Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Sally LeLong

Survivor, 2023, materials vary, photo: Sally Lelong

By CLARE GEMIMA December 27, 2023 

In ENTRANCEXIT, Sally LeLong's artistic odyssey unfolds at EV Gallery, in the heart of the East Village. Emerging from the socio-cultural tapestry of '50s Newark, LeLong's work explores emotional distance amid societal tumult, employing found objects, watercolors, and etched prints. Her globally exhibited installations transcend cultural confines, and offer a nuanced and universal language. From site-specific endeavors in Limerick's 12th-century cathedral to reclaiming Governors Island's officers' homes, LeLong's art navigates spaces and narratives. Collaborations with diverse communities, like the Deaf Choir in Limerick, underscore her commitment to inclusive dialogue. A veteran since the '70s, LeLong's evolution mirrors the changing landscape of installation art. From immersive explorations to storefront windows and found-object narratives, her journey reveals a timeless commitment to unraveling the complexities of the human experience. Explore the immersive realms of Sally LeLong at EV Gallery, which will be running to December 23, 2023.

Clare Gemima: How have your background and the social upheavals you witnessed in Newark, New Jersey, during the '50s influenced the themes and narratives in your artwork?

Sally Lelong: No one wants to be trapped by the "social assignments" prescribed to us by appearance or origin, yet we have no choice but to navigate our interactions with others by our perceptions of our identities and that of others. I often felt that if I were blind, standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, I would see the skin color of those around me. So thick were the rules of racism and xenophobia in the air that no one was exempt from following them, and the only way to escape these traps was to look beyond them.

Clare Gemima: Can you elaborate on your decision to use found objects, miniature watercolors, and etched prints in ENTRANCEXIT? How do these mediums contribute to portraying emotional distance in response to unfolding events?

Sally Lelong: My mother was often hospitalized with mental illness throughout my life, so where I lived and with whom often changed. Every time I was in a new setting, I derived clues about how to fit in by surveying the decor and furnishings of the places I was sent to. When I pick up an object, I hear echoes of that experience. I make this habit visible when I sculpt, paint, design graphics, or draw. 

Depth Of Field, 2023, antique sconce with coal & aquatint etching, photo: Sally Lelong

Clare Gemima: The description of your work mentions a conflict between the emotional distance one seeks and the need to stay involved in unfolding events. How does this ambivalence manifest in the creative frameworks you employ for your installations? 

Sally Lelong: The cruel and unjust treatment of others by the world's warlords is sickening. I can join the protests and scope the political landscape to determine my part in these tragedies, but I doubt the impact of my actions. As of now, the most honest and meaningful gesture I can make is to use my voice as an artist to share this dilemma. 

Clare Gemima: Your art is described as interpreting the latent narratives of spaces. How do you choose the spaces for your installations, and what role does the inherent narrative of a space play in your creative process?

Sally Lelong: Every space is a stage on which the imagination travels. How a piece fits a space resonates with an aimed-for experience. The layout of my installations intends to lift a curtain of what we may be thinking or feeling as we wonder about. 

Who Were They? 2023, vintage doll shoes, photo: George Hirose

Clare Gemima: Having exhibited your work in various locations globally, how does each location influence how your art is perceived or interpreted? Are specific challenges or opportunities arising from exhibiting in diverse cultural contexts? 

Sally Lelong: Outside, inside, is a paradigm we live in. I do my best to reveal my thoughts and ideas without telling others what to think, and, at the same time, I am mindful that I have to make sense. I reach for speaking in a universal language that transcends our preconceptions of each other. It’s a questionable endeavor, but the creative arts is the only way I know that is possible. 

Clare Gemima: The mention of site-specific installations on Governors Island with the Transborder Arts organization suggests a strong connection between your art and the spaces it inhabits. How do you approach creating site-specific installations, and what challenges or rewards do they present?

Sally Lelong: The city intends to use Governors Island as an arts destination. Abandoned officers' homes have a new purpose as artist studios and exhibition spaces. Since it was my second residency on the Island, I knew I wanted to use the closets as theater spaces. I had planned to work with the Deaf community to create collaborative video pieces to be projected on the closet walls and immerse viewers in the sign-language experience. As there wasn't enough time for that project, I cast a video I made on the closet floor that addressed the war on civilians around the globe, which ended with footage of a scorched teddy bear lying on an emptied street of Kyiv after a missile strike. As these wars continue, figuring out ways to respond as an artist has taken over my work’s focus. 

Surveillance, 2023, discarded mirror with found botanica, photo: Sally Lelong

Clare Gemima: In 2022, you created four site-specific installations in the 12th-century Saint Mary's Cathedral in Limerick, Ireland. How did the historical and cultural context of the cathedral influence the narrative you sought to convey in those installations? 

Sally Lelong: In the spring of 2022, I exhibited work in Saint Mary's Cathedral, a 12th-century cathedral in the medieval section of Limerick, Ireland. Within its 900-year-old walls are many niches of symbolic significance - each fulfilling a specified purpose. Drawn to the stories these convey, I placed work in those with a narrative connection to mine and modified the lighting for dramatic emphasis. I collaborated with the Hands In Harmony Deaf Choir of Limerick on creating an evening of performances to explore other forms of visual expression and the common ground that the hearing and the deaf share in the imagination.

Clare Gemima: Can you speak to the significance of receiving grants from Windows On White and Artist Space for your window installations? How do these grants contribute to the development and realization of your artistic vision?  

Sally Lelong: Though I received these grants long ago for my window displays that interpreted Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter film, they encouraged me to continue making publicly placed artwork. 

Clare Gemima: As an artist who has been active since the 70s, how have you seen the landscape of installation and cross-media art evolve over the years? What trends or changes do you observe, and how do they inform or challenge your current artistic practice? 

Sally Lelong: My desire to speak from the imagination has always informed my work. My work reflects my thoughts' ideas, narratives, and questions. In the 1970s, I installed bridges, rooms, tunnels, and special lighting in unexpected places to capture the experience of moving through unfamiliar surroundings. In the 1980s, I shifted to using storefront windows as theater spaces. In the 1990s, I went to studio-bound work and began working with found objects. I painted on thrown-out plywood using the wood grain as a leitmotif to create syncopated compositions. Continuing to sculpt, I used other items I found on streets and job lots to assemble burlesque statements that made fun of my sexual inhibitions. During this phase of object hunting, a two-way conversation began to happen in my imagination. As I searched for a specific item to complete a piece, something else would grab my attention. A new idea would germinate. The finetuning of my perception this way has turned everything I study into a sensory experience that impacts my work direction, and leads me to travel across disciplines to match those experiences. Sally LeLong: ENTRANCEXIT runs December 1 through 23, 2023 at EV Gallery, NY. WM


Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

view all articles from this author