For our last AIR Reflection from Session II we turn the focus to Lauren Nickou. Currently a student at Queen College for her MFA, Lauren is an artist whose work spans a number of mediums, drawing, painting, photography, text, and video—but for Byrdcliffe, she primarily worked within the realm of traditional media, developing a series of paintings and drawings. What is noticeable about Lauren’s work is the use of oppositions and the juxtapositions of these oppositions—the organic vs. geometric, the adult world rendered by the child, the lewd depicted through colors bright and cheerful. Conceived from the spaces between these clashes, a dialogue emerges and the words, like music rich with melody yet whose lyrics are muddled and impenetrable, are both intriguing yet baffling. Sourced in these conflicting sentiments, there is much allure and power to be found in these pieces.
1. What have you been working on at Byrdcliffe?
While at Byrdcliffe I have been working on a series of paintings and drawings based on the study of two-dimensional objects as seen within a three-dimensional landscape. I began by constructing a setup in the studio composed of intersecting white planes that reflect light very intricately. Within this geometric landscape I placed a flat black shape, one quite reminiscent of a snake uncoiling itself, that could be bent and positioned in various ways to depict flexibility and movement. The resulting paintings and drawings begin as careful observational studies of the setup and gradually move away from this point of reference, becoming abstracted in various ways which often negate the shape or landscape altogether.
2. A lot of your work concerns organic shapes and the human body. Can you talk about your interest in these figures and the relationship they have with contrasting geometric landscapes you often position them in?
I place the organic forms and figures in my work into geometric landscapes in consideration of how we as humans spend most of our lives within a similar architecture. Living in New York City, I am constantly confronted by squares and rectangles, our whole world there seems to revolve around this repetition of right-angled shapes. But even when outside of the city, our interior lives are still very intimately related to these shapes. Most rooms are rectangular, like being inside a box, and we become so accustomed to life inside of this box that we no longer notice its presence or its effect on us. So I suppose, if anything, I am creating a very simplified and perhaps symbolic interpretation of this phenomenon, wondering what it really means to live inside of a box, and finding a way to navigate through it.
3. As evinced by the contrasting juxtapositions (the sexualized adult world depicted through childlike rendering) in your work, there seems to be a strong interest in contradiction. What role does contradiction play in your work?
Contradictory forces are definitely a theme for me, and something I have been working with for several years. I find that between things that oppose one another there can be a great amount of tension. I like to harness this tension so that it can lead me somewhere, like being pulled into new territory. But, like fuel, the same tension will inevitably run out of energy and dry up, so it is important for me to keep finding new ways to keep it alive within my work.
I find that the most fruitful contradictions are also the most dangerous and involve the most risk while handling. Like picking up things that are really hot to the touch. As you mentioned in your question, the use of childlike rendering to depict more sexualized adult themes can definitely bring about this sort of danger. Using contradiction as a tool is always unpredictable, it can work sometimes but also fail completely, and when it fails I think it can burn. But for me a work is not interesting when there is no risk involved in its making. I always want to feel like I’m on the edge of the unknown, like I could fall into it, and maybe at the best times, I do.
4. The mask is a potent symbol and can be interpreted to mean a number of things–secrecy, identity, solidarity, etc. In many of your works, the mask is a reoccurring symbol, appearing in several of your videos and as the title to an earlier painting series. Can you talk about your interest in the mask and how it functions in your work?
The mask also functions on a contradictory level in that I view it as a means to both create and disguise one’s identity. The mask is infinitely mysterious, and will never be able to function with a definitive intention, because behind it there is always something we cannot see or access. In this way, the mask is the ultimate reflection of the unknown. It convinces the viewer to guess at an invisible presence without ever revealing its true nature. What lies behind the mask cannot be penetrated, and the surface only hints at its depth.
My interest in the mask began early in my childhood and never really waned. I was fascinated by the power a mask could bring to its wearer, and the transformation that would occur both internally and externally. I remember having my face painted at the fair and feeling like I could leave my known identity behind and invent a brand new way of being. I felt safe behind the mask, concealed but also revealed.
In both my paintings and performances I use the mask consistently, although the implementation and meaning do shift depending on the piece. I always paint a mask over the face of the performers so that they can leave themselves behind more easily. The mask assists greatly in this transformation from their everyday life and persona to some otherworldly being, a being of my own visual imagination. Being able to work with performers has been the most liberating experience for the creation of my work because I cannot control them. I can give them a mask and tell them to stop being themselves without telling them who to be instead. And the result is always a surprise, the most exciting thing for me.