From creating plaster bandage impressions of her own body to incorporating medical devices, sculptor Nicki Cherry’s pieces delve into the depths of pain and healing. An interview with the artist by Clare Gemima.
Charmoli Ciamoli’s “A Pound of Flesh,” featuring the works of Nicki Cherry and Anoushka Bhalla, thrusts the trauma of the human body to center stage. In my interview with Cherry about her three new sculptures in the show, “Contact Relic,” “Shed,” and “Coping Mechanism,” we uncover the work’s profound influence from the artist’s own personal experiences, and how they translate through her sculpture’s specific processes.
From creating plaster bandage impressions of her own body, to incorporating medical devices as extensional forms, Cherry’s pieces delve into the depths of pain, healing, and the blurred boundaries between the physical and emotional self.
Bhalla’s works, resonating with Cherry’s material sensibilities, explore the collective nature of pain, most pointedly its transgenerational impact. The exhibition, nestled within a corporate space, adds another layer of complexity, and showcases the resilience of the ‘human body’ amidst external systems that often inflict cruelty and resistance upon it.
Nicki Cherry’s time at NARS
Clare Gemima: Nicki, I am so glad that even though I missed visiting you during your NARS residency, I had the opportunity to see your works alongside Anoushka Bhalla’s at Charmoli Ciarmoli recently.
Can we start by discussing the works you made during your time at NARS, specifically in how they have influenced your ideas and processes behind the three sculptures that make up “A Pound of Flesh”: “Shed,” “Coping Mechanism,” and “Contact Relic?
Nicki Cherry: “Shed” was made during the first half of my NARS residency. For a while, I had wanted to make a sculpture inspired by a passage from the Polish novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” in which the narrator imagines being able to escape her chronic pain by unzipping and crawling out of her body into a new, pain-free self:
This vision really resonated with how badly I wanted to find respite during the worst of my own pain flares. The most direct way for me to make this sort of discarded shell was to create a plaster bandage impression of my own body. This was a new process for me that continued with “Contact Relic,” which was made at the end of my time at NARS.
Although “Coping Mechanism” was made a few years before the other two works, having it installed alongside these two other works perhaps allows for it to be understood as the body that has crawled out of its old skin. “Coping Mechanism” was originally included in the first chapter of an exhibition called “The Third Body” at AUTOMAT Collective in Philadelphia.
When we were planning the second chapter while I was at NARS, one of the curators, Lydia Smith, and I discussed what healing looks like. We talked about how traumatic experiences can carve out a space inside of you that remains even after the immediate sensation has passed. “Coping Mechanism” has a partially hollowed out leg, with its interior coated in wax and graphite. My own encounters with trauma have felt like a sort of greasy film that’s impossible to wash off.
Production processes and installation
Clare Gemima: How do the three sculptures differ across their production processes, and how does this aspect influence how you install the works?
Nicki Cherry: “Shed” and “Contact Relic” both necessitated me asking another person to lay plaster bandages over my body. My husband did this to make “Shed.” After the piece was finished, I realized how much it was a documentation of this performance. The parts of my body where I was experiencing more discomfort are more abstracted, as I wasn’t able to stay completely still, so the bandages would shift and distort. The entire sculpture is a physical record of touch between me and my partner. With “Contact Relic,” I decided to really emphasize this performative element by inviting a public audience to my studio to lay the bandages. This sort of mold-making process also necessitated me fragmenting my own body. In order for me to be able to crawl out of the form, I had to draw a part line down my body and create the shell in two halves. “Shed” joins the halves back together with a zipper. I was really drawn to the negative space within the interior of each shell, which led me to decide to keep “Contact Relic” split as a diptych.
Fragmentation is also present in “Coping Mechanism.” The “whole” version of the piece includes a monstrously oversized ceramic foot and a fiberglass-and-hydrocal torso embedded with a wax candle cast in the shape of a human spine. I originally presented “Coping Mechanism” with all these elements spread across the gallery. Last fall, I split them up to show just the spine-torso-foot combination at the University of Chicago. Even though I’ve been showing the components as separate entities, I still think of them as a singular body.
