Centerfold Artist

Ms. December, Nikki Painter

We can’t believe it! It’s been almost a year since we launched the podcast. We’ve now introduced the Trop-i-verse to eleven amazing artists. And there’s no better way to end 2013 than with Nikki Painter, our Ms. December. Nikki lives and works in Richmond, VA and exhibits throughout the U.S. Starting with an opening on December 19th, she will be showing Living Working at Civilian Art Projects in Washington D.C. She will also have work at Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, VA, entitled CSA: Forty Years of Community-Sourced Art. That show will open on January 22nd with a reception on January 25th. To learn more about Nikki, visit her website.

As we’ve been doing for the past few months, we sent our centerfold a data sheet; she filled it out; we talked amongst ourselves about it; and then we Skyped her to clarify a few things and dig up some specifics.

CENTERFOLD ARTIST: After recording the podcast, we had a lengthy conversation about spirit animals. Why did you choose not to reveal one on your data sheet? Do you not know? Because, if you say you don’t know, that’s a lie. Maybe you’re in between spirit animals?

NIKKI PAINTER: I have one. I feel like it’s kind of personal, though. It’s kind of big deal if you actually have one.

CA: Does the animal have anything to do with Halloween?

NP: No.

CA: Damn, we guessed it was a bat or a snake or a gargoyle. How did you decide on your animal? Did it find you?

NP: Yeah. It was something that I noticed would be around at certain times. And at some point I realized that it was communicating with me. I think what it has to say is really important.

CA: Once you have a spirit animal you are supposed to study their habits, right? Figure out how it lives and then apply those characteristics to your life?

NP: I think that’s the traditional Native American approach, but I haven’t done that yet. I should probably be a little more active about it. I’ve just been letting it tell me things.

CA: Maybe you need to start telling it some things.


CA: Are you working on anything in particular for your next show?

NP: I’m in the process of making some shadow box pieces for the Arlington Arts Center show.

 CA: We know you come from a history of drawing and large-scale installation, so what made you transition into these awesome litte 3-D shadow boxes?

NP: I transition back and forth between drawing and installation, and sometimes I get a little cranky about going into the garage to work on installation stuff. I’m always telling myself about the space I don’t have and the materials I don’t have, and I finally asked myself Why can’t I do all this at a really small scale and make that work? So these shadow box pieces are the in-between for me, between drawing and installation.

shadow box 2013

CA: Another long discussion we had after recording the podcast was about what formal actually is, and it turns out we have totally different opinions on the subject. Can you describe your interest in things that are formally complex and what it means to you for something to be formally complex?

NP: When I’m talking about formal issues, I’m talking about the physicality of an object and the elements and principles of design—colors, lines, shapes, spatial relationships. Formal complexity, to me, if I’m looking at something that I’m really into, usually has to do with spatial relationships. Like if there’s some kind of weird flipping of the space. Or an ambiguous space. Or if objects appear to be in the foreground in some cases, and then they press back or shift into the background in other places. Space is where formal complexity comes from. Also, I like when there’s a lot of visual information. When you have to dig through an image. I have a really high tolerance for visual information. I tend to really like images that other people might say are too chaotic, too busy or overwhelming. I want that kind of experience, and I want to get stuck in lines, shapes, and colors and get overwhelmed by them.

CA: So it’s about intensity for you? And you go for that intensity in your own work? Are you trying to make images that are so chaotic that they become unworldly? Or do you have some other reason or need to make these spaces?

NP: That’s not an easy question to answer. I think that art making and art viewing are about the idea of transport, about being able to go some place else. I think an image or an installation or a sculpture has the potential to take you some place else, to show you something that you’ve never seen before, to make you think about things you’ve never seen before.

CA: We like that attitude. But back to those intense moments: Do you ever hit a point while you are making something when you feel like you’ve pushed too far, like it’s too intense?

NP: Never. Or it hasn’t happened yet.

