‘I Take Something Without Value and Turn It Into An Object of Beauty’: How Lyle XOX Transforms Trash Into Extravagant Wearable Art

LYLE XOX, The Plastic Sarcophagus (2020). Courtesy of Kostuik Gallery.

Spoons, matchsticks, and ballet slippers are just some of the odds and ends that artist Lyle Reimer intricately assembles—and adheres to his face and neck—to create his opulent and genre-bending photographic self-portraits. The Saskatchewan-born artist, who works under the name Lyle XOX, spends hours upon hours cutting, gluing, and shaping various knickknacks, fabrics, and, what would be to anyone else, pieces of trash together and transforming them into couture-like visions.  

“Sometimes my mind doesn’t know what my hands are doing when I’m working,” the artist said of his process. His unique vision has made him an internet sensation with more than 150,000 Instagram followers, a book with Rizzoli, and projects for Gucci and Viktor + Rolf, and even a recent collaboration with FKA Twigs for Dazed. Still, he takes none of his success for granted. Reimer worked for almost two decades as a makeup artist and trainer for MAC Cosmetics before he started making the portraits that would bring him acclaim. 

With a new exhibition, titled “Intimate Specimens,” at Kostuik Gallery in Vancouver, Lyle XOX told us about his journey to stardom, the weirdest materials he’s ever used, and the artists who inspire him most. 

In your portraits, you wear these elaborate sculptural headpieces and face adornments that appear very high couture, but a closer look reveals that they’re made of found objects and recycled garbage. What drew you to these discarded materials? 

I grew up in a home where, before I was even going to kindergarten, I was doing craft days with my mom. We would make stuff out of literally nothing. I have this memory of my mom making this peacock one day out of a styrofoam egg carton. Remember those pastel styrofoam egg cartons in yellows and greens and pinks? Watching my mom, I was completely fascinated by the idea that I could take something without value and turn it into an object of beauty.

For many years you worked as a makeup artist and trainer with MAC Cosmetics. How did that career influence your portraits?

When I first started making the portraits I was still rooted in the world of makeup. In the very early images, cosmetic makeup played a more prominent role. Now they are very much in the world of sculpture as opposed to anything, with makeup still present but in more of a backseat role. 

How did you make the leap to a full-time career as an artist?  

When I started the portraits, I was making them in my bathroom. I have this very clear memory—it was a few years or so before my 40th birthday—and I remember thinking, “This is wild. All this is crazy. I’m approaching 40, in a bathroom, sticking things to my face.” People might see me and think I had a serious mental health issue but I could not have been happier. I could not even put a finger on the feeling of euphoria that I was experiencing, and I thought, “This is it. And nothing else.” I felt this mission to transition from the career I’d had for all those years, into something that for me was more fulfilling. 

As cliche as it sounds, I sent my resignation letter off to MAC, and I still have a very good relationship with the company, but within a week of sending the letter my book deal with Rizzoli came through. It was such a huge affirmation that I was doing the right thing. 

Who are the artists that most inspire you?
From art history, I think that the two who really stand out to me are Giuseppe Archiboldo and Man Ray. There is this blurring of the lines of grotesque and beauty that I love. As for contemporary art, I am obsessed with Wangechi Mutu, David Altmejd, Nick Cave, and Elliott Hundley. I remember seeing a show of Wangechi Mutu’s works at the Vancouver Art Gallery and to this day I don’t ever think I’ve walked into a room and felt so completely immersed in a world.

If you could own any artwork in the world, no restrictions, what would it be?
Oh my gosh. I could give you this giant list. But the one I keep coming back to is a work called Boundaries by
David Altmejd. I can’t quite encapsulate how I feel about it—it has so many elements, animal, human, inanimate. Owning that work I think would be like, you know, gaining access to keys to this surreal kingdom.

How do you find all these various odds and ends that you wind up making your works from?
People from all over the world send me these little boxes of curated garbage and with little love notes. Plus I’ve been collecting things for years and years. Anytime I go to a dinner party before I leave people will say, “Don’t forget your bag at the door!” and it will be filled with things for me to work with. 

What are some of the memorable things you’ve been given?
Vintage papier-mâché duck decoys, children’s orthodontic headgear, old bras from past coworkers. A lot of incredibly random things.

How do you begin a new work? Do you have an idea of where you’re going with it before you start?
When I’m working I’m trying to channel my random daily stream of consciousness and bring it into a tangible structure or form sculpture. The inspiration always starts with the objects. I’ll go into the studio and just start kind of playing around with things, thinking about a color story, perhaps. Maybe there are certain items that just instinctively I’m attracted to for whatever reason. I’ll start to put those pieces together and then suddenly it will start evolving.

There are days in the studio when I don’t even know what my hands are doing. My hands are just cutting and gluing and painting and doing I don’t even know what. It feels like an out of body experience. Suddenly a new wave of thought will happen. And I’ll put one thing down and pick up something else. I have all of these pieces that I’ve created all over my work station. Numerous pieces will sit there for months and then I’ll come back to them and add to them in one way or just sit with them for a bit.

Then the day will come when I decide to actually shoot them—that is another experience. I’ll spend five or six hours in makeup. I’ll just sit there in the chair with these large mirrors in the studio and hold up part of the sculpture up to my head and move it around to see where it might go. People always ask me if I sketch things out beforehand, but there’s really no mission, it’s very organic. And so when it’s done, I just know. Then I go into another room and I shoot hundreds and hundreds of pictures.

You make these little written annotations for each work—they read almost like a narrator talking about a character in a book or a movie. How do you come up with these stories? Do you work with a character in mind?
I mostly come up with those ideas after I’m done shooting the images. I’ll take off the makeup and works and then I’ll have a shower. Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but I love being in the water and when I’m there these random character stories will come to me. I like this weaving of humor and a kind of irony or wit into the works. When I come out of the shower, I’ll take a piece of scrap paper and scribble it all out. It’s not so concrete. I think it’s more like wringing out a mental sponge; the words capture the essence of a story created by the visual picture. Sometimes when you’re reciting a dream to your friends, there are parts of your dream that make no sense, but they are part of it even so. 

Do you have any memorable stories about any of the works on view in your current exhibition?
One day I was at the studio and I received a box from [the artist] Douglas Coupland. He had sent me a Boy Scouts blanket that was covered in all of these badges. As soon as I opened the box it was just instant inspiration. I went and grabbed the scissors and instantly began cutting.

A couple of weeks later, Doug came by the studio to see what I was working on. I had made a video of me making the work with badges. When I showed him it, he said, “Oh my gosh. I have to show this to my friend, David.” The blanket had actually come from this friend, whom I’d never met. The next morning I woke up this message from the friend, David, saying “I want to purchase that piece.” With sizes and everything. He hadn’t even seen the finished piece just this video. The back story is that the blanket had been his father’s, who had been a scout leader, and who had passed away recently.  He’d given this blanket to Doug thinking that Doug would use it in his work. And then Doug never did and gifted it to me. In the end, the work wound up being delivered to David’s door on the anniversary of his father’s death. When I heard that I burst into tears, to be able to a part of that emotional connection. 

Intimate Specimens” is on view at Kostuik Gallery through October 10, 2020. 

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