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Art In Conversation


On the occasion of her third solo show After the Storm, which will be on view till June 26, 2009, at Caren Golden Fine Art, the artist Nicola López stopped by Art International Radio to talk with Publisher Phong Bui about her recent body of work and more.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): I know that your mother’s side of the family has strong roots in New York. So how did you end up in Santa Fe?

Nicola López: My mother was born in New York, but moved to New Mexico when she was about 12, so she really grew up primarily in the Southwest, and my father’s family has lived in what is now New Mexico for several generations. I was born there and grew up in Santa Fe and it was really only through summer trips out east to visit with family that I started to know this side of the family more. In ’93 I moved to New York to go to college. In between, I also lived in Hawaii for 3 years, from ages 9 till 12. Honolulu seemed like a big city moving out from Santa Fe. Otherwise I was a Southwest desert girl in my early upbringing.

Rail: Were there any early impressions of seeing works of art, or spending time in museums, that got you thinking about the possibility of becoming an artist?

López: I can’t put my finger on any specific epiphany moment, but I was definitely very lucky in having parents who were interested in and supportive of the arts. My father was, among other things, a professional photographer before I was born, and has returned to it in recent years after having worked in arts administration at what used to be the New Mexico State Arts Division, and other nonprofit arts organizations in New Mexico. So I was always around art and it was a part of my world.

Rail: You went to Columbia University. What did you study there as an undergraduate?

López: Even though I had been interested in the arts growing up and I was lucky enough to have an excellent arts program in high school, I never really thought that I was going to be a visual artist. I didn’t really see making art as my main occupation; if anything, I thought for a moment that I might be a pianist. I was serious enough to take a year off from college to study it quite intensely, but at some point I realized that it wasn’t my road. Otherwise my main study was anthropology. I never had plans to be a professional anthropologist, but I majored in it because it was a field where so many interesting things crossed paths, including history, arts, art history, cultural studies, linguistics, and so on.

Rail: And you spent some time at the School of Visual Arts (Escola de Artes Visuais) in Rio, Brazil?

López: That was between my sophomore and my junior year, when I ended up taking six months off, and went to Rio. I had been studying Portuguese and wanted to put it into practice and get the larger scope of Brazilian culture. When I got there I found this fantastic school, as you mentioned, the School of Visual Arts in Parque Lage where I took some classes in life drawing, photography, and printmaking. I also did an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a really cool community of people at Parque Lage, and I think it was there that I felt a little bit of independence as an artist for the first time, outside of a strongly academic context.

Rail: Did you get a chance to visit Brasília while you were there? I’m just mentioning that because of the incredible collaboration between Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, which defined Brasília as a definitive utopian city of the future, and which resonates with what you have been doing in some ways.

López: I have never visited, but it’s high on the list. What’s interesting to me about Brasília is that it was a vision of a future that never really happened, and at this point that vision really belongs to the past. And yeah, I’m fascinated by that kind of slipping time where it was intended for the future as a part of the modernist orthodoxy, which has now been replaced by post-modernist and other contemporary ideas of architecture.

Nicola López
Nicola López "Factory-Fortress" (2009). Ink, watercolor, gouache, graphite, gesso, oilstick on paper; 40 x 93 inches. Courtesy of Caren Golden Fine Art.

Rail: So when you came back, you decided to continue your graduate schooling in printmaking, also at Columbia?

López: In the four years after finishing undergrad, I spent some time working on projects outside of the U.S., then came back and moved into a raw space, which my partner, the artist Gandalf Gaván, and I turned into a studio/living space. It was important for me to be outside of school for a while working on my own. By the time I was ready to go back to school, I started looking around at MFA programs near the city because I knew that I wanted to stay in New York. Although I had been there before as an undergrad, Columbia seemed like the best program for me.

Rail: In addition to Tomas Vu, the Director who runs the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, were there any particular artists that you worked with whose work or teaching methods you felt congenial with?

