In Focus: Nicola L.'s Atmosphere in White

Posted on 28 August 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Installation view of Nicola L. Atmosphere in White, 2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty

Installation view of Nicola L. Atmosphere in White, 2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty

Nicola L.'s Atmosphere in White has transformed the shabby room on the first floor of The Old Blind School into a heavenly, dream-like environment. Deborah Laing, part of our Mediation Team explores the work in more detail, providing a context for which to view this installation.

Atmosphere in White, 2008 is an installation of works by Nicola L. created across five decades and installed as one in The Old Blind School for Liverpool Biennial 2014. The artist chose this title because:

every single one of these objects is white, and this shared whiteness binds them together as a sort of dream-reality'

Nicola L. studied in Paris, where she learnt drawing, painting and sculpture before moving on to abstract painting. Through close inspection of her early work, it is apparent that she was influenced by space exploration and the planets; her eye motifs which appear in a lot of her early work remind the viewer of the solar system. In the sixties she worked as a conceptual artist focusing on installation, performance, functional art and since 1976, film.

Nicola L. Atmosphere in White, 2014. Photograph by Roger Sinek

Her functional objects became classics of 1960s experimental furniture and soft art design and her sometimes challenging sculptures are a channel for her feminist ideologies. In 1967 the artist posed naked with a big black vinyl foot matching her height, again indicative of her preoccupation with the female form. Whether in black, red or white, the vinyl material and human appearance remain regular features in her functional furniture, and in 1969 Paris, Nicola continued this theme and exhibited a large vinyl foot which is featured centrally in the installation at The Old Blind School. In explanation of this theme in her work, the artist said:

"In New York I was making exaggerations of the human body. It was a kind of obsession with hands and feet, and giant in scale

Like James Lee Byers' The Pink Silk Aeroplane (1969) Nicola L. focuses on performance and the physical properties of the material used. Her 'penetrables' can be accessed and appropriated easily, like an outer skin. Just as Byers used pink, light clothes, Nicola's own creation (Atmosphere, 2005) made of white transparent material hanging on the windows results in a surreal ghostly outline with gestural hood and elongated arms. The veil both protects the inner environment and seals the outside world away from the scene, framing it like theatre curtains would frame a performance space. 

Her work on the first floor at the front of The Old Blind School appears initially to the viewer as a domestic space containing sculptural, yet practical objects. This in turn creates an environment which is familiar, playful and humorous. Atmosphere in White sits adjacent to a long corridor to the right and the gallery room is well lit, with large open doorways off the main stairwell. The bare walls look decayed through time and erosion, but are given a new lease of life as they reflect the clean white lines of the functional furniture. The conceptual idea of Atmosphere... induced by the floating fabric provides the viewer with spiritual imaginings, and the arrangement is spread out in such a way that visitors can walk around each object and explore the work as a whole.

Nicola L. The Library Head, 1969-2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty

The Library Head (1969-2014) is a large wooden bookcase in the shape of a head, a metaphor for the information we have in our brains projected into physical compartments; spilling out and creating a public dialogue and open exchange of ideas. Moreover, Nicola L. uses pop art imagery to revert the functional reality of furniture by presenting it in a fictional setting, representing the sexual experimentation of the 1960s and the throw-away culture of the 1970s, celebrating synthetic materials for us to experience. Her art uses parody to promote the feminine form in a male dominated sculptural world. Is she reinventing herself again as an artist? Celebrating her success? In her own feminist stance it can be suggested that she interrupts rational thinking by instead producing dream-like concepts and functional furniture which both mock the female form and celebrate it.

Nicola L. La Femme Commode (1969-2014). Photograph by Roger Sinek

Visitors to The Old Blind School can pass through the installation, guided by the fragments of the artist's dreams that inhabit the space, which invites us to see each piece from a different vantage point. Atmosphere in White captures something of us, mirroring our own desires, and we become intruders in a private and personal space. Some visitors may make connections to the artist Allen Jones, who created a more destructive sculpture and imagery for the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.

Nicola L.'s work is timeless, yet a more contemporary audience may see the limitations of sexual freedom, seemingly in opposition to this thought. La Femme Commode (pictured, 1969-2014) is a chest of drawers in the shape of a woman's upper body. This work is not a piece of furniture that one would open to put something away, but a body broken into several compartments, signifying a darker side of the artist's thinking on the female form.

Nicola L's bio-morphic sculptures will not be forgotten after Liverpool Biennial 2014. Her contribution to A Needle Walks into a Haystack has provided a gallery space where the female form is celebrated; portrayed as functional, occasionally impractical and whimsical, with sexual overtones and a strong understanding of the male gaze in sculptural work. A walk through this room at The Old Blind School may provide indexical links to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the famous White Room. The song 'Give Peace a Chance' was performed in 1969, and who knows, it may have just influenced her artistic sensibilities?

Nicola L.'s Atmosphere in White will be on display at The Old Blind School as part of A Needle Walks into a Haystack until 26 October 2014.

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