Grotto-Fabulous: Kia Neill on Nature
Kitsch, Bison Scat, and Longing
“First, let your eyes adjust,” the docent said as we stepped into Kia Neill’s Terrain. We were glad we did. It was dark inside Women and Their Work gallery. After a couple minutes, our pupils dilated, and Neill’s magic began to work. Terrain encouraged the kind of reflective, poleaxed wonder normally reserved for kids plastering their faces against an FAO Schwartz window. The exhibition was a gorgeous riot of chickenwire and paper-mâché tufas, winking strands of Christmas lights, and glimmering pyramids of crystals fashioned from shattered CDs. A glowing cavescape with a few winding paths that encouraged you to get close and peer into its faux-muddy folds, the work breathed and burbled, simultaneously natural and artificial, womb-like and sepulchral. After we came up for air, Austin’s streets seemed gray and washed-out. We wished we were small enough to live inside the glittering blackness of Terrain.
If the downtown, neon-drenched strip of Reno, Nevada, suddenly gained self-consciousness and decided to birth a cave system, it would hire Kia Neill as chief consultant. Based in Houston, Neill has spent the last few years turning galleries into sophisticated, Lite-Brite riffs on landscapes, creating simulacrums of nature that, as she notes, “blur discomfort and the fantastic.”
Neill has attracted both popular and critical accolades for her work. Wayne Allan Brenner, writing for The Austin Chronicle, coined the term “fantasmaspeleological” to describe her work while lauding Terrain. Praising 2009’s exhibition Grotto, a smash at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Troy Shulze at the Houston Press wrote that the artist “mines our collective ideals of kitschy-sci-fi fantasy worlds to trigger an emotional response rooted in mass culture, a shared experience symbolically linked to what Neill calls the ‘invented artifact.’” If what we saw was any indication, Neill’s got her finger on that trigger, aiming for the blinged-out heart of our culture’s Kodachrome unconsciousness.
Cameron Turner: How’d you go about collecting the gaudy, gleeful hodgepodge of materials—CDs, rhinestones, wire—for Terrain? And what collections do you keep, or enjoy combing through?
Kia Neill: For the large installations, the materials are really chosen for economical reasons; what’s cheap (if not free!) and if I can efficiently manipulate these to create an effect similar to what I want. Through Craigslist I found someone giving away over 5000 of those AOL free Internet CDs, so I quickly snapped up the free bling and I still have about 4000 left. When it comes to working at such a large scale, it really is a compromise with the materials; what are my resources, how can I manipulate them, and how do I compose the effects I can create with them. I am a process-oriented artist, but my work isn’t necessarily about the materials. I have a vague notion of what I want when I go into production. Through the process of discovery in regards to material and effect, paying attention to the possible experiential impact, and really thinking about what it is exactly I’m interested in with a piece; this is when I realize what the resolve of a work should be. Sometimes where I end up is so far from what I originally thought, and sometimes it’s exactly what I envisioned. While the work is not really about process and material alone, it is a guiding resource for me as an artist when making decisions. As for smaller works, such as my Geode series, I tend to pick materials directly related to the concepts I’m interested in exploring, such as using rhinestones and fake flowers. I began this series of works with an interest in the replication of nature, or the kitschy more spectacular, more perfect, more “beautiful” version of nature that invades the home décor market. I shop primarily at craft stores and Home Depot. But sometimes I find amazing materials at discount department stores, like Marshall’s or T.J.Maxx. At the very least these stores are great for research, especially around the holidays because the housewares departments are full of all kinds of amazingly tacky, gorgeously gaudy knick-knacks; decorative glass plates, rhinestone crusted animal shaped pill boxes, crystal grapes, etc.
CT: Kitschiness, especially “nature kitsch,” seems like an integral part of your work. While “kitsch” is one of those words that critics have worn raw, I think of Matei Calinescu, writing in 1987 that “the desire to escape from adverse or simply dull reality is perhaps the main reason for the wide appeal of kitsch.” It’s ironic, though, because I imagine many people might have the exact opposite reaction: Precious Moments figurines or black light jaguar posters might jolt us back into the horror of the everyday, rather than serve to defamiliarize it. To say nothing of the odd, gender baggage that’s mixed up in such a flight from the domestic and sentimental. What’s your take on kitsch, especially how its elements manifested in Terrain and Grotto?
KN: I do think kitsch offers a form of escape and that’s partially my interest in it. Kitsch can be greyly defined at times; my understanding of its defining component, (from other types of tacky garb) is that Kitsch suggests an idea of high class and wealth yet is unashamed in its cheapness in doing so. I’ve been particularly drawn to “nature kitsch” because with this type of kitsch sometimes an image of nature is used almost as equally as an embellishment method as gold plating or rhinestones. As if the suggestion of wild untamed animals or endangered species is as glamorous, rare, and as expensive as diamonds and gold, etc. Also, I am particularly intrigued when embellishment such as gold plating is used to almost tame an image of the wild, such as the case, with the most amazing item of kitsch I had ever seen and I’m mad to hell that I didn’t buy it! The marvelous item was a gold-plated buffalo chip. It makes me wonder, is it now OK to have poop sitting on your mantel because it’s sealed in a thin layer of cheap gold luster? Or is there a suggestion that the American Bison shit gold? Either story is a beautifully humorous image to me. Another attraction to kitsch for me would be the humor of what is suggested through its disturbing combinations of social class icons and imagery of dissimilar themes. I am very interested in how kitsch twists and represents reality, and how it domesticates the image of wild nature through embellished interpretations; how it mutates nature through rendering it as a commodity.
