According to my audio recording of our studio visit, I spent nearly four whole minutes touching one of Alyssa Lempesis’ sculptures, a set of hands cast out of stretchy “flesh-colored” rubber.
I feel bad relating this detail, since most people probably won’t get the chance to enjoy what was to me a simultaneously thrilling and disgusting tactile experience.
Inside West Oakland’s Aggregate Space Gallery, up a set of steep stairs to a lofted studio, Lempesis works on surreal organic-looking sculptures and eerie stop-motion animation videos. She wants you to want to touch her work; she identifies with your struggle to keep your hands to yourself.
“I’m a dangerous person in galleries and museums,” she says. “I’m definitely the kind of person where the security guard is like, ‘Ma’am, please back away from the object, you stay behind the line.’”
Part of the tactile attraction in Lempesis’ work is the mystery of its making. Her material lists read like the ingredients of a witchy concoction: nylon flock, Magic Smooth, epoxy, aggregates, hair (real and fake), sand, atomized metal powder, wool, sausage casings, foams, silicone, latex, Vaseline, the list goes on.
The resulting sculptures resemble internal organs, deep-sea creatures, crusty growths and other oddities of the natural world — the types of things that elicit a complicated combination of attraction and revulsion.
Drawn to art from an early age, Lempesis went to college intending to study theatrical design. But at the beginning of her sophomore year at UC Berkeley, she fell ill and had to drop out of school to move home. “It was really intense for me,” she says. “I had issues with my immune system and it was sort of debilitating. I was really out of commission for a while.”
“After it was all said and done, after all these medications and being in and out of the doctor’s, they told me they had no idea what caused it,” she says.
It was a serious illness, she says, but the unknowability of her ailment was “also kind of absurd.” As she recovered, Lempesis felt more than ever that she wanted to commit herself to studying art, beginning with a sculpture class at her local community college.
“I found momentum taking that course,” she says. “I think that whole issue with being really confronted by my body shifted my awareness of my insides. It shifted my awareness of what I was doing with my work. All this stuff that we walk around with in our bodies that we can’t see — how does it affect us and how we choose to abstract it and make it funny and approachable?”
Lempesis’ definition of “approachable” might be a bit different from most people’s understanding of the word. During her April 2016 exhibition at Alter Space Gallery, I watched people watch Gulp, a short stop-motion animation filled with gooey limbs swathed in blue and fuchsia light. Children squealed in delight to see movements that resembled bodily functions rendered large-scale and autonomous. Some viewers turned sideways, a classic horror-movie watching tactic meant to limit one’s exposure to upsetting images.
Lempesis says the most common reaction she gets to her work is “Ew, gross!” It makes her day.
“There’s something really visceral about stuff moving on its own,” she says. She didn’t start translating her static sculptures into the subjects of stop-motion animations until the end of her MFA program at UC Davis. “I already anthropomorphized my work in the studio,” she says. “I always imagined them moving and so it was only natural that they would start to move.”
While her static sculptures and the works she makes for stop-motion animation inform one another, they don’t enter each other’s worlds. One of the biggest differences between the two is the intensity of observation to which Lempesis subjects stop-motion props.
In addition to spending days, weeks or months meticulously arranging and shooting the frames for a single video, she photographs most of her animations through a macro lens, giving her incredibly detailed views of her tableaux. “It kind of changes the way I think about what I put into my materials,” she says. “Some things that I can’t see with my eye, I can see under my lens.”
And beyond what’s actually there, Lempesis’ animations allow her to imbue objects with her own creative imagination. “The way I imagine these things moving or the way I get to experience them while making them, I now get to show you an animation,” she says. “It’s so much more physical and visceral and tactile. I squeeze things and mix things. Things are always sort of twitching and moving and shifting when I’m making them.”
“I don’t want my stuff to be dead,” she says of the sculptures and animations alike. “I want it to look alive.”
Her videos look like clips deemed too weird for Planet Earth, a combination of filmmaker and biologist Jean Painlevé’s “scientific-poetic cinema” and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
The references to fictionalized underwater creatures aren’t accidental. “I went to the aquarium and was like, ‘Yes! Sea life! This is it! This looks like the land that I want things to live in,’” she says.
An oft-quoted statistic from the National Ocean Service states: “For all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes. On land, another frequently repeated estimate (that might be wildly inaccurate, but still breeds discomfort) claims humans are “ten parts microbe, and one part human.” Lempesis revels in these numbers, and in the visual and conceptual similarities between the mysterious underwater terrain and our mysterious bodily insides.
“My insides have always been alien to me, and now I’m interested in the alien and unknown of the underwater,” she says. “I like to dig under the surface of things. I want to go deep, under the skin, under the ocean.”
If you can stomach it — which you should — she’ll bring you along for the ride.
See Alyssa Lempesis’ work in person at CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, on view in the Building Imagination Center through Oct. 27. Visit buildingimagination.com for more information.