EUGENE LEMAY with Phong Bui
The first time I met Eugene (“Gene”) Lemay, the artist, founder, and president of Mana Contemporary, was when our mutual friend, the artist Ray Smith, brought him, fellow artist Yigal Ozeri, and Ysabel Pinyol, Curatorial Director of Mana, to see the exhibit Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1 at Industry City in early November 2013. I distinctly remember Gene recognizing the spine of William Segal’s autobiography from over twelve feet away. (Segal was an artist and a legendary publisher of eleven magazines, including American Fabrics and the avant-garde Gentry. He was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and D. T. Suzuki, as well as a close friend of Peter Brook and Ken Burns, among others. I came to know his widow, Marielle Bancou-Segal, a few years before her death in 2015.) Gene and I always had lively conversations about our shared interests in art, culture, and especially the notion of community. We became friends, but never really had a chance to talk at great length, particularly about his life and art, until recently. We managed to spend some time at Gene’s recent exhibit (December 10, 2016 – March 1, 2017), curated by artist/director Nenad okić at the Contemporary Art Center of Montenegro, Podgorica, which led to this edited version of a longer conversation.
Phong Bui (Rail): Your family and upbringing seem quite unusual. Your father was French-Canadian. Your mother was half-Lebanese and half-Syrian. How did they meet?
Eugene Lemay: [Laughter.] My maternal grandparents were cabinetmakers from Syria and Lebanon. They moved to Grand Rapids in 1920, because it was famous for furniture. It was known as “Furniture City.” My parents met at an art class in high school. My father went to seminary school; he studied to be a priest until he was twenty-four, at which time he gave up the priesthood and got married to my mother. They had children as soon as they could, partly because my father was an only child.
Rail: What did he do after seminary?
Lemay: He became a master printer for the local newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press. But he was also an artist. When I was a kid, he really believed that the education system wasn’t good enough, so he used to make us take classes with him in philosophy, art, literature, and music after school. We all had to play an instrument or two. And he would give us books and say, “Let’s discuss it in a week from now.” It would always freak me out, because they were serious books—Rousseau, Kafka, Rilke, Sartre, Camus. We all had to give him a summary of what we read and what we thought about each book. He also taught us art classes in the dining room, which I hated, partly because it was too much on top of everything else that we all had to study. I remember saying to myself, when I was probably around ten years old, “I’m not going to be an artist whatsoever!” I would purposely draw badly just to piss him off. One day he came to me and said, “You know, I don’t think you’re going to be an artist. It’s O.K., you can leave the class.” [Laughter.] And that was it. I wouldn’t tell him then, but I really enjoyed the philosophy class because he would read and we would analyze and give our opinions afterward.
Rail: I assume he was teaching the basics of Western philosophy?
Lemay: Yes, like Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, Kant, Nietzsche, etc.
Rail: He basically homeschooled an army of children. You are the ninth of fifteen children. Did they have a good marriage?
Lemay: Yes, partly because they shared leftist leanings. They were very involved in the black community, where we lived as the only white family. My parents would create events like poetry readings, social gatherings, music events, or even parties during the week to bring the children off the streets, to keep them from getting into trouble. My father also created an underground newspaper called the Organizer, which revealed the hardship, poverty, and other serious conditions in the community.
It was very unique, because even though he was the publisher all the articles were written by people within the community, so that each had a direct and urgent message to the reader. Since it was an underground newspaper, he couldn’t print it in our city, partly because the police were totally against its community coverage. He had to print it in a different city. I remember once every two weeks when it was delivered, we kids would distribute it. My brothers and sisters were arrested several times. It got bad, because they knew my father was behind it but they couldn’t prove it. I remember they would create riots in front of our home, by, for example, sending three white kids to wave knives and say bad words like “nigger” to upset everyone in our community. The police would purposely create problems so they could find reasons to arrest my father, which they eventually did.
Rail: They tried to frame him?
