Exhibition Review: Nicole Ratos Enerson at 119 Gallery, Lowell MA.

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

Jim Jeffers
Assistant Professor of Art and Design
University of Massachusetts Lowell


Figure 1: Pothos and Himeros I, Nicole Ratos Enerson
2010, Archival digital ink jet prints mounted on aluminum
2 photographs each: 20” x 26” x 1”, hung 2” apart. Total size: 20” x 54”

For this interview and review, I chose to focus on the place where I live, the city of Lowell Massachusetts, and the only contemporary art space in Lowell, 119 Gallery. Readers anywhere may find parallels to exhibition spaces in their own cities; we hope that this interview will encourage reviewers to contribute from any and all national and international locations.

I chose to speak with Nicole Ratos Enerson, a talented artist who, like many of us, is not media-specific and was trained primarily in traditional forms of art making. The exhibition was entitled a/symmetrical love, and was Nicole Ratos Enerson’s first solo exhibition at 119 Gallery—after her work was selected by Nick Capasso, curator at the DeCordova Museum, to take top honors in another exhibition at the gallery. Nicole Ratos Enerson’s work drew my attention because of her clear use of newer technologies and her continued use of and concernwith the aesthetic tropes of conventional media.

In her exhibition, a/symmetrical love, we are presented with eight works: seven diptychs of digital photographs printed on paper (mounted onto aluminum) and one single-channel minute-long video loop presented on a medium sized HD monitor. All the pieces are self-portraits. She presents as an olive-skinned women, looking perhaps younger than she really is, face-to-face with herself, condensation on the mirror assuring us of little to no digital trickery in the depictions—save the video which is purposefully out of sync as one image moves before the other. The show is spartan and leaves the viewer with plenty of room for contemplation. The images start to feed a narrative of strange narcissism—and in fact all the static pieces are named for players in the Greek myth—measured by a slightly uncomfortable reflexive voyeurism, almost that of catching an adolescent girl kissing herself in the mirror and feeling the eroticism of the act of kissing tempered quickly by the sad lonesomeness of solo lips on hard glass. Enerson, however, knows we are looking and wants us to look. In the manifold relationship we form with the four images of women in the diptych, we are bounced in and out of connection, and handled with cold precision as softly as possible until we jump to the next ménage and the next, like a gallery-sized flip book, in essence creating an arrested stop-motion video. The lone video work entitled, The eye by which I see god is the same eye by which he sees me indulges the “gaze” even further, and although it is mesmerizing and aesthetic, John Berger echoes deeply in the back of my mind and I feel a resistance to a too-simple take on the viewer-viewed relationship. With my interest piqued, I sit down with Nicole Ratos Enerson and ask her ten questions, to get at some of what fuels her, thoughts on being a contemporary artist, and what it means to be a ”New Media” artist.

Three Video Stills from: In and Out I, Breath on frosted glass, Digital video loop, 1 min 27 sec, Nicole Ratos Enerson, 2009.

Jim Jeffers: The work in the exhibition consists of eight pieces: seven diptychs (digital photographic prints on paper, mounted to aluminum) and one single-channel video loop. How do the static pieces relate to the video work beyond the use of yourself as performer?

Nicole Ratos Enerson: I think that the very nature of the photographs is

cinematographic. They almost feel like video stills because they are sequential, all taken over a span of five or ten minutes and they are serial then split up. So I feel like the still imagery still has a sense of linearity like the video would have. Also, I think they relate in terms of the sequence and the feeling of motion; even though it’s not present in the static images in the same literal way that it is in the video. There are aspects of the video that relate to the still images, but the split here talks about something very different. I’m not dealing with breath in the video intentionally, because I wanted it to be about the surface and the split in a different way.

JJ: In all the pieces you are wearing a pearl earring. Can you speak to this? Are you speaking to or about Vermeer?

NRE: Absolutely. Initially, when I made the pieces I wasn’t staging it on purpose. I didn’t wear it thinking, “Oh, ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring.’” But as I generated images I realized very quickly that that was one of the more interesting aspects to me—it was speaking to modes of representation and portraits historically. Very directly, it helped me to decide about the cropping, because I knew I only wanted one earring in each image. It was important for me not to have two in the same frame.

JJ: So, when you shot the work initially was it an accident to have the earring in it?

NRE: Yes.

JJ: If you are paying a nod to Vermeer, as you said, how does this relate, or does it, to titling the diptychs after Greek mythological characters (two Erotes: Pothos [longing] & Himeros [sexual desire])?

NRE: I think yes. Obviously. This idea of a/symmetrical love, this sort of projection of oneself onto the surface, parallels essentially with the Vermeer painting—obviously, the woman is being looked at, painted, gazing back. The notion of love that I am talking about in these pieces is essentially desire for what one lacks and it really relates directly to the process of making, and I think very simply the myth of Narcissus deals with understanding symbols and images and, as a painter, Vermeer deals with that very directly.

JJ: Do you consider yourself a new media artist, and how do you place your work in the spectrum of contemporary artists?

NRE: I consider myself an artist—not necessarily a New Media artist because

I engage in drawing and painting and photography and video and then hybrids of those forms at times. So, I guess in the continuum of what’s being created today I wouldn’t categorize myself as a new media artist because I don’t think I am working with maybe the most cutting-edge technology. I’m not working in web or realtime interactive—I would say I oscillate back and forth between traditional and New Media.

JJ: Addressing the materials of your work— the print on heavy textured paper, mounted to aluminum—is there a dichotomy between the moment in performed gesture, and concretizing the image into a discrete work-of-art frozen-in-fine-art materiality in this exhibition?

