Rose Nestler

We spoke to Brooklyn based artist, Rose Nestler, about the limitations and potentials of sculpture, the communion of sculpture and video, and the general aim of her practice. Through the multifaceted context of fabrics and clothing, Nestler wrestles with issues of ritual, gender, and power with a rich dynamism and a biting sense of humor.

What is your rose and thorn for the week?

I do this question as a teacher! My rose for the week was that I just got an email from a student of mine at Parsons. The student was telling me that they really appreciated my class, but they felt that zoom had made college unbearable for them. They had just transferred to the school, and throughout the semester they felt like maybe photography wasn't really for them. Then they took my video class, and said that they were excited about making art again. I totally choked up! It's the kind of stuff that makes it all worth it as a teacher. So that was my rose.

Gosh, I think my thorn this week was that I had COVID in the spring and March, when it was really bad in the city. My case was pretty bad, and for whatever reason, I'm having long term symptoms. So I have tightness in my chest and a little trouble breathing, but I took a COVID test on Wednesday, and it's negative. This happened to me in May as well, and I went to the emergency room and everything was fine. So it's sort of this weird, maybe psychological thing happening, but it's reappeared again. So I'm generally okay, but it’s definitely a thorn in my side.

Tying the Knot, 2019, video still

Since your practice encompasses both video and sculpture, I was wondering, what was the first piece of art that you made? Sculpture, video, something else?

I was just talking to someone about this. The first piece that I remember was a soft sculpture, weirdly enough. I have worked with many mediums throughout the course of my life, but somehow I began with fabric and here I am again! I made this fabric painted stuffed snake sculpture in kindergarten. Someone's mom was an artist who came into our kindergarten class and helped us stitch them together and stuff them. I still have it, and it's beautiful.

When you're working on a collection of work, how do you choose the fabrics? Is it directly related to a concept or does the concept develop after playing around with materials?

It's usually directly related to a concept. I generally let the form and the concept choose the fabric. But every once in a while, something like this pink velvet neoprene comes along. The piece [Woman with a Book (After Léger), 2020] is a full velvet relief for my three person show at Projet Pangée, in Montreal. In that case, I saw the fabric in the store months before I made that piece, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is so gross, I love it. I want to do something with it.” It’s neoprene that looks like velvet, and it's neon orange on one side and pink on the other. Usually I'll think about what it is that I'm trying to make–the context, what is it that I want to say about whatever the form or object is–and then I choose my fabric or leather based on that. Every once in a while there’s a little flip, though.

Do people touch them a lot?

All the time.

Do you encourage that?

Not really. Where it's installed, where everything is placed, and the intention that the piece holds in the material is really important to me. I prefer to install my own work. Of course, this year has been a challenge because I haven't been able to travel, so I had to do really detailed install instructions. But as soon as someone touches a piece it compromises the intention of it. I would like to make pieces, maybe in the future, that people could touch and sit on and interact with, but those would be separate from the works themselves or the sculptures.

It's Ruff Out There, 2018, neoprene mesh, thread, batting, foam

What meanings do the different fabrics carry for you? I’m thinking of the difference between something like neoprene, velvet, etc.? Do they each have their own contexts?

I started with neoprene because it was connected to sports and athletic wear. I really was interested in athleisure as a type of clothing and an industry and within the larger context of  garments. There’s different tech fabrics that go into athleisure, the athleisure industry, and I can't even get access to a lot of those, they’re almost impossible to find. For example, something like a pair of Nike jogger pants, I can’t actually get that fabric. It's really hard to source really fancy tech fabrics. So, neoprene was the closest, most affordable option. I started using it because it felt very sporty. It is also super sculptural, it can almost stand on its own depending on how I pattern it. I also like how it’s a skin in itself.

If I were making one of my older power suit pieces, I would search the shirt and suiting sections in the garment district. I would be really specific in buying poly-wool blends that look like a suit would be made out of. It’s the same with leather, if I want the piece to feel a bit kinky, I'll choose leather, but then I like to play with the color. I think when people think about the world of kink, they often go immediately toward black leather, so I like to flip that around and try different colors and different textures and patterns. There's sometimes a little confusion in the material too.

