Shay DeGrandis

“When you love someone and they leave, there is that empty, angry feeling that walks around inside you wanting nothing but revenge. You still love them, you want to fill this void, but it is impossible. So you take something they love, something they have dedicated their life’s work to, and make it your own.”—Shay DeGrandis

That Knoxville Girl

Shay DeGrandis. "That Knoxville Girl," 2005. Photograph.

When Shay DeGrandis and I met in 1997 we didn’t hit it off. We met because I was working at Pearl Art & Craft with her best friend, Nancy, who she’d known since their high school days in Miami Beach, Florida. Shay was going to SAIC for art history. We hung out at the same coffee shop—Jinx on Division—where I worked on paintings and smoked and she pored over notes in preparation for teaching an ill-fated art history survey course to a cadre of mostly-indifferent SAIC freshman. We rubbed each other the wrong way. I’d saunter over to her table and tell her that all the artists she was including in her lectures sucked. She thought I was an asshole and that I smelled bad.

Shay’s been making art for pretty much as long as I have but our work has very little in common. Hers is almost always personal whereas mine rarely is. Hers is about the internal world whereas mine is about the world outside. Hers depends and often springs from great emotion whereas mine works best when it’s done in a calm state and from an emotional distance. These are all generalizations of course, but suffice it to say, no one would mistake her work for mine or vice versa.

Bodily fluids and functions figure often in the things she’s made. Blood, hair, skin, crotches, limbs wrapped around other limbs, they all form her subject-matter. Overwhelming feelings color so much of what she does. It sometimes makes looking at the work an uncomfortable experience. Like we’re seeing something that wasn’t meant for everyone to be looking at.

“There are those people, unbeknownst to them, with whom we become obsessed”—is how she introduces a series of graphite on mylar drawings she made of and about Nick Cave in the ‘90s. Fifteen years after the fact, she’s gone back to some of these and added handlebar mustaches to some, as that’s the way Mr. Cave looks these days. These are greasy, desire-filled drawings. Rock stars are probably used to fan art but looking at these makes me wonder what Cave would think were he to see them.

We hadn’t seen each other in years when I got an email from Shay in early 2010. She’d seen a video profile of me that a Northwestern University journalism student had made. A few weeks later she invited me over for dinner. One of the first things I noticed at her house in Beverly was this watercolor of a bloody severed head.

still. life. 2008 watercolor, death

"still. life." 2008. Watercolor, death.

I never asked what it was about but it’s stayed with me. It’s not propped on the piano by the front door anymore but when I look at that corner of the entryway, I always expect it to be there.

One of the things I like best in Shay’s work are the alternately overwrought and laugh-out-loud titles she comes up with. “Adolph Gottlieb and I Had a Fight Over You” and “Clyfford Still Stole My Boyfriend” are a couple favorites. Her humor often extends to the list of materials a particular piece is made of: one of the Adolph Gottlieb ones is assembled out of “ink, blood, anticipation.” Still and Gottlieb don’t have much of a connection to her aesthetically but she’s found a way to bring them into her own world. Seeing Still’s ripped-wallpaper imagery on a pillowcase is pretty wonderful in a way I have a hard time defining or explaining.

Clyfford Still Stole My Boyfriend: Red Field 2005 embroidery, cloth, insanity

"Clyfford Still Stole My Boyfriend: Red Field," 2005. Embroidery, cloth, insanity.

The great thing about watching another artist work—especially one that’s very different than yourself—is that a lot of the time you have no idea what they’re doing. I had the privilege of sitting in the same room as Shay as she embroidered the pieces that are currently on display at the Sidecar Gallery in Hammond, Indiana. It was an excruciatingly slow process to sew beads and stones of different sizes to various articles of clothing. Together, all the beads were to represent vomit that soils a dress after a night of over-drinking but in the end what came out was more elegant and mysterious. The pieces challenge my notion of what art can be because I don’t exactly know how to look at them: as a picture, as a sculpture, as a piece of clothing? It’s a neither/nor situation and that’s to Shay’s credit.

It’s rare to encounter humility or modesty among artists but the other day Shay was cleaning her studio and happened across a two-volume art history textbook. She flipped through it showing me the dozens of illustrations that she’d done inside. She’d never mentioned this project to me before.

So many have done so much less yet talked about it so much more.

There’s a closing reception at Sidecar this Saturday for the show Shay’s in. It’s from 1 to 6pm. Go see it.

Look at her site as well.