Nicola L.’s Protest Inspired Art Finds New Relevance at Nina Johnson

April 10th, 2019

From The Miami New Times by Taylor Estape

Some contemporary art can feel like a nasty hangover from the orgy of postmodernism known as popart. Figures like Andy Warhol were known as much for their fabulous lives as their enduring concepts, a trend that seems to have permeated today's art world. It's not just the occasional art celebrity who perpetuates that trend, but the proliferation of "sexy" art that can boast being both flashy and nominally multidimensional.

It makes sense that work like Nicola L's — on view at Nina Johnson Gallery as the exhibit "Silence" — went relatively unnoticed in comparison.

"[Nicola L's] practice shifted to reflect the world in which her works were created," says Johnson, who's been interested in L's work for years. "This happened to be over the course of several decades that were politically tumultuous and radical in terms of free thought. Our current moment needs this kind of open and experimental thinking to help us navigate the complexities of our time. By looking back at the way Nicola grappled with these issues, we can challenge our own responses."

Some of the artist's best-known pieces are turning 50 years old this year, including Red Coat, which famously premiered at the British music festival Isle of Wight in 1969. Composed of 22 armholes and 11 hoods interspersed through a large swath of red fabric, the piece was inspired by the social forces behind the civil rights and feminist movements. When activated, the piece turns 11 individuals into a single dynamo of coordinated movement. It's part of Nicola L's Penetrable series, pieces of which will be on display in "Silence."

"The malleability of Nicola’s work is one of the things that draws me to it," notes Johnson. How these wearable pieces have often occupied gallery spaces is an example of that malleability. "The Penetrable [works] have had many lives. Nicola often displayed these works as we are showing them. They were also often used in performances, demonstrations, and in protests."

Until recently, mass protests and demonstrations seemed like a vestige of the '60s or '70s, but Nicola L's work brings the literal image of collective action into the gallery. Aside from Penetrable, her Banner series appropriates the tools of marches with emotional and poetic messaging. One example is titled We Want to Be Loved.

"Many of the works we’re showing, including We Want to Be Loved, force the viewer to recognize themselves as being capable activists and instigators," says Johnson. "They also call to mind a playfulness and an environmental awareness." This awareness rightfully brings up a barrage of questions: "Who or what are we interacting with and for what reasons? How can we broaden our parameters of acceptance? How far does one’s own skin reach? These are all thoughts that we need to be reminded of, particularly in our current political climate."

The implications of the human body, then, are only a part of the work's adaptation to today. Nicola L's legacy may be most present in this work's willingness to transform the resources we have at our disposal. With the help of Nicola L's sons, Nina Johnson is able to bring that legacy to her gallery until May 11.

"The process was really great. Nicola’s children and grandchildren grew up with her work, and they have a deep understanding of who she was as an artist," says the gallerist. "Mostly, I feel that they want to ensure her legacy preserves the playful, dedicated, and varied nature of [her] practice."

"Nicola L.: Silence." Through May 11 at Nina Johnson Gallery, 6315 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-571-2288; Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.