Another Set of Hands,
fabric, thread, batting, paper mâché cones, buttons, poly pellets, metal rod, hooks

Do you have any background in fashion and pattern making, or did the need to learn those skills arise out of a preexisting sculptural practice?

No, I don't have a background in fashion or pattern making, sewing or anything like that. I've always been a bit of a jack of all trades, and I learned somewhere along the line, in the mid-2000s, how to do upholstery. I did this huge installation in 2012 at Cuchifritos [Lithic Habits], which is a gallery space in the Essex street market, and I built all of these upholstered cushions that had a very kind of Princess and the Pea vibe to them. After that, for years, I had stopped sewing and upholstering. It wasn't until grad school that I picked it back up again.

At the time, Brooklyn College didn’t have a great sculpture facility, and in order to have control over my resources and tools I needed to have something in my studio that I could work with, and fast. Grad school, depending on the program, is such a product based, go-go-go kind of atmosphere, and it’s high production, it moves really quickly. I got my sewing machine out and started sewing again. Initially, I was making costumes for video work, which I also began in grad school. I think the patterning came out of necessity, I needed to make costumes that would actually fit my body or someone else's body. The first costumes I made were so ill fitting, and I said, “oh, like clothing, there's patterns, it's how they fit people's bodies.” (laughs) “I get it now!” So I looked up patterns and learned that way. I never took a class. I still just figure out patterns on my own pretty much. 

The Weird Sisters, 2020,
fabric, vinyl, thread, acrylic nails, polyfil, wire, wood, epoxy, aluminum mount

But I guess sculptures came first in grad school in the way that I'm working now–making sculptures out of fabric. I've always felt kind of disappointed in sculpture because it's just so lifeless. Even though it takes up a room and is a presence, it’s often hard to get a kinetic, exciting, hit-you-in-the-gut response from a sculpture. Sculpture generally says “I'm here,” and just kind of sits there. I feel like you can get more movement and feeling out of a painting strangely, and I hate that, it almost pains me to say that.

When I started to make video, it was a response to wanting these soft sculptures to do more. The first video and sculpture pairing that I made was this gigantic foot that had six toes. It was made out of denim, and it was this really gnarly thing. I was having a hard time jumping into working in a time based medium, and it was my professor, Jenn McCoy who said “Well, why don't you make a video for the foot to watch.” And that was somehow easier for me to think about, so then I thought “Well, what if I just became the foot.” So I created this gigantic foot costume for myself, and made a video of me in the foot, in the woods, together. Really, really weird. After that point, for my MFA thesis, I did three separate projects, each with their own video and sculptural components, they had this one to one relationship.

The Hand that Feeds, 2019,
leather, thread, polyfil, wire, epoxy, wood, elastic

Do you think that the intention for your video and sculpture works come from the same place? Are you trying to get at something similar with the two?

Yeah, I think so. When I started making videos, they were getting at the same endpoint or going towards the same thing that I wanted to “talk” about. However, I have a solo show coming up in September at Public Gallery in London and the gallery is going to let me…. I say “let” because not a lot of people want to take a risk with video, because I’m known for my sculptural work now…. They're inviting me to do a full video installation, which is awesome. Recently I've been more interested in making videos that are totally separate from sculpture, they're their own thing. I will probably still create props and costumes to a certain extent, but the video room will be its own room, and it won't be with all the sculptures, so we'll see how that goes.

What was the end goal that you were trying to get at when the video and sculpture were coming to a head? Where is the video going now?

In grad school, I was trying to get at the beginning of several conduits that I'm still working with now. One piece I made in grad school was about wrestling, and I worked with two guys who used to wrestle in high school. I made costumes that had detachable body parts that would Velcro off and on their suits. I gave them an objective: you have to wrestle each other, and the goal is to take all of each other's external, detachable appendages off. I think that was the beginning of my consideration of athletic culture, and how it informs so much of our lives, well, maybe I should say my life. Growing up I had to take gym, and I didn’t like and wasn’t good at sports. But then I got, strangely, really into competitive sports, rowing to be specific, in high school and felt like through sports I had a place in the world and I could almost transcend my gender as a cis female or something close. I was super into investigating all of that further, and this wrestling video that I made in graduate school was the first little seedling of that.