NRE: In a sense I think there is. There is a dichotomy. Obviously, my experience of performing the act, breathing on the glass, moving around, the creation of the piece that is videotaped and photographed is very visceral. My experience is very different, and then the stills do become these frozen moments that are singled-out. What I was concerned with was this idea of creating artwork and what it is to make a piece, and all of a sudden the breath becomes frozen and static. Where for me, when I was creating the piece, there is this back-and-forth action, which is very much like painting. So for me these pieces relate very directly to painting not only in terms of the Vermeer reference, but also in terms of this gesture, this dance you participate in with the panel when you’re painting, or liquid on a surface, very much like the breathing on glass and then you end up with this static flattened image which is what I ended up with: the photographs.

JJ: It seems like you are treating painting as a performed action, a performance, and I know a lot of painters who do not feel their process is a performance and part of the art in that way. Is your performance part of the art?

NRE: It’s difficult question in the sense that I think the process of making is very much a part of any drawing or painting when you can see the build-up and passage of time through the marks. Maybe in the experience of a viewer coming to the work they may not be aware of the intricacies of the process in that step, but they are aware a process has occurred in order to reach the point. So I would say, yes, process is to some extent evident in all work. Especially for me in a/symmetrical love which was very much about the artist’s experience with the art, and also then the audience’s experience to the artist. So, I think some of what you are asking there was what I was considering.

JJ: Do these works need to be pigment, paper, and metal?

NRE: Yes.

JJ: Could video have ”worked” in place of these fourteen images (seven diptychs)?

NRE: I want to say no. I actually made videos that dealt with the breath between the reflected and depicted image and considered using those as well. So it is something I had considered. But for me there was something that became overly eroticized. It took that aspect too far and it became melodramatic. Then I felt as though they needed to be still images. I thought that was a lot of what it was about, and again going back, I am so rooted in painting I think a lot of the time when I use new media it relates specifically back to painting, so they needed to be still.

Figure 2:  “Pothos and Himeros II”, Nicole Ratos Enerson 2010, Archival digital ink jet prints mounted on aluminum 2 photographs each: 20” x 26” x 1”, hung 2” apart. Total size: 20” x 54”

Figure 2: Pothos and Himeros II, Nicole Ratos Enerson
2010, Archival digital ink jet prints mounted on aluminum
2 photographs each: 20” x 26” x 1”, hung 2” apart. Total size: 20” x 54”

JJ: What is different about “Pothos and Himeros IV?” Is ”IV” different?

NRE: Yes, that’s why it was in the lobby. There was not an intentional difference to me. When I had them all in the space I realized that it stood out to me. I think it was a slightly softer image in the quality, and I think the gesture, the action was really strong and sort of immediate in that the two mouths are about to meet. It stood out as separate, and beyond that, I don’t know.

JJ: In some of your other work, you use video as an ”inter-medium” between the performer/model and painting. Are you cutting out an intermediate step, or does the physicality of the print serve the same function as your painting?

NRE: In a sense I am cutting out a step.

JJ: What step are you cutting out?

NRE: The step of painting the video still. When I paint from stills there is a reason for it. There is something I need to re-contextualize or change within the still. But with these I didn’t feel that that was necessary, so they become the ”paintings.” The step was cutout, of re-translating it. Or maybe not. I have to think about that one more.

Figure 3: “Pothos and Himeros IV”, Nicole Ratos Enerson 2010, Archival digital ink jet prints mounted on aluminum 2 photographs each: 20” x 26” x 1”, hung 2” apart. Total size: 20” x 54”

Figure 3: Pothos and Himeros IV, Nicole Ratos Enerson
2010, Archival digital ink jet prints mounted on aluminum
2 photographs each: 20” x 26” x 1”, hung 2” apart. Total size: 20” x 54”

JJ: How does this body of work relate to the grand arc of your work, and does it portent a new direction?

NRE: Yes, I think it possibly does. I usually show simply paintings or a series of paintings, or I do a video installation. This is the first time I have ever shown digital prints, and this is the first time I have ever combined digital prints and a video. I always felt like the photographs or video stills were not enough and needed to be reinterpreted as painting, but I feel I am starting to be okay working with the digital printouts being an end-step in the process as opposed to the step right before the end. Yes, I do foresee some changes,

but in the same breath I can’t rule out going back to painting. I don’t necessarily view it as a sequential journey away from painting into new media. I’m interested in the back-and-forth between the two. A lot of the time my videos look like paintings, my photographs look like paintings, or my paintings look like photographs. There is a real interchange; they inform each other.

Link to the exhibition:

Nicole Ratos Enerson was born in Illinois in 1979. She received BFA’s in painting and graphic design in 2001 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a short stint as a designer, she went on to get her MFA in painting from Cornell University in 2004, where she studied on a full fellowship. While in graduate school, she was awarded the Hartell Award, the Charles Baskerville painting award, and a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts. After graduation, Ratos Enerson served as a Lecturer of Art at Cornell, and later as Adjunct Faculty at Tufts University in affiliation with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She is currently a Lecturer of Art at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and faculty in the precollege program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Ratos Enerson has shown her work

throughout the northeast and nationally. She was recently included in shows at the Mills Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, the Danforth Museum of Art in Farmingham, Massachusetts, and the Woods Gerry Gallery at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island. She has an upcoming solo show at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut in 2011.

Jim Jeffers is an artist, Associate Editor (with a focus on reviews) for
Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, and Assistant Professor of Art and Design at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He lives and works in Lowell, Massachusetts.