Moving through body horror, sincere autobiography and deft craftsmanship, Lindsey Mendick’s art speaks powerfully about issues as diverse as mental health, polycystic ovary syndrome, sex and falling in love. Working predominantly in ceramics, a medium she transforms to her own ends, Lindsey creates immersive installations whose every detail carries forward an aesthetic that blends gothic literature, B-movie horror films and the cosmology of her own personal life. What is remarkable about her work, aside from the technical mastery of clay, is her ability to find universality in the particular, and new moving popular culture metaphors for contemporary social issues. Having recently left London for Margate, Lindsey has founded a new space called Quench Gallery, providing a space for emergent artists and a new artistic hub for the seaside town that has for so long been synonymous with artist Tracey Emin.
Natasha Hoare: Your work makes public very private aspects of your life, including battles with mental health. How has this autobiographical way of working developed in your practice?
Lindsey Mendick: It was always there for me from the start. The first artist that I ever really looked at was Tracy Emin. My teacher brought me to her work, and it resonated deeply with me. Nothing else hit as hard as Emin. Back then, everything I made was deeply personal – all in a really teenage, and looking back on it, embarrassing way, with no filter. Other people’s stories were interesting as well, but in the end, the amount I was expecting other people to put out there was unfair. It felt uncomfortable. Then, after going back to art school, I kept on having these really terrible breakdowns because I wasn’t getting diagnosed properly. This was probably in the early 2000s, when there was no Instagram, and no conversations about mental health. It was something incredibly shameful, and no one talked about it.
During my time at Sheffield Hallam, I had this amazing tutor called Sharon Kivland who introduced me to incredible texts by psychoanalysts. But then suddenly it wasn’t very cool to be making work about yourself. I got seduced by a material-led way of working, shunning the feminine, and feminist. I became very falsely jovial until I ended up going to the Royal College of Art in London, which brought me back to making work that I wanted to make; horrific, grotesque and autobiographical, but also appealing universally. I think there are certain stories within one’s autobiography that everyone can relate to. Micro stories that become macro; like not fitting in or unravelling. The guise of autobiography allowed me to talk about much larger topics, without anyone saying that it wasn’t true or honest. The role of storytelling within the work needs to be underpinned by truth. Quite often, in order to be honest, we have to be willing to be seen in a bad light. That’s really important to me, that I have the emotional honesty to tell stories where I haven’t always been well behaved.
At the moment, there’s this puritanical illness across society, which I can’t get on board with
Natasha: I think it’s courageous to make work with such honesty. A lot of us spend most of our lives building up barriers that hide unpalatable or non-normative truths.
Lindsey: There are definitely a lot of barriers. When I opened my exhibition at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, people kept describing the work as ‘brave.’ But I don’t think it is. I think it’s full of fear. Each piece is riddled with a fear of the society we live in, how women get treated and how people treat each other. At the moment, there’s this puritanical illness across society, which I can’t get on board with. The work is honest because it fears the direction that we’re going in if we don’t look more introspectively at our own actions.
Natasha: This puritanical mode you’ve mentioned, does this relate to certain debates within the art world regarding ethics and morality? I can see, and feel myself, that these debates demand a certain level of performativity, a perfected political stance on every geo-political and cultural issue.
Lindsey: It’s very frustrating. Being an artist doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a good person. I can be a really crap partner or a crap friend at times. It’s essential to delve into these complex dualities of selfhood. That we all have the potential of being the bully and the bullied. But instead, what we seem to be doing is projecting an idealised sense of self that is completely unobtainable and completely inhuman.
Natasha: You have spoken recently about art providing relief or comfort. Is this part of how you came to be an artist?
Lindsey: I have obsessive thought disorder, which can be really crippling. One of the best things that I can do is to get up and go into the studio and get lost in the work. When I’m not going to the studio as much, that’s when my mental health gets worse. There’s such a pleasure in actual making, especially in clay. Clay is a medium where you start with nothing in front of you, and then suddenly you’ve created an entity; it’s like almost giving birth every single day. You’ve produced something through your hands that’s resolutely you. Mental health problems often make you feel like you’re not achieving things. Doing something technical, and that has such an ingrained history like ceramics does, means that you are rooting yourself within a wider context.
