Lila de Magalhaes: lions, mermaids and Tall Tales

A new touring exhibition, Tall Tales, showcases 17 artists whose work has a playful edge. With a love of mermaids, lions and risky installations, California-based artist Lila de Magalhaes certainly lives up to the brief. The Skinny meets her.

Feature by Sacha Waldron | 01 Jun 2016

During installation of the Tall Tales exhibition at the Freud Museum, London, Lila de Magalhaes, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art and now based in LA, spent a lot of time on the phone to the curators discussing the problems of water. More specifically, leakage.

One of her works, two small clay mermaids contained within a water-filled plastic bag, were due to be installed directly above Sigmund Freud’s office – the one furnished with the famous couch and desk used in his psychoanalysis.

“They were a bit freaked out,” says De Magalhaes. “I installed a similar piece recently and there was always a hole in the bag, somewhere always a tiny hole.

“After those conversations I kept on thinking I could potentially flood Freud’s study – everything just turned so symbolic and I became obsessed with the idea of these mermaids and this water penetrating the very place where he did all his work and formulated his thoughts. The work is so female, you know, if it had happened it would have been a cheeky wink – kind of like, ha ha, I got you!”

Thankfully for all concerned, the water and the mermaids have stayed in the bag. Freud’s ancient wooden statuette of a Chinese sage remains unbothered by these fishy, genital-free seductresses for another day.

Tall Tales – the tour 

De Magalhaes is just one of 17 artists whose work was on show at the Freud Museum (with cross site work at Swiss Cottage Gallery and the Tavistock Clinic) during April and May as part of touring exhibition Tall Tales, which continues its journey North at the start of July, arriving at Touchstones, Rochdale, on 2 July and then moving on to Glasgow Women’s Library for October.

The exhibition/project comes from curatorial duo Helen and Elizabeth Wewiora, operating under the title Wewiora Projects, with the intention of showcasing “women artists” who employ a “playful use of storytelling in the making of their work.” 

[Alison Erika Forde - Shame Pole (install view at Freud Museum). Part of Tall Tales touring exhibition.] 

A diverse set of artists has been collected together with some work created during dedicated Tall Tales residencies. 

Ruth Barker spent a period of time working with the Freud Museum and its collections. The resulting performance, using items such as Anna Freud’s jewellery, was staged in the Freud’s family dining room in April. London-based Beth Collar undertook her residency with the Glasgow Women’s Library and the resulting sculptural work explores the politics of the female frown, or furrowed brow, in contemporary and historical imagery. Collar has also devised a new performance which will act as the inauguration or blessing ritual for the newly opened Glasgow Women’s Library gallery in October.

Elsewhere in the exhibition we find screaming-faced totem poles, beefcakey men posing on the beach, and shavings of a grandfather’s beard. Each work has a story that can be unravelled; visual clues for a wider web of narratives.

'Women artists' – a helpful framing? 

One of the most interesting aspects of touring exhibitions is the ability to experience and re-contextualise certain works within different environments over a relatively short space of time.

The Touchstones leg of the tour is particularly interesting as the gallery is, perhaps, the tour's least known venue nationally and relatively quiet about its commitment to the collecting and displaying of work by female artists. During the Tall Tales exhibition period another, longer-running show, Women Artists: From 1861 to 2015, showcases the art gallery’s long interest in how gender has played a role in the production of art.

This question, for me, seems central to Tall Tales. The exhibition blurb describes the show distinctly as one of “women artists” which, of course, comes with particular connotations to do with style, medium and a certain art-historical narrative. It would be easy to frame the artists’ work in the show in this context but I’m not sure that is entirely helpful. Tall Tales is also simply a group show that includes 17 artists making work, unsurprisingly, from a female perspective.

“It’s a minefield, really tricky,” says De Magalhaes. “A friend asked me recently what I thought about the term ‘female artist’ but I certainly don’t make it my agenda to make work about women. That being said, I make work about things that personally interest me and I happen to be female. I’m really drawn to things that are seen as feminine because, for me, they seem to be a little scarier, more uncomfortable and sensual.”