Lemay: Yes, because he was a publisher who was advocating for civil rights, especially for bringing black kids to white schools, among other things. I should mention that my sister, who was seventeen at the time, was pregnant with the child of her black boyfriend, which led to a riot in the school. A policeman was hitting a woman so my sister jumped in to pull him off her, and they arrested her. In reality, they arrested her because they wanted to get back at my father who was helping the community. Due to her pregnancy, they gave her three months in jail with one month off for good behavior. It was during this time that my father decided to become Jewish.
Rail: What year? And why?
Lemay: We all converted to Judaism in 1969, partly because he had been studying it carefully since 1967 when he wrote about the Six Day War, the same year that my Lebanese grandfather was dying. He was amazed by how a small country like Israel could successfully defend itself against all these hostile neighboring countries. There was also the idea of education, community. It was a good structure or system for a big family. The idea that you could really question was important for a family, and for the individuals within a family. Everyone could decide for himself or herself. All of us said yes, except for one of my older brothers who has since passed away. I should mention that we were very poor at the time. In fact, my two older brothers and two older sisters went first to test the waters. We were a very tight family at that time. My father was an organizer at the union, so it was between taking the next job at the next level, or going to the kibbutz. My father, being a romantic, along with my mother, wanted to give it a chance; and with my brother encouraging the drastic change, we all decided to join them in 1973. Once we arrived, there were two options: one was a religious kibbutz, and the other was a very leftist kibbutz. My parents chose the leftist one, Kibbutz Sarid. We moved four days before the Yom Kippur War. I remember the first drive through. It was my first time out of America, and we drove through a chicken coop with thousands of chickens. We all looked at our parents and said, “Are you crazy? You’re bringing us to this chicken coop?” But it soon became a safe home. The experience was an amazing one for us because, growing up as children in Grand Rapids, we were minorities. We were always being beaten up, there were curfews, and we had to have the dog with us everywhere we went. People would shoot at our feet to make us run. The kibbutz was just the opposite: there was no curfew, you had freedom, and you could stay as long as you wanted. You don’t have to live with your family, and it’s not just your mother and father who educate you: it’s the collective that educates you. For me personally, it had a very good effect. I really wanted to be an individual, which was difficult as one of fifteen kids with two parents making all the rules and determining your educational and developmental system. So the kibbutz experience totally changed my life. I learned just about everything about survival. I learned about the smells of the earth, the rain, being responsible for the animals, the crop, and so on. I never experienced anything like it before. And also training yourself to be a leader in a group of kids, which, in the public system here in America, you don’t get a chance to do. In the kibbutz I was educated by life. Even though the kibbutz provided traditional curriculum for everyone, I was too busy either working on the farm or reading books on my own, as my father had taught me. At 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., when most kids go visit their parents for three hours, I would do community service. I would walk five kilometers to teach unprivileged kids English and math. That was my daily routine until I went to the army.
Rail: You went to the army at the age of nineteen, which is a year later than the mandatory requirement of eighteen, at which point men serve for three years and women serve for two. And you rose to the rank of sergeant in a special unit?
Lemay: Yes. I was in the Sayeret Golani commando reconnaissance unit, and by the end I was a sergeant. I was definitely brainwashed. The idea was that you had to be ready to die for your country. And I really believed in it just like people in North Korea have unshakable faith in their leader and country.
Rail: In reading Richard Vine’s comprehensive essay, Eugene Lemay: Dark Silence, it seems like the famous battle at Beaufort Castle in Nabatieh, Lebanon, in 1982, was a significant experience for you.
Lemay: I lost many friends and at the same time had to kill people. I had been on missions before, but this time it was different. We didn’t ambush like we had previously. This time, we were the ones who were ambushed. There were some military mistakes in principle. Our airplanes suddenly shot light bombs, which lit up our area, so they saw us and attacked first. I was among the few who were spared. The battle went on through the night. First thing in the morning, we made sure that there were no soldiers left behind. I remember we had to move the dead bodies to a certain area. That moment changed me. I realized I didn’t want to be the heroic soldier I was trained and brainwashed to be. This whole idea of war was no longer something I wanted to be associated with. It’s wrong for the killing and equally wrong because you can be killed. As painful as losing friends was, actually stopping a life was even more painful—complicated—mentally. In the army, soldiers rarely talk about stopping a life and its aftereffects. The killing wasn’t from afar, like in bombing or long-range shooting, it occurred during face-to-face combat. You see the moment when the light goes out for another person.
