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An Interview with Erin Jane Nelson

"There's always this closet of shit ready to be dropped out at any moment, for any need."

by Kyle Laidig
Jul 2 2014, 3:10pm

When I first encountered Erin Jane Nelson’s work I was confused. Her work is disparate: everything from flirtations with experimental Japanese theatre to meditation videos and even a foray into the construction of bird toys. What really blew me away though were her photographic collages. They feel at turns both intimate and highly abrasive, quiet and humble compositions often sheathed in vibrant plexiglass. There is little regard for the “sanctity” of the image, heavily manipulated, and yet the work is reverent to the look of traditional film photography. The spirit of Erin’s work emanates from within these discrepancies, these seeming contradictions.

Having grown up in in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA, Erin subsequently moved to New York City to study at the Cooper Union. Upon graduating she moved to Oakland, CA, where she lives and works today. I sat down with Erin recently to discuss attitude, the archive, and the Big Apple.

VICE: So why did you leave New York?

Erin Jane Nelson: I moved to New York a week after I turned 18 after living in the suburbs my whole life. Obviously the change was really distinct and intense. I simply did not understand the ways in which art is hugely social, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. It quickly became apparent that I was way behind the curve in terms of my knowledge of contemporary art—I only really understood it through this teen-girl LiveJournal identity that was so fantasy-based. I knew that I wanted to grow from being in New York, but I felt ill prepared to fit into an accepted mold, even though I tried. But I also felt ill-prepared to be resistant; I didn’t feel I had the language or the self assurance. I’m almost 25, and I feel as though I am just now able to get back to a groove with my work that feels great. I have a routine life where I spend most of my free time making things. I have an amazing small core of peers in Oakland, and without them I would probably still be very confused and aimless in my making and identity. 

So leaving New York was related to a need for control over your engagement with both cultural and social stimuli?

I definitely knew I needed space from it. Lately I’ve been feeling ready to engage in a more global or "tapped-in" space again.  I feel that I need access to more immediate culture, even if the social aspects of it continue to give me anxiety, I feel better equipped to process those feelings and not let it dampen my studio practice.  When you’re young and you end up in a competitive environment your identity, becomes about style, attitude, bravery. I feel like what I produced from within that atmosphere was tepid and boring. I spent a lot of time being scared but hungry. I do not feel that way anymore. I’m also not 19 anymore. I think trying to be young and learn while also getting to know New York bred a lot of anger and energy in me that I’ve been processing through imagery and language. I try to do this with the least degree of blame, but sometimes I feel like a huge hater.

Haters don’t make anything. You seem interested in the creative possibilities of destruction. You described your collages to me as the result of slowly destroying your personal archive of images. Can you talk to me about your interest in archival practice, both personal and professional? You work as an archivist for Fraenkel Gallery.

In my personal work, ideas of the archive have become less present, or rather the aesthetic of the archive as I think it’s understood. I can think of two shows I saw in New York that had a major impact on how I was thinking about the archive: one was WACK!, which was the huge feminist survey at PS1, and the other was Archive Fever, which was at the International Center of Photography. Both of those shows happened my first year at school. Politicizing an archive to me seems like an interesting domain. Incidentally, I ended up digitally archiving as a job, I don’t quite know how it happened. Throughout my life, it has been important to learn as much as I can. Similarly, an archive can be a way of having a tangible body of information. A lot of what I do with archiving is about  knowing how to access huge amounts of visual information at one time which, for me, is related more to ideas around big data, the economy of downloaded information more than it is about a sensitive room filled with manila folders.

Yeah, it’s more about a networked understanding of the world.  You see your collage work as a means of destroying your personal archive?

Sure. The work that I am making now is essentially mining things I shot as a student. When I left NYC two years ago, I sold all of my film cameras. I very much quit photo. My book with Nick Gottlund was published in 2012, and was this sort of sad photo essay about the West. Very much like, “Here’s where I’m going, don’t try to find me.” I was moving around a lot and didn’t have the means of producing new projects. I had a point and shoot digital camera and my laptop, and I was feeling all the things you feel when you dramatically leave a place and you begin looking back at your own work, condensed onto a computer screen. Even after being away from a photo scene in New York for two or three months, I very quickly felt like I didn’t understand my own work anymore, or wasn’t connected to it. So I started reprocessing those things through various filters, literal and conceptual.  The collages started out being very much about reworking iPhone photos and digital point and shoot photos, stuff that had a very different look. Digital to digital was not that exciting to me, but at a certain point, I started working on the film photos. It felt more rich taking on this mode that I really believed in at one point in my life, the film photograph.

And then inverting the process.