It’s been sort of funny to have one half in Chicago and one half in New York—it’s reflective of how I have often felt fragmented myself while I’m splitting my life between the two cities.
Clare Gemima: I am wondering how you decide what medical devices you choose to embellish your pieces with. Handrails hoist your “Contact Relic” diptych to the wall, and IV tracks tubularly attach to bags filled with oils of milk, laden by your floor piece, “Shed.” How do you feel these hardwares speak to notions of the human body, or softer flesh components your sculptures also consider?
Nicki Cherry: I first started using medical ephemera as prosthetics to my sculptures. They act as extra limbs or circulatory devices. I like that they’re recognizable objects very much from our own world, which helps build a sense of empathy between my sculptures and the viewer. People often come to the work with strong associations and memories of these objects. They implicate our own bodies in the sculpture’s universe. With the grab bars especially, I want viewers to be able to really imagine themselves sharing space with the sculptures. There’s something intimate about sharing a handrail with someone—even if it’s a fairly mundane occurrence that New Yorkers experience everyday on the subway.
Going back to this idea of the medical objects as extensions of the body, I think of some of them—particularly the circulation systems with tethered latex tubing—as things which make otherwise hidden bodily functions visible. The boundary between the interior and exterior of our body is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in my recent work.
Clare Gemima: Have any of the hardwares been used in legitimate medical situations, or had a history outside of the sculptures they accompany?
Nicki Cherry: So far everything has been purchased new so that there’s a strong visual contrast between the cleanness of the metal and the implied age of the more stone-like bodies, but I have considered trying to scavenge medical ephemera with a history. I’ve gone back and forth with deciding whether to try fabricating my own medical devices, but I think it’s important for the objects to be the real thing. Perhaps using medical equipment that has its own history might add to that.
Clare Gemima: Did you stand inside “Coping Mechanism” in order to mold its width and shape? Is it you, or can I just imagine your body having something to do with the actual construction of each piece in the show? Is this piece a body mold, or something entirely different?
Nicki Cherry: No, but I definitely think the piece has a strong relationship to my own body! “Coping Mechanism” was made by building up and carving down blocks of polystyrene. I then coated it in hydrocal-saturated fiberglass, which bulks up the form a bit more. I wanted the whole form with its here-absent torso to be about 125% human scale.
A mentor recently told me that he sees this work as self-portraiture. He thought this comment would piss me off a bit, but I absolutely agree. Even though I’m not setting out to make a mirror of my body, when I’m working through this process, I’m always paying attention to how the work feels in relation to myself. I’m imagining how its embodiment feels. I only know how being inside of my own individual body feels, so it makes sense that my own subjectivity is going to be deeply embedded in the work.
Anoushka Bhalla’s work and space
Clare Gemima: How are your works in conversation with Anoushka Bhalla’s pieces in “A Pound of Flesh”?
Nicki Cherry: Both of our practices are deeply engaged with an understanding of embodied trauma. Anoushka’s works in the show consider how collective pain really sinks into the body and is passed down over generations—how this memory of trauma is not limited to just people who initially, or directly experienced it. There’s definitely overlap in our material sensibilities and in how we consider the surface of each of our works as a skin that reveals an interior narrative.
The space itself also acts as a third player in the show. I love that viewers have to traverse through this clean, corporate Midtown office building before encountering these extremely visceral artworks. Our works existing within this space, perhaps in spite of its architecture, really highlights how cruel some outside systems often are to people’s bodies.
“A Pound of Flesh,” featuring work by Nicki Cherry, and Anoushka Bhalla will run to June 18 at Charmoli Ciarmoli, 250 Park Ave, Suite #1472, New York.
For more information about the show, visit: charmoliciarmoli.com