Rail: What happened next? Did you have to fulfill your three-year mandatory term, or did you leave your unit?
Lemay: As painful as it was, none of us deserted. So from the Beaufort, we went through some towns and villages, including Nabatieh, and Tebnine, where my grandfather was born. It’s a beautiful Lebanese town that spreads over a series of hills in the heart of Jabal Amel, between the western range of Lebanon and the Galilee, which at the time was a very small village. For the first time ever, it prompted me to think about my identity. Who am I? What am I? Am I Jewish? Israeli? Arab? French-Canadian? Am I an American? Where am I? Why am I here? What will become of me? I came to realize that your identity is not really where you come from, it’s who you think you are. Whether it’s psychological or not, you have to create your own identity.
Rail: And it took place in the same day?
Lemay: Yes. I remember when we took a coffee break while in my grandfather’s village, we made jokes and laughed it off because the feeling was so complicated.
Rail: What happened next?
Lemay: First I went home as soon as I finished military duty. And I wanted to go home. But my home was not my home anymore, because reality had totally changed. I wanted to give off signals that I was in pain, but I couldn’t express it, so I began drinking a lot. I was a maniac. I would party and drink all night long and be the first guy at work in the morning. I would be up until five or six in the morning and work these long, twelve-hour days. I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t be with myself. So I would just function all day long and all night long. I would sleep maybe two or three hours each night, which was my routine for a year and a half. People didn’t understand me. I thought people didn’t understand me, but actually, I didn’t understand people. It was a two-way street. You don’t understand them; they don’t understand you. You’re out of your realm, you’re not communicating. You think you’re communicating, but it’s with anger, not with real conversation. At a certain point I knew I had to get out. I had to leave, not just the kibbutz, but also the country.
Rail: What was the job that you were doing?
Lemay: I was an electrician and did maintenance work for a big grinding factory. Then, one day, a gentleman who used to sell me electrical parts for fixing the machines asked if I wanted to leave the kibbutz to work for him. I was frustrated and blamed the kibbutz, even though it had nothing to do with it. It was about me. So I said, “Yeah, I would love a job.” And he said, “O.K., I do electrical jobs all over the country, and I’ll give you a job.” I said, “But I need a car.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll give you a car.” So I lived in the car for ten months to a year even though I was renting a place on a farm nearby. I did a huge project at a kibbutz where I had no clue what I was doing. It was the first time that phones could be installed in a home in the kibbutz, around 1983, so I would install phones and sleep by the swimming pool. I bathed in the pool until I got caught two months later. They said, “You can’t do this anymore. People are complaining that you’re washing your hair, you’re naked.” [Laughter.] And then the next job was rewiring a 300-cow cowshed, where I slept in the barn. The idea was to work as much as possible to make money, so I would sleep where I was working. I made about 4,000 dollars a month, which at that time was a lot of money in Israel. I managed to save 4,000 dollars of it in the end, after having spent excessively on my friends, and whatnot. I decided that it was time to go to New York. I flew into JFK, took the bus to 42nd Street and Lexington, got out of the bus, and I saw this guy playing this game with caps—the one where you try to find out where the ball is. There were two players with him. One had a camera, and one was always winning.
Rail: The legendary three-card Monte.
Lemay: Yes, but I didn’t know what it was called then. I’d never gambled in my life. About twelve minutes later, I’d lost all 4,000 dollars. [Laughter.]
Rail: What were you thinking?