[Oona Grimes - A Choir of Potatoes (install view at Freud Museum). Part of Tall Tales touring exhibition.] 

The mermaid motif, then, seems fitting. “I think a lot of my work looks at behaviour, and what kind of line [there is] between human and animal and of learned behaviour,” De Magalhaes says. “There are these ideas of following certain impulse[s] or sensuality. I’m not particularly talking about gender in terms of sensuality, it’s not really based on distinctions of male or female or even autobiographical.

“I was excited to be in a show with Laure Prouvost because she represents a lot of those things that I’m trying to express and explore, like pleasure or trying to recreate a sensation visually. She’s kind of a contemporary hero of mine.

“What interests me about the idea of the mermaid is that it’s so loaded,” she continues. “Obviously it’s half human, half animal, but then there’s something super-sexual about them. You know, from watching The Little Mermaid as a kid – Ariel has this stunning shape and her tits are out or whatever but then there’s no genitals. Then looking back at ideas of the mermaid as this siren, seductress – so dangerous and so attractive. There is so much going on with that idea, but then” – she laughs – “at the end of the day my mermaids are just these small objects in a plastic bag.”

The Lady and the Lion

The mythology, or story, in the mermaid narrative and the idea of how you express sensuality are also key to De Magalhaes’ other work on display as part of Tall Tales, Same Together (The Lady and the Lion). This framed oil pastel drawing depicts a white lion being cradled by a woman, based on De Magalhaes’ favourite artwork.

[Lila De Magalhaes - Lady and the Lion (install view at Freud Museum). Part of Tall Tales touring exhibition.] 

“The lion was a very romantic homage to my favourite piece of art by Terry Bowden,” she says. “I bought it in Oakland at Creative Growth, which is a place where people with disabilities make and exhibit their work. They are really well known in the field of outsider art, actually I heard that the guy who runs The Museum of Everything bought their entire archive. The quality is so good.

“When we visited, there was this lion in their gallery show and I became really obsessed with it. I was becoming, as happens sometimes, kind of disillusioned with art and then the power the lion had on me reinforced some sort of belief that an image can have such an effect on someone. I kept on calling the gallery and asking them if it was still available and eventually my friends said, please just buy the lion so you can stop talking about it!”

De Magalhaes owned the lion, but somehow that wasn’t enough. “It’s like when you see something and you just want to feel what it’s like to make that thing. I guess that’s how you start making art – when you’re younger it’s, oh, that’s a beautiful crown, I want to make my own, and then in high school you start copying Old Masters.”

The girl in the picture isn’t the artist herself. “It’s not really a self-portrait,” she says. “It doesn’t look like me but in some ways I’m inserting myself into the original artwork – holding the thing I love and wanting to be close to it.

“Another interesting thing for me is that it doesn’t feel like contemporary art, it’s a little high-school – not very cool at all. Like it’s made by a hobby or thrift store artist. There is something very uncomfortable about the materiality of it. I feel like it might make other people looking at it a little uncomfortable too, and that’s always a good sign. It’s a way to be a little provocative without going all-out in a specific way, for example with violence or sex. Just a little irritant somehow, existing in quite an unrestful place. I like that.

“I think I’m always trying to not let things get in the way of my work, even the things I learned in art school. I’m trying to free myself from a lot of things I thought I should be as an artist and how I should work.”

Living in LA, De Magalhaes unfortunately won’t get to see how her work shifts and changes as the Tall Tales exhibition rolls on – “I’m following it online, which is really unsatisfying!” she laughs – but she is super busy working on other projects in the US, with an upcoming exhibition on a beach in San Diego (“I’m making a kind of still life from wax fruits, the idea is that they will be getting sunburned on the beach”) and intentions to further explore her relationship with the white lion.

“He’s becoming this mythological figure in my work,” she says, “but I don’t want to let it become too fantastical. He needs to be brought back to reality. Maybe he needs to be brushing my teeth.”

Tall Tales runs from 2 July to 3 September at Touchstones Gallery and Museum, Rochdale

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