By Matthew Liebenberg
When Vancouver-based mixed media artist Lyle XOX was approached about doing an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, he was rather apprehensive.
He grew up as Lyle Reimer in the nearby hamlet of Wymark and some of his childhood memories are not so positive.
“I always felt like an alien and I didn’t belong,” he recalled. “Every choice that I made was different than what was happening around me, and not for the purpose to do it to spite people. It was what I want to do. When all the other kids were playing hockey, I wanted to learn to ride the unicycle and dress up like a clown. … So there was this constant feeling of not really fitting in and not belonging there.”
In the end, he did not turn down the opportunity to share his artistic creativity with his hometown area. The exhibition LyleXOX: I. They. Mine. Yours… is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.
“The more I thought about it, the more important it became to me to go back to the roots of where it all began and to reclaim space,” he said. “I think the concept of reclaiming space is incredibly important. It’s liberating. There’s a sense of feeling free when you have gone on your journey, understood what you need to do in your life, and how your beginnings impact the way you think and the way you create work. That’s all part of the story.”
He used this opportunity to create an exhibition that displays his work in a format that has not been seen before.
“You’ll be the first to see the physical sculptures on the plinths and to see a large-scale video in the video room,” he said. “It’s a very comprehensive show and you are the first to see it. So my mission is that the word gets out and people come to see the show. My mission is also to have this show tour. I want other galleries across Canada to pick it up, because for me it’s not just about the work. There is this message that I feel so passionate about.”
A key aspect of this message is found in the label description for a large mixed media art installation in the centre of the gallery space. It is a collection of items sourced from various chapters of his life, including his very first childhood tricycle, and each item was bathed in pink paint.
The label description for this art installation mentions it is a tribute to the DNA of his artistic practice and these items are also a reminder to give voice to authentic nature and not to let fear or shame govern the path.
“It’s how I live my life and it’s been a long journey to get to the point where I am,” he said. “Now that I have this way of being and this life, it makes me want to share that on a larger scale so that other people can potentially look into themselves and figure out what their path is and where their authenticity lies, because everyone has it within themselves.”
He noted that everyone’s journey is totally unique and it is important to celebrate those authentic aspects of one’s life.
“So often people don’t want to look at themselves in whatever way and I truly hope through this exhibition that people will look closer and celebrate the parts of themselves that maybe they haven’t celebrated in the past,” he said. “Whatever their truth is, they need to figure that out for themselves, embrace it and share that truth with other people.”
The essence of Lyle XOX’s own artistic practice can be traced back to his childhood years, when his creativity was nurtured and encouraged.
“My mom was teaching me how to draw perspective, like a house in perspective, before I went to kindergarten,” he recalled. “So that was just always part of my everyday life. Art was a way to express myself. Art was a form of escape. I couldn’t imagine a day without having some form of creative process taking place. It was just always present. I’m incredibly grateful for being raised in a home where that was so nurtured and it was understood.”
An important aspect of his artistic process involves the use of discarded materials to create elaborate and fantastical facial sculptures.
“That goes back to childhood and doing craft days with my mom,” he said. “She would take a tuna can and transform it into a piece of jewelry or whatever. It was just always these ways of taking things that have no perceived value and turning them into works of art.”
He uses his own face as a canvas for these facial sculptures. Materials are arranged on his head and even glued to his face, using surgical glue. The final step is to take self-portraits of the completed work.
“For me, the beauty of photography is that it’s able to capture that moment,” he said. “When I’m working on a piece, it’s hours and hours with makeup and of glueing, and just looking in the mirror and figuring out what the next step is, because I never sketch or pre-plan on the day that I’m shooting. It’s always incredibly organic and very in the moment.”
He has been a full-time artist for close to six years, and before then worked for nearly 17 years as a makeup artist and trainer at MAC Cosmetics. He began creating facial sculptures while employed there, but eventually it became impossible to focus on his art and maintain a full-time job.
“If you look at very early work of mine, you’ll see that the makeup part of it played a larger role in the overall composition of the piece,” he said. “That was a direct correlation with the world I was living in. It was a way to transform your face into a work of art, and so makeup was definitely very present in terms of the composition. As the years progressed, makeup is still a part of it, but it’s more of a supporting role as opposed to the lead actor in it all.”
All the materials used during the creation of a facial sculpture are carefully removed from his face after the photographs have been taken and then stored in a box. He has already created about 300 different and unique facial sculptures.
“One day, down the road, I look forward to having a whole exhibition where you have all of those pieces on display so that one can really see all of the elements,” he said.
The exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current features a collection of large self-portraits, each highlighting a different facial sculpture. Several facial sculptures are displayed for the first time on gypsum busts next to photographs of the same work when it was originally created on his face.
It will provide visitors to the exhibition with an opportunity to see a facial sculpture up close and to compare it with the photographic image.
These unique self-portraits created from an assortment of discarded materials and found objects have attracted international attention. His work has been featured in Vogue magazine, he was the subject of a CBC documentary, his over 139,000 Instagram followers include Cher, and his 2019 art book Lyle XOX: Head of Design was designed by influential art director Fabien Baron.
His life goal is to pursue what he is truly passionate about. He believes it is important as an artist to feel a sense of joy and excitement when he creates.
“That’s why each of the pieces are completely different and unique,” he said. They have their own essence, because when I enter into a piece, it’s not about a formula. It really is about capturing the randomness that’s going on in my head and creating a sculpture that embodies what’s happening in my head. So there is always this sense of the unknown and mystery when I’m beginning a piece and that for me is very exciting.”
The exhibition LyleXOX: I. They. Mine. Yours… will be showing at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until Nov. 15. Admission is free and the gallery is open Monday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., and Tuesday to Thursday from noon to 6 p.m.