Randy Polumbo is a self-proclaimed "mad scientist.” In a quest to complicate definitions of sexuality and gender, he arranges handblown glass shaped like commercial sex toys into bouquets of intricate blooms lit by LED lights, a Frankenstein-esque cross-pollination of artificiality and organicism, masculinity and femininity. In The Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny, a piece that premiered at the 2008 Burning Man, he transformed a military command trailer into a lush and exotic garden of phallic flora.
From the branches of this success comes Love Stream, Polumbo’s newest project coming to Steven Kasher Gallery from September 13 to 30. A commission by the patron, collector, and curator Beth Rudin DeWoody, Love Stream splices together natural and man-made forms inside an aluminum 1964 Airstream Caravelle. Polumbo gave Artlog a sneak preview of the unfinished piece—click through the slideshow for a journey from its initial inception as an ordinary trailer to the current kaleidoscopic wonderland of glowing glass.
Artlog: How does Love Stream connect to your past works?
Randy Polumbo: Love Stream is the culmination of a decade of exploration in luminous, seductive materials and reproductive symbolism. Polished metal, found objects, glowing glass, and pulsing LEDs blossom with their purest intensity ever, forged into images of pollination, consumption, and other critical structures like the food chain or libidinal economies. These elements are focused and concentrated into an instrument the viewer can inhabit physically, or peer into; part interactive reflecting pool and part libidinal/psychological probe.
Artlog: Why build an environment for your work, a separate space for viewers to enter?
RP: As an artist it is a treat, and sometimes a necessity, to focus and control the gaze of viewers. This piece is intentionally interactive and, depending on vantage point, guests trigger/pollinate luminous blossoms in the trailer, peer into the large ocular openings on the ends as a voyeur, or nest in the topographically padded interior. It is not unlike building a beehive, festooning it with ripe blossoms, then awaiting the swarm, except in this case with humans. Depending on point of view, a participant might be part of the display or a peeping spectator, with this device acting as a psychic, libidinal lens between them, compounding the richness of the interaction.
Artlog: And why do you choose the mobile trailers?
RP: For this and the Grotto, my earlier piece made of thousands of LED-illuminated rubber sex toys made into a lurid interior garden within a roving military command station, the idea of DEPLOYMENT is key. Picture this work like dispersing seeds in the wind, or white blood cells to an infection site. When I drove the Grotto cross country people loved seeing a mysterious industrial pod covered with glass nipples en route.
Artlog: Why do you choose to use or replicate artificial structures (the commercial sex toys) rather than organic, anatomical ones?
RP: For a time I made strange, solar-powered wireframe blimp and space station objects with tiny silver wires stretching out sheep-intestine condoms. This yielded a container that described the payload by its negative space. After a brief X-rated computer virus period (yes I wrote little virus programs and even presented at a hacker convention), I jumped ship to the highly idealized sex toy world. Now I am making my own forms, which are a synthesis of all these elements. The glass forms in Love Stream might be the petal, pistil, or stamen of a flower, a jellyfish, a sea anemone, or grove of human phalli. I prefer this open “chordal” reading. My more graphic work with anatomical accuracy, or casting from life, was a fun tributary to explore, but was less open-ended. Flipping, reversing, expanding, and transforming are a lot of what this work is about and the more finite it gets the smaller its “wings” are.
Artlog: Speaking of reversal, you’ve mentioned before the “symmetries” in libidinal structures, and there’s sort of a reversal between the male and female in your work—the phallic objects become flowers, the receptacles for pollination. Is this a comment on the fluidity of gender and gender identity?
RP: The scalar symmetry idea has haunted me forever. I am fascinated by the similarities in, for example, models of infection or artificial life, manifest destiny, sprawl of different sorts, and the colonization of space.
They all have aspects that are graphically similar and their elements synchronize uncannily. For example, how is launching a space probe with the human genome and some Beatles songs on a DVD different from the explosion of a milk thistle pod, or an invading body embedding itself into a cell wall, or a frisky dog humping your leg?
In psychoanalysis, or even just common sense, consider the idea that everything contains its opposite and can potentially flip given the right circumstances. Every human has male and female hormones, and levels change throughout life. I often think of what Susan Sontag said in 1966, when it was more shocking, in Against Interpretation: “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
Growing up I often felt oppressed, antagonized, or otherwise wary of male phallic symbols. I think I had a hypersensitivity to Cathexis, a great Freudian word referring to when an object somehow gathers or receives an erotic charge. We are surrounded by such objects: male ones like skyscrapers, sport coupes, rockets, cigars, big fountain pens, pretty much all sporting goods. There are great female emblems too that somehow cross over more and seem richer to me: handbags, shoes, make-up cases, and tubes for applying beauty projects.
There is a part of all that I found menacing or stifling, and I did these rituals to defuse and combine them. Early on I made a cow udder out of a football and some rubber nipples, and another blossom out of an old medicine ball and some small bowling pins. These early creations had an alchemical nutrition to them that has healed and inspired me and still launches my rocket today.
Artlog: You cite as an influence Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone box,” a cure-all box that worked by adjusting your “orgone” (libidinal energy) in a phone-booth sized receptacle you could keep in the living room. (Reich eventually went to jail for saying it could cure terminal illness). Do you see your work as a “cure” as well? For what?
RP: I say LOVE and Love Stream are a cure for everything! I believe there is a tendency to sublimate or repress material that is complex, confusing, troubling, overstimulating, or even simply true. There is also a human desire to put things in compartments and sort them into extremes: black/white, happy/sad, ugly/pretty. The richest experiences are hybrids of all this. I am excited about unpacking, scrambling, and re-ordering the unconscious sinkholes and making more room to be curious and share wonderment at the seething mess and caterwauling storm that is humanity and mother nature. I believe therein lies much of the beauty.
Artlog: How do you see the connection between art and science (psychoanalysis, biology) in your work?
RP: Love Stream is a scientific instrument. Peer into it for meaning like the Hubble telescope, or penetrate it like the padded room at the loony bin, or any orifice that comes to mind. Like Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator, Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron, a Skinner Box, the booth-like confessional at the Catholic church, it focuses a certain energy in a way that is inspiring and revealing, a libidinal particle accelerator.