Natasha: What is it about the history of ceramics that feels important? And is the inbuilt precarity of clay, in terms of the fragility and unpredictability of the process, important as well?
Lindsey: Clay is so rooted within our collective history as an everyday craft, but it also has a very specific figuring in art history that I first discovered when working for the art historian, Fiona MacCarthy who was a leading authority on William Morris and Eric Gill. Initially I found practising ceramics frustrating given its inaccessibility, and had to go to a night school pottery class at a community centre to get some introduction to it. Given the culture surrounding ceramics is deeply rooted in craftsmanship, it provided fertile ground for my own tongue-in-cheek spin. There was room to inject my perspective into the conversation and keep it kitsch of course!
Natasha: Since moving out of London and to Margate, you forged a friendship with Tracey Emin. How far has she influenced you as an artist?
Lindsey: She’s been so supportive of my work and us opening Quench Gallery … that has meant so much to me. She’s definitely had a big influence on me. She doesn’t hold back anything and she cares about her friends so much. She thinks deeply about what would make your life better, how to help you succeed. And she has this wickedly naughty sense of humour.
Recently my partner Guy and I had a terrible fight and I ended up at Tracey’s having trifle (with added yoghurt and bananas) and moaning about my love life. It’s funny where life takes you isn’t it?
Whereas within my work, I still have a level of fear and apprehension of being ‘found out.’ Artists like Emin, Sonia Boyce and Paula Rego paved the way for women. But I don’t think that they ever were conscious of doing something so profound.
Natasha: Do you think women like yourself, Emin and Rego have had to work harder when portraying female sexuality in order to counter the dominant, male, art-world perspective?
Lindsey: From the moment you start visiting galleries you see bodies that aren’t anything like your own, painted by a man. I remember how shocked I was when I saw Jenny Saville’s paintings of nude women. There is an immediate recognition of your body as being political. Especially with the Pre-Raphaelites, the female figures have no voice whatsoever. These images dictate to us what is sexy, or what is sexual.
I still get so incredibly angry about that – that my sexuality is so ingrained with how I thought men saw me. From a very young age, my sense of sexuality was shaped by pornography or sexy films made by men. There’s an urgency for me to talk about these issues that keep me up at night; like how much would I give my career if I could be ‘normal’ in the way that society expects and demands? How far can art push against feelings of insufficiency that are engendered through society, and through art history itself?
And child rearing is tied into it too. The next show I’m doing is for the Future Generation Prize. It’s called ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. I’ve made some ‘children,’ cast from celeriac and made in ceramics. The show loosely takes its inspiration from The Brood (1979), by David Cronenberg. The film tells the story of a psychotherapist who decides he’s going to try a new type of therapy that cures his patients’ anxieties by transforming them into physical welts all over their bodies. A woman takes it even further and asexually reproduces a brood of children who murder everyone who has hurt her in the past.
A lot of my friends started having children, so I’m around them a lot more. I don’t want children, and I don’t think that I could as an artist. Tracey Emin has said that all the great artists who do have children are male, which caused a lot of controversy but I can see some truth in it. I honestly don’t think that there’s enough support for me to be able to do my practice to the level I’m doing it and to give enough love to a child. I’d feel like I was doing both badly and if anything happened to that child it would destroy me. ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ looks at that problem, and at how children seem to be permanently on the edge of physical harm and disaster; they seem desperate to go into the road. You have to be there for them constantly, with a complete lack of sleep. What if I took my eye off the ball? There’s going to be a big outdoor playground where all these kids are eating spiders or just about to fall off the slide. During the show, there will be a kids’ television programme playing in which I am trying to explain an interlinking story of why I’m terrified of having kids. How am I meant to split myself in order to be a good mother and an artist. The narrative also talks about key moments, like when my grandma was killed in a car crash, and when I ran over a motorcyclist; split-second decisions that can change your life.
Natasha: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ at Eastside Projects (2020) drew on the Gothic novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Can you tell me why the text spoke so strongly to you, and what it allowed you to explore about the domestic environment?