Basically, my practice comes down to thinking about garments, objects, and rituals, and this ambiguity between them. Is there power in this object for people who've endured oppression, specifically in the workspace, women and people who are identifying as women? The same object can also be keeping me, as a woman, in my place, and I’m looking at my attraction and my disgust with these objects and garments and institutions and places and how women have survived throughout time.

Hung Out to Dry, 2019, 
leather, thread, buttons, wood, polyfil, wire, epoxy

For an upcoming exhibition, I'm thinking about the history of the word gossip. There's a collection of essays, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, by Sylvia Federici, who wrote Caliban and the Witch. The best part is an essay about the word gossip. Essentially, around the Dark Ages, the word actually meant “god-kin.” So it was your people, your best friends essentially, people who you aren't related to, but whom you treat as family. They're your gossips, but for women, as it was a more gendered term. Women's best friends and community were their “gossips.” They would congregate and gather in beer hall type places, and share information, which is a root of power. The men of the villages were threatened by it, so they would come up with these theatrical plays where they would portray the women as dominatrix-style monsters that were putting their husbands in their places, whipping them, etc. The message was “you don't want to let your wife become this.” And then that's where the word gossip switched into this ultimately gendered term that feels very nasty, it was twisted to be like, “Oh, you're up to no good. You're just gossiping with your friends.” When ultimately the meaning of the word was about communicating and sharing resources. I was blown away by this essay.


Open Lock, 2020,
leather, thread, carved stones, epoxy, hardware, 52 x 50 x 1.5 inches

Which brings us back to something I’ve been thinking about, which is how important is playfulness to your work?

Really important. For the most recent works that I made this summer and fall, I thought “Oh, no, these are pretty serious.” But I realized that I was wrong, they’re still a little darker, but the humor–the playfulness–is definitely still there. And, often, I don't even realize that until I see someone else chuckling at them. Humor is, I mean, we all know this, it's a way that we can talk about painful things with a levity, a little reprieve from the world we're living in. I don't always aim for it, but it comes out.

Do you think of the different sculptures having personalities, is there an anthropomorphizing of them? Something like, “Oh, they wouldn't do that. Or what they would do in that situation?”

They're all kind of character driven. That's the first time I've said that, actually. Each of them has their own personality and it's funny when I move them around, I talk to them like they’re people. I’m like “You don't like that when I do that?” It's totally like they're my pets or something weird. Yeah.

Is there an emphasis on either narrative or experience when you’re setting out to show a collection? Is one more important to the other?

I think both. It probably leans towards narrative. For example, the most recent show in Montreal that I'm in with GaHee Park and Daniel Orchard [Projet Pangée, Fantasy Body]. When I get paired with artists, or in this case, a trio, I like to make work inspired by their work, especially when there's narrative in the artist's work. I like to give life to other characters and their paintings and really respond to their work. I'd rather see a small, two person show or three person show where the artists are really in dialogue with one another.

I was planning work for the show, and this dialogue was the reason why I made Woman with a Book (after Léger) (2020). I was thinking about how both of their work uses the language of modernism in various ways. They’re connected to but also twisting and subverting these modernist ways of painting and image making, etc. I've never dealt with that in my work, really. But it sort of made sense, since I'm very interested in history in general. I started thinking about what objects are canonised, like paintings at MoMA. I thought about Léger’s painting as an object, since I've always really loved that painting, and because they are so formal. There's so much shape to the forms he uses. I immediately saw this piece as this relief. I was just like, “Oh, I'm gonna recreate that painting.”

