When Lilly McElroy posted her ad on Craigslist, she was very specific about what she was looking for in a man. She wanted someone tall, someone sturdy, someone who wouldn't duck or stumble if she gathered the force of her five-foot-three, 135-pound frame and threw herself headlong at him. In a month's time she got about 30 replies. She set up a few dates and always brought along a friend.
One of her first dates was at the Twisted Spoke biker bar in Wrigleyville. It wasn't particularly crowded and she easily spotted her guy at the counter. They exchanged waves, and while her friend scouted the place for a good vantage point McElroy approached him to discuss the arrangement. He was to stand in the middle of the bar and hold his ground as McElroy hurled herself at him; her friend would stand to the side and photograph the whole thing. Once everyone was in place, McElroy took a few steps back and leaped—arms back, chest forward—into the man's torso. The two connected in an odd chest bump and McElroy abruptly landed on her feet. It was over in a minute. McElroy thanked the man and started to walk away. "Aren't you going to at least buy him a drink?" her friend asked. "Oh yeah," said McElroy. "Hey, do you want a drink?"
The photos didn't turn out that night, two years ago, but McElroy has been seeking out men to leap at ever since. Some of the results, in an exhibition titled "I Throw Myself at Men," are currently on display at the Thomas Robertello Gallery in West Town.
McElroy, 28, studied photography and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of Arizona in Tucson, not far from her hometown of Willcox, and earned her MFA in photography from the Art Institute in 2006. Her work as a video, photo, and installation artist has been shown at galleries throughout the country. "I Throw Myself at Men" consists of ten 40-by-56-inch prints shot at bars throughout Chicago and also in Kansas City, where she's lived since fall of 2006.
"The idea for this project came from this really misconceived video I was working on," she says. A couple years back, McElroy convinced the management of Carol's Pub in Uptown to let her film herself wrestling a stranger from the crowd on the dance floor. "I have no idea why the bar let me do this," she says. "I have this really awful video of me wrestling this dude, and we took a picture of me sort of lunging towards him. The only good thing that came out of that project was that picture." It inspired a new photo series exploring the romantic dynamic between men and women that flipped the cliche of the desperate woman on its head. "Like I'm taking a bit of the desperation out and putting back the power of making a connection no matter what," McElroy explains.
She spent about a month meeting men through Craigslist, but by summer 2006 she was approaching men cold at bars and clubs. "I try to scope out men who don't look like they're on dates and who look like they can take a hit without dropping me or getting hurt," she says. Her opening line is usually a straightforward "Can I throw myself at you?"
She's thrown herself at about 30 guys now, and sometimes she'll do two or three in a night. "There's no way to stereotype who will say yes," she says. "I've thrown myself at guys who look like they've gotta be at least 21 because they're at a bar, to guys that are in their 50s and 60s." Occasionally men will approach her. When a rail-thin, clearly intoxicated man recently insisted McElroy throw herself at him, she relented. "I just really held back," she adds.
The man's role is simple. "I tell them to make sure not to bend their knees," McElroy says. "They have the option to catch me or not to catch me. I would say 80 percent catch me, and the rest just like to stand there and let me bounce off them." The scene is replayed several times for the camera. Only once has there been a mishap: "I fell and wrenched my neck and couldn't move it for days."
McElroy estimates she uses a roll of film per man, and generally just one photo from each batch meets her minimum requirements—a photo is good, she says, "as long as I get good air." And ideally it should look like a snapshot from a party.
The bulk of McElroy's art deals to some degree with reaching out to others. "I'm interested in creating connections with people, no matter what the context is," she says. "Either creating a connection with people, or making an experience out of something."
For her 2005 video project Hugs, she set up a camera near the corner of Adams and Michigan and filmed herself approaching strangers with arms outstretched for an embrace. "Most people were just kind of into it, or not," McElroy says. (You can see the various reactions on her Web site, lillymcelroy.com.) "There was this one lady, she sat there and watched me for about 20 minutes and then proceeded to interrupt my performance by giving me the biggest open-armed hug she could."
For a more recent project at the Roger Smith Lab Gallery in New York, Lilly Invites You to Come Watch the Sunset With Her, McElroy created a papier-mache mountain scene in the gallery's window at 47th and Lexington. She printed out invitations in advance, distributed them in the street, and mailed them to random people out of the phone book as well as to artists she admires, like Miranda July and Wayne Coyne. About 30 people turned up—the only faces she recognized of fellow guests at her hotel. McElroy served cake and hot apple cider and at the designated time, 5:13 PM, she slowly lowered her papier-mache sun with a pulley. It lasted about 15 minutes, start to finish.
"A lot of the project was me going up to strangers and giving them invitations," she says. "A lot of people were really made uncomfortable by that—just the act of me handing them something. I had a few people who wanted to chat about it, but a lot of people just wanted to get away from me as quickly as possible."
McElroy admits that if the roles were reversed, she'd likely have a similar reaction. "I think it's really important that I am the one doing the acting, being aggressive, instead of being acted upon," she says. "I suppose I try to make work in which I'm vulnerable, but not a victim. I like aggressive behavior."
She has no plan to stop throwing herself at men any time soon. "There's something really satisfying about just lunging at someone as hard as you can," she says, "and hoping that everything goes well."v