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Nicola López explores the ‘life cycle’ of buildings

November 17, 2016 // by Jaime DeSimone

Nicola Lopez builds architecture into much of her work. As López's Project Atrium installation takes shape at MOCA Jacksonville, we asked her a few questions about A Gentle Defiance of Gravity and Form. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation with López.

Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Alone in Atrium
Nicola López finishes a day of working on her Project Atrium installation, A Gentle Defiance of Gravity and Form. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

Your relationship with installation art dates back to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2002 and working with large wood block prints. Discuss how formative this was on the direction of your work, particularly as it relates to MOCA's piece.

I point to this experience as a pivotal moment in terms of having a new studio and new place-removing old context. It was totally different, and I knew I wanted to work in drawing and printing and was in the middle of the woods, so there wasn't a press. Wood block was the immediate choice. I took a piece of plywood cut into quarters and began drawing, which were like puzzle pieces in many ways on paper. This was an aha moment, but I was already doing this in college, cutting prints and using them as elements to make larger images on curtains or papier mâché forms. They were the seeds for future projects.

I was working a lot with prints on Mylar, so it was the obvious thing to think about next, but I would say it was less about the prints than the conversation with the space and how I was going to do it. I want a structure that responds to that space. The Atrium [Gallery] is very much at the core, central, and interior. It's a typical white box neutral space but with an outdoor feel-vaulted with glass and presence of light on top. Side walls enclose something else and in some ways the exterior space. I'm interested in outside versus inside and using the whole height-it's a unique space in that way. The height was something very compelling. Building a structure inside the space, becoming an inside of outside. It's more about structural form, and my initial impulse was to do simple free-standing form. But hugging the edges was totally appropriate.

The structure came before the idea of using prints. Prints reinforce exterior and interior on the piece itself. The piece forms this skin and shell, defining what is outside and inside. 

Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Checks Prints
Nicola López sorts through prints for her Project Atrium installation. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Aaron Garvey Selects Print
Nicola López and installer Aaron Garvey select the next print to hang for her Project Atrium installation. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Jonathan Duck Hangs Print
Preparator Jonathan Duck hangs a print in Nicola López's Project Atrium installation. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

Past projects have incorporated or explored ideas related to construction and deconstruction of urban spaces and places. Are these topics still present in A Gentle Defiance of Gravity and Form

This project really reflects an actual construction-materials and format, large-scale, commercial construction that is ubiquitous in this cultural moment. We're living in the building, but it's a plan for a building because it is incomplete and not functional. It's another way to see and understand the different sides. The studs form mini-moments with a print kind of like a window, but not quite-planning and pointing toward kind of like a hologram. There's a fractal nature in the piece as well.

Describe your inspiration for the installation.

I was taking a lot of photographs of skyscrapers and thinking a lot about their exteriors and windows. Window as portal, as perforation between two spaces. Images were present in what I was thinking about it. A vocabulary was already kicking around.

Themes and inspiration come up repeatedly, not isolated in one work. Things surface more strongly in some pieces. There are parallels and disjoints between human-built landscape and nature. Resonances and disconnects. A cyclical nature of growth and decay. Building walls for whatever comes next … repetition and cyclical is our world. We're open to seeing it in nature, but we don't want to see it in what we build around us. Decay, demise, and destruction are part of a force that we resist. 

Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Lunch with a Curator 1
Curator Jaime DeSimone leads Lunch with a Curator during the installation of Nicola López's Project Atrium exhibition. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Lunch with a Curator 2
Visitors who take part in Lunch with a Curator overlook the installation of Nicola López's Project Atrium exhibition. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

For you, what relationship exists between architecture and the body?

Architectural structures become stand-ins for the body on an individual level. People often ask, “Where are the people?” It's a great question. We are in there, implied through builders and architects of this world and in there in conversation about natural cycles of decay, growth, and experience. A metaphor for the body in architecture: we recreate ourselves all the time. Through the things that we build, we visualize ourselves in so many ways and our relationship to our world. Skeletal structure-we talk about it as a skeleton and skinning. It is a skin-these prints-and it is a membrane, a protective coating in so many ways. A self-contained structure much like a human being.

Is there any relationship to your Infrastructure prints?

These prints are similar in some ways; some ideas are also different. The fact that it was a series if very important. There is one layer of lithographic print that was consistent in each and then constructions on top of it. Going from 1, 2, 3, you could see the layers and buildings being built on top. MOCA's piece is the next step in the conversation about structure and layers-backbone structure and supportive layers and the way in which it was made.

