Natasha Nicholson: The Artist in Her Museum

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Studiolo, installation view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photograph © Mike Rebholz.
Studiolo, installation view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photograph © Mike Rebholz.
Strata, installation view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photograph © Mike Rebholz.

This teaching page is a resource to help you prepare your students for their visit to the museum and to continue the discussion about Nicholson’s art after your visit. You will find information on the art and the art spacesthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources here, for further study.

THE ART and the art Spaces

This exhibition is unusual in that it comprises works of art created by Natasha Nicholson, along with objects she has collected that are important to her for their visual qualities, all of which have been set within partial reconstructions of her studio spaces. In 1992, Nicholson and her husband purchased a small, near eastside building in Madison with two storefronts on the first floor and two apartments above. The building was renovated to create a single flat on the second floor and, over the years, the artist took over more of the first floor and now occupies all of it. The studio includes four separate “rooms” that contain materials which blur the distinction between spaces in which she “lives,” and rooms in which she “creates.”

In her studio the contents of each of the spaces are in constant flux, as Nicholson is continually changing the organization to accommodate new objects or refine her idea of a “perfect order.” The objects vary widely in character ranging from natural materials, including bones, stones and dried plants, to mechanisms demonstrating a high level of human skill. They are united by being objects with a prior life and use, which have now been “found” and repurposed by the artist. Nicholson is both artist and collector. An object in her possession may find its use either in a work of art or as part of a larger collection of things of visual interest which please her.

THE SPACES

There are four named spaces in Nicholson’s studio which have been reconstructed, more or less completely, in the exhibition: The Thinking Room, Strata, The Studiolo, and The Bead Room.  

The Thinking Room

Fragments of The Thinking Room greet the viewer on entry into the exhibition. This is the smallest of Nicholson’s four studio spaces, where everything begins. Objects the artist has found enter her life here and are subject to a period of contemplation, of “gazing” at them while they undergo an artistic “triage.” Will they find their way into one of the artist’s assemblage sculptures or will they be selected for installation in The Studiolo, where they would be seen as part of a larger collection? Perhaps the initial pleasure is not sustained and they are put away, out of sight, to be looked at again at some future time. This room contains a chaise lounge for relaxation and for pleasurable consideration of all of these objects.

Strata

Strata is the space that most closely resembles a more traditional gallery space and is named for the “strata” or layers of activity that occur here. Inside Nicholson’s studio complex it is a work space where she creates sculpture from found objects, as well as a clean area where artworks are exhibited. On occasion, Nicholson puts her tools out of sight and the entire room becomes a gallery space with a large table that can accommodate at least twelve people for dinner. Strata has storefront windows where objects are exhibited, a changing show that has aroused curiosity in the community, as it appears to be a “store” that is never open. Evident in this space is the artist’s love of organization and containment. Grids, boxes, tiny rooms and glass bell jars convey her personal sense of order.

The Studiolo

The word Studiolo is Italian for a cabinet of curiosities, and refers to rooms created in some of the great houses of Renaissance Europe to house rarities of natural or human creation. The Studiolo was almost an accidental creation, as this room in Nicholson’s complex started out as a plain work space. In 2000, she organized and participated in the exhibition Cabinets of Curiosity: Four Artists, Four Visions at the Elvehjem (now Chazen) Museum of Art, which included four Wisconsin artists who used collected objects as one of the sources of their art. A large cabinet with two wing-like doors was Nicholson’s portion of the exhibition. At the end of this show, she felt that it would be wrong to put this pristine object in her workshop, so she proceeded to transform the room into what became The Studiolo. In the cabinet are works of art created by and also collected by Nicholson, distinguished by the colors of the cells in the doors. Along with the cabinet, the room is filled with objects of age selected because of their strong reference to other places and other lives, such as a case containing century old “First Prize” wheat, and a photograph of a young woman surrounded by wishbones painted silver and gold. Works of art by several other contemporary artists are scattered throughout the room. This room is another storefront space; a collection of miniature chairs and an iron and glass cabinet filled with tin ware, on view in the State Street Gallery windows, are normally on view in Nicholson’s studio windows.