Lemay: I thought I was going to win. By the time I figured out it was a scam, they ran with the box and were gone. I walked to my friend’s apartment at 89th Street and 2nd Avenue and waited until he came back from work. I couldn’t bear to say that I lost all that money in a stupid game, so I said someone stole it from me. At any rate, the apartment, which he was subletting from a Vietnam War vet, was a complete mess—gerbils running around, hair everywhere, all sorts of magazines and other things lying around the room. Then I saw this huge bottle of pennies that I guess the Vietnam vet had been collecting. I said, “Can I take those pennies?” He said, “Yeah.”
I got a job in New Jersey with a friend who was in the army with me, who was building wall units. We would build wall units for Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and all these department store chains. We were paid based on the wall unit, not by the hour. So I prepared a bunch of bags of pennies, because I knew I wouldn’t get paid for a month because of their payroll schedule. So I sorted thirty bags of pennies in these lunch bags, and I would walk from 89th Street to 42nd Street to the bus terminal. The bus was always driven by the same African American woman. The first couple times she patiently counted the pennies. But one day I got on the bus. I don’t know if she was in a bad mood or what, but she said, “I’m not taking your pennies.” I had no money, nothing but pennies. I ate bread with mustard every day. I mean, [laughter] that was my lunch. So one day, she decided she wasn’t taking my pennies anymore. I said, “That’s all I have. I want the supervisor.” So they didn’t throw me off. They brought the supervisor around and he said, “You have to take it.” Then, I got my first paycheck and it was more organized. But the job wasn’t paying well, so my friend said, “Why don’t you go see this guy I know? His name is Moishe and he just started a moving company. He’s a really nice guy. He’s different from Shleppers and all these other moving companies.”
Rail: This was in 1984.
Lemay: Yes. So I go to Moishe and he says, “I can’t hire you Gene. I only have two trucks. Try to find another job.” As I was walking out, he stopped me and said, “You know what Gene? If you come on time every day at 7:00 a.m., if a guy is late, or doesn’t show up, or a job comes in at the last minute, I’ll put you on a truck.” So I came every day. And from that day, for probably six months straight, I worked every day. Either somebody was late, didn’t show up, or there was another job last minute. So every day I would show up at 7:00 a.m., and worked as long as I could. The last ten days of each month I would work from 7:00 a.m. to around 3:00 in the morning, take a shower, sleep an hour, and go back on the truck. That was the schedule.
Rail: How long did you last with this insane schedule?
Lemay: I did it for six months, then Moishe asked me to go into the office one day partly because Michael Clemente, the general manager, was leaving and partly because I was the only guy who could read and write in English. And he said, “Why don’t you come and do sales?” I said, “O.K., I’ll do the sales.” So Moishe and Michael trained me on sales. But the jobs were just coming in, coming in, coming in. It was now seven trucks to ten trucks to thirty trucks. And I’m working this job. I’m answering the phones, signing contracts, dispatching the drivers, doing payroll, among other things. The last ten days of the month were so busy I would just sleep in the office. I would work until 6:00 in the morning. I wouldn’t take a shower. The guys would come in, and I’d dispatch them. Moishe’s Moving was on 29th Street and 10th Avenue. I lived on 29th Street and 2nd Avenue, so I would just ride cross-town on my bike, take a shower, then come back to the office. I worked like this until 1989 when Moishe’s Moving Company became huge. We added a mini storage company, a document storage company.
Rail: What was the secret of this growing success? Was it because other people like you were working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and beat out the other competition?
Lemay: I think our success was that every business that Moishe and I did was always different. We came to the moving industry. It was totally unionized, keeping nine-to-five business hours, you couldn’t paint your trucks, and you couldn’t work 24/7 as you said. So we came in and painted our trucks red. We created a brand called Moishe’s, which was totally catering to the Jewish community, and we said we would work 24/7, which no one had even thought of.
Rail: So say a couple’s living in the East Village, and in the middle of the night they get into a fight and, at two in the morning, one decides to move back to Seattle that very instant. Would you have a truck immediately at their door to move their things?
