Nicole Awai, a Trinidadian born, Brooklyn-based multimedia artist has a distinct visual language. She works in a broad range of formats and materials including beautiful diagrammatic drawings, nebulous 3-D resin paintings, and mixed-media sculptures and installations that both resist and succumb to the force of gravity. Awai has a long list of exhibitions, awards and residencies beside her name including several seminal exhibitions, such as the first Greater New York: New Art in New York Now, at P.S. 1/MoMA (2000), Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (2007) at the Brooklyn Museum, and Open House: Working in Brooklyn (2004) at the Brooklyn Museum.
Art-Rated’s Sarah Elise Hall had the chance to sit down with her over the summer and talk to her about her work. She first saw her work at the Vilcek Foundation in 2011, and then again this year in the exhibition American Beauty at Susan Inglett Gallery.
AR: Every time I encounter your work I am struck by your diverse use of materials and what appears to be a visual codification of objects and imagery. You use symbols, signs, and everyday materials such as cosmetics, construction supplies and plastic flora in a way that sets up an expectation for a narrative experience. Yet the objects and imagery don’t contain the meaning I assumed or the signs are actually unfamiliar. It’s as though I am stepping into a drama that unfolded elsewhere and I am not privy to the language cues or the history, and I am left with a fragment of an unknown narrative. I want to project meaning onto what I see, or assume meaning and then I end up questioning my own associations and narratives.
Can you talk to me about the role of narrative and language in your work?
NA: I am pleased that you say that you look at my work and you question your own associations and narratives because that is the point, we fail to question the meanings we bring to what we see. Nothing is fixed. Things are always shifting especially ‘meaning’. The meanings of words expand and contract, they are stretched and assumed meaning is attached. Histories are recorded, retold, represented, re-imagined, re-envisioned and finally revised. We do not question the cannons, the codes, and the terms through which we have ‘learnt’ to see the world.
Early on in the drawing series Specimens from Local Ephemera, I was interrupting and re-directing cannons, language and the viewer’s perception. I was incorporating the familiar formats of blue prints and technical drawing. I inserted color bars consisting of nail polish that included the names that the cosmetic manufacturers assigned to each color. I called this the Sensation Code, a map legend of sorts that would randomly imply narrative directions for the viewer. I was starting with what seems familiar and therefore with what is assumed in order to redirect the reading.
I think that what remains consistent in my work is that I am interested in all interaction as a transformative experience, social and material in an attempt to create a more acute awareness of our present/presence that transgresses or transcends time and location.
AR: One point of access to this larger feeling of our present/presence in your work comes from a sense of location or geography. Passages in your imagery and the work’s undeniable physicality create an environment that immerses the viewer, yet the terrain lacks a specificity to tie it to one place or one moment. As you say, these environments transcend time and location; instead there seems to be a conflation of places or a compression of time, or maybe no time. It makes me think of memory and how it functions, where many things are possible at once, and things can be very fluid even when they are abruptly juxtaposed.
Does memory play a part in your work?
NA: I don’t think that I am actively thinking about memory in any singular or structured way. I am aware that history is always present and perpetual. There is an expectation by a viewer that when they encounter a work of art, there will be an experience of transcendent accessibility and connection regardless of the viewer’s variable condition. In other words, we have no control over anyone’s headspace or history, yet as viewers we have faith in Art as this entity. This really makes me think about the impetus for my recent works from the ‘Vistas’ series. Ideas finally coalesced in the secondary definition for the word vistas:
These are occurrences, physical and temporal, immediate and illusive, coming together and coming apart all at once. Now that I have had some time to reflect on my trip to the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad last summer (2013), I accept the power of this as a peripheral influence even if it was originally one that was a manufactured influence (I thought I had gone there as a child but realized that I had not. My reference must have been from my school textbooks). I know that this work is not about that site in particular but more that this place is a living, active representation of all life and all time. Asphalt is another petroleum related product that is literally the remnants of all of us, the decomposition of all flora and all fauna over the course of known time that keeps turning, churning and revealing at the same instance material and items randomly from yesterday and four hundred years ago. It is always present and perpetual.
AR: I think it’s strange and amazing how peripheral influences can have as much power as direct experiences in our lives. Geographical, cultural and political forces can seep into our unconscious and our consciousness and inform our experiences and imagination in so many ways. I found myself reflecting on the fact that you were born and raised in Trinidad but have spent most of your adult life here in the United States. There must be a multitude of cultural and political influences present in your life. How does the experience of being fully immersed in two different cultures manifests itself in your work?
NA: The experience of being immersed in two cultures made me into an acutely responsive artist. I became very aware of the activity and validity of multiple perspectives. I started going to college here in the US in 1987 and moved here officially in 1989. In hindsight, I am able to identify that my first decade in the US was very much an experience of dislocation. I was living in central Florida (at the time this region was very evidently the ‘South”). I quickly realized that I was being objectified as a Caribbean ideal. My interaction with people was not about them getting to know me but of me exemplifying their expectations, their projections. I was able to distance myself enough to be able to see the possibilities of multiple perspectives, multiplicity, duality, layers of meaning and understanding. I started to respond visually and conceptually to the things that people would say to me and objects that they gave to me, things that they thought I should know or understand about them and about what they thought or expected of me. I think that all of this was still having a resonant effect on the work that I made as artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1999-2000) as well as the paintings in the Indentifying Desire series and the initial work in the Specimens from Local Ephemera series. I am still a responsive artist but I am no longer in the disjointed place of dislocation, I think that I fluidly embody this multiplicity in my art conceptually and materially.
