by STIRworldMay 26, 2022
Known to produce sculptural artworks at the intersection of art and design, the French Moroccan visual artist Nicola L's body of work illuminates the many definitions of multidisciplinary art practice. The latest exhibition spanning 50 years of her works, presented in partnership with the Nicola L Collection and Archive, Los Angeles, is her first UK exhibition at the gallery Alison Jacques. The childhood of Nicola shared between North Africa and France cast a deep shadow on her formative years. Born to French parents in Morocco, when Nicola was 18, she left her family home in the Ardennes city of Sedan to stay in Paris. The art hub of 1950 was undergoing cultural trials and tribulations where abstraction gave way to figuration, and Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme complemented each other. The art of the times was by all means “collaborative”, as the press release of the exhibition would like to affirm.
Alison Jacques, the founder of the eponymous Alison Jacques gallery, in an interview with STIR walks us through the decades of work, which form her legacy. “Nicola L was a renegade and pioneer. From her early years, Nicola L painted, collaged, sculpted and familiarised herself with the ‘happenings’ that were emerging across the city. Later, she made sculptures and paintings focused on recurring metaphors such as the head, eye or snail. She designed a suite at the Chelsea Hotel. She made a documentary about the punk band Bad Brains. One of the challenges we faced with this show was how to show Nicola L as an artist, including her functional objects (which, until now, have been 'labelled' design instead of sculpture) as well as the works that were more performative. Our role is to present Nicola L as the ground breaking artist that she was, that her work continues to be, and to communicate how she broke down boundaries between disciplines and refused categorisation at all times," she says.
The human body gradually started to illustrate its presence within the works created by Nicola around 1964. The metaphor remained synonymous with her practice for the longest of time. Akin to Paris, the places such as New York and Ibiza added the right impetus to her practice. It was a rendezvous with the Argentinian artist Alberto Greco, in Ibiza, that Nicola lay on a beach and dreamt about the skin as an absolute texture. It served as both the “literal and metaphorical site”: where the possibility of turning an individual self into a collective being could be realised. The series Pénétrables, made out of waterproof material, with the shape of the head, arms and legs let the audience physically experience the second skin. Literally, immersing in the wearable fabrics allows the viewers to shed the singularity attached to the human body. The leitmotif of coexistence of the many bodies was encapsulated in the works including Same Skin For Everybody and We Want to Breathe.
For Nicola the art was dovetailed with functional purpose. The anthropomorphic furniture such as La Femme Coffee Table, Red Lip Lamp, White Foot Sofa added a tinge of humour to the idea of objectification of women’s bodies. This was even reflected when she collaborated with interior designer, Fred Flores, to revamp one of the apartments of Chelsea Hotel in New York into The Snail Suite. With rugs, headboards and tables the apartment offered an immersive experience of crawling into the shell of a snail. To mention, Nicola took up permanent residence in the hotel and it was her home until 2017. As part of the exhibition, the twin Plexiglass lamps – Snail (yellow) and Snail (blue) – articulate the infinite cycles of life. The curator Ruba Katrib while drawing a parallel between The Snail Suite and Pénétrables states, “The shell can be understood as both architecture and skin.”
Given the scale of the work created by Nicola, Jacques gauges the importance of the spectrum of work when she mentions, “Nicola L speaks in many tongues: it has art historical reference and gravitas but also marvellous humour. But, first and foremost, Nicola L was a firm believer in art’s unparalleled ability to unite disparate people: to create, from individuals, a community. In troubling times such as those we are now facing, when art can feel disconnected from the world and people are increasingly disconnected from one another, Nicola L's work is more pertinent than ever. As her participatory performances and wearable Pénétrable works quite literally visualise: we are a far stronger force when we come together as one.”
Politics and collective action were crucial to her practice, be it leading experimentation in the 1980s across the genres: performance, sculpture or film. It was in the 1990s that the ‘head’ came to characterise her works quite frequently. Going back to the art of making paintings during this time, Nicola’s collages such as Planet Heads series, Cut Me In Pieces underscored her humanist approach to art. The paintings were manifestations of “hope, remembrance or even revolution.”
The exhibition promises to refresh the history of pop art in Europe, while also making a valuable contribution to contemporary discussions around the body, agency and the strength of the community. “With our show, the first monograph on Nicola L that will be published by Apartamento later this year, and the first European museum survey that will take place at Camden Art Centre in 2024, this story is only just beginning. Ultimately, I feel immensely lucky that my gallery is the one that gets to tell the story,” concludes Jacques.
The exhibition Nicola L., presented in partnership with the Nicola L. Collection and Archive, Los Angeles, runs at Alison Jacques gallery in London until July 23, 2022.