By NOAH BECKER, OCT. 2017
I recently spoke with artist Nancy Oliveri about her ambitious Gowanus Canal photos and new book on the subject.
Noah Becker: Why Gowanus?
Nancy Oliveri: I started photographing the Gowanus Canal last January around the time of Trump’s inauguration. I had been documenting some of the protests and felt my pictures were inadequate to the occasion and didn’t come close to the shock and sadness I was experiencing.
Becker: Did you get any response to the photos?
Oliveri: Yes, one of those protest photos was eventually selected for the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards for women photographers and was recently exhibited in Barcelona, so it was my feeling of hopelessness and despair that I was experiencing, not he actual work. It was stressful to be around people then.
Oliveri: I wanted solitude and was suffering from depression so I and would wake up around 4 or 5 am and grab my camera and head over to the canal which is very close to my studio & home. Trump signaled the beginning of a roll on back EPA regulations, which was later confirmed by the appointment of Scott Pruitt, so I was feeling heartache about the environment. The canal had been designated a super fund site and there was now talk about how Trump made gains in environmental regulations – this was particularly perilous.
Becker: What were you looking for or trying to achieve?
Oliveri: I was hoping to find something as oppressive and disgusting and perverse as I felt, which I did, but I also found resilience and the sheer awesome power of nature. I was also thinking about beauty, toxic beauty and the seduction of people and things that appear to be beautiful and therefore we assume good.
Becker: That’s intense but I’ve always felt intensity from you. There must be something pleasurable within it?
Oliveri: Yes, I started to find pleasure in the forms and shapes and colors of the material I was shooting in the contaminated water which is full of radioactive waste, arsenic, e-coli, lead, raw sewage, gonorrhea and staph. The most important thing I discovered was that new microbial life forms had been discovered in the sludge of the canal - bacteria that were resistant to the toxins in the water.
Becker: And this was your discovery.
Oliveri: Partially, yes. I discovered a mesmerizing ecosystem and I ended up having a compelling dynamic relationship with it. First, I could sit and watch the tide come in and out carrying small islands of debris, cut flowers, mums and marigolds, pieces of plastic, condoms and seaweed, bottle caps, plastic bags. They formed stunning compositions and I would shoot them as the tides went by. Then, I discovered the wild life, egrets, jellyfish, geese, rail clappers, all dead and alive. The jellyfish were particularly amazing to spot because they have a unique propulsion system that actually breaks down oil in the water.
Becker: What does this symbolize for you?
Oliveri: They are a sign of hope and part of the solution. A family of geese would swim up to me and sit still for a few moments looking at me, and then swim away in formation. The place was full of magic and adventure and eventually I couldn’t wait to wake up and get out to photograph. I was also shooting the brilliant oil sheens on the surface, which created iridescent abstractions that rivaled any abstract expressionist oil paintings. The paisley shapes, orderly chaos and found patterns that appear to be composed by some intelligent design but are purely accidental in the relationship between the water and oil and a fact of nature.
Becker: So it’s all found and not a process of posing or staging things?
Oliveri: I didn’t stage any of these island debris photos or alter the images in photo shop for concept or content but I did use post-production to improve the photographs. I identify this body of work as documentary and fine art because it is all based on real information, history and authenticity of images
Becker: By the way, what is your artistic, professional and personal history?
Oliveri: I’ll be 60 in a couple of months and my life has gotten significantly better with age. I had a rough start, was an alcoholic as a kid, later drug addict and ended up in a treatment rehab for one year during my 20’s. I was later properly diagnosed and treated for bipolar, which has it’s advantages and pitfalls-but it’s well treated and I’m sober now for over 30 years.
Becker: Sounds like a major aspect of your life.
Oliveri: It’s an important part of my story because I attended and dropped out of several colleges before I finished an online program through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and finished with an art degree from the SUNY system. I had attended Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford prior to that. That was my introduction to contemporary art and it was at the time a primarily conceptual art school.
Becker: Who did you study with?
Oliveri: The faculty included big 80’s artists like Jack Goldstein and David Salle and we took field trips with them to NYC when Soho was full of fabric bins and smelled like spice I was, and still am in awe of them both. I took foundation classes with them but studied black and white darkroom photography and film making and that was the beginning of my love of photography. I had been in another college before that studying psychology but I would skip classes and sit in the art bookstores depressed and hung over all day looking at the great black and white photographers. So photography always had some deep healing power for me.
Becker: Were you based in Soho at one point?
Oliveri: I lived for couple decades in the East Village and eventually invested about 10 years training to become a licensed psychotherapist. I made art, paintings, ceramic sculptures but didn’t really start showing my work until the past 10 years. Now I have a private psychotherapy practice and I’ve been lucky to work with so many NY art world accomplished and successful gallerists and artists as patients.
Becker: Yes, you would have lots of crazies in the art world (laughs).
Oliveri: But really, I love working with creative people because they tend to bring creative solutions to the therapeutic relationship, they tend to be flexible and adventurous and usually are unafraid of their unconscious thoughts and conflicts. It’s very separate from my artistic work and I maintain strong professional boundaries which is how treatment works best.
Becker: Is this your first solo show?
Oliveri: This is my third solo show and I appreciate the opportunity to make a strong cohesive statement in a 1300 sq. ft gallery with director/owner of Ripe Art Gallery Cherie Via Rexer who amazingly allowed me total freedom in creating the exhibition however I wanted with her trust and steady support. Ripe Gallery is in Huntington Long Island, and they are unfortunately being run out of town, but I met her through NYC photographer & curator Ruben Natal San-Miguel who selected my work for a couple of juried group exhibitions held at Ripe Art Gallery titled “What is A Portrait?” and “Last Rites of Summer”.
Becker: That’s cool, what else is coming up for you?
Oliveri: I’ve been selected for numerous group exhibitions in the US and internationally but nothing compares to a solo show, it’s a gift for an artist and statistically women have been disproportionally represented in solo show representation in NYC, I think it’s changing now, but the solo means everything to me. This fall I was included in What the World Needs Now, curated by Anita Arliss and Ruben in Atlanta, in the Julia Margaret Cameron women photographers exhibit in Barcelona curated by Amber Terranova and the Pollux International Awards also in Barcelona and curated by Julio Hirsch-Hardy and a self-portrait show in Erie PA curated by Larry Walczak. Finally, I had a photo selected for PH21 Gallery exhibition “Portraits Without Faces” curated by Zsolt Batori and Krisztina Domjan which is the Budapest Gallery where I had a solo show in 2016 titled “American Dreams.”
Becker: So what shall we expect with the Gowanus show?
Oliveri: This exhibition includes 50 color, digital photographs taken in and around the Gowanus canal. They are sized at 16 x 20” and 8 x 10” prints and hung in clusters. I love this project and I’m so happy it will have a life and an audience. GOWANUS opens Nov 4 at 4-7 pm at the Ripe Art Gallery. It’s accessible by the LIRR from NYC as we as by car and ferry from CT. Ripe Art Gallery 1028 Park Avenue Huntington, NY 11743 631-239-1805 WM
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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