Breaking free of “flatland”

Jessica Nissen, Mud Season Review artist

Our art editor, Cynthia Close, recently spoke with Jessica Nissen, Issue #6’s featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her artistic development, influences on her art, and how she supports herself as an artist.


Can you tell us when you first realized you were an artist?

I have always liked to make things and couldn’t pinpoint a time in my life when I labeled myself “artist.” I think as with most visual expression, naming with language comes later or from outside oneself…and is always inadequate! Even that term “artist” is pretty much whatever you want it to be, if you choose to embrace it. In fact, I think it means, “I give myself permission to be an amateur scientist, philosopher and alchemist.” One distinguishing feature is that an “artist” makes up questions and rules to the game as well as finding myriad solutions, and ideally is always questioning. My mother would give a different answer and say it was when, as a child, I put a maraschino cherry in the middle of my grapefruit half! A mother’s view! Sometimes I wish it had been a conscious decision—I might have chosen something more practical!


Your work is very diverse and yet seems always to take on big, universal concerns. Can you elaborate on your thematic interests?

This is complex for me because I do feel that there is something consistent in spite of the diverse media and various series I’ve created. Something inexorable, certainly a visceral quality, a sense of the physical body and mind as vehicle for all that is salty, elegant, chaotic, terrifying, breathtaking, and vulnerable. This may manifest quite literally, or in the form of biomorphic abstraction. Beyond that, I could allude to the complexity of relationships and collisions of memories with dreams or a desire to conjure an otherwise improbable circumstance. I just read an article about Lucid Dreaming, which is intriguing to me and resonates somehow in my practice. That is not a theme, but a mode, I know; still, my work comes from a deeply personal urgency. It is an arena I have some control over, unlike elsewhere in my life. I do feel and hope that the more personal, the more universal, and that my work is ultimately accessible.


What artists have influenced your work?

That could be a very long list, but I’ll just mention some of my favorite visual artists: Lee Bontecou, Joan Mitchell, Bruce Conner, Goya, Anne Hamilton, Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, and Diego Velazquez.


You use a wide range of media and seem to move easily from three-dimensional to two-dimensional formats. How do you decide on the media to use to express an idea?

I think of myself as a painter but am constantly struggling to find depth in a painting space—the Z-axis, if you will, which is not natural for me. I sometimes think this has to do with having grown up in NYC, which almost always forces a short focal point. I actually need to trick myself into painting anything deeper than a relatively shallow space, which is why for many of my paintings I build still lives to work from. I then sometimes even photograph the still lives, pushing the depth of field, as reference for paintings that I do want to have more distance.

I approach an installation with objects as a relief from this challenge. There is a physical space and, like a circle breaking free of “flatland,” I can become a fully conscious sphere! When I do have this opportunity I think the materials dictate the idea. For example, years ago I started working with liquid latex. I was already playing with latex surgical gloves as an extension of a mixed media painting series revolving around surgery as a metaphor. It seemed natural at the time to start making “skins” out of the latex. This led to other references that were potentially quite dark and “deathy,” but the subsequent installations with both gloves and skins and the addition of flowing liquid became even more of a somatic, life-insistent, experience than I had imagined.

As an aside: I am very fascinated by objects and have always collected “things,” sometimes in bulk, which has been a problem when I have had to move studios or apartments and cart around milk crates of wooden finials, for example, salvaged from an old factory; or have had to pay to store boxes of strangers’ X-rays. One of my biggest frustrations is no longer having a sprawling working or living space to keep potential installation materials or beautiful objects, especially things that have had previous lives—detritus or fragments of something larger.


You have recently moved into video/performance work. Why?

I am a social creature, so as much as I love working alone in the studio I also crave human interaction. If the resolution of a painting is exhibiting and sharing it and getting some sort of reaction from people, then the experience of being in performance is a fast-track, more direct interaction. I find it very satisfying in a more dramatic unpredictable kind of way. The work itself combines other interests of mine, including music and science. My recent interactive sound/drawing piece “Pattern Recognition Experience” merges physics, sound and visual form. The installation/performance revolves around the translation of sound into pattern using oscilloscopes, and relies on audience participation. I have lured poets, dancers and musicians to get involved, adding to the chaos and ultimate interest of the performance. It is also good old-fashioned psychedelic fun. I am really just a restless person with many interests and not content to do one thing when there are so many possibilities!


Video: Pattern Recognition Experience
Learn more about Nissen’s multimedia interactive sound/drawing installation


What has been your greatest success story to date?

I am usually excited by whatever the most current or near-future break may be, but a few notable opportunities come to mind. When I was 25, I had one of my first professional exhibitions when I was invited to be part of a group show at the Krannert Museum at the University of Illinois. This was special for many reasons: first, because almost everyone in the show was from a circle of renegade artists in Brooklyn and knew each other, so going down to install the show felt like a road trip with friends; and then we were taken care of so well by the curators, who were very casual but warm. There was just a positive sense of mutual support, which is so very rare in the art world. Other high points for me have also been more about collective or collaborative creative endeavors, like co-organizing multi-media art events. I was part of a crowd of artists in New York in the early ’90s; we are retroactively calling ourselves “Immersionists.” The Immersionist aesthetic had more to do with experience, interaction and creating a collective enchantment than a white-walled gallery show might. We took over abandoned warehouses, created environments and basically threw epic art events. No two people had the same experience, but we all have indelible memories. Again, I love being in my studio but there is something very unique, satisfying and immediate about a shared creative experience, like a great conversation.


Do you support yourself financially from your artwork?

No, unfortunately! I work insane hours as a Scenic Artist in a Union, on sets for film and TV shows. I am essentially a slave to the entertainment industry! There are aspects of the work that do inform my personal work, however, like reproducing all kinds of surfaces and the occasional bodily fluid in paint. Scenic artists have to have a very wide skill set. You have to be able to hang wallpaper and spackle a wall and then turn around and make wood look like metal or make a set look like it’s been through a fire. I have made arterial blood splatter and channeled the minds of countless characters: spray-painting graffiti as an indigent 20-year-old religious fanatic, or drawing obsessive valentines as a lovelorn teenager. Working as a scenic artist is physically demanding but never dull! I have also done a fair amount of teaching at the college level, which I love. Perhaps if I had more business savvy I’d be able to paint full time.


Is public feedback from the exhibition of your work important to you?

Very much so. I think exhibiting one’s work completes it in a sense. I do welcome feedback—especially if is positive, of course! But I’ll also digest constructive criticism; I am my own harshest critic anyway. I have received some very interesting reactions to some of my more demanding work that I will never forget. People filter everything through their own perspective, set of desires, obsessions, and interests, of course.


What direction do you see your work going in the future?

I would like to have the time to get better, to continue to reduce the work to its essentials … maybe eventually I’ll know what I’m looking for!


Jessica Nissen splits her time between NYC, where she works as a scenic artist for the entertainment industry and Vermont, where she keeps a studio and occasionally teaches in the Art Dept. of Middlebury College. Since 1991 she has exhibited paintings, drawings and installations extensively, and has participated, both as an artist and as an organizer/curator, in several large-scale interdisciplinary art events. Nissen received an MFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art in 1998, a BA from Middlebury College in 1990, and earned undergraduate credits from the Rhode Island School of Design and Tyler. She has been a fellow at The Corporation of Yaddo and the Chautauqua Institution. Jess also owns a red electric guitar that she likes very much.

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