At the beginning of a year of writing about Gender Deconstruction, I felt called toward a multidisciplinary artist who goes by both Lawren and Lawrence Oliver iii because their work defies easy categorization. In meeting Oliver to speak about their experience, I was reminded that somehow the gender non-conforming and neurodivergent among us find ourselves at the edge of human expression. We integrate aesthetics and language befitting of our desires and seek to shed what feels burdensome and dysphoric—defying both surface level trendiness and long-standing traditions. During my time with Oliver, I found myself reveling in the unknowns of “why?” and the simple truth that things are never quite as they seem.
Gender Deconstruction: An ArtsWatch Series
My interactions with Oliver began with an iPad, portaling us into the virtual realm of special interests, vintage cartoons and video games. YouTube served as a major site of learning for Oliver in the technical construction of artistic work, not to mention a source of ongoing stimuli. I danced a little to the retrogaming music playing on the iPad as both Oliver and Malcolm Hecht (an artistic support and collaborator) toured me around Elbow Room, a place where OIiver comes to work. This bustling studio space, created for Portland artists experiencing intellectual and developmental disabilities, was filled with vibrant drawings, sculptures, and woven works by its participating artists. I snapped photos of Oliver’s art with my film camera as it was pointed out to me. Hecht noted that Oliver makes most artworks at home but comes to Elbow Room once a week to join the hand-tool woodworking group that Hecht runs, in addition to being a studio member at Jaja Clay Studio and the woodshop at ADX.
I first encountered Oliver’s Joe, a life-sized man made of paper and tape, dressed in a designer outfit with super saggy jeans. Joe struck me as an animate being trapped in an inanimate body, at once unsettling and familiar. Oliver told me that Joe’s mouth, which hung agape, was inspired by the character Chucky. The masking tape on his face glistened, drawing my attention to the way Oliver had finessed its surface into a unique kind of skin. At one point during my visit, Joe surprised me by sliding off of his chair toward the ground in a human manner, belying the intricate constitution of his appendages and joints.
As the tour progressed, I learned that Oliver has endeavored to make sculptures “indestructible” so that they will last for years to come. I also noticed Oliver’s penchant for marrying surface texture with structure. I peeked underneath the cap of a large red mushroom and found hundreds of intricately crafted paper gills. The lumpy face of a Jack-O’-Lantern caved inward, as if slightly rotting across its jolly smile. Grumpy Humpty Dumpty, a work-in-progress made with Ready Patch, looked like a bonafide eggshell to me. Oliver had perfected these pieces just so, zooming into their nooks and crannies.
The constitution of Oliver’s artwork contains playful contradictions that collide with the original nature of Oliver’s referents. For instance, the mushroom will never die and the jack o’ lantern will never rot. The glistening chandeliers are full of coat hangers, and pristine vases are made of paper and glue. Using accessible and quotidian materials, Oliver has managed to harness the temporality of these objects and extend their lives with remarkable attention to detail, inside and out.
A key ingredient in this process is time.
Sitting in the Elbow Room office after my tour, I learned that Oliver’s process of “finishing something can go on for a really long time,” as Hecht observed. Oliver knows that a work is complete simply by when it “feels good.”
“Like, to your hands?” I asked. “Yes,” Oliver affirmed.
With permission, I ran my hand over the side of a large wooden container, which Oliver and Hecht had constructed together for the purpose of drying paper mache artworks. The sides of this container glowed of yellow wood glue and felt magnificently smooth to my touch. Though this project served a functional purpose, many of Oliver’s other endeavors took inspiration from dreams and memories of home and childhood—in addition to spur of the moment notions.
As we chatted, Oliver recalled a tender dream about feeling scared and holding hands with a comforting partner named Kennedy. The sensory details of this dream—both loving and frightening—called to mind the sensorial qualities that enliven my own memories and fantasies, making them last. I began to understand that all of Oliver’s work had imprinted on me in a similar manner, staying with me through recollections of the sensations the work evoked.
As we wrapped up our time together, Oliver showed me photographs from the iPad—a possum that looked like a cat, a tiny swaddled baby, a goose running with wings spread. While scrolling through the iPad’s camera roll, Oliver came upon some video stills from the Jerry Springer show of a trans woman coming out to her boyfriend. “I’d want to have a look like that,” Oliver said of the woman.
When it comes to experience of gender, Oliver did not want to share much. In fact, Oliver preferred I not bother with any of their pronouns for this story, which reminded me that whenever I encounter resistance to my own pronouns in the world, this has everything to do with what others expect of me based on their own resistance to change. Oliver asserts an identity as Lawrence and Lawren here, disrupting gendered categories used to control. They manifest dreams, memories, and magic—breathing life into matter as they see fit without the compulsion to explain why.