The work and world of Natasha Nicholson will be on view in Natasha Nicholson: The Artist in Her Museum at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, August 22 through November 8. Nicholson is known for her assemblages and involvement in the contemporary resurgence of Cabinets of Curiosities. This exhibition is a rare opportunity for visitors to view the work of an artist who, by her own admission, never leaves the role of artist, collector, and observer. Perhaps best stated by Linda James in Thinking Natasha, an essay in the accompanying exhibition catalog, “Her art is her studio is her home is her art.”
“In this rare occurrence, the spaces that Natasha inhabits are themselves an artwork, forever changing, yet in its overall artistic impact, forever the same,” states Stephen Fleischman, MMoCA director. “It is this quality that we plan to capture and recreate for museum visitors.”
Soon to be reinstalled in the museum’s State Street Gallery are the four rooms that comprise her studio. Occupying these spaces are a series of seductive sculptures and collections of common yet mysterious objects conversing with one another. The rooms include the Thinking Room, where all work begins; Strata, her sculpture studio and gallery; the Studiolo, showcasing her Cabinet of Curiosities; and the Bead Room, where the artist creates necklaces and exhibits her extensive collection of beads and ethnic jewelry.
The Thinking Room is where all of Nicholson’s acquisitions live until they are either used in a work of art or have found their place in the collections of the Studiolo or the Bead Room. This is the most intimate of her studios where she writes about art, her working process, and the relationships she creates between objects. As Nicholson says, “It is a place of refuge, a room of one’s own, and a haven from the realities that so easily pull one away from the discipline and isolation that art demands.”
Strata is Nicholson’s workshop and gallery for sculpture, assemblages, photographs inspired by 17th century Dutch still lifes, and a new series of work she calls Burn Paintings. Her poetic and subtly autobiographical works use familiar objects to expand and skew the viewer’s definition of the object. In reference to her process, Nicholson explains that the “inner workings must disappear for the magic to emerge; therein lies their power.”
The Studiolo, Nicholson’s Cabinet of Curiosities, evolved from her discovery of the book, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, by Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell. It describes scientists, amateurs, madmen, and monarchs who were driven to collect, no matter the cost. She states, “the book profoundly affected my work, giving me an historical legitimacy for how I wanted to work and live. Slowly, I became more comfortable with the idea that my work as an artist, my past, and my collecting were inextricably connected.” As in her assemblages, Nicholson stays true to her passion by transforming the peculiar and mundane into things of beauty and joining seemingly disparate objects to invoke mystery and wonder.
The Bead Room, suffused with a collection of beads, necklaces, oddities, fabrics, and all manner of ethnic adornment, is an extension of Nicholson’s workroom used to create jewelry for her personal use. In 2001, she began accepting commissions, eventually setting up a proper workshop to present her work to a wider audience. Anchoring the room is a Victorian secretary, yet another cabinet filled with intimate still lifes comprised, like much of Nicholson’s work, of small, precisely arranged treasures.
In her work of the past two decades, Nicholson has powerfully merged dwelling space with creative space. These rooms mix art and social exchange in an unending salon where ideas are challenged and debated, art and books are shared, and dinners last far into the night. Her desire to surround herself with beauty starts in the studios and extends to all aspects of her life. These rooms are in truth a series of archives where viewers are invited to participate in the many aspects of an artist’s life well lived.
A beautifully illustrated, 120-page catalog accompanies Natasha Nicholson: The Artist in Her Museum. Featuring contributions from Thomas E.A. Dale, Eric Ferguson, Stephen Fleischman, Thomas H. Garver, Joseph R. Goldyne, Linda R. James, Natasha Nicholson, and Mike Rebholz, the catalog illuminates Natasha Nicholson’s artistic practice and provides an art historical context for her work. The catalog will be available through the Museum Store in late August.
The exhibition and publication were made possible by generous funding from: the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation; Judy Pyle and Wayne Pitluck; anonymous; J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.; the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation; Julia B. Sheehan and Errol Morris; Arlene Dahl and Marc Rosen; Diane Seder and Bruce Rosen; John and Cheryl Seder; Tom Neujahr; Louise Newquist; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.