On ViewMrs. Gallery
March 23 – May 7, 2022
The ten fabric sculptures on view in too bad for heaven, too good for hell at Mrs. prove that Rose Nestler is an exceptional artist, able to align the formal manipulation of her materials and the conceptual contours of her message so closely that the result is both wholly her own and wholly convincing. Nestler is a highly skilled craftsperson, so her ballooning satin skirts, drooping leather calla lilies, and hardwood ankles are executed with consummate precision (although she does outsource the fabrication of some elements, like the arcing broomstick of Flying Ointment #2, 2022 or the sandblasted mirror of Lift and Tuck, 2022). But more impressive than the works’ technical sophistication and apt alignment of form with message is its intellectual rigor: Nestler’s wall-bound sculptures of proscenium stages, truncated bodies, or flying apparatuses are thoroughly researched and carefully refined entry points into deeply held vernacular belief systems. These pre-modern or magical ways of understanding nature run through us like ancestral arteries, so they feel exceedingly familiar, even if not personally held. Like Mike Kelley and Andy Warhol, for example, Nestler works within a lexicon of pop iconography to reveal profound truths routed equally through shared history and typecast social roles. All of this is difficult to balance, and Nestler’s consistent success in doing so puts her in league with other sculptors like Gordon Hall, Fawn Krieger, and Nickola Pottinger whose clarity of vision is so strong that their works rarely miss.
At Mrs., Nestler’s protagonists are the women of folklore and fairytales who wielded power as tinkerers, healers, sages, oracles, or keepers of nature’s secrets. While feminism today deploys the language of fluidity and equity, Nestler mines traditions from other times and places (both real and imagined) that provide similar lessons—first among them the incompatibility of abstract binaries with the reality of lived experience. Throughout the exhibition, Nestler examines dichotomies of young/old, right/wrong, up/down, work/play, and, as the title suggests, good/evil. In a departure from the neon colorblock contrasts of earlier athletically-themed work, here the artist hews to a palette of burgundy, black, and white, accented by a yellow stamen or the shock of a pastel green glove. These are the colors of such reality-suspending populist venues as the cabaret, the lacquer-tabled steakhouse, or the shadowy movie theater. Nestler’s work thus sits at the crux of creativity and convention, negotiating tensions between these familiar associations and various distant histories that slot into our worldviews like missing puzzle pieces. As a result, the work opens onto revelation: in one example, the hard-edge shapes of pink MDF wrapped in clear silicone that mount broom to wall in Flying Ointment #1 and #2 (2022) reference a psychotropic agent with which witches were said to coat their broomsticks, waiting to be absorbed through contact with bare flesh. The old witch’s cackle therefore coexists with a hidden erotics, a category inversion of age and attraction that leaves the occult intact as a site where the unruly or unknown cannot be regulated.
Nestler invests arcane tradition with new relevance elsewhere, too. In Vernacular Architecture (2022), a tower of four alabaster stones, Nestler carved out small box-like rooms and populated them with miniature armchairs and golden Barbie pumps. Evoking both Roman sarcophagi and Colleen Moore’s castle, this sculpture is the first Nestler made for the show and it serves as the exhibition’s conceptual core. Inspired by a walk last autumn on a well-known fairy trail in New Jersey—here Nestler finds herself in the company of Robert Smithson, another investigator of time’s recursivity at a site nearby—Vernacular Architecture acknowledges fairies’ power as messengers of nature’s invisible truths. According to the artist, in Irish belief, if an erected tower of stones remains intact overnight, one may build there. But if it is knocked over, the site is a fairy path and may not be obstructed. Such practices, extant before the Industrial Revolution, teach us to seek nature’s consent. Benevolent fairies’ fierce protection of nature was especially pointed, then, since it would also have safeguarded all those beliefs that predated the mechanization and “enlightenment” of daily life.
Nestler’s sculptures’ jocular absurdity and deadly seriousness gives them remarkable range, and her easy marriage of such opposing affects suggests that she is nowhere near exhausting the power of her theme. Bridget’s Hearth (2022), for instance, contaminates the almost antiseptic aim of dollhouses as agents for the indoctrination through play of domestic (female) labor. In the vacant apartments of its torso sit fluorescent fairy votives and a flaccid silicone candle that pokes up through an orifice above the structure’s door. The humor of an impotent dollhouse topped by swollen breasts with wick-tipped nipples functions in concert with Nestler’s more cerebral interest in pedagogy and the subversion of its normative expectations. The latter is visible throughout the show, as in the wagging soapstone tongues dangling off the lower edge of the elaborately pleated stage in Three Tongues (2022). These insinuate that popular subcultural sites like nightclubs are more apt to teach life lessons than the vaunted and supposedly transcendent spaces of high culture.
Nestler’s comparative investigation of ancient knowledge and contemporary culture—or the behaviors sanctioned and made illicit by capitalism—is nowhere more powerfully expressed than in a pair of works that draw on Hans Christian Andersen’s grim fable The Red Shoes. In this story, a girl is condemned to dance forever for her vain decision to wear the eponymous footwear to church. Eventually, her ultimate punishment is amputation. In Spun Out (2021), Nestler arrays a burgundy skirt in a circle, surrounded by a pinwheel of red-heeled feet. A large cork appears to pin the assemblage to the wall like a dagger, creating a centripetal force that opposes the centrifugal energy of the ring of shoes. Like the ancient goddess Fortuna, Nestler spins the wheel of fate, imagining a contemporary world invested with those critically useful dimensions of the past, like ancient polytheism’s entrustment of entire realms of wisdom to female gods. Nearby, in Satisfying Slime Storytime (2022), the single video work on view, Nestler’s hands manipulate goo while a voice reads Andersen’s tale aloud. Referencing a genre of niche TikTok videos, the video is its own kind of vortex: totally captivating, we lose our sense of time in front of it, while the accelerated tempo of the story makes us aware of its passage as we think fast to keep pace.
Revolving back and forth self-consciously through time, both Spun Out and Satisfying Slime Storytime propose the possibility of experiencing temporality differently, challenging the standardization of time that orders labor and bodies into a future-and production-oriented linearity. Feminist scholar Elizabeth Freeman has called this chrononormativity—a standardization enforced by history’s male potentates and captains of industry. Yet as Salman Rushdie observed of The Wizard of Oz, that famous film predicated on the supernatural power of yet other red shoes, “the power of men is illusory… The power of women is real.” At Mrs., Nestler’s work has profound implications, if only we take the cast-off and the unseen seriously.