Adhoc Interviews

Encountering the Invisible Presence: Keith Lemley


Keith Lemley is a sculpture artist whose work focuses on creating an informative relationship between object and space and challenges the physicality of material presence. Many of his works are made up of opposing forces of ephemeral light and structural woodblocks that unite in a metaphorical existence of natural systems. His background in science and engineering is reflected in the unique synthesizing of media that portray scenes from nature and memory and inspire a sense of exploration for the viewer.

Artist Statement:
“I focus on the potential of materials and environments to be more and different than how they are currently perceived and understood; fulfilling an innate desire to explore, discover, share, and think. Drawing attention to physiological systems of vision, thought, and memory, I am interested in making conspicuous our abbreviated and abstracted understanding of reality, time, and identity. Initially capturing attention through formal means, the content of my work then enters the cognitive as one actively relates this experience with those already held in the mind as memory. At this juncture of feeling and thought meaning is produced. By delaying this process through reorganizing the fabric of the everyday into the unusual, a heightened sense of the present is felt. Ultimately, one walks away more self aware and delighted in everyday visual ephemera and the experience of being a living breathing being.”


Past Presence Cedar, hemlock, and oak root masses, white neon 2014
Past Presence Cedar, hemlock, and oak root masses, white neon 2014
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you are currently working on?
I grew up splitting my time between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. As a kid, I spent a lot of time tinkering on my grandparents’ farm and earned the nickname Mr. Fixit. I think that translated into my love of objects and sculpture.
I just finished a large body of sculpture and installation that was exhibited at Mixed Greens.
Currently, I’m preparing to spend five weeks in Berlin making a body of photogravures from abstracted digital images of my sculpture. It’s a process I have not tried before, but am really excited to see what idiosyncrasies show up while doing it, and also to be totally immersed in another place and culture.

Where did your interest in art come from?
I think it came from exploring. I started in college as an engineering major, until I took an intro to art history class as a general education requirement. I couldn’t get enough of it and packed my schedule with studio classes the following semester. But the influences of science, engineering, and architecture classes are still forces in my work.

Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015

Who or what were your greatest influences that lead you to pursue art?
I am lucky to have had amazing professors and mentors at both Penn State and UW-Madison. I’ve also had an incredibly supportive family. In art, I’ve always found an engaging and supportive community of fellow artists that have been huge influences too.

I strive to create an artistic experience that you are aware is imprinting on your memory in the same way – it is sensorial and physical

This doesn’t have to be related to your artistic influences, but what art movement or artist is particularly interesting to you, whether it’s viewing or studying or both?
I am really interested in Land art and environmental art – which play with ideas of exploration and scale. I am an avid hiker and love that moment of coming to a vista when hiking, and looking out over miles and miles. I strive to create an artistic experience that you are aware is imprinting on your memory in the same way – it is sensorial and physical.

Aboreal bt Keith Lemley at Mixed Greens
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015

When you take a break from creating or brainstorming in your work and remove yourself temporarily from being an artist, what activities do you do in your free time?
I’m always tinkering with something – working on cars, motorcycles or other mechanical equipment or working on my family’s orchards. I also love to cook, read, and travel.

What made you choose to study fine arts, specifically sculpture, at university institutions such as University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania State?
I originally went to Penn State because it is a huge university with nearly every major imaginable and it is surrounded by a large national forest as well as many state parks. Being able to get out of town to go hiking, mountain biking, or camping every weekend, was important to me. I took some time and several switches of my major before I found art, but once I did there were really great faculty with whom I’ve built lasting relationships. When I was considering graduate programs I knew right away UW-Madison was a place I was excited to spend several years working – there is a large and diverse faculty with national reputations, fantastic facilities with every process I could imagine, all overlooking a huge lake.

How did your studies at these university institutions you attended change or create significant growth in your artist practices that you can see now reflected in your work?
First, they are both research institutions and my personal interest in science and related working methodology fit very well with that. At Penn State I had my first exposure to installation art – this didn’t show up in my own work very much until years later, but I think that is where the seeds were sewn. There wasn’t a formalized glass area, but through an experiment between the art department and the materials science department I was able to learn glass blowing. This influenced my decision to continue my studies at UW-Madison because they have such a wide array of facilities available including a great glass area. It turned out that they are one of the few programs that offers neon, and that availability has had a huge impact on my work.

Aboreal bt Keith Lemley at Mixed Greens
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015
Dreams of an Ideal Galvanized steel, metalized polyester, gold neon 2013
Dreams of an Ideal Galvanized steel, metalized polyester, gold neon 2013

How do you identify with your works?
All of my work comes from a personal narrative, but ultimately I think a lot about the viewer’s experience and they way they perceive and navigate space.