Lindsey: The book connected so strongly with an incident that happened to me when I was eighteen. The novel details the deterioration of a woman’s mental health while she is on a ‘rest cure’ on a rented summer country estate with her family. Her obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom marks her descent into psychosis from her depression. Reading it made me sad because – although it was first published in 1892 – its depiction of the way mentally unwell women are treated still reflects attitudes today. When I was eighteen, I went through an awful breakdown – no one knew what to do with me. The doctors couldn’t help. I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t sad, I just couldn’t stop intrusive thoughts. I was paranoid, convinced I was dying of different illnesses. It got to the point that my parents gave up and left me alone to my crazy routines. I’d wake up at 1 a.m., and not be able to sleep. I’d have a cigarette out the window between 2 to 3 a.m. One night, I saw all these men in black walking up and down the road holding walkie-talkies. I told my parents and they thought I’d really lost it. Then the next day it was in all the newspapers that my neighbour was the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko; an ex-FSB Russian defector who was poisoned with polonium in 2006. It was an extraordinary moment – this small hell going on within our household, was contextualised within a broader macro narrative. It was so crazy it was hard to believe.
The installation for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was a room that housed multiple, smaller works. It was the first show that really brought together my aesthetic and structure. This was around the time I started going out with Guy properly. He loves films so much and we embarked on this amazing journey through horror movies together, especially B-movies. Details from these have emerged in the work, for example Dario Argento’s film Suspiria (1977), inspired the floor for the installation and the wallpaper was inspired by the carpet design by David Hicks from The Shining (1980). I found the on-set stories surrounding The Shining really affecting, particularly what Shelley Duvall was subjected to. For example, in the scene where Jack Nicholson starts furiously arguing with her – she didn’t know that was going to happen so her reactions are real. It was made in the days of a strong male lead under a male director, and they were abusive towards the women actors. There are so many intersecting tales of people going mad in big houses and these interweaving threads were important to follow. My installations are always formed out of fragmented narratives that, in the end, come together. It’s important for me to find different ways to bring people into my world; whether that’s through references to films, nostalgic colour and pattern or depictions of popular culture and the everyday. I think this seduction and desire for kinship comes from being terrified of being misunderstood.
…Erotic love can be seen as a maladaptive kind of daydreaming, resorting to fairy tales when you’re in an experience that’s terrifying…
Natasha: Your exhibition, ‘Are You Going to Destroy Me?’ (2021), at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, was the result of coming out of lockdown and getting engaged to fellow artist Guy Oliver. The installation was the first time that you’ve shown paintings, which were eroticised depictions of your partner as a vampire. How did the installation come together, and what were the gendered positions of power that you were exploring?
Lindsey: While I was making The Yellow Wallpaper, I didn’t quite understand how much of a toll it took on me to go through these stories. The work would infiltrate my everyday life and I’d get quite depressed. I was so in love with Guy at that point, I’d never met someone I’d had so much understanding with; someone who I felt I could talk to about any subject and who completely supported me. However, I think when you are female in a relationship, you do often become subordinate. Even if you are the strongest woman ever. Guy has these teeth that make him look like a vampire, so I just really wanted to paint him, and paint him as a vampire. There was something so beautiful about that stage of the relationship and how in love I was. And it felt like a risky thing to do because there’s nothing that society hates more than women who obsess over their partners. It also felt very subversive to do an exhibition during a pandemic that was fun, and that played with these obsessive qualities. Erotic love can be seen as a maladaptive kind of daydreaming, resorting to fairy tales when you’re in an experience that’s terrifying. While the pandemic was happening, Guy and I fell more and more in love, and became more insular, shutting everything out. We made ridiculous photographs, and I was painting him all the time. It felt quite magical, in a very gothic way, trying to document what was, in reality, a terrifying time for us all.
I’ve always wanted to be a painter. I’m not a particularly good painter, but I really love it. Painting is romantic. When I was younger, I loved going to the National Portrait Gallery and seeing all the kings and queens. There’s something rather cliché and sexy about painting the person you love. The title of the show was ‘Are You Going to Destroy Me?’, which is what I said to Guy the first time he took me home. As much as I love him, love does destroy me, because half of the time I’m thinking about him, or trying to support him, or trying to encourage him. When you get into a relationship and you become a unit, you end up bringing down your boundaries. I’m terrified he’ll leave me, and I’ll have to build them all up again. There’s always some sort of price that you have to pay for being in love.
Natasha: Your latest exhibition in London boldly explored a medical con-dition that you suffer from, polycystic ovary syndrome, through the figure of the werewolf, which comes to represent the emotional trauma of your diagnosis and living with the symptoms.