López: There were so many great people in the program. But for the most part the faculty that I’ve kept in touch with beyond school are probably the first people that I worked with even as an undergrad. They were Tomas Vu, Gregory Amenoff, and Jon Kessler, all excellent teachers whose work I admire and can relate to. Although Jon’s materials and his way of making things are obviously very different from mine, I relate to his work’s political content and the way he talks about the media- and technology-saturated world. It’s pretty beautiful and frightening at the same time. And what I identify with in Tomas’s work is the way that he builds up layers of imagery to create a world in which the organic and inorganic overlap. I think that we ultimately talk about similar things, although his world contains living organisms like plants and trees as well as satellite dishes and diagrammatic plans for space stations, while in my world the organic exists in the pipes and vents that twist and crawl as if they were vines.

Rail: The other difference, apart from his work being painting, is that his imagery is always floating in space, like a constellation, whereas your imagery is rooted on the platform of earth—you allow the dialogue between the printed page and the site-specific installation to feed one another back and forth.

López: Yeah. There is something very dream-like about his work. Mine is more about a physical—although often very skewed—reality. Anyway, Tomas once said something very dark and funny in reference to the type of news that fills the New York Times—how depressing the world is, everyone is going to war, the economy is collapsing, and so on—“Don’t worry about it Nicola, all of that will keep people like you and me in business. “There’s lots of material for us to work with.” [Laughter.]

Rail: That’s great. In any case, do you think that it was in graduate school where your idea of installation took place?

López: It was actually the summer of 2002 that I spent at Skowhegan [School of Painting and Sculpture] where I had taken a lot of materials just to do woodcuts, partly because it’s a little bit more mobile and you don’t need a press to produce the prints. What I did was to move them around the room and connect them to one another, but, instead of keeping the image within a rectangular format, I just let them go off the walls and the floor. In fact, I was looking through some old photos the other day and I saw some similar things I had made as an undergrad, so the thread was already there, but not until the Skowhegan experience did it really come together for me.

Nicola López,
Nicola López, "Relics" (2009). Woodcut on mylar. 9 panels; each panel 23.5 x 23.5 inches Courtesy of Caren Golden Fine Art.

Rail: Also, it seems that prevailing tendencies, with a group of artists working within a similar mode of thinking, was in the air. In the late 80s, there was an artist from the older generation, for example, Fred Tomaselli, who proposes an artificial, immersive world that accumulates all visual references, from both high and low culture; or Bruce Pearson, whose system combines the overlapping of very highly specialized text with layers of outlined images, yet painted with such amazing tonal range in each color in between forms; or James Siena and his probabilistic algorithm, which injected this intense compressed vitality in his formal construction of repeating patterns or interlocking lines. All of whom, I think, lay out a new territory for which artists of the next generation, including Tomas, Matthew Richie, Julie Mehretu, who in turn visualize further an imagined construct of various mappings. What I find interesting is that, while the former share a common interest in psychedelia and alchemy, the latter is more involved with technological resources. In other words, I don’t regard Richie’s installations as spatially fluid, since the paintings and what goes on the walls are being integrated. Except for Jason Rhodes, whose work was charged from his admiration for both Dieter Roth and Chris Burden. Whereas, from the pioneering effort by Judy Pfaff and Jessica Stockholder, that fed right into the work of Sarah Sze, Swoon, and yours, despite, again, the differences in form and content in each case, you all have a similar feeling for space site, specifically where the created objects and the environment become one.

López: It’d be hard to talk about all of their differences. In some ways, a lot of artists in my generation were the beneficiaries of what Judy Pfaff had done as early as the mid 70s. She definitely found a strong vision of her work and was able to carry it out through thick and thin. I was very pleased that she got the MacArthur in 2004.

Rail: Have you had any dialogue with her?