Lemay: Absolutely. We did jobs at any time of day or night. And that’s how you get crazy people. They sometimes wouldn’t pay. Anyway, by 1989, I was fed up.
Rail: It was too much?
Lemay: No. I fell in love with a girl. [Laughter.] She was Israeli, but her parents were from India. And we both wanted to go to India. So I told Moishe I was going to India and he thought it was crazy. I moved partly because I was totally involved in reading Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, especially Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, which proposed esoteric ideas about self-development that originated in the East. I came to realize that I wasn’t a machine. I said, “You know what? If I go to India, I can really focus and search for ways that I can really be myself.” I also read Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, [which was made into a film by Peter Brook in 1979,] so my mindset was changing. I was reading and working hard on myself, as opposed to before, when I was always working for this project, Moishe’s Moving. India was a turning point for sure. I was there for about a year, and traveled all over the outskirts and countryside questioning myself while being a spectator. Then, after a year, this woman and I broke up. I went back to Israel, the same year the Gulf War broke out in 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the whole world, especially America, was talking about war. So I freaked out. I thought, “I don’t want to go to war again. I won’t go to war for anybody.” So I decided to go to Turkey, because Turkey wasn’t involved in the war. I was there about two months, waiting out the war before returning to Israel. Then I realized the war wasn’t ending. It was just building up. I talked to Moishe and he said, “Come back to New York!” And I came back to New York at the end of 1990.
Rail: Same office, same job, or what?
Lemay: No, my job had been taken. I told Moishe that I wanted to go to California and create a new Moishe’s there. He said, “Yeah, go ahead. Do it!” As soon as I got to L.A. to check out the moving industry, what happens? The Rodney King riots. Then I went to San Francisco, and again there was a small market—it didn’t really interest me. So I came back to New York and Moishe said, “I want you to go to Florida to see about starting a company there.” So I went to Florida. I lived in Moishe’s house in Boca. But, again, the industry wasn’t right there. Then Moishe asked if I could manage the long-distance department. So I started there, then became the manager of the moving company again, and the manager of the mini storage business, and things developed. Then seven years ago, Moishe came to me and said, “You know, I want you to open up an art storage business.” I really didn’t want to do it because, for me, it was just another moving and storage business. Instead of furniture, it’s going to be paintings. It’s going to bubble instead of blankets. There’s nothing special about it. But he kept on coming back. “Here’s the building, do it.” And also he said to me “Gene, you’ve become unproductive. You’re doing the same thing every day. You’re not being creative enough. Why not give this a chance?” I listened to Moishe. I looked at the art industry, and I knew I had to focus on the collectors. There are thousands of collectors. I came to learn that there was a void in the collector’s world, where you don’t see the collections. No museum is going to show a collection. It’s a conflict of interest. So I was going to build a space to exhibit collections, which would mutually benefit artists and collectors at Mana. Next was building studios for artists on one of the floors so they would be able to interact with the collectors. Artists usually only interact with four or five collectors, which is the typical number that each gallery has. But I thought, “If I build a community, they’re going to see twenty collectors, or thirty collectors. And they’re going to interact, and this will be a great experience for the artist.” And so that’s how I created Mana. It started with a small community, it became a bigger community, and now it’s similar to a kibbutz where we share resources and ideas. And that was the first phase of Mana.
Rail: I remember in our second meeting you mentioned an important event that occurred in 1993 when you went to see the Robert Ryman retrospective at MoMA that Robert Storr curated. You didn’t go to art school or have any expectation of being an artist, but you were swept away by your encounter with the work. It was an epiphany that inspired you to become an artist. How did it happen?