It is important to think about why these objects might have been selected by the artist. While some objects may provoke thoughts about their former lives and uses, some of the materials in this room generate new ideas for well-recognized things. For example, several elaborate crucifixes in an art environment reveal the graphic power of this form when it is not found in a religious space. Two human skulls in this unusual location seem to speak more about their form and age, while two mechanical clocks dressed in black wood, red marble, gilt brass and enamel tell the time, to be sure, but are also foils to natural forms found in corals and wooden burls.

Photographs hang in the corridor outside The Studiolo. Nicholson has deep admiration for the Dutch still life and flower painters of the 17th century, and in an effort to emulate some of their qualities, she worked with two photographers to create a small body of flower and fruit images, each set within the containment of a wooden box. They owe a debt to paintings of an earlier century but are a statement very much of this time, which is Nicholson’s intent.

The Bead Room

The Bead Room is the space in which Nicholson creates the necklaces for which she been recognized for decades. As she says, “Making necklaces for myself is the only way I can afford my own taste.” This modest space contains the artist’s large collection of antique and ethnic beads, some of which may be used in future necklaces, others acquired just for their beauty. Nicholson keeps her library of books on women’s style and fashion here, along with personal and family photos. The room is dominated by a large Victorian desk topped with a glass-fronted bookcase, which has been transformed into another miniature cabinet of curiosities. 

THE ARTIST        

Natasha Nicholson was born into a working class family in St. Louis, Missouri, in May, 1945, the eldest of six siblings.  At an early age, she declared herself to be “an artist,” and began to collect small objects which attracted her and which she arranged on a small table next to her bed. This little field was always undergoing change and reorganization. She made frequent visits to the great collections of the St. Louis Art Museum where she found that she was drawn more to objects of antiquity and of the decorative arts than to traditional painting and sculpture. The product of a demanding Jesuit high school where the creative arts were more highly regarded than athletics, Nicholson went on to spend a year (1964-65) at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, and later studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. There, she became studio assistant to the late Bruce Conner, a well-known filmmaker and assemblage artist. She also worked as a printer at the Crown Point Press, the pioneering etching workshop run by Kathan Brown. She has exhibited widely on the west coast, in New York and in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Nicholson’s assembled and invented sculptural objects have often been compared to the “ready-mades” of Marcel Duchamp and the assemblages of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell in the manner in which she transforms ordinary objects by changing their context. Of greatest importance to her is a high degree of organization, order and subtle containment which often works much like the frame on a painting to shape one’s view of the object. Grids, spheres, cones and boxes all appear in her work, which is sometimes enclosed in delicate glass bell jars, rather like creations that might be found inside a bubble. 

KEY IDEAS

  • Using found objects—things that have had another or earlier life—as works of art
  • Making art both through creation of objects and though organization of one’s surroundings
  • Shaping one’s life to see seemingly ordinary objects in new ways; always being open to “aesthetic accidents”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Have you ever collected some “treasures?” How did you decide whether they fit the category of “treasure?"
  2. Natasha Nicholson acquires and collects objects for their inherent qualities of beauty or mystery, rather than as mementos of travels or as part of a themed collection, such as postages stamps or seashells or antique dolls. She notices and appreciates the craftsmanship or shape or peculiarity of the objects she selects. Imagine yourself as a collector of odd but beautiful objects. Where might you look for such things? Where might you put them to save them or show them to others?
  3. Nicholson has arranged her collected objects according to her artistic and poetic notions of what fits together. She finds balance and harmony in their relationships with each other. When you look at this image of her Studiolo, what do you notice about how the pieces relate to each other or fit together?
  4. Nicholson has said, “There must always be an element of ambiguity, of questions about my sculpture, for how else can I suggest possibilities within my work, or even outside of it?” What are your reactions to this ambiguity, to the lack of a clear-cut message about how you are expected to interpret what you are seeing? Artists often don’t guide the viewer in interpreting their works of art. What are your thoughts about this trend in contemporary art?
  5. Nicholson’s love of beauty consoled her in times of trouble as a child. What are your thoughts about focusing on something beautiful as a way to help a person through a difficult period?

RESOURCES

On the Artist:

Natasha Nicholson website

Art Methods:

Collecting for the Kunstkammer

Context:

Joseph Cornell website