An interview series spotlighting New York’s creative community. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.
Dessane Lopez Cassell
Cartoonist and writer Shelby Lorman with her dog Clem (all images courtesy Shelby Lorman)
We all know the type. That dude who claps himself on the back for doing the absolute bare minimum? How about the one who likes to call himself a feminist while routinely interrupting women mid-sentence? Or better yet, that guy who gets praised for doing said bare minimum, often by another man, just for being slightly less offensive than other equally oblivious men? (I can feel you nodding.) The art world is chock full of these “good boys,” as Shelby Lorman likes to call them.
A cartoonist and writer, Lorman has dedicated a brilliant book and Instagram account to poking some much deserved fun at these wannabe “woke” broskis, often via sharp and cackle-inducing illustrations. As she discusses below, much of her work questions “why we can’t stop clapping for people we put on pedestals,” even when they probably should’ve never been put on one in the first place.
For this 10th edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, Lorman offered some thoughts on satire, unwitting media consumption, and of course, the noble subject of Renaissance penises (just kidding). While that topic did come up, what you should really look for are her thoughts on the importance of sharing resources and prioritizing accessibility, especially as we look beyond the immediate reality of this pandemic.
Oh, and happy Labor Day. (Tidings from a good boy below.)
Where do you consider home?
Wherever my dog is. Also, New York, currently.
What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?
Followed a person. Stayed for the person the city made me into. Real corny stuff.
Tell me about your first memory of art.
My grandma was an artist, never by trade but in stolen moments. She made this giant oil painting of a rabbi that still hangs in her living room. I remember making searing eye contact with the rabbi growing up. He terrified me. It was really only in the last few years that I realized how striking the piece is, and how meaningful it was that she painted this huge testament to her upbringing. Still scares me though. Real penetrating gaze.
How would you describe your practice?
Extremely chaotic, incredibly slow, and ever-evolving. I change my mind a lot.
What are you working on currently?
A lot of really exciting things I can’t talk about yet! Which is weird but hopefully everyone will see them soon. I’m also creating projects that I’m not immediately tweeting out to the world, which is a needed personal intervention in challenging the relationship I think many of us have to our social feeds, art-related and otherwise, between sharing and the expectation of immediate validation and/or pushback. It’s very hard to share in-progress work online without listing all the ways it fails to speak for everything, and I’ve found myself drawn more to reaction than creation in the last few years.
I’ve been channeling more of my energy into a newsletter I started last year called Please Clap. I stole the name from Jeb Bush and wrote about it in my book. This idea that the “awarding” I draw about is also, if not mostly, an investigation into why we can’t stop clapping for people we put on pedestals. It’s mostly resource sharing, because I love to share things to read, care about, listen to, watch. I don’t know anything, really, but I am quite good at cutting through confusing situations and helping people find something tentatively like clarity.
Part of that clarity is a big nudge to consume media more critically. I like to satirize whatever the media is really excited about — like a boat doing donuts for NHS workers or Cuomo’s COVID mountain — and delve into the details around why those aren’t so good. I’ve got absolutely no content calendar and am kind of letting my mind wander, writing about how we make and consume art online, Taylor Swift and Nancy Pelosi, that guy who holds the signs up on Instagram, the veneer of goodness and its relation to celebrities, life as performance art. Also renaissance penises, perhaps obviously.
Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I often stay awake thinking about how much brilliant art and writing and media I’ve consumed, and how little I remember of it. My memory and its leakiness has long been something that gnaws at my soul, but perhaps the silver lining is that I’m able to Groundhog Day myself into being every morning as a naive and brand new brain, ready to make something I definitely made the day before.
But also, I am moved to help people think critically each day, and also not take themselves too seriously in the process. Things can be serious and joyful to learn about, unpack, unwind, remake. I am eternally renewed by the idea that for someone, I’ve helped open a conversation or way of thinking that they previously were closed off to.
What are you reading currently?
Yes I am reading Blue Mars, the last of a trilogy about terraforming on Mars. It’s weirdly topical in terms of people trying to figure out how to structure an entirely new society, and to see if they can do so outside of the confines of huge corporate interests that are guiding their politics. I’m also reading Joyful Militancy and Disability Visibility, as a sort of pair, which has been really nice. I did find a copy of Severance outside my house about a month before the pandemic started, and definitely read that without realizing what it was about. Brilliant book though.
What is your favorite way of experiencing art?
While sitting in a sturdy chair, or lying down, if possible.
Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?
I really miss seeing performance — which is very strange for me, as a seasoned expert at flaking and avoiding people. My friend Fancy Feast hosts a show in Bushwick called the Fuck You Revue that is fucking weird and cool. Those are definitely some of my favorite shows. I also really wanted to see Sharona Franklin’s solo exhibition but I didn’t make it, which is sort of my philosophy for life and events generally. I rarely make it. On the plus side, I’ve been watching people from every corner of my life bullying public officials online, starting mutual aid projects, organizing with their neighbors, creating new public works of art. That’s really great.
In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?
It’s been cool to watch creative circles that felt sort of disparate overlap — comedy people and art people and writing people — asking questions that are very much in conversation with each other. It’s also been great to see people who dwelled in the “posting 35mm photo of this corner of a concrete building is my social media identity” be pushed to talk about the world outside of their “aesthetic.” I want us to be asking why it took so long, but that feels petty so perhaps a redirect is to ask: what next? How do we combine our existing practices with the new world we’re trying to build? I love that traditional gallery and museum spaces are rather moot, these days. I think it’s urgent and incredible. It forces people to think about who had access to those spaces to begin with — and what it means for art to be “art” as defined only by a paywalled institution.
One part of this I’ve been thinking a lot about, and hope people continue to talk about, is how to keep performances and exhibitions accessible, which by design allows more people to come, especially people who are often left out from such events. I want people from all my overlapping circles to be asking: How do we continue including people in our work who are often isolated? What does interactive art look like when we’re scattered around the world? What does detailed accessibility information look like? What will a world with tons of newly disabled people from COVID require in terms of making art spaces feel okay? (It’ll require getting used to providing detailed accessibility info, for starters, like listing out what sort of chairs will be at a venue, asking people not to wear scents.) How do we use art as a bridge between social isolation? What would art look like if we centered joy? Centered community?