Lemay: To be honest with you, I had neglected art and pushed it away ever since my father’s drawing classes during my childhood. I hadn’t spent any time at museums or galleries. But one day I decided to go to MoMA for the first time. I walked in, and I was immediately amazed by Ryman’s work. I remember walking through the show quickly because I wanted to absorb a first impression before going back to the beginning to look carefully and slowly at each work. When I got to the last room there were these four large paintings that created this quiet, serene atmosphere. It was really a spiritual experience that I had never had before. It was like being in a temple, church, or synagogue. I’ll never forget walking back and seeing these smaller paintings. They too, like the large paintings, had become just as big as a cathedral. That was a very powerful experience: when you don’t think you know anything about art—which I felt I didn’t at the time—and you can be excited by white paintings. It was there and then that I said to myself, “I want to be an artist for the rest of my life. This is for sure. I have something to say and I need to figure out how to do it.” And so I tried to take a few evening courses at SVA. I took a six-week drawing course, a sculpture course, a ceramic course, I even took an art history course, which really bored me. I think the classroom format is just not for me. I can do things and read books on my own.
Rail: You did the same thing, skipping class in the kibbutz.
Lemay: Exactly. Then I took another course, which would be my last—a six-week photography class at ICP—and that was amazing for me because it was more physical. The camera is physical, like a gun. You look through the viewfinder. You pull the gun physically to your chest the same way you do with a camera. It was very comfortable for me. It wasn’t about the image, it was about the comfort of holding that camera. So I did street photography for a while, but I wasn’t satisfied, mostly because I felt that everything had been done and that I couldn’t contribute anything. I couldn’t go back to [Alfred] Stieglitz, [August] Sander, [Walker] Evans, [Dorothea] Lange. Who can compete with Robert Frank? Then I realize that it’s not a competition, it’s about adding something to the conversation. I traveled extensively in India, Tibet, China, Latin America, and other places to take photographs, but I still felt that tremendous limitation. So I decided to do abstract photography. It was good timing with the arrival of the digital age, around 1996 – 97. It was ideal, not because of the types of digital manipulations I could do, but because of the way I operate in life. If I want to do something everyday, I know I have to create a routine. And I knew I would have to do art every day if I wanted to be an artist. So digital photography allowed me to work every day because I could photograph whenever I wanted, and that was the material. And on the weekend, when I’m not in the office, I could develop my ideas and work in Photoshop. The discipline was very important to me, just like people who go to the gym every day. I needed the discipline. If I stop a day, it’s like, “You know, I’m going to stop another day.” And that turns into three days, and then I don’t go back to it.
Rail: Like A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous], you have to attend routine meetings or you slip back into the old habit. How do you see art and therapy in relation to you being an artist on the one hand and directing a huge machine that has many arms and legs at Mana in Jersey, Chicago, and Miami?
Lemay: First of all, I really believe art has to be personal. It can’t just be a theory in your head, nor can it be just an exercise. At least in my case, I first create the discipline, then I ask myself what subjects I’ll be working on. Am I making art just for myself, for others, or both? Around 2010, I had all these letters that I had written to parents who lost their sons during the war, but I could never send them. I would try but I would always put them back and say, “You can’t send these out.” There’s nothing you can say to a parent who has lost their child. So this condition became more my therapy to overcome that unsettling feeling. I decided I was going to make it my mission to translate these letters visually so that they would affect the person looking at them, so that the viewer can create their own world out of these letters. Even though it was my personal story, the viewer could generate their own response to what they were seeing and experiencing. That’s one of the reasons my work is more effective in a large scale or as installations. The viewer can be immersed, be part of the story. This is the great wonder of Ryman: he can make any scale come alive. I can’t make my work sing that way!
Rail: These letters get manipulated digitally into all-over treatments. And even though they don’t spell out any particular language per se, they do become abstract inventions of your own particular language. Is there a specific reason that they’re monochromes, from black to gray, to yellow, red, and blue?
Lemay: I thought of monochrome being a good entry to bring the viewer into my world. Colors would simply be distractions, especially when they’re mixed together like a big symphony. I prefer a solo performance with a big sound, like Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
Rail: A huge sound indeed. What about your “Yom Kippur” series? They’re large images of airplanes and parachutes in the sky, but there are no ground combat vehicles—
Lemay: First of all, I didn’t see tanks during the Yom Kippur War—only planes—because of the air base where I was at the time. Secondly, as terrible as the war was for me as a solider, as an artist I saw the planes aesthetically as birds as well as weapons of war. I wanted to create an artistic atmosphere, rather than to represent literally the actual tolls of the war itself.
