'In Conversation With Janie Nicoll' by Elisabetta Toreno
Writing about an artistic signature is often synonymous with investigating the artistic habits of the signer, as a signature adapts in synchrony whenever these habits change. Coming into contact with the works by artist Janie Nicoll generates this feeling: her experience of environments, of people and, especially, the ways in which these have affected her self-perception, constitute the direct source for her work, and map the transformations of her creative expressions in re-codified references that require examination beyond the aesthetic quality of her output.
The investigation of media is an ostensible preoccupation with this artist; her works follow stages in which personal and cultural milieux have claimed their visual forms. It is therefore significant that Janie Nicoll began her career as a portraitist.
Portraiture is fraught with indexical riddles; Roland Barthes states that the portrait can serve as a platform for four different types of explorations, depending on which relationship it represents: the sitter as s/he thinks s/he is; the person as s/he wishes to be perceived by the spectator; the person as perceived by the portraitist; and the object itself used by the portraitist as a self-promotional exhibit. A less aggressive way of satisfying the personal interest of the artist is the use of the sitter as a way to investigate how the human form can become instrumental to an act of artistic exploration. Dated the end of the 1980s, Janie Nicoll’s portraits display such relationship between the artist and the sitter, mediated through the canvas and amplified by the distortion and the cartoonist dramatization of lines and brush strokes that characterise these works; and that allow the artist to explore the psychological tension between the self and the outer world whilst simultaneously amusing the sitter on a novel spectacle of their own image. Janie’s anecdotes on the time spent in preparation for these portraits are significant and the portrait of the ‘Man In The Wheelchair’ is a case in point. Born as an impromptu assemblage, a friend was sat on a wheelchair conveniently available in the room; this counterfeited truth defies suspicions of artificiality or of psychological reflections by delivering a verisimilar fragment of reality through an aesthetic unity of lines and shapes that satisfies the expectation of the onlooker on figurative art.
The fascination with fashioning and self-fashioning remained a leitmotif of Janie Nicoll’s work throughout the 1990s, when images of the self and images of the other claimed larger visual fields in which the implications of being seen in the social stage acquired the shape of projected images on buildings, walls and windows. Thus the investigation of the self moved into the outer world and the paradigm of the vulnerability and the constraint of the individual subjected to public scrutiny gained resonance with ‘Foucaultian’ preoccupations concerning modern society. With a heightened awareness of the pressure of the social game, the investigation of the juxtaposition between the self and the actor reached the apex of mischievous confrontations with the uninvited spectator in works such as ‘Looking over my shoulder’ (January 1997, Glasgow); here, a video projection of the artist outside of a window of a private building in Great Western Road in Glasgow prompts questions of conflict between public and private spheres, where the game of the seeing and being seen is amplified by reflections upon the degrees of freedom in which we operate on the social and private arenas.
At the beginning of the new Millennium an urge to give shape and voice to words became the new condition for Janie Nicoll’s works. The prelude to these changes is arguably seen in ‘Sleep Deprivation’ (October 2000, photographic installation) in which burnt pots, supported by the title, elicit a desire to respond more systematically to the quandaries of the self. The unwarranted appearance of insects that gathered in formation to outline the shape of words brought a further mixed media layer to this; but also a new imaginative way to expose the anxiety for the things unseen by juxtaposition of extreme ideas and concepts. Sometimes photographed, sometimes real, installations of flies on walls and display windows, warned the spectator of the dangers of the disruptive nature of the environment that cannot and should not be under human control. ‘BIG’ ‘BAD’ ‘WOLF’ (2002, “Small Things”, installation, Glasgow Project Room) and ‘DEAD SPACE’ (2005, window installation, EmergeD Gallery, Glasgow) are installations in which swarms of flies gather to expose verbal structures to the spectator and casual onlooker alike; each plays with the combination of two very different yet equally menacing ideas that, furthermore, conjure the same notion of death and termination.
‘BIG’ ‘BAD’ ‘WOLF’ returned in 2004 to lend itself to a synthesis of two previous applications: giving the name to the installation (July 2004, tealeaves, teacups, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow) the three words were spelt inside a set of three teacups. Despite the natural association of this type of work with surrealist prototypes such as Mereth Oppenheim’s Object, there is little evidence of the camouflage of the item from the tradition of a feminine domesticity into a fetish that spawned from sensuous associations. Rather, one would be tempted to connect this new output with the artist’s experience of motherhood.
