I grew up in southern Arizona, surrounded by cliché representations of my own experiences. There were cowboys riding bulls, coyotes howling on moonlit nights, beautiful sunsets, and vicious bar brawls. Those experiences have been translated into epic photographs and playfully antagonistic videos. The projects that I produce are a reflection of my complex relationship with the American West. They are an exploration of what it means to be an American in a time of diminished personal and economic expectations. I perform for the camera, enacting gestures that reflect a sense of quixotic hopefulness, as well as a desire for connection and control over subjects as ungovernable as nature. My performances take a variety of forms and allow me to engage with others or insert myself into the landscape. It is though these projects that I develop authentic ties to my own experiences, to give the cliché new and personal meaning.
The gestures that I enact for the camera are simultaneously loving and cruel; they discuss the frustration inherent in contemporary experience. Initially, these gestures may seem juvenile as they use the language of physical comedy, but they owe as much to Caspar David Freidrich and the Kantian Sublime, as they do to Buster Keaton. In the videos and photographs, I confront the American landscape and foolhardily demand that it become aware of my presence; I mark my territory and attempt to defend it. The works acknowledge the possibility of failure, that I will go unnoticed, that I will not affect any change. As a sympathetic hero and a stand-in for the viewer, I face the sublime and call its power into question.
A recent series of photographs show me grasping at the sun. An echo of Icarus, they depict a failed attempt to control something infinitely greater than myself. The action is performed for a vast landscape, but my efforts have no affect, and my attempted interruption is full of pathos. These images are made in national parks and at the edges of small towns, all locations infused with the mythology of the American West. In each setting I insert myself into the landscape and perform gestures that at once affirm and negate my importance – a demand to be on equal terms with the sublime is ultimately doomed to failure.
Hopeful Romantic documents my two-week journey from Maine and to the Californian coast, in which I played Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” to the landscape. I sometimes stopped to film by the side of the road, but was largely interested in filming in National and State Parks. Their wilderness represents the possibility of discovery, an echo of the optimism of America’s Manifest Destiny. The video reflects the tension between heroic mythology and the nation’s current socioeconomic instability.
Other projects enact hopeful gestures for the camera in social spaces. For the series I throw myself at men, I went to bars and literally threw myself towards men who I’d never met before. The performances and subsequent photographs were an attempt to discuss the desire, difficulty, and possibility of failure involved in making a connection.
Overall, the work is romantic, cruel, and humorous. It is about the American Dream, the gap between what we are told to hope for and our lived experience, and about wanting to make a mark in an environment that proffers a vision of reality beyond our reach and out of our control.
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You might recognize Lilly McElroy from the extensive coverage of her project “I throw myself at men”, which made the rounds of publications from the Huffington Post, to Wired, and the Daily Mail a few years ago. While this body of work is incredibly compelling, we have a soft spot for some of the more recent work dealing with landscape and the American West. While Lilly is out on the West Coast, her work keeps making East Coast appearances. Keep an eye out for it!