CA: Are you trying to get to that moment where it’s just so intense that you’re going to overwhelm the viewer, and then you pull back? Or do you keep pushing like there are no limits to your extreme?

NP: I don’t think I’ve overwhelmed any viewers yet. It’s always something that I want to do when I start something, but typically there comes a point in the making process where there is a sense of balance or there is a surprise, so I stop there.

CA: Will you ever push it to where it’s just intense, intense, intense?

NP: I think so. I hope so. This conversation is reminding me that that’s the way I have to make my work. I go back and forth with the way that I make things. Sometimes there is a plan. Like right now I’m really excited because I have this set plan for a box piece that I’m going to work on. I can really clearly see what this thing is going to look like. And then other times when I’m working, it’s just a series of reactions. Like I’m going to make this mark. Okay. What does that mark need now? What color is going to happen in this thing next? How can I mess up the space? But always in retrospect after making those things, it’s never enough. It’s kind of like when you are making it, you are so close to it, and there’s a moment where it’s like Yes, it’s reached the right point; there’s nothing more I can do. Then afterwards there’s so much more that needs to happen.

CA: So it’s tricky for you to know when a piece is complete?

NP: Sometimes. There are a couple of things that I look for when a work is finished. There has to be some level of complexity, and there is usually a sense of surprise to it. Even if I had a set plan for what the work is going to look like, there usually comes a time in making a piece where something is not quite what I expected. When those things happen, that’s usually when I start thinking about calling it quits on a work.

CA: We think where you are stopping is a good spot.

field study (slip) 2011

CA: On your data sheet, for your art turnoffs you put down visual clichés. We want to know what visual clichés you are making reference to? Like deer heads maybe? Or Disney?

NP: As soon as I wrote that down I knew you were going to ask me about this.

CA: And you were right.

NP: I wasn’t thinking of specific examples. It’s just one of those I know it when I see it kind of things. Deer heads could be a good example. It’s the kind of thing that has become so decontextualized and so referential of itself and divorced from art history. It’s hard to describe.

CA: Exactly. It’s something that’s gone past what its supposed to be, and now it has become something else, and we use it for that something else as opposed to using it for what it is. But how do you go through the process of appropriation without using visual clichés?

NP: I think there is a certain amount of appropriation that is unavoidable at this point, given how saturated we all are with visual currency. We all live our lives on the internet, constantly choosing how to represent ourselves. It’s really unavoidable. But I think when people work with images thoughtfully, metaphorically there is something that comes across as more authentic than when people are just kind of making a piece that is about the present moment in culture or solely about being part of that moment.

_Cave_ installation 2013

CA: Okay now time for a serious question. Your real first name is Erin. How did you become known as Nikki? And why do you choose to use a name that is twice removed from your first name?

NP: Nikki has always been what my parents have called me. Erin is from a character on the TV show, The Waltons, which is about some rural family that lives on a mountain. And Nikki is from a soap opera character. I don’t know if you guys have ever watched the young and the restless?

CA: So you were born into a life of celebrity.

NP: Pretty much. Nikki was a belly dancer around the time I was named after her so I was basically named after a rural—some people might even say hillbilly—belly dancer.

Untitled (ground) 2010

CA: So the random photo that you provided on the data sheet, of the Halloween landscape, is that your house?

NP: No. I wish that it was. It was just a really great yard. It was during a time in grad school where I was taking a lot of pictures of Halloween things and collecting Halloween objects.

CA: Why do you like Halloween so much? We get the feeling you like Halloween even in the summer.

NP: I like Halloween all year long. I think it goes back to the element of transportation again, the possibility of there being a whole other realm out there. I like the idea of magic or otherworldly beings and how those things open up what’s possible.

CA: Thanks Nikki! You’re otherworldly!

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Annette Isham makes art work and lives in Washington, DC.

Zac Willis, born in southwest MO, is an artist living and working in Washington, DC. An avid collector of toys and an obsessive documentarian, Willis redirects his energies toward amassing the stories of others in Centerfold Artists.