Another piece that engages is Unbuilding Things at the Metropolitan and is in closest conversation with it.

Describe your interest in architecture and the urban landscape and how these interests are expressed in your Project Atrium installation.

The human landscape is an organism. The life of the building and its potential use is urban planning. Part of that is awareness, sensibility, and environmental impact. It's revolutionary to recognize urban planning and master plans around development. It is a challenging development because it renegotiates challenge and control, which many of us can't swallow. It's an important conversation and recognizes the potential of forms and patterns-“improvisational architecture.” Ethical questions that are very real and complex questions. There's huge amount to be learned and beauty and wonder in the variety of different constructions that are sustainable in different ways.

The movement of the piece goes from a more recognizable structure on the left to a composition that is less structurally supported, dismembered, disjointed. I try to use language because I don't want to put positive or negative connotations on either side. It is a deconstruction, a breaking down, it's a departure, a detour, and a deviation. All those words have connotations, but this is a reframing of it, a transcendence, a reengaging of that cycle of deconstruction/construction that is a generative. It's not a building falling apart; it's a change and different phase.

The title comes from this way of resisting the decay of old buildings. It is this moving of the forces that are a given, that shape our world. It's entering different phase.

Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Charlie Patton Interview
Charlie Patton of The Florida Times-Union interviews Nicola López during her Project Atrium installation. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

The piece will consist of relatively simple parts-assembled steel studs and Mylar prints. How does one support the other? 

The way they go together is simple but still intensive to make. The structure needs to be still and majestic. It logistically works with the scale, so what's better than to use materials that were meant to do exactly that? The construction studs are the material that these buildings are actually made of-very matter of fact. Function, practical, rather than illusionistic and ornate.

The prints won't look so huge in the space. I love working on site-specific installations because it requires me to invent new techniques and ways. It's fun to think about pieces functioning on a different scale. It's designed to be viewed in a different relationship-one closer, so this scale has been hugely important. I'm actually building a building. The sheets are like glass. I'm mimicking a building process without putting in the interior innards, so it's an illusion of a building, but it's incomplete and just a reference. I was collecting these photographs of skyscrapers, and that's how the images were borne. The prints function like a real building as they lay on the outside of the real sculpture. They aren't a structure, just a false membrane.

What printmaking process(es) are you working with for this piece? 

Wood cut carving and printing. Reduction woodcut. Reducing the block each time. You lose the image as a result of the process by the time it is made. The hand is present in the prints and is the first point of construction. It's a way of engaging in the medium that references the mass-produced world because of the images that they ultimately describe. Window and mass production. The human hand is conceived of as divorced from the mechanical process, although that's not always the case.

With this particular technique, a reduction block, once you carve and print, carve and print, you sacrifice your block, and you've lost your first layers. You've completed everything you've ever printed. You lose the image.

There is the creating in the studio, then the fragmenting. There will be moments, where parts of the print are cut and reduced in scale.

You've been working with assistants to create the prints. Describe this process. Roughly how many will be incorporated into the final piece?

There's an echo between construction and a print workshop. I've had amazing assistants. I've taken on the role of artist and master printer, determining process and imagery. I've taken photographs and started drawing them out by hand, which is what I usually do. Sometimes images were projected on blocks to trace and redraw with first draft underneath. Then I carved them-I do the initial carving. Assistants help with the clearing. I'm there at each step of defining the image. I mix the color, and they press.

There are five different prints/images. The first layer of these prints were done at Prints of Darkness with master printer Rob Swainston. The initial layer is just flat, so there was no reason to print by hand. Some buildings have a second layer printed on press and finished by hand.

Project Atrium Nicola Lopez Atrium Light
Installation continues for Nicola Lopez's Project Atrium exhibition. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

For you, how did MOCA's own architecture become a factor?

It affected the scale and size of the prints in the space. And seeing it from different heights-I'm very excited about that. This in some ways mirrors the experience of the urban landscape. My reference photos are from the thirtieth floor, so it's a midpoint in the building instead of the bottom looking up. It's a specific view that we've experienced as pedestrian versus being inside the building and knowing you're in a different space. You're in the inside of the Museum when you're looking at it and its experiential nature-be it up close or far away.

There have been pieces were I have used aluminum studs, but in different ways-as an armature to support prints on Mylar paper. This is the first time this structure has been so self-supporting and contained, to walk around and within it. I love that there will be a front and a back of the print, and you'll get to see that. It will be interesting to see the lighting as it changes throughout. Site-specific work is not a fixed experience. You get an intimate view from the back, then you travel a little bit to get the full experience. 

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