Rail: There’re always two sides of a story as there are two readings of a war. Which leads us to your recent show Moral Fog. The first group of works is the installation of three hundred sculptures of soldiers in different positions in combat, including a self-portrait on your knees denouncing the act of war. What prompted you to create sculptures of these soldiers?
Lemay: I felt too restricted by the grid mode in the “Letters” and the “Strata” series. One day, by chance, I saw a toy soldier that reminded me of the toy soldiers my maternal grandfather, who I was very close to, bought me for Christmas one year in Michigan. I just got excited about the idea that I became one of those toy soldiers, and I wanted to do it as a sculpture. The first soldier I did was a life-sized self-portrait, but it didn’t work.
Rail: It was too literal?
Lemay: Exactly. Then I figured out that there should be many made in small scales with different positions, on top of pedestals of various heights. And they should all be faceless, in the same way the letters were unreadable. They have no particular identity. And their positions are either the ones I was doing, I was taught, or I couldn’t do. I worked with Ben Keating to make the sculptures, which turned out to be an amazing experience because he’s not only an amazing artist, he’s also a great collaborator. In truth, it’s both our work because we collaborated on this project.
Rail: I admire Ben’s work as well. He’s also a good poet. At some point you chose particular sculptures and made them into paintings.
Lemay: Actually, I selected some of them, and photographed them in black and white, purely for fun initially, but then I began to explore them as images, how they could be abstracted through distortions on a small scale, eight-by-ten inches.
Rail: And you painted in oil instead of acrylic!
Lemay: Exactly. Which is also a learning curve your first time, understanding how oil paint behaves. And it was a challenge to paint the faces as abstractions in a format typical of passport pictures or soldier ID cards. They were good rehearsals for the big paintings of the soldiers.
Rail: With dramatic cropping in some. However sculptural they appear to be, and as heavily painted as they are, they appear very fragile and unstable. Don’t you think so?
Lemay: Yes, they’re very unpredictable.
Rail: How do you relate your tactile experience of the painted and sculpted soldiers to your digital manipulation of images, which are seemingly flat? I should also mention that they’re painted in black and white, which haunts our memory.
Lemay: I think the sculptural impulse naturally correlated to the masses of the soldiers’ heavy, dense, powerful bodies. And in order to convey that sense of massiveness, and since I didn’t want them to become realistic images, I used a palette knife. It feels like you’re sculpting the image with paint so it was the right tool, at least for this body of work.
Rail: That makes sense. Indeed. How did the show come about?
Lemay: Nenad, a good friend of Aleksandar [Duravcevic], who was one of the participant artists in Ray Smith’s big group show, All the Best Artists Are My Friends, came to the opening reception in May 2014. We were introduced at the dinner afterward, and Nenad said, “One of the best works in the show was the installation called Piece of Mind,” which has a pile of gravel in front of a big black painting. “I’d like to meet the artist.” And I said, “Thank you. That’s my piece! And I’m the artist.” [Laughter.] And he said, “I’d like to do a show of your work.” I said, “O.K., who are you?” I didn’t know he was from Montenegro. [Laughter.] We hit it off. And that’s how the show came about. And since the building was formerly Petrovic Castle, not a typical white-box gallery space, I wanted to create a body of work that responded to the particular interior space. It took more than two years to work on this show, but the most rewarding aspect is, I feel freer than I’ve ever felt before in regards to the subject of war and its psychological effects. Now I’m ready to undertake the next project more freely. Between building a community for artists from different fields and disciplines at Mana, and working on my own work as an artist, I feel very fortunate and very energized by the notion of gaining freedom through art.
I came to realize that your identity is not really where you come from, it’s who you think you are. Whether it’s psychological or not, you have to create your own identity.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.