We talked to Laura Shill about phallic symbolism and shrub people

We talked to Laura Shill about phallic symbolism and shrub people

CultureMarch 17, 2014

We caught up with local artist Laura Shill about her phallic influences, the wonder of obscuring identity, and what it's like to work in the Denver art scene. And no, we didn't forget to ask her about her shrub people.


Medium: Photography, sculpture, installations, sculptural costumes and sets.

You work in so many different mediums. How do you know which one to chose? Do you prefer some over the other? Do you think that each has a different effect?
A lot of my work starts as sculptures and then becomes photos. There’s certain content that works in certain forms the best, and I’m always seeking that out. Most of the time, I’ll build a sculptural environment, and then make the photos inside the environment, which blends the two. The sculptural environment creates a context for the viewing the images.

What do you want people to feel when they see your art?
I want people to feel ambivalence, because that’s what I feel.  I would like people to respond and be drawn in, but the more time they spend with my work, the more unsettled or discomforted they should feel. I want to seduce, then repulse people, because it kind of subverts the notion of the good old days, and challenges the things that we take to be true.

Is there a reason why the color pink is so prevalent in your work?
I use of the color pink a lot, specifically to reference interior to the body. It invites touching. People engage with it in a tactile way, which breaks the rule of the museum where you’re not allowed to touch the art. I see the body is a personal universe. The idea with the pink tube installation, for example, was to take bodily forms and create a small, enclosed space inside of a larger one. The viewer is invited to enter into space, and have intimate, private moment in a public space, almost like you’re entering into a body. I want people to experience art as opposed to just looking at it.

Where does all the phallic symbolism come from?
The phallic influence is linked to idea of pregnancy being a moral disease that only afflicts women. Those ideas are still around, and it occasionally becomes apparent that women’s bodies are battlegrounds for men’s ideologies.  We’ve all passed through the same canal, so I use art to see if we can we lighten up about the vagina and politics surrounding it. I kind of got known for the giant vagina, but I felt ambivalent about it because it was a thing I did once that was part of a larger point. I’m glad it’s loosening up attitudes and makes things more palatable for polite discussion though.

What’s the purpose of obscuring your subject’s faces in your photos?
Obscuring faces blurs identity, and without identity, people can change species, genders, or even become an object. I viel them so original identity is no longer visible, then come up with characters for strangers. I have them do all this work to construct their identity, and then erase it with blanket over their head. Then I’ll ask them what that feeling is like to have blanket over head when taking a photo, and they feel liberated to act in ways that they wouldn’t be comfortable acting with a face attached to it. I’m trying to see whether anonymity is frustrating or liberating to the performance.

How did you get the idea for the shrub people?
I made that costume based on wall by my house that was covered in ivy. I’d visit it everyday and I’d try to recreate it. I thought I should make a character out of it, like some sort of grand gesture of love, the character imitating the wall the wall and all. I started going around the neighborhood, having the character I invented imitate and blend into the space, empathizing mimicking the landscape and empathizing with it. The project kind of became about gentrification because the shrub people memorialized the space, but all of a sudden, that ivy wall was gone, and got replaced with a new building.

How do you come up with this stuff?
I keep 2-3 bodies of work going at one time, whether they’re digital, tactile, or long term projects. I find inspiration everywhere, but a lot of times, I kind of let the material dictate what I should do with it. I go to thrift stores and try to buy as much as second-hand stuff as possible, and sometimes I’ll find an object that really resonates to me.  Then I’ll try to mimic it 100 times, but it will become its own thing. I like humor, and subverting expectations.

How’s the art scene in Denver treating you?
Great. There’s a really supportive artist community and great resources. There’s lots of public platforms to show work, and studio spaces you can use like galleries. There’s always a constant conversation with artists. There’s a real, tangible lifestyle associated with it here.

Check out more of Laura's work here.