In light of the importance of family and children as a source of inspiration, it would be justifiable to agree on an influence of her new status as a mother on her works of the time. Two elements are useful to illustrate this point, one of which is represented by the powerful installations on advertising sites in bus shelters and in the underground of Glasgow, which explored the impact of images of ‘Unknown Children’ (1996, Digital output, Fotofeist, Public Art Project) on the distracted mind of the public commuter. The other factor is the visually inspiring accounts of her family bonds, clearly noticeable throughout her early career, and stressed not only in the examples of portraits of family members but also in the allusions found in works such as ‘Swarm’ (1999, installation of hand-cut laminated digital print from a 1953 sampler made by her great aunt, Waygood Gallery, Newcastle) and ‘Keeping Busy’ (March 1999, colour photograph of needlework by her aunt, “Losing It”, Intermedia Gallery, Glasgow). The culmination of this important source of inspiration can be appreciated in ‘Family History’ (2008 Projection in Callendar, High Flats, Falkirk); this is a work generated during her one year residency on a SAC pARTners project: a rectangular area filled with roundels that show photographs from a private history, projected onto a wall above the head of a double bed.
Motherhood penetrated in the works by Janie Nicoll in a rather understated fashion. It oozed in silently but took the resolute character of a legacy: the installations that made use of photographs of burnt pots are the result of the sleepless nights after childbirth, in which the artist began to elaborate on her dual condition of mother and professional in the creative world; from then onward the two worlds have emerged as connected but only by subtle and careful elaboration of contents.
‘Span’ (2005, lambda digital print, ‘No Small Feat’ exhibition) is one of the very few pieces that define in plain visual expression the relationship between mother and daughter, yet without missing the opportunity of framing it within its family legacy; the photographic sequence of her mother’s hands, of her own hands and of the hands of her daughter trace a much felt sense of belonging that is also reminiscent of a much larger context of female complicity that eschews personal deliberations upon this particular aspect of the artist’s life and its multifaceted significance.
It is however undeniable that with motherhood a new negotiation with freedom came, which prompted Janie Nicoll to question the implications of choices and that called for a further consideration of the ways in which her art could offer a stage for more diverse expressions of personal and collective relevance.
On the one hand the wordings generated by flies on empty surfaces found new momentum with darker reflections upon the brevity of life and perhaps on the priorities that should be afforded by the ticking of time. Amongst these works ‘Carpe Diem’ 2007 window installation, Deviant Art Festival, Trollhattan, Sweden) needs no introduction on the seductive power of choice afforded by the knowledge that we live a waning life. On the other hand, her work began to focus on the social implications of the artistic process that manifested not only in the involvement with community projects, such as ‘Garlands’ (in collaboration with Alex Hetherington, 2008, Park Gallery, Callendar Park, Falkirk), but also with more specific elaborations of a socially charged rhetoric of money and power.
‘Garlands’ somewhat summarizes much of the emotions that forged her previous work: a video installation shows sheets of paper that spell ‘Carpe Diem’, hung on washing lines at High Flats in Falkirk; funeral wreaths along the gallery; a powerful evocation of memories triggered by the sentence ‘forget me not’ made of flowers from the garden of her late grandmother.
But Garland is also an open reference to the title of the first album of the ‘Cocteau Twins’, whose use of music and language resonate in the way in which Janie Nicoll explores her own delivery of visual images: ‘The Cocteau Twins are from this area, and Elizabeth Fraser had an abstract way of using language; [...] Artistically, it frees you up when things become abstract like that. It’s a kind of painterly way of making music.’ This represents a clearer re-turn towards the artist’s lifetime interest in music.
Still in continuity with the exploitation of verbal structures, from the period of Garland, the literal interjections became more readily open towards social significances. Another parallel is tempting here, i.e. with the antecedents of artists such as Barbara Kruger. The two works ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ (2007 Installation, Associates, The Embassy, Edinburgh; and April 2007, digital image of fake graffiti, The Consequence, Intermedia Gallery, CCA Glasgow) shout a denunciation of the hundredfold compromise that individuals experience in a lifetime; a reflection that in its second version is particularly highlighted by the only apparent decorative effect of autumn leaves scattered around the sentence on a midnight blue background. In ‘We Are Monkeys With Money & Guns’ (December 2009, digital prints and sale banners) the clarity of the social affinity between verbal and visual media is powerfully reasserted, drawing further attention to the meta-narrative developed by the medium of the sale banner, which questions in ambiguous ways the pleasures gained by ownership within the range of values that dominate the machine of consumerism.