López: I actually got to know Judy through Gandalf, who studied with her up at Bard College when he was an undergrad, and I now teach there so I see quite a bit of Judy. She’s been very supportive of what Gandalf and I and other students of hers have been doing. Nancy Spero, who I don’t know, is another artist who has been very important to me and my work. I admire her tremendously as a woman artist who was so dedicated to her work during a time when few women artists were really being publicly recognized. I am drawn to the political content of her work and respect her as an artist for whom activism was inseparable from what she does in her art. I think that she is also really important in the history of printmaking in the way that she took the printed image off the page. She certainly did a lot of great work within that page-format, but she also did a lot of site-specific installation work where the prints were installed directly on walls, often putting her imagery into direct conversation with the architecture and other museum objects. Another artist that really has to be a part of this conversation about bringing printmaking into new territory is Kiki Smith. Although our subject matter is completely different, she has certainly done a lot of things with printmaking that have set the stage for what I am doing in that medium.

Rail: Yeah. We’re definitely in debt to Nancy and Kiki. Anyway, when and how did this apocalyptic vision of urban environment come about before you found the way to extend it in your installation?

López: Little by little. Again, it wasn’t just one moment when I said “Oh my God, it’s all about the city falling down around us.” [Laughs.] Perhaps my study of anthropology was my entry into that visual dialogue. I can look back to around 2000 when I was working a lot with maps, which overlapped with my interest in anthropology and its focus on how place and culture are experienced, understood, and communicated. Instead of writing ethnography, I was working visually. I realized that a map is really a document of a place that has the maker’s mind, experience, prejudices, and priorities completely embedded in it. In my map-imagery, I started with an overall vision of a world as seen from afar. You could pick out shapes that were like continents and urban clusters in earlier imagery, and slowly individual forms like buildings, streets, satellite dishes, and other individual objects became visible, zooming in to where you can finally see the infrastructure of each building—the steel beams, plumbing, electrical wiring, and so on. I also think that being in New York and spending time in other cities, which are such compressed, dense spaces with so many layers of built structures and history, has a lot to do with my fascination with the urban environment.

Rail: So you found your idea of deconstruction/construction as a visual equivalent of excavation in an anthropological sense?

López: In some ways, yes. I guess that building up layers of imagery could be like digging through the layers of cultural meaning or even the physical remains that an anthropologist or archeologist would encounter. Another discipline that has been important to my thinking is the broader field of architecture. When I was in grad school at Columbia I took a few classes in the architecture department, specifically in urban planning and urban studies. These classes gave me new ways of thinking about the urban landscape that I work with and how and why it is the way it is.

Rail: You spoke in the past of your work in reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which was the most expensive silent film ever made at the time of its release, and numerous books by science fiction writers, including Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard. Can you tell us when that all began?

Nicola López,
Nicola López, "Steel Embrace (4)" (2009). Woodcut on paper with woodcut on mylar collage, 23 x 23 inches Courtesy of Caren Golden Fine Art.

López: My interest in science fiction probably first began with my father giving me some Isaac Asimov books when I was in high school. All those books and films that you just mentioned are definitely among my interests, but I don’t think of my work as specifically science fiction oriented or science fiction derived. Everything you take in has some way of leaking out in what you make. Of those authors, even though I loved Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was made into the cult classic, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, I relate most to Ballard, not only for some of his specific narratives, but primarily for the fact that he deals a lot with what you were calling a post-apocalyptic vision.

Rail: Dick always referred to himself as a fictionalizing philosopher. The first book I read was Fourth Dimensional Nightmare, his first short story collection, which was published by the legendary British publisher Victor Gollancz, the founder of the Left Book Club, who also published George Orwell and Ford Maddox Ford, among others whose work had some leftist leaning.

López: That makes sense. I also love Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil, which evokes this rather darkly-humored state of totalitarian society and its extravagant deterioration. Its aesthetic has been an important reference for me.

Rail: How about Archigram, partly because of the similar approach to survival technology while sharing a vision of a picturesque future of machine age, yet quite anti-heroic and pro-consumerist to some extent?