What role does the viewer play in your work and how is this role different when viewed online and when exhibited?
Because my work is primarily experiential and installation based, the viewer is an integral component. One needs to walk through it, and see it change around oneself while navigating and exploring it physically. I see the role of the viewer as an explorer. The documentary images online can never replicate the experience one has when seeing the work in person, just like images of the Grand Canyon, space flight, or even our own backyards cannot compare to the lived experience of actually being there.
The installations also become shared experience with the other viewers who are there simultaneously.

Ecstasy of Knowing Gold neon, gold metalized polyester 2012
Ecstasy of Knowing Gold neon, gold metalized polyester 2012

Reading your current artist statement, you reference your interest in creating works that challenge existence with an “invisible presence.” Tell me a little bit more about how your works fulfill this statement, in your opinion, and how you see it progressing?
Our minds form connections with our surrounding environment over a lifetime of experience – the viewer brings all of those experiences with any given material or object to all new encounters. I consider all of that information – all that we know about spaces and objects – an “invisible presence” that we bring to all new encounters, in art or otherwise. My work subverts or shifts what we think we know about everyday materials, objects, and spaces, by using it in simple yet surprising ways to transform our perceptions.

Many works are strongly affected by the space they are in. Has an exhibition space ever been an issue in executing your work?
I always try to visit the space beforehand and use the particular architecture of that space to my advantage. It is always a challenge, but one that I look forward to and is integral to the overall artwork.

Aboreal bt Keith Lemley at Mixed Greens
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015
Aboreal bt Keith Lemley at Mixed Greens
Arboreal Chestnut oak, white neon 2015

How does a unique exhibition space give or take away meaning of your work?
All of my installation based work is specifically created for the exact exhibition space where it will be. I work with the architecture, history, use, and future of each space in formulating the work. It is a collaboration between the reality of the space, and my personal vision for what should inhabit and take place there. If it is shown in multiple spaces it always changes in some way in the next space and that builds upon the history of the work as well as the location.

I work with the architecture, history, use, and future of each space in formulating the work

You work with very unique media that, I imagine, can also possess unique challenges. What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced in working with your media?
Because it is hand formed from glass, neon is simultaneously durable yet fragile and can be time consuming to set up and install. Also, I tend to work very large which can be a challenge.

More importantly now, what do you love about working with your media?
I work with materials that combine my interests in art, science, engineering, and architecture. I love bringing all of those fields together to create a cohesive installation.

Supra Force Neon, hardware 2014
Supra Force Neon, hardware 2014

Many artists have to face the challenge of exhibiting their work with others in group shows, which means having their work displayed in communication with another. I saw your work at Mixed Greens with paintings by Mary Temple, a very complimentary paring, in my opinion. What are some artists you can recall being exhibited with that you feel complimented your work in a successful exhibition?
I have had the privilege of exhibiting with so many artists whose work I admire that I couldn’t possibly name them all. It is always a pleasant surprise to work with other artists and see the dialog that develops between our work.

The Woods White neon, tree stumps 2011
The Woods White neon, tree stumps 2011

What goal have you set for yourself as a working artist that you are currently pursuing?
My main goal is to keep creating and showing my work. It is also important to me to keep participating in residencies to grow and continue pushing my work.

Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
It is hard to predict – I take it one step at a time. I see myself continuing to work in installation and to push myself so that the work continues to evolve.

What current event have you heard of lately that has been either meaningful or significantly interesting to you?
I am really fascinated with research surrounding the Large Hadron Collider. A few years ago the pursuit of the Higgs boson particle entered popular culture in a big way, and now that it’s been found, the search just resumed for whatever is next. That never-ending exploration of ourselves, our backyards, and the universe in pursuit of the next discovery, is an essential quest of being human.

Super Blue Root masses, white neon 2012
Super Blue Neon, transformers, hardware 2012
Something and Nothing White neon, Elm logs 2010
Something and Nothing White neon, Elm logs 2010

Keith Lemley’s work is available through Mixed Greens in New York, New York.

Arboreal images by Etienne Frossard courtesy of Mixed Greens, all other images by Keith Lemley.

If you would like to see more of Lemley’s work in person, there is currently an installation on view at Summerhall in Edinburgh, United Kingdom until May 22, 2015. At the moment, he is preparing for a two-person show this summer at 55 Limited in Berlin, Germany, and this fall his work will be on view in an upcoming show at ROY G BIV in Columbus, Ohio.



Last modified: May 9, 2015