Monday, August 18, 2008

Art Space Talk: Nikki Sass

The art of Nikki Sass is a pursuit to embody the ambiance and materials found in post-industrial areas. In a sense, Nikki observes small details that are often considered trivial-- such as peeling bathroom paint, paper on telephone poles, foundling mattresses-- and utilizes them as a source of inspiration. The result of this exploration is a focus on texture. Nikki is interested in the texture resulting from the layering of paint, the physical process of chipping and scrubbing it away, and the timeline that emerges.
Panama Slim, 2008, mixed media on patinaed steel, 19 x 23 inch.

Brian Sherwin: Nikki, you grew up on the outskirts of Detroit. You have stated that Detroit had a lasting effect on your appreciation for industrial objects, buildings, and the textures found in them. Do you mind telling us about your youth and how your early years have been an influence as far as your art is concerned?

Nikki Sass: It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized, most of the country is very different from Detroit. For me the backdrop of industry was everywhere- it employed a lot of my family and neighbors, the schools emphasized the history of the Fords and the whole assembly lines- field trips often had to do with- yeah, cars & industry. It’s not a place based on mainstream aesthetics but rather utility. Loading docks, factories, metal cutting, glass cutting, dye shops-- it’s everywhere.
I liked the burnt and over-ground mansions that where farther downtown- they seemed like relics- I always liked things that had a history. At the same time the boy who lived behind me and I would undertake small excavations of our backyards. We’d find things like old bottles and car parts and other bits of junk from the 20s. This part of my life wasn’t something I started articulating in my work until I moved away from it- not out of being homesick, but more because contrast created dialogue.
Dub, 2008, mixed media on patinaed steel, 31.5 x 31.5 inch.

BS: I understand that you moved to Italy at one point in order to study fresco restoration and printmaking. Can you recall that experience? Also, why did you decide to move back to the US?

NS: I worked for the state parks for two summers cutting down non-indigenous trees to get the money for it. I was really happy in Italy. The reason I wanted to go wasn’t simply to visit the museums and the whole art history thing- I was very interested in trying to live within that culture and learn the language.

Fresco restoration surpassed my expectations. Lorenzo Casamente was my instructor. He had restored a large amount of the major fresco's in Florence and Pompeii. He was very generous with his students in that he would take us to that sights he was working on like Santa Maria Novella, a monastery where they made books and schnapps, and a cloistered convent.

Printmaking had been my main focus at CCS. I was mostly doing intaglio, using very mild acid baths and concentrating on achieving very delicate subtitles. The nature of printmaking- the need to look at your intended piece as a puzzle made of layers- is where my intrigue for it came. The Florentine print studio was very different in that they encouraged the use of stronger acid and much bolder marks. It was a good balance.

Right before I moved back I met some friends on a train going to Napoli. They invited me to stay with them for a year and work at their family’s bar; and I wish I would have stayed. But at the time I wanted to go back to finish my degree. It’s an ongoing thing with me- I often regret how “responsible/ sensible”- if you can call it that- I’ve been.

Survival of the Rudest, 2008, mixed media on patinaed steel, 19 x 23 inch.

BS: Nikki, as for your years at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the Lorenzo de' Medici Art Institute in Italy.... can you tell us about those experiences? For example, did you have any influential instructors?

NS: I really enjoyed CCS for a lot of reasons. I was lucky- in Detroit no one is really marketing to you. I think it was easier for me to develop my own language for my work because the world wasn’t shoving ipods and h&m down my throat. There are no shopping malls downtown. You have to go to the suburbs. I had some exceptional instructors- Brain Nelson, Patrick McCay, Joseph Wesner, Joe Bernard, and Dennis Galffy. They all put a lot of thought and energy into teaching. It was exactly what I needed.

BS: Dilapidation, neglect, and isolation are often reflected in your work. However, you don't view that focus in a negative manner. Can you tell us more about the thoughts behind your art?

NS: When you live a place with more abandoned buildings over 20 stories than anywhere else in the country there are good things about it too- you can do almost anything you want- look at the techno history there. When I moved downtown for college being surround by it defiantly changed the way I viewed it. So much of it becomes this massive installation- trees growing out of buildings missing roofs, there’s a parking structure that was a theater- it still has the mangled curtains and a couple rows of chairs- not to mention a painted ceiling, chopped cars laid out like specimens next to each other in vacant lots. I couldn’t change what it was so I found what interested me in it- the textures and the oddities. The habit of looking for these things came with me to San Francisco. I look for the same things here to inspire my work like the Sutro baths.
Call Me Handsome, 2008, mixed media on patinaed steel, 23 x 19 inch.

BS: Tell us more about your interest in texture...

NS: It’s really an id thing of mine. I’m a touchy person. I want viewers to be able to interact with my work visually, of course, but also through touch.

BS: Nikki, you avoid narrative within the context of your art. In a sense, you allow the physicality of your paintings to do the talking-- the texture for example. Why do avoid narratives? Why do they not interest you as far as your art is concerned?

NS: I don’t have anything against narratives; and in the future it may change. For now I’m very content focusing on the texture. When I consider the addition of more elaborate illustrative elements I worry that it may be too overwhelming and may take away from the subtle physical aspects of the paint. It would be like wearing a lot of eye makeup with very defined lips.

BS: Nikki, what about your process... can you tell us how these works come into being, so to speak? Perhaps you can describe some of your methods?

NS: I use a cold patina and layer on paint- sometimes drawings… I’m also in love with decals at the moment-they’re in the mix too. My thought process goes back to how I used to approach printmaking- it’s more like a puzzle. I try not to resolve a piece too early because I prefer adding a lot of layers. It’s also a very physical process- there’s a lot of scraping and buffing.

BS: Are you influenced by any specific artists?

NS: I really enjoy looking at work in other styles, mediums, time periods than my own, and like most artists I’m influenced by music. Henry Darger, Ursula von Rydingsvard, John Vivanco’s photographs, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, Kent Williams recent work, the piece I loved for the foreground- a childhood fave- Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural, and record labels Ghostly International and Ersatz Audio.
Untitled 5, 2008, mixed media on patinaed steel, 8 x 5.5 inch.

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?

NS: I’m working on a series of larger pieces that are on steel panels rather than flat pieces. When I’m finished there will be 12. I’ve posted some of them under New Work on my page. The group is of a bolder color palette.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

NS: It is changing and becoming larger. In the next year I’m going to create 3 dimensional work as well with the same techniques on found pieces of steel.
You can learn more about Nikki Sass by visiting the following website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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