López: I find Archigram, Super Studios, and other collaborative groups working around the same time in the 60s very interesting, partly because they were involved with envisioning an architecture for a “future-present” time. A lot of the ideas that groups like these came up with were also very optimistic, which is a feeling that I would like to have more of as I look towards the future. You mentioned “survival technology,” which is something that I think of in relation to disaster: it’s something that you would develop in preparation for some worst-case scenario. When we think about these scenarios, it is easy to get into a doomsday mentality, to dream up terrible disasters and to think of futuristic and fantasy-remedies that really have little to do with reality. The truth is that I don’t think we have to search that far. We really are in the middle of some pretty dark stuff right now, globally speaking, and we don’t have any magic technology that will save us. Our fantasy-scenario is actually the world around us today. To go back to the earlier on in our conversation, the slip between different times is really at the root of a lot of fiction in general. Many fantasy-futures are easily seen to be metaphors for our present reality; in Brazil, for instance, it is our familiar world that has just gone terribly wrong. I’m interested in this slippery time-frame that belongs to our current world, a vision of the future and the world of imagination. I want my work to allow us to see our present more clearly because we approach it first as some other time and then slowly recognize it as our own.

Rail: Have you read Donna Haraway, the cultural theorist and leading thinker about the love and hate relationship between humans and machines?

López: I’m not familiar with her work, but I’ve read Ray Kurzweil, whose book The Age of Spiritual Machines, among others, is a great one on the subject. Like the first one, The Age of Intelligent Machines, his short-term predictions in The Singularity is Near are about his concept of radical life expansion. I’m fascinated by his interest in the overlap between humans and technology and the developments that he sees as inevitable: whether it’s through enhanced biological intervention or through computer technology that takes a leap into artificial intelligence. The only issue that I wish he would have gone further with is the social implication of this scenario, how the various sectors of society might be impacted and what this could mean in terms of social equality—or inequality. Another author I admire, who absolutely takes the social dimension of development into account—albeit in a completely different context—is Mike Davis. A favorite book of mine is Ecology of Fear, which deals with how the landscape and population of Southern California has been shaped by real and imagined disaster (and its denial).

Rail: There seems to be a strong shift since your last show in 2007. I mean there’s less of a whole vista that features everything from swirling plumes of vented smokes to toxic spills and stacked televisions, among other industrial disasters. In this new body of work, which began with a show of a series of prints at Pace Prints last year, one sees more of a focus on structural elements, whether it’s the interior of a building, such as steel beams, or facades that rise up or fall apart. It’s as if there’s an effort of regrouping in order to solidify some fundamental part of post-Cubist structure. Do you think that’s true?

Nicola López,
Nicola López, "Bone Dry" (2009). Ink, watercolor, gouache, graphite, gesso on paper and photolitho on mylar collage, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Caren Golden Fine Art.

López: I think the shift in imagery coincides with a shift in my mode of vision that I was talking about earlier. The point of view in this recent work has gotten closer and closer and now we’re inside the buildings or right up next to the toppled structures, as opposed to seeing them from afar. For me, it’s another way of exploring physical space in a very distilled way. I wanted to create views into a world that has arrived at a moment of deep decay and I thought that making self-contained images—as opposed to installation—would be the best way to communicate this feeling of stillness and concentration. This doesn’t mean that I’m moving away from installation; I’ve been doing a lot of installation recently and there is more that I will be doing soon. But for this show, I felt that keeping the work itself physically constrained within the frame would help to give it the feeling of static silence that I was aiming for. This silence is not necessarily an ending point; it is tied to a larger life cycle of growth—if this show were a season, it would be the winter. I think that cities, including New York, all have cycles in which growth and decay co-exist and feed one another. A lot of the images in the show are of fragments of buildings from both the exterior and interior, shown in various states of decay—but it is a decay that follows what was obviously a tremendous amount of construction and even exaggerated growth. At the same time that this world is apparently falling down, it is also possibly lying in wait for a new season. For example, metal pieces in some of the works seem to be either smashed or perhaps beginning to curve of their own will, acting almost like a living organism that possesses its own regenerative energy.

Rail: Well, it’s a kind of metamorphosis for sure. For instance, if we look at a larger more complete drawing, like “Phantom Factory,” “Factory Fortress,” or “After the Storm,” we see the whole image is built by rectilinear structure, which is different than your early work, in which you allow more curvilinear forms to predominate. I also feel that there is a balance between the painted form and what is left unpainted, just showing the drawing on white paper!

