Ellen Nielsen Studio Visit: Beyond Velvet
On a recent cold February night, I am standing in Ellen Nielsen’s warm and wood-paneled home. Techno throbs softly from the back room studio, and I am filling my eyes with stretch velvet and sequins, crochet and curios. The place has a hip mustiness to it, an afghan industriousness of polish grandmother’s drawing room flayed with neon updates. As I move over to inspect a shadow box displaying tiny spangles of all colors and description, serially arranged in rows according to a bizarre logic belonging to kindergarteners and people who haunt Micheal’s crafting stores, I am reminded of a quotation I have to look up later: “Decoration”, says Michelle Kuo, “is a kind of technology.”
Indeed. And more: for Nielsen, decoration has also been, and may still be, a credo; and as I scan the work she has been making for the past few years, it is clear that decoration is a still-yet unexhausted ground from where she approaches nature, sexuality, identity, and more recently, perception.
the spectacle box, 2007
Nielsen is a cross-medium artist whose sensibility is folded deeply in fiber. To say that is to risk sounding vague or trendy; here I will correct my jargon for clarity: girl’s all about the stretch velvet. She doesn’t deal exclusively in the stuff, but it’s a handy way to approach the level of playful kitsch that imbues the work. Velvet, on to which Elvis Presley’s face may be painted; velvet, black velvet, like the adult contemporary hit I belt in the car during rush-hour traffic; black velvet, like Stevie Nicks; velvet, like your favorite jazz dance leotard-with-matching-scrunchie in the fourth grade; National Velvet, a famous horse for little girls; velvet, velveeta, fake cheese; velvet goldmine, heroin rock; velvet revolution, youths empowered and shopping after; velvet, mall goths; velvet, crushed, embossed, viscose, velveteen, velour, playsuits, onesies, leisure pants. Velvet, importantly: a luxury fabric for the wealthy until the invention of the industrial power looms that would make it stretch to fit and available to all in need of a little sensuousness. But modern velvet, close up, is more about science than romance novels; like most modern textiles, it is created by automated iteration in a pattern, serial programming whose first example in 1805 (the Jaquard loom) would go on to directly inspire the early prototypes of an ur-computer. As Michelle Kuo says in “Pattern Recognition”, from which I am drawing heavily, “pattern becomes programme … the entirety of our modern environment . . is based on pattern: on the patterned repetition of serial mass production, and later on digital patterning, without which our designed universe would be impossible.”
Nielsen knows what she’s doing with this velvet, as with the other fibers she uses in the sculptural oddities she makes that slide between nature and nurture. Sticks are wrapped, grow from baroque chairs. Acrylic (a fake plastic fiber beloved of granny knitters, decidedly low-brow) explodes in enormous misshapen form: pom-pom. A grotesque arabesque of black plywood construction, edged in black velvet and other trimmings is an ornament icon brought to hyper-life as a witchy prom corsage: paisley. Lifted from its pattern and isolated in a lurking form that uncannily references Georgia O’ Keefe’s black orchids; rough-edged, organic, imperfect, impure of its associations with the love generation that unmoored it from its original Anglophile tradition. But here, Nielsen is clever in her treatment of paisley as icon: just as the paisley print was an appropriated British import of a traditional Arabic/ Central Asian design, re-appropriated once more by hippies drunk on all things Eastern in the 1960’s, here we have paisley stepped out of the fabric pattern and given a new treatment (“hippie/raver/goth) filtered through three relevant aesthetic youth cultures in one fell swoop. It is a gigantic referent, a re:re:re:, and a bold statement, and it is just that; with very little subtlety, Nielsen embodies a few decades of art theory bickerings over the legacy of modernism and the role of the ornamental in art by giving us a larger-than-life spangle, decked out to an inch of its life like bigfoot drag queen. Shy she ain’t.
This strain of wry dogmatism is evident when Nielsen is dealing with the decorative in a literal way, as in paisley, the spectacle box and her work around an engineered neologism, a previously unnamed star-like symbol used for decoration by graphic designers, like a version of a spangle from inside her spectacle box, which she has dubbed: a FUF. The FUF works similarly to paisley as it makes what was once before an item of reproduction/repetition, intended for decorative service and functioning within a context of pattern, an icon all of its own, with a cheerfully defiant name that manages to sound all at the same time like an insult, a political party, and an infomercial cleaning product: FUF!
In naming the nameless ornament and making it a discursive element that claims ornamentation as a valid object and subject, Nielsen lays her mission bare. Where it becomes most interesting is in the new work that moves away from a direct handling of fiber and into a layered contemplation of the subject material in the photographic.
In wintervention, a patterned day-glo swath of fabric was held by Nielsen in a snowy forest, photographed, then manipulated to remove certain traces of materiality, enhancing the peculiar de-grounding of subject that occurs inherently in the flattened picture plane of the photographic. It is very effective; the artificiality of the machined pattern slips uncannily between the natural and unnatural, as a shadow cast by the (real) environment plays on its (real) surface, I wonder which is more real, the designed, neon pattern, or the forest against which it is backed. It reminds me very much of the light installations of another artist interested in nature made trippy, Jessica Steinkampf, though Nielson’s intervention has a conceptual groundwork that grows logically from her previous questions around designed nature.
Jessica Steinkampf, White Wedding, 2010
During our visit, Nielsen expresses an interest in Konkrete Fotografie , echoing its contemporary re-emergence as a source of inspiration for artists like fellow SAIC alum Jessica Labatte and in LA, Michele Abeles. If wintervention is any indication, and I hope it is, Nielsen’s thoughts will be lingering in the way that pattern and ornament can become destabilized when they are removed one step further in to an abstraction on the final frontier of perception. Cheers.
Ellen Nielsen is an artist in Chicago. You can see her work here
“Pattern Recognition”, Michelle Kuo, The New Decor: Haywood Gallery Press, 2010