Lindsey: I came to the werewolf after figuring Guy as a vampire. I was questioning what creature I would be in our partnership. The werewolf is the least sexy monster imaginable, it’s an affliction, a curse. The werewolf existence revolves around a complete loss of self, an unravelling. In all the stories, the werewolf wakes up human after their feral escapades and is so ashamed. Werewolves are so linked to shame, to this idea that the person is always trying to fight against their transformation, against becoming something so vicious and cruel, and being torn apart at the seams. I’m a very angry person. My anxiety comes out as pure anger. It’s a horrible trait. If I’m feeling really anxious, I push people away. The polycystic ovary syndrome plays really well into the werewolf figure; the constant hair removal because of hirsutism, the feeling that something is lurking within you that is causing you to metamorphosise, the side effects of polycystic ovaries, and the fact that it’s in tune with the lunar cycle as well.
Natasha: It’s a perfect female metaphor, I wonder why it’s not been explored before.
Lindsey: Yes, no one had apart from in one B-movie called Ginger Snaps (2000), which follows a teenage girl transforming into a werewolf following her first period. Female werewolves aren’t explored because the tropes of aggression and strength are coded as masculine. I ended up wanting to explore the syndrome as I was really exhausted by the amount of content on Instagram about it; these trite slides that instruct you how to feel, how to be. It seems as though so many people are looking to be a champion of something and it’s utterly exhausting. A lot of them said that hair removal was conforming to patriarchal pressure, and I was angry that their approach was so dictatorial; why shouldn’t you shave if it’s going to help with your body positivity? What if you’ve experienced ridicule your whole life? They didn’t allow for any nuance. I hate the fact that there seems to be a collective agreement on how we should talk about certain things. In doing that we are making people feel more and more alone, or like they’re outsiders. So, the show focuses on the syndrome by talking about feelings of otherness, being an outsider and not fitting in.
Natasha: You beautifully articulate the complexity of dealing with the symptoms of the condition in a film that you made with Guy as part of the exhibition. It focuses solely on your mouth, highlighting the hair that you grew out. You describe it as being a very painful thing to do.
Lindsey: Many people asked, ‘Why don’t you just grow it all out and help normalise it?’ But I don’t need to be a poster girl for having a hairy chin! I grew it out because I was so repulsed by my own reflection that it felt like it was something I had to do. Sometimes we think being political needs to be a really big gesture, but sometimes just showing your vulnerability can be one of the most political tools that we have.
Natasha: It felt to me like a restaging of Not I (1972), by Samuel Beckett.The film of the performance shows an idealised female mouth, speaking a torrent of stream of consciousness. Beckett is projecting this insane flow of consciousness onto the woman. It was only after seeing your film that I realised that critique of Not I. It suddenly became so obvious what kind of male fantasy of the female that piece plays into.
Lindsey: I’m really enjoying film as a medium. I don’t think that any of my installations in themselves do enough. I can put as much readability and as much empathy into the work as physically possible, but if there’s something you’ve got to say then say it. Things that had been going round in my head for months became part of the text I read aloud with Guy filming me. There’s an amazing bit where Guy stops filming and tells me that wine is getting stuck in my moustache. You can feel the personalness of us making it without anyone else around. I really do enjoy writing about anxiety, but I hope that the film brought structure to what seemed to be quite laughable subjects, and brought the true horror of being a hairy woman out.
Natasha: How important is humour to you as a strategy? You’ve mentioned the grotesque as something that you engage with.
Lindsey: It might sound odd, but as a woman who has always had a larger body, you tend to develop other aspects of your personality to be noticed, or liked. God that’s sad, but it’s true. I’ve always felt grotesque and quite ashamed of myself, which has often resulted in not being particularly kind to or taking care of myself. I don’t think I’m ever really content. To me it’s so important that to truly give an accurate depiction of really tough times – there must be humorous notes within it. Because life never is just one note is it? It always has the lightness and darkness, even if it’s just a sliver of respite and hope. That’s what I think gives creativity authenticity. I can’t stand this weightiness that people put on art or films that really aren’t saying much at all. The jokes that momentarily lighten a bad situation often make us feel the least alone and I think that that is what I’m trying to do within my work.