López: That white paper space isn’t something that I plan consciously from the beginning of a drawing. I think that in these works it ended up functioning as a “still space” that is a moment of beginning and ending—the drawing is barely fleshed out, so it is the very beginning, but it is also like a structure that has been stripped down to its most skeletal framework at the end of its life. The absence of the curving, swirling motion and the dominance of the rectilinear I think also serves to slow these images down. They are not about the world at the height of its spiraling, break-neck pace. They are about a world past its prime, showing abandoned, ghost-factories, as in “Bone Dry.” I think that this slower pace is indicated in the more static composition and the fact that the drawing comes close to a full stop in those unpainted areas you were talking about.

Rail: That’s true. What about the group of nine pictures, called “Relics,” which I think function as alphabets of a larger language?

López: To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know where I was going with it when I started out, which is probably the case with most of my work. In these pieces I just wanted to make some very simple woodcuts on Mylar, and see what I could do with them. My initial idea was to try printing them and layering them up on top of one another, which I actually did in the “Steel Embrace” pieces, but when I printed them I was surprised with how they looked individually, and felt that they could exist on their own as a group. In some ways, they’re almost like details from the other images that are in the show. They are the most pared-down elements of building structures, like the bones that would be left behind if the flesh of the city were to disappear. I also like the way they operate between positive and negative space—it echoes the conversation about life and decay.

Rail: Yeah, that’s how I see them as well. I’ve been told that you’ve been taking a welding class. Does that imply that you’re intending to make your work into three-dimensional form?

López: Yeah, I’ve been taking this great class at the Third Ward out in Bushwick and I made a crazy looking attempt at sculpture. In some ways I think that it’s a very natural progression. I mean I’ve been working with installation in ways that have become increasingly dimensional over the last four, five years. A lot of these prints on mylar have actually been piling up on one another, dispersed into space and even hanging off of steel armatures, but as a whole, they’re still flimsy, and they’re still representations of things, as opposed to being actual objects themselves. So in a way it would make perfect sense to just make the things out of metal. But that’s a huge can of worms, which, once it gets opened, is a whole new world and set of issues to get into. It would completely shift the way that I address space and scale, among other things. We’ll have to wait and see—for now, I have to get better as a welder.

Rail: Can you relate to both Chris Burden’s and his wife Nancy Rubins’s dense and compacted sculpture? Although unlike his “Medusa’s Head,” Burden had also made more open and dispersed objects in space like “All the Submarines of the United States of America” (1987).

López: I find both of their work very compelling in form and in content. Formally, they both work with these dense and gnarly agglomeration of objects in a way that conveys a great energy and sometimes even violence, or at least urgency. I love the way that Rubins’s work is full of salvaged industrial and consumer products that are tied together to reveal this struggle between the materials and gravity. Although Burden’s sculptural work is more narrative than Rubins’s, they both speak to similar issues of consumption and waste, which is a conversation that I am engaged in too. In very different ways, both Burden and Rubins are talking about the way that human beings have shaped the world, but there is a complete absence of the human figure in their work.

Rail: So how does thinking about sculpture relate to what you think of this current show? Would that feed any stronger ideas for the welded form for the future?

López: I think that this show is more about basic structure than my work has ever been before. Part of that is a result of what I’ve been talking about, just getting closer in to this landscape so that you see the individual elements, and part of this is the pared-down nature of some of the works. I actually think that even in the more complex drawings that have a lot of imagery packed in, there is still a greater sense of structure in that it’s much more linear and there is a strong axis up and down of gravity. Where the imagery is more distilled—like in “Relics,” “The Space Between,” “Closing In,” and the four “Steel Embraces”—you see the skeletal structure very clearly. This structure is obviously 3-dimensional, described in 2 dimensions. I think that a lot of these images contain ideas that could be moved directly into 3-dimensional works. But I have to get a lot better at it first.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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