Lara Nickel Artist
Alot has happened since Lara Nickel graduated from the College of Santa Fe in 2007. The artist, who has an installation-based exhibit at LewAllen Galleries through Jan. 17, has since traveled extensively, spending time in Ireland and Italy and then living for three years in France before coming back to New Mexico. The College of Santa Fe itself, facing financial difficulties, went through a trying reorganization in 2009 and was then purchased in a joint venture involving the City of Santa Fe and Laureate Education and renamed the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “I graduated just before it happened,” Lara, now thirty, told Pasatiempo. “I didn’t have to deal with the closing and changing.” She was among the last wave of students to earn a degree from that institution.
Lara calls her practice installation-based painting. She paints detailed compositions of flora and fauna such as prickly pears, zebras, jaguars, and horses but with references to art history that nudge her work into the conceptual realm. “At LewAllen I have this series of cacti and sort of semitropical plants. They’re paintings of plants I found in Arizona and San Diego, kind of that area. And they’re lifesized. Whatever it is I’m doing, I try to display the painting in the room the way that the animal or object would actually be. So I have the plants going around a corner or two of them close together, or one is sticking out from the wall — kind of the way plants would behave naturally outside. They’re still paintings. They’re two-dimensional, but they come out into the physical space, so they act a little more like an object.”
Lara’s paintings rest perpendicular to the wall rather than hanging flat, forcing a more dynamic interaction for the viewer. “It’s a classical style of painting, but the way I display it in a room is much more contemporary,” she said.
The show is her premiere exhibit at LewAllen and her first solo exhibition period. “I have a lot of difficulty showing my work in Santa Fe,” she said. “Because it’s installation based, a lot of galleries don’t want to show it. It was really nice that LewAllen approached me and let me do an installation.”
Lara, who maintains a studio off Acequia Madre, is engaged in another project based on a previous work by Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. “It’s an homage,” she said. “In 1969 he brought 12 live horses into a gallery in Rome. For a long time I wanted to paint horses, but I didn’t want to do just portraits. Most of my work is installation with painting. So one day it just clicked that if I did an homage to his piece, I could make up this whole installation and paint horses, and it could be more about the horse and the history of art rather than being only portraiture. They’ll be displayed perpendicular to the wall, too, so all the horses are standing in the room.”
She is midway through the project, having completed six of the dozen horses — all of them life-sized, to scale, anatomically correct, and based on real horses. The work will be exhibited in a U-shaped installation. Kounellis’ original piece was an example of Arte Povera, a movement that originated in Italy and is characterized by the use of unconventional and nontraditional materials. Lara furthers these aspects by displaying her work so the back of the paintings can be seen, a direct contrast to the normal mode of exhibiting two-dimensional works. She also challenges viewer expectations, calling attention to the illusory aspects of representation.
The project is time-consuming and involves a lot of planning. “With the other plant or animal or object painting that I do, I just photograph it and then I’m in the studio by myself,” she said. “With the horses, I had to interact with a lot of people who owned them or the organizations that owned them.” The artist is working with equestrian organizations in Italy, France, and the United States as well as with individual horse owners. “Each canvas is a different size,” she said. “I measure the horse and photograph them myself. Then I have to figure out how big they’ll be and what pose I want them to be in.”
Lara has not publicly displayed the horse paintings but plans to bring them to Europe. “I have some contacts in Italy, but there is nothing official or set yet. I’m just creating my network over there. I’m also trying to do it in Paris and a few other places.” She hopes to unveil the installation in Rome, home of Kounellis’ original installation, sometime in 2017. — Michael Abatemarco