AR: Looking at much of your work I think about the experiential nature of it. As much as there may be visual references that create cultural and intellectual connections, overall the work has a physical power, placing the viewer into an arena that is sensory. But the sensory experience registers in a contradictory way. You pair the visceral with the cerebral, gravity with weightlessness and controlled materials with spillage. This creates an interesting kind of disorientation, emphasizing an ambiguity that is both felt and perceived. I’m wondering if this dislocated experience you create for the viewer is intended in some way to emulate your own experience?
NA: Acknowledging multiple perspectives is not about embracing ambiguity. Ambiguity is the easy way out, I am aiming for multiple perspective engagement all at once because this is the reality of the way that we experience life. There is always spillage, things are always in flux, time is not regimented or known, it is elastic, the past, present and future are happening at once. Disorientation is not ambiguity, disorientation is only the first stage of assessment and self-location. I am not trying to emphasize dislocation, this is not a productive place; there is more that our senses and psyche can perceive and accept.
AR: Yes, that’s a good point. Seeing things through opposition is often the fastest way to break things down, but in fact oversimplifies a subject or experience. In turn, the complex nature of our reality can be overlooked. In this sense I’m wondering how you place yourself within artistic disciplines? Your work is equal parts painting, drawing, sculpture and installation. Do the divisions between these disciplines matter to you? Are your concerns weighted more heavily in painting than sculpture for instance? Or does it matter?
NA: I have always thought of painting in an expansive way. Painting for me is not medium specific. It is a language/ gesture that is present and resonant beyond mediums. I have had a long engagement with Abstraction, not in the narrow parameters of Clement Greenberg’s Modernist ideal but in its initial, anticipatory and expansive possibility, the Abstraction that was responding to the technological and cultural complexity of the beginning of the 20th Century. For me, Abstraction is a fluid condition that artists move in and out of according to where they are Conceptually. My belief was justified and amplified in the late 1990’s when I read Peter Halley’s essay “Abstraction and Culture”, he articulated our condition succinctly and eloquently.
AR: In many ways your work seems to be a reflection of our everyday environment, but a broken down version with simplified abstracted forms and charged colors. Natural, industrial and linguistic references are present. The loose sense of familiarity that your work creates is inclusive and creates points of access to an otherwise abstract language.
The expansive way you talk about painting makes so much sense with your integrated use of materials and ever-evolving combining/recombining of these abstract elements. Both material and color are used in smart painterly ways, which brings me to my next question: What does color mean to you as an artist?
NA: Interesting that you should ask me what color means to me as an artist and not as a painter. This implies something more emblematic. Color’s agency is its multiplicity of meaning, function and sensory presence – it is all of that converging to have a spherical impact on the viewer. It may very well be the element that makes time and history malleable and immediate, a means of conveyance, the conduit. Color has never been a random occurrence for me. Color always implicates a ‘knowing’, an intelligence beyond the intuitive.
AR: Earlier you talked about our faith in Art as an entity, and the potential power that Art has to be transformative. The idea of transformation suggests an elastic quality within the art/viewer relationship, and since Art acts as a constant, the viewer becomes the unknown variable in the equation, the permeable factor. What role does the viewer play for you? What expectations do you have of them?
NA: We all want to be seen but are we really seen if there is no witness and is witnessing a passive engagement? No it is not, the viewer is active and agentive. I can give myself an orgasm but that ultimately is only what I know. When you participate in an orgasm with someone else – that is an expansion of knowledge that takes us beyond the limitation of our skin, beyond what is just reflected onto us.
Nicole Awai was awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant in 2011 and an Art Matters Grant in 2013. She earned her Master’s Degree in Multimedia Art from the University of South Florida. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and currently serves as a Critic for the Yale School of Art. Her work has been included in several seminal exhibitions, including the first Greater New York: New Art in New York Now, at P.S. 1/MoMA (2000), the Biennale of Ceramic in Contemporary Art (2003) the 2008 Busan Biennale in Korea, Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (2007), and Open House: Working in Brooklyn (2004), the latter two held at the Brooklyn Museum. Ms. Awai was a featured artist in the 2005 I.P.O. series at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Recent exhibitions include her Washington Square Windows installation Mi Papi, Dream On – Happy Ending… at 80wse Galleries NYU, Be Inspired! at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and American Beauty at Susan Inglett Gallery.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarah Elise Hall is a New York-based artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited with Janinebean Gallery (Berlin), the Drabinsky Gallery (Toronto), MUSE CPMI Center for Photography and the Moving Image ( New York), Islip Art Museum, ( Islip, NY) and Galerija Zvono ( Belgrade). Her work has been reviewed in Toronto’s National Post and Toronto Star, New York’s Huffington Post, and included in Michael Petry’s book, Nature Morte, published by Thames & Hudson Press.