CT: I love the suggestion that gold-plating something that’s otherwise distasteful or too feral—since poop’s too “wild” to decorate our mantles—makes it manageable, tamed, and easily consumable.
KN: I feel that’s actually the antithesis characteristic of kitsch. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s covered in gold and/or diamonds then suddenly it’s transformed into something of high stature. Amazing! I love it! It’s almost like, “Call it art, then it’s art,” and it’s just poop smeared on cardboard.
CT: It makes me think of how a lot of people working in waste studies like to namedrop Freud’s ideas about money as the taboo subject par excellence, that “filthy lucre” that suggests someone else’s shit is someone else’s gold, and everything is up for exchange. That said, I’m curious how you’ve handled the business side of being an artist.
KN: I am very resourceful and try to use as many found or discarded materials as I can, mostly for financial reasons, but also for my own sense of environmental morality. Fortunately, I have a talent at making something amazing out of essentially nothing. I’ve been asked many times how my installations are funded, and my answer, “they’re not.” I have occasionally gotten a few stipends and grants that may barely cover expenses, but my own labor is rarely compensated, if at all. Some artists may be diligent in the attitude that they must be properly compensated for their work, and I agree artists should at least be sufficiently so, but I believe the strongest compensation, especially for emerging artists, isn’t necessarily in currency. If the opportunity seems beneficial in some way, regarding my own long-term agenda, then I try to make the situation work. If you don’t grab the opportunity, as less than ideal as it may financially be, someone else will, and they will get the exposure and opportunity to progress their work, not you. Yet, when it comes down to it, it’s only actual currency that pays the bills.
CT: The old, cantankerous, John Muir-y side of me wonders if there’s some sort of danger in a gleefully artificial nature. How do you think your installations fit into, or play with, cultural longings for authenticity when it comes to commercial art surrounding nature—ecotourism advertising, glossy Sierra Club calendars, the Planet Earth series, etc.?
KN: I’m not sure if actual authenticity is necessarily what people long for, but some sort of interpretation of reality that makes sense to them and which resonates a personal truth. I’ve always questioned fantasy as to whether it’s healthy or not, and I think it can be a way of processing or dealing with the world or given situation. Obviously it’s not good to get totally lost in a fantasized perception, but if temporary and understood as fantasy I think it can be therapeutic. In general, I think people long for, or connect personally to, “nature” because they feel somehow it holds more authenticity than what they encounter in their everyday lives. My work is about the reality of an abstract nature constructed through commercial culture; from the way nature is reinterpreted through everyday manufactured decorative items to the promotion of landscaped resorts in travel magazines. The image of “nature” that these items sell tends to be a more enchanted, majestic, adventurous and sanctuary version. Obviously, we seek these versions of nature, or companies wouldn’t be presenting these images again and again. So my installations are attempts to make the expected fantasy into a suggested physical experience.
CT: Much of your art seems inseparable from questions of memory and invention—how we remember the (imagined/imaginary) grottoes of growing up, recalling half-remembered desires, and being thrown into Proustian memory loops. What memories of yours stop you in your tracks and have inspired your art? Are there particular spaces and places from your past that continue to manifest in your work?
KN: My dad races hot air balloons, and every summer of my youth was spent ballooning across rural America. We often would picnic in state parks and visited any National parks on the way to or from whatever town was hosting the balloon event. I have always been intrigued by the way souvenirs sold at nature park gift shops portray the landscape via gold-plated garb and Kodak Color Enhanced postcards, versus the actual experience of the terrain on any given day. In a way, the souvenirs frame one’s memory of the landscape experienced to be more like the commercialized “take home ready” gift shop version. I think this is what started my fascination with the synthetic mimicry of nature in everything from souvenirs to wallpaper, and obviously heavily influences the aesthetic or surface quality of my work. Besides running around in farm fields chasing after my dad’s balloon and wading in waterfalls at state parks, I also grew up on the edge of a forest preserve, so it essentially was my backyard. The outdoors has long been my playground, and perhaps this is where my sense of natural space and form comes from, and ultimately informing the final structure of my work.
CT: Can you talk a bit about what you’re currently working on?
KN: I’ve had a very active exhibition year, particularly with the all-encompassing installations, such as Terrain. I’ve become very interested in the lighting phenomenon that happens with these installations, the undulating light patterns that reflect onto the gallery walls and onto the work itself. This is something I am currently exploring in an installation entitled “Boulder” at Box13 Artspace in Houston, which will be up for 6 months and I plan to evolve over time. I also have an exhibition at Conduit Gallery in Dallas, opening June 19, entitled “Formations”. The show will consist of my drawings and most recent sculptural investigations. The work is very different from the installations, but thematically along similar concepts.
Kia Neill received her MFA from the University of California, San Diego. She has exhibited nationally at venues including the LA Design Center and Acuna Hansen in Los Angeles, CA. In addition to her art practice, Neill is full-time faculty at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston Glassell School of Art and an instructor at the Houston Center for Photography.