas in my mind and also dissolving the work. I’m trying to project and translate what’s going on within me as I’m deconstructing notions around masculinity, notions around what’s valid, notions around bodies.

There’s also a lot of interesting play between the “FILL ME UP” sign and the Virgin Mary … you know, haha, because … God.
Right! And she’s a super powerful character that gets constantly pushed to the side because Jesus and God are the ones that everyone’s — especially Jesus. She’s just a vessel. But then in this case, this white tower dissolves around her and she’s still there. And there’s no male figure here. Anything that alludes to the semiotics of the male is gone.

Back to the earth.
Yeah. I’m trying to also reference soil and fertility, because now it’s mud.

Let’s talk about your installation, “Stunning (Blue is for our Baptism).”
I had taken a red eye from Los Angeles to Buffalo, and was super sleep deprived, and didn’t sleep on the plane. Then I was on my way to Rochester, and shouldn’t have been driving, and this radio segment came on. It was these two — making a very educated guess — white men, mid-40’s, talking about backyard pool safety to a very small percentage of the population who actually owns pools in their backyards.

At first I don’t notice anything, I don’t know why it’s still playing, and then it starts to get, like rapturous. They’re talking over one another, they’re talking specifically about children, and there’s an unnerving quality to the entire exchange. I started thinking, “Why is this so weird to me?” I’m reading a lot of queer theory around how the construction of heterosexuality focuses a lot on reproduction, and the child, and making sure the child is safe — always gotta be safe, you’ve got to watch the child. And the male-female dichotomized role is to make sure the child has the best childhood possible. As we all know, it doesn’t actually translate. Most of us are fucked up. But there’s this illusion, this story about how we have to protect the child and control the child.

And these guys were talking about video surveillance for the pool; they’re talking with such authority because of their positionality. They are talking about safety — and of course I’m not supporting children drowning, but I’m thinking about the relationship between the state and the person, and making a connection from the child and parent to our relationship with the state. We are docile to the state, in the same way that we’ve created the parent-child relationship. To me, it’s very much related to state philosophy, and how we have to constantly be surveilled, we have to constantly be safe, and what “safe” means within our society. And safe to me is “normal,” and within bounds.

Toward the end of the segment, they’re getting more and more heated, and one of the men starts listing statistics. I’m thinking, he’s talking about white, upper middle class children. He’s talking about this tiny fucking percentage of people who own backyard pools, and he’s entirely fixated on that. And I’m like… there’s kids dying from hunger. The entire dialog feels so imbalanced. They have access to being on the radio, putting their voice out there. And I’m thinking about all of the young brown kids whose parents aren’t on the radio talking about their kids’ safety walking down the street.

Installation view of Rex's "Stunning (Blue is for Our Baptism)," before disintegration. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Installation view of Rex's "Stunning (Blue is for Our Baptism)," before disintegration.

So you’ve painted almost everything in this exhibit white.
I’m reading a lot of French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s ideas about Hauntology, which he kind of gets from Marx with the specter of Communism. He’s talking about how there’s straight time and queer time, which has been called “ecstatic time.” It’s the idea that first off, time is not linear, but we’re not trudging into this opaque future where everything is normal and safe. Queer time is pulling from the past, and like maybe parallel times. Really sort of mushing up the idea of how you can live in the daily.

So there is a sort of spectral quality where I want things to haunt people. I want to expose that we’re all haunted by certain things, and we all kind of live several lives, even in a day. Even though we don’t want people to think that. A lot of my titles have to do with solidity, and I think we’re a lot more porous than we want to be, at least than the ego is ready to accept. We’re haunted by ourselves, by the past, potentially haunted by the future, and maybe several aspects of ourselves.

And I’m making a lot of relationships between queer masculinity and black masculinity, and both being looked at as lesser-than and invalid, or a dangerous form of masculinity, more so than white masculinity. I painted everything white to convey to myself, to other people, how I’m unpacking that whiteness was my world and is most people’s world, in the sense that we’re constantly looking at that construct as the standard. And whiteness is directly related to everything else, in the sense that we have the nuclear heterosexual family.

Exactly! The panopticon. These phallus sculptures are all towers. I love Foucault. The white paint that I used is also opaque, and I’m thinking a lot about opacity, and how we think things are black or white. Hauntology opens it up and is like, “I don’t think it’s that straightforward.” I think it’s a little bit more fucked up that that.