Yeah. I don’t feel like that’s a radical gesture, it’s something that’s been done with photo and that’s happening now in a major way.  It’s important to me that I’m not just developing a copy-and-paste-ready shtick and that it’s a constantly evolving process.  I really want the work to be about a performed or time-based process. It morphs a lot. Initially, when I first got these printed, they were being produced as digital negatives on acetate and made into contact prints onto silver gelatin paper. So they were starting as negatives and ending as positives produced from new negatives. In the end product, you’ll see what is very obviously the magic wand tool with literal dust and scratches from the darkroom. It takes a long time to get to the place you need to be with a thing, at least for me, so then I started hanging them behind pieces of colored plexi which was like another means of filtering the information.  And I’m happy with that—but now I’m quilting with photos, I really want to make these sculptural slipcases with photos.

The work seems to be about the image filtration and the synthesis of a variety of well established visual languages.

I’m interested in how material histories conform or clash both away from keyboard and on the net.  I like blending the aesthetics of a software, of traditional film photo, of graphic design and drawing and blending them all together.  It’s really easy to find a mode for which there already exists a cultural norm, find your allies within that history and fit the bill. I’m more interested in finding ways of subverting that and finding a domain that feels more lonely, if that makes sense.  

It sounds like you are looking for new forms through a process of active rejection.

Yeah, that’s a recent change in attitude.  I want to make work that people can access, that has always been a goal for me. This is pretty personal, but about a year ago I was violently attacked in broad daylight by two teenagers.  Since then my work has become deeply antagonistic, and I have been interested in violence as a means of producing work.  Not that my pieces looks violent, but my thinking around how make something engage a viewer or command attention has shifted enormously.

It seems like color is very important to you.  What is the relationship you see between this antagonistic perspective and the excision of color from your work?

Color is one of my first loves in life. My mother thought I was OCD as a child because I would color organize everything. Color in the production of photography can also quickly shift the read of a work to be about things like sentimentality, lifestyle, affect—which is not necessarily what I’m interested in people getting from my work. Color is seductive and super sensuous and I love it, but I think when you are so intoxicated by a thing you need to make sure you are dealing with it in mediation.  The black and white collages are originally produced in color and then there is a moment when I flatten it. It’s like in the cartoons. When the cartoon character is sad all the color drains from it, that’s kind of what is happening with the work.  It’s funny and lovable and then it gets drained.

Is the cartoon character you then?  How do you deal with your inherent subjectivity as an artist?

I like to pretend that everything I make is not purely diaristic or about my subjectivity. I have always had immense respect for artists who also run spaces or do publications, because I’ve always wanted to feel that pull or tug of generosity. I love my network of friends but I am an inherently antisocial person, and what I feel is produced by antisocial behavior is a completely myopic, self-obsession—especially when you get to look out into the world through a screen, and that your participation with that networked screen is so quantifiable.  I think there is a lot of work by women being produced now which is about a type of Internet-produced ego and it becomes very much about their body and performance and their appearance. That is absolutely not my mode and will probably never be, however some of those attitudes are very related to what I feel and what I identify as my subjectivity.

On the subject of performance, do you see your images as being done or rather continuously opening up into other things? Your work takes form in a variety of mediums; is interdisciplinary practice crucial to your work?

I had this epiphany in school. It’s an analogy, which I haven’t shared before because I don’t like analogies. I like to speak plainly and directly so this is a rare analogy. I have two, actually. I thought a lot about what I was doing sculpturally or even with images as building a closet, which you pull things out of and you put things back into. And this is also linked to the archive, there's always this closet of shit ready to be dropped out at any moment, for any need.  I don’t like to think of work made over time as linear, I like circling back to objects and ideas. 

The second metaphor is related to my grandparents. I’m very close with them and they now live in the mountains in New Mexico. They work at the Santa Fe Opera as docents.  So as a young person I was introduced to opera and have since volunteered at the opera house sometimes in the summer.  I’ve always appreciated that form of cultural production.  The german description is kind of true; the gesamtkunstwerk, the ultimate work of art.  It’s visual, it’s musical, it’s acting, it’s dancing, it’s all of those things in one form.  The over-the-top empathetic qualities of opera and the effect of watching an opera has been enormously influential to me and my art production.  Even if it’s not a play with singing or a dance with a set, but that everything can exist in an operatic or maximalist way.  The ways in which mediums become compartmentalized and ghettoized is purely economical and institutional, it’s not actually how I think people want to naturally make.  I think the more that one is able to open up to the possibilities of making work operatic the more gratification there is to be found.

Erin Jane Nelson is an artist and writer living in Oakland, California. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art in 2011 and has also studied at Malmö Art Academy in Sweden and Ox-bow in Michigan. Recently, her work has been exhibited at Interstate Gallery (Brooklyn), Jancar Jones Gallery (Los Angeles), Heaven Gallery (Chicago), and Important Projects (Oakland).

Kyle Laidig is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  You can follow him on Tumblr.