From the end of the first decade of the 2000 the development of words in context has taken a rapid turn towards the preoccupation with the three-dimensionality of the object or the concept considered; but also with the actual deliverance of paint work within a backdrop in which socio-political qualms seem to have been amplified. ‘Liars’ (2010, Collage, tape on Paper) is a complex iconography that demonstrates an urge to return to the experience of visual recognition that is however tamed by questions of social values. In ‘All That Glitters Is Not Gold’ (May 2008, gold paint on wall, Meddle With The Devil, The Park Gallery, Falkirk), the reiteration of the witticism about what constitutes social or personal worth is delivered through the paradox of the gold paint on wall that traces intricate and precious grotesque-like floral designs, similar to the patterns found in henna tattoos.
Some of projects have claimed space as sculptural works. The giant ‘Fake Gold Ring’ (May 2008, MDF spray painted gold, Meddle With The Devil, The Park Gallery, Falkirk) is a sculpture that conjures up stories of quick money with the exploitation of the symbolic association of the suit of the ace of diamonds. Other works have made use of papier-mâché to create wordings on the wall with high-relief results, in which the words are further supplemented by the visual narrative of recognizable photographs from newspapers’ stories.
Much of the most recent choice of sentences is directly inspired by music, and with overtones that implicate the indexical nature of tribal affiliations. The inspiration drawn by social and cultural endemics and the iconic significance of their recognizable symbols have led Janie Nicoll to manipulate the borrowed images of ‘Northern Soul’ logo, of John Pasche’s ‘Rolling Stones Tongue and Lips’ and of Andy Warhol’s ‘Dollar Sign’ not only as a way to pay homage to a cultural association albeit delivered through diverse mixed media, but also to a culture of change in the all-encompassing sphere of multi-media consumerist art.
Meanwhile a more personal concern towards the rediscovery of the form in the most traditional criterion of classical compositions is identifiable. This can be seen not only in the way in which iconic symbols have been elaborated, but also in which, beyond the classicized centrality of these compositions, the unambiguous recuperation of the painted surface succumbs to the revival of the medium of gold leaves directly applied to the surface. And whilst this technique is laden with art historical echoes, it also finds its application within an iconography that, albeit still conceptual in character, plays with the old-time arrogance of power displayed via means of the arts. In her exhibition ‘Fools Gold’ (November 2011, the Briggait Project Spaces, Glasgow), a Plexiglas panel shows in gold leaves the Fred Perry logo, which in turn plays with the laurel wreath of Roman antiquity. This stands for a variety of references: the classicized composition and the visual reverence to the ancient world lends itself to commenting on the analogy between product and success; the trademark branded with the name of the British champion but now owned by a Japanese company, offers a compelling pun at the expense of the current campaign ‘Buy British’; finally, the popularity of the design amongst music followers of the rebel scene from the late 1950s resolves the current conundrum of the artist on how to reconcile together her long standing interest in music with her artistic practice. The title of the exhibition ‘Fools Gold’ implies a continuing involvement with the developments of the music scene; and in the latest works social determinism is no longer catalyst for visual constructs but rather the confronted bugbear of a long existing frustration with the separation of roles between music and art that has perennially divided the creative scenes.
This is a well established trope that has been historically at the core of a fiery contest between the powers of the sense of sight versus the powers of the sense of hearing. It has existed since as far back as Pliny the Elder and the quest is still fascinating artists. With the widening and the crossing of media between the two disciplines, current practices incorporate elements of both worlds and, whilst by looking at the works by Janie Nicoll the viewer is asked to consider questions about autonomy, kinship and consumerism, one should not be surprised if the next stage in this artist’s career be the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the two expressions of music and visual arts, for her own very urge to embrace both and at once.
Barthes, Roland Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography transl. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Classics, 1981)
Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison transl. Alan Sheridan (New York: Second Vintage Book Ed., 1995)
Innes, Kirstin Falkirk or Las Vegas The List (Issue 609) 7 August 2008
Pliny the Elder Natural History transl. H. Rackham, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann LTD, 1952
 Roland Barthes Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography transl. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Classics, 1981)
 Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison transl. Alan Sheridan (New York: Second Vintage Book Ed., 1995)
 Meret Oppenheim Object, 1936 Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, cup 10.9 cm in diameter; saucer 23.7 cm in diameter; spoon 20.2 cm long, overall height 7.3 cm, MoMa, 130.1946 a-c
 Janie Nicoll in Kirstin Innes Falkirk or Las Vegas The List (Issue 609) 7 August 2008
 Pliny the Elder Natural History transl. H. Rackham, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann LTD, 1952