Nicola L at Elga Wimmer PCC
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, Nov. 2016
This second solo show of French-born, New York-based sculptor Nicola L at Elga Wimmer’s gallery presented items from two major bodies of work: a set of heads and the artist’s well-known Penétrables, outsize vinyl bodysuits with openings for the head, arms, and legs. As an artist, Nicola L is never very far from self-referral; but, also, she extends her forms to include not only herself, but people in general. This does not mean she generalizes; rather, she puts forth an argument for a common humanity recognized by the implications of her art. Active first in the Sixties, the artist has gone on to involve people in planned performances wearing the body capes for which she is well known (in the previous show at Wimmer’s space, there was a photo of 12 people in a performance in Cuba, wearing one cape with 12 head openings). But the success of Nicola L’s career is really based more on sculptural accomplishment than performance art. She belongs to a more exciting time, when boundaries were stretched and doors flung open in the Sixties and Seventies. Part of the burgeoning awareness of her decades’ long career has to do with a greater sensitivity in recognizing women active earlier in contemporary times, who have not received their due.
The force of the outsized profile heads cannot be denied. As a group, the heads communicate a genuine sense of tactile reality; without speculating excessively, their silhouette reminds one of the features of Charles Baudelaire, the great 19th-century French poet, although this was likely not the artist’s conscious notion. Additionally, the works emphasize materials rather than a person; all three are done in 1991, and their titles have the names of their primary element: Earth, Forest, and Fire. The Earth and Forest heads, really meant to be seen on their flat sides—they are only a couple of inches wide—are wonderful studies in texture, while the Fire piece is made striking by the use of individual candles, supported on six thin steel strips that extend across the head’s outline. The spiritual element of this particular sculpture is striking.
As for the Earth and Forest heads, they offer a remarkable tactility based upon natural materials. Seven feet, four inches tall, they are monumental designs intended to startle Nicola L’s audience into an awareness of nature. All the heads are reduced in form to the simplest of silhouettes; the nose and the mouth are indicated in outline, but there are neither eyes, nor ears, nor hair. Instead, we are faced with an idealization of the heads’ form. It is the surface we are meant to study—Earth, composed of oil and wood as well as dirt and other materials, has a patinated exterior that keeps the earth from fragmenting. The sculpture is both rough and smooth in places, and viewers may well feel a real temptation to touch the piece. Supported by a square metal platform and two bars, the work, like Forest and Fire, seems to lift up into the air. The surface of Forest is even more packed with natural materials; a mixed-media piece like Earth, this work is covered with a layer of wood pieces and leaves. Its exterior reminds one of a forest floor, and offers a genuine piece of nature, situated within the cultivated space of a gallery. It, too, is marvelously tactile, joining the outside world to an image demanding contemplation.
The three works described above fill the center of the long gallery, while the Penétrables—cape-like suits that are hybrids, being both a soft sculpture and painting—are hung flat on the gallery’s side walls. Earth is made of burlap, with a marvelously primitive head presenting three holes for the eyes and mouth. Across from it, on the other wall is Ocean, which is highly similar in design and is meant to be a companion piece to Earth. Made of bright blue vinyl that reflects the light, Ocean is intended, I think, to heighten our awareness of ecological issues just as Earth is meant to do. While these are not costumes to be used in public performances, they do remind of the wearable sculpture she used in staging actions outdoors; they can also be related to Brazilian artist Oiticica’s Parangolés (his habitable art). The Penétrables thus celebrate nature and humanity’s interaction with it. Other Penétrables, such as Sun, Moon, and Ocean also honor the elements, with the color of the work reflecting its title. This is art to live in. Mirror Head, created this year, returns the audience’s gaze, including them as part of the sculpture. Seeing oneself exactly reproduced in a work of art—the head is entirely a mirrored glass surface—brings up the challenging idea that the viewer belongs to the piece. Nicola L, a free and egalitarian soul, is returning the gift of her creativity to her admirers. It is an inspired decision on her part. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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