Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Harvest of Memory: The Multi-Faceted Art of Bea Nettles

Harvest of Memory, Bea Nettles (University of Texas Press)

“I see my career as a spiral with my ideas always circling and picking up reflections of earlier thoughts.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 1990.

“There are parallels to making art and tending one’s garden . . . an image or an idea can be split up, shared, and even better yet, transplanted into someone else’s garden.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 2011.

John Lennon once famously, and sarcastically, remarked to a journalist that his wife was the “most famous unknown artist in the world,” something that was true only in the sense that Yoko Ono’s serious art-world credentials (which pretty much disintegrated when she married him) were submerged in the notoriety that surrounded their alliance. But as an art historian I can tell you without a doubt that though I greatly admire Yoko’s prescient and poetic pre-John visual-object work (and her first three brilliant recordings), the actual title of Most Famous Unknown Artist really belongs to one Bea Nettles, whose radical work over fifty years is now being celebrated through major retrospective shows that clearly demonstrate how far ahead of her time she was. Only in the rarefied off-the-map art-world circles where true cultural revolution and evolution usually take place was she rightly famous.

Now, two important survey installations and the publication of a major monograph on her works have sought to remedy this situation and rescue her from the kind of obscurity that can even befall artists with a gargantuan influence on the visual discourse of our fickle popular culture. The installations were organized by the George Eastman Museum and Sheldon Galleries in St. Louis in 2019 and are currently touring to the Krannert Art Museum of the University of Illinois from August to December 2020 (where she both graduated in 1970 and herself taught photography and artists books for several decades afterward). The monograph is Harvest of Memory, a collaborative book released by George Eastman Museum and the University of Texas Press. The Eastman Museum in particular addressed her accomplishments very well, calling her “a tremendously productive artist who profoundly illuminates our inner worlds.”

A pioneer in alternative photographic techniques and the fabrication of limited-edition artist books often focusing on autobiographical subjects and themes involving domesticity, she was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1946. She studied at the University of Florida until 1968 before going on to pursue an MFA at University of Illinois, at which point both her academic career and art career formally commenced, with a teaching position at Illinois stretching right up until the present and running parallel to a vast number of gallery and museum exhibitions. She often approaches issues of family relationships infused with both mythology and natural history in a customarily dream-like juxtaposition of conceptual art and maternal feminism, frequently using her own body as a vehicle for the transmission of visual ideas that reflect a merger of social, political and personal issues. 

C in Moonlight (1976), photo print on vinyl (University of Texas)

It completely mystifies me how an artist such as Judy Chicago could have become the poster girl for aesthetic 70’s feminism instead of Bea Nettles. I mean no disrespect by this remark, since I readily acknowledge Chicago’s serious maker status and even some of her acclaim; it’s just that I personally don’t think she can hold a candle to Nettles in terms of the actual art produced, despite Nettles’ having had to toil in Judy’s looming shadow. It might just have something to do, alas, with Nettles’ insistence on giving equal time to her multiple interests: she is a feminist, a wife, a mother, a teacher, a publisher and an artist at the same time. Yet it is that very full, life-lived simultaneity which for me gives her a prominent position in the feminist pantheon: the way she demonstrates that such territorial distinctions are not necessarily zero-sum games and instead can be navigated in a truly radical fashion as she did, all at once.

C in Moonlight, for instance, at first glance appears to be a fairly non-provocative image, a fully clothed woman (Nettles is often featured nude) staring at the viewer straight on, while another portrait of her face appears as an apparition on the surface of the moon, also gazing at us. It is only when one realizes that this is a “Kwik-Print” mechanical reproduction, something akin to a Xerox except on a sheet of vinyl, that one gets how saucy she is being with art-historical norms of preciousness, demonstrating kindness and craftsmanship in her use of a commercially available and disposable medium. It is an almost Fluxus-oriented gesture in its self-deprecating humour, in addition to being a drastic intermedia experiment in interstitial, liminal and interdisciplinary traditions. In that respect she has much in common with Ono.

She is defiantly multi-faceted in her work over many years primarily because she relishes a difficult-to-define aesthetic position that comes of age practically in the late-pop era of low-tech rebellion before maturing into the mid-conceptual art period of merging ideas and objects and finally embodying a uniquely accessible feminist posture that insists on including domestic issues into her art ethos. A 1968 work such as Self-Totem, for instance, at first appears to be somewhat cheeky pop art in its emotional and visual temperature, but it also contains a radical vision of future selfie-saturation which was still almost half a century away in our common social parlance. It’s like she was looking into the future, our future: today. 

