It was an astonishment for me, a few months ago, to see a survey of Nicola’s art assembled in a two-story gallery space: for many years I have, in a sense, lived in frequent proximity to a changing array of her paintings, functional art works, sculptures, and lighting effects, but to see them arranged into a kind of gesamtkunstwerk ratified in an unprecedented way my sense that Nicola is an environmental artist of a unique kind, one whose sense of life is both generative and critical, inflected with surrealist wit and an instinctive feeling for what is natural, life-preserving, and healing.
Although it seems almost obligatory to validate art of our time by characterizing it as “anxiety-making,” what Nicola does is not so much provoke anxiety as present its signs in what can only be called a good-natured way. Her feminist icons, symbolic of so much tragedy, violence, and heroism in human history, are presented with a strident, celebratory defiance, rather than the gravity of martyrdom: Ulrike Meinhof, Falconetti as Joan Pucelle, Eva Forest, Billie Holiday, and Rosa Luxemburg are not merely “tragic figures” but affirmative and necessary ones who have appeared at fortuitous moments in the evolution of human awareness. Rather than compose a dirge, Nicola contrives a tango between the oppressions of history and the defiant sensuality of living, of having convictions, conscience, and reason.
Her performance art really does “bring people together,” many people in the same skin, in a mysteriously profound yet ebullient way: in a plaza in Havana, along the Great Wall of China, at Bergamot Station in Los Angeles—these improvised choreographies have a visual beauty and stunning unlikelihood that I find vastly more engaging and authentic than the flapping clotheslines and umbrella landscapes of Christo, for this is art that doesn’t bludgeon the spectator with its artiness but changes the spectator into part of the art.
We live in our skin, inhabit our bodies, and Nicola, blessed with a tenacious loyalty to this knowledge, has given “anthropomorphism” a portability that allows it to travel from one kind of art to another, from a table that’s also something besides a table, a lamp that’s a primal beacon of human form, a sofa or chair that become parts of our bodies even when we use them as furniture. Nicola lives in a human universe, a world constructed by humans, and her work reclaims this humanity by reminding us at every point that our constructions emanate from within the envelope of flesh we inhabit.
“A Force of Nature” by Gary Indiana
NYC April 2006