LARA NICKEL: First, I think it is important to explain that I paint life-size oil paintings of an entire plant, animal or object on stretched canvas. They are all realistic, have white backgrounds, and are displayed much the way the subject of the painting would be in reality (standing on the ground, up high, behind something, etc.).
As a result of these tactics, the subject of the painting is pushed forward into the room, making the room itself the setting of the painting and making the painted image of the subject appear as if it is actually in the room with the viewer. This makes the painting object-like. This idea of painting-as-object is in some ways similar to works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, or Jo Baer. However, I am interested in how a painting can act like an object yet still have a representational subject matter.
the PRODUCT DIVISION: Why are you drawn to the natural world (plants, animals) to explore painting-as-object?
LN: Painting-as-object is a complicated and layered idea and I do not want to distract from that idea by using a too loaded subject (such as anything that has to do with humans: politics, race, gender, religion, emotions).
I often paint plants and animals because they are more anonymous and, therefore, more versatile and playful than other subjects. This is not to say that we do not have certain connotations about plants and animals - some are exotic, endangered, ugly, domestic, or majestic; some have their own history within an art context. However these things either add to or are flexible enough to allow room for my other interests in art which revolve around how to make painting behave more like an object.
An example is my recent series of Plant paintings. As plants are naturally very sculptural I decided to emphasize that quality by displaying the paintings in a more three Dimensional way - jutting out from the wall, obliterating a corner, one painting too close to another - the way plants behave in real outdoor/indoor spaces.
Or, Zebra + Straw which involves three separate paintings: the zebra is hung on the floor, flat against the wall, with two paintings of straw displayed flat on the ground in front of the zebra's face. The three paintings interact with each other on various viewing surfaces and viewing angles. The way these paintings are displayed affects where and what the actual focal point of a “traditional” painting is (“traditional” meaning stretched canvas, rather than murals/cutouts).
tPD: Are the subjects in your paintings always to-scale?
LN: Yes, my paintings and drawings are always to-scale and anatomically correct. I am very careful about measuring and researching my subject before I start painting it. This is an important aspect to my work as I am working between the traditions of illusionistic painting and painting-as-object. The fact that my paintings are realistic and life-size enhances the idea of illusion (pictorial space) and at the same time enhances the idea that this is a real thing which exists in real space and time (physical space).
tPD: Do you consider yourself first and foremost a painter?
LN: I consider myself a painter, though I would use the phrase "installation-based painter". Half of the meaning of my paintings comes from the way they are installed and interact with a space. Without this installation side to my work my paintings would be boring - they would become simply portraits of animals and plants. I do not consider myself an installation artist however, as I am working to change the way people interact specifically with painting. I want people to bend over a painting, to search for it, to look around a space, to perhaps not find a painting but to know it is there somewhere. Even if it is subtle, I want my paintings to activate the spaces they are in - to make the walls and floor and ceiling play an active role in the viewer's experience. I am trying to keep painting from becoming simply decoration and the wall simply a place to decorate.
tPD: Why did you choose painting as a medium vs. photography or sculpture?
LN: I am not drawn to the process of painting. Painting is slow and tedious and I am just like anybody else - I want instant gratification. But the more I learned about Art History and Art Theory the more I wanted to be a painter. Painting has a lengthy and established history, full of expectations about how and where and what a painting should display. Rather than contradict these inherited rules, I am interested in the ways in which I can play with these rules and highlight the aspects of painting which are largely overlooked and yet have existed for hundreds of years.
So why am I trying to make painting object-like, why don't I just make a sculpture?
A painting can be both an object and a window into another world; a sculpture can only be an object. When painting addresses the fact that it is three dimensional - when it addresses its own materiality - it has the ability to exist in our world while existing in its own. This is a powerful and awkward quality which I still do not fully understand. Painting has so much unexplored potential and that alone makes the tediousness of creating it worth it!
tPD: As a culture of materialism we seem to be obsessed with representation and authenticity, would you agree?
LN: We are obsessed with creating art, whatever form/style it may be, to represent our ideas and emotions. One of the reasons we even make art is in an attempt to make our abstract ideas and emotions into something tangible - to try to make a way for ourselves to be conceptually and physically closer to them. In this sense all art is representational and is very important to us as a culture.
I think we are obsessed with wanting things to be authentic and believing something is authentic when it may not be. We are trying to make things more interesting than they actually are, especially in the art world. Most "true" and "original" ideas take a lot of time to find and then take a lot of time to develop and refine - and then it takes a lot of time to articulate this authentic idea in an authentic and relevant way. Most of us are not willing to wait, to do the work, to spend the time, we are lazy and ultimately afraid to fail. But the real interesting artists have taken their whole lifetime building and rebuilding off of just a couple core, authentic ideas. "Rome wasn't build in a day".
As far as my own art is concerned, I hope I am allowed the time to build something authentic and which represents my ideas accurately. I hope I can build a place for myself in the history of art - something that will survive history. I hope I can look back on what I've made and say, "I built that pyramid", "that is my Rome" - and I hope that feeling will beat any kind of feeling of instant gratification. I hope I won't be afraid to work like a dog for this.
tPD: Have you faced any challenges in presenting the work in the unconventional way you’d like to? Does painting still carry a lot of traditional expectations?
LN: There have been several artists in the last 150 years who have offered powerful alternatives to the way we understand and interact with painting, but these artists were/are breaking away from the tradition, not trying to destroy it. Briefly, this tradition is that painting should be hung flat on the wall at eye-level, be well lit, framed, act as a window into another world or have some sort of transcendent/transportive quality, and should be preserved because it is precious. Yes, these expectations are alive and well and live in a fortress!
Many people like my paintings on a basic level - they are seduced by their realism, by their accuracy. They may not understand immediately why I insist on presenting them in an unconventional way (flat on the ground, partially or completely hidden, perpendicular to a wall), and therefore they resist that mode of display. If something is well made why would I want to complicate the way you view it? Isn't the point of visual art to see it and to see it clearly? Many people want my work to be decorative, they want my work to be hung over a couch, to be lifted up off the ground, to be framed, to be better protected from the daily things in life (such as sweeping, children, and pets). But my work is not decorative, it may be beautiful, but it is not decorative - and that is where people get confused.
I am making painting which references how we have interacted with art throughout history, and that is largely through the setting of the museum. The museum has taught us how to look at art, how to display, preserve and explain art. This is the historical "home" of art and it is this type of setting where my painting works at its best (as this is where the tradition of painting thrives and that is what my painting references). The gallery is a misleading place, its facade is the image of a museum (a clean, neutral space), but ultimately the point is to sell the work and the buyer will take the work home (which is often not a a clean and neutral space). This makes my work difficult from a sales point of view but I'm not willing to compromise my concepts. You have to take responsibility for your work, for what you put out into the world, and that means following through with an idea even if you are met with doubt and resistance from others.