Self-Totem (1968), gelatin silver print with hand-applied colours, (George Eastman Museum)

The gorgeous catalogue accompanying this current well-deserved and long-overdue comprehensive retrospective of her dizzyingly diverse work, edited by Jamie Allen and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, with additional important archival texts by Bea Nettles and critical insights by Amy Powell, goes a long way to serving as an ideal introduction of the public to this larger-than-life yet almost invisible presence on the cultural scene. And among the most revealing pieces are also the most relatively recent, as evidence of her creative longevity and stylistic endurance as a cutting-edge artist, a series that strikes me as one of her most impactful, Return Trips (1990-1999). The serial nature of her montage sequences is often inherently about the search for lost time, a poetic capturing of the awesome nature of frozen duration which can’t help but feel like a movie with the most mysterious of narratives. While telling us a set of mesmerizing stories with an epic visual-novel tone, her unexpected and yet utterly logical juxtapositions are alarming and soothing at the same time, as they take us on a journey inside the artist’s inclusive way of looking at the world she occupies. And unlike much of contemporary conceptual art, it’s also a world we immediately recognize as our own, but somehow sanctified. 

Return Trips, # 1 - 5 (Photo Montage Series 1990–1999, University of Texas)

One of the great pleasures of the Nettles retrospective, and of the informative catalogue that documents her for cultural posterity (if there is any) is the visceral continuity that takes place across the decades of her work, like a pendulum swinging among all the many facets of her ongoing inquiry into the haptic experiences of being alive. She has always been fascinated by the minutiae of daily life and pictorially represents it in a very personal and private manner, and not hermetically at all, while at the same time allowing the everyday to encompass us all with a kind of existential universality. It was covered very well in the magazine Lens Culture, and their exchange with Nettles in a most poignant series of interviews with Cat Lachowskyi surrounding her retrospective in which she was celebrated for her “alchemical approach to photography, inviting viewers into her magical universe of mythology, imagery and self expression.”

“For as long as she can remember,” Lachowskyi reports, “Bea Nettles wanted to make art, creating something from the bits and pieces surrounding her daily life, filled with experimentation and the breeding of countless media. Through Nettles’ work, different modes of emotion are stitched together, resulting in mixed-media techniques – in a spider web of expression rather than a linear, glossy print housed in the confines of an expensive frame. Her practice has evolved throughout her teaching and motherhood, and it’s what has inspired her to continuously pursue projects outside the confines of straight photography.” Referring to her own work as emotional, purgative, restorative and relaxing, Nettles is quite comfortable taking her time when she produces art objects, an example of which is her immersion in the making of that favourite series of hers, Return Trips, on which she laboured for over ten years. Returning to their archival source content again and again, she thinks of them as journals or personal puzzles, and they are, all 100 of them.

My other favourite territory explored by this captivating artist, perhaps because a close friend of mine is an accomplished bookbinder, is her exceptional body of limited-edition and often one-of-a-kind handcrafted artist books. Examples of these precious artifacts are also well featured in the exhaustive survey, and they are often the most enchanting and elegant of image-objects she’s produced, occupying a special place in her canon, but also accorded an equivalence to the more traditional formatted artworks she has created over the years. Once again, in her subtle yet robust book-works, just as in her overall body of work, she has blurred the borderlines, always illusory at the best of times anyway, between fine art, craft, design and personal fetish. Bea Nettles has proven herself to be not only a long-distance runner and survivor but also an exemplary exponent of that most alluring of contemporary art mandates: the re-enchantment of everyday life.

   Flamingo in the Dark (1978), gum bichromate prints with hand- applied colour (Eastman Museum)

KoolAid Heart (1971), silver gelatin print with vinyl appliqué and coloured fluids (Eastman Museum)

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

1 comment:

  1. Donald Brackett -- thank you from the bottom of my heart for these profound and thoughtful observations. I have the good fortune to be a neighbor and friend of Bea Nettles, so I have luxuriated in the richness of this show and the catalog. Indeed, I hadn't known the scope of her work. Particularly for women, Bea has provided probing and beautiful commentary on the mysteries of an artist's life, and indeed, any life that values self-reflection. Indeed, the courage implicit in all of these pieces is an important part of the story -- Bea's work was all too often not validated by the male dominated establishment for its pioneering and complex character.

    Bravo for this article, bravo for Bea, may the word spread widely.