After that, I started thinking “why the hell am I doing this? I don't need to boost Léger. Is it helping or hurting this white supremacist patriarchy that we live in and how it involves the art world? Why am I doing this? Why is this important?” I still can't fully answer that for you. When I was making the piece, I was going to fully copy the shapes and not change much. But I ended up adding the single, weaponized, conical breast, piercing through the book as kind of a last step. I don't know, I feel like it's a deeply sad piece, because it's trapped in this art historical legacy or something. Even just the title of this painting, “Woman with a Book” – it's not “Woman Reading.” The book is a prop that she's holding. And I don't think I really changed that. For some reason, I didn't want to make her read the book, I wanted this mirror reflection of exactly what it was. I guess the only thing that's puncturing is her body, the breast. And then the black leather roses are this a symbol of both life and death, almost like a memento mori.

Woman with Book (after Léger), 2020,
velvet neoprene, leather, fabric, wire, thread, blue foam, epoxy, staples, MDF,
50 x 32 x 12 inches

We recently spoke to Joani Tremblay, one of the founders of Projet Pangée, about artist run spaces. How important are artist run spaces to you? Have you found any significant differences in showing at artist run spaces versus commercial galleries?

Artists run spaces are hugely important to me. I actually had my first solo show [Strange Business] at Ortega Y Gasset Projects, an artist run space in Brooklyn. They are incredible. We all get our start through a community bolstering us up and helping one other out. It's how you get off the ground and get your first jolt, or your first show. Artist run spaces serve a really important purpose in the art world. I've just now started to show in commercial galleries, and while I'm not sure what the difference is, in terms of caliber of shows, per se, I do think that in artist run spaces you have more freedom because they're not tied necessarily to sales. You know, for good or for bad, that's just what it is. That's why they're so crucial, you're able to try something that you otherwise might not be able to.

Strange Business, 2018, Ortega Y Gasset Projects, installation view

What is the relationship to the body with something like Toolbag (2020), where you're literally objectifying something in a humorous way, but you're also breaking down the body into parts. There is definitely some humor there, but also feels like maybe there’s a bit of violence.

With Toolbag, and the Barbie doll legs that I gave it, I wanted to really get across that these aren't realistic legs, there's no one that can walk on these legs. In fact, the bag itself has to be held up. It's almost like a saddle that it's sitting on, the stool has holes in it for the legs. I was kind of thinking of a bag as a home, as a holder of things, as a person and as a woman. I mean, the term “baggage,” everything gets being pushed and put in this “bag” of our lives. The tool bag is a gendered bag, meant for men. I remember when I got my first tool bag, it felt really awesome, I felt really empowered, which in some way was tied to masculinity.

It’s a piece that I think has some agency, but it also can't go anywhere. It has the tools, but it’s trapped on this stool. It's also made of green snake skin leather, like a couture travel bag. I copied a classic Carhartt tool bag to make the pattern but everyone who saw the piece was immediately like, “oh, that’s a Birkin,” which I like. I like that there's that confusion. I'm presenting a space and a body identity that is based on the tools that it was given, and the space that was given to it in order to grow, and there's some deep trauma, sadness and pain in that body. I like to present that honestly, but I also hope that it's not just a pity party, that there’s some agency, there is a future, humor and brightness.

Toolbag, 2020, 
leather, fabric, thread, polyfil, wire, zipper, solid cherry stool, 66 x 46 x 29 inches

One of the sensorial components of video is sound. I’m wondering how you choose your sound. And when you show sculptures, do you often include a soundtrack in the space?

I don't usually. I've had video and objects in the same small room together, so the sound of the video was playing, and I liked that feeling. Sound is hugely important, because it gives the work an authorial, sensory kind feeling. I tend to use ASMR-like sounds, the slime piece [The Weird Sisters, 2020] was interesting because slime is a whole ASMR world, but I didn't want to be too obvious about that. So the sound I chose for that piece is an edit of Mozart's “Così fan tutte,” created for the piece by my husband, Dan Arlein, which is translated to “All Women Do the Same.” I wanted the song to feel familiar, so that people watching could recognize it, but it’s also a little bit psychedelic.

The Weird Sisters, 2020, video still

Does showing the video and sculptural works together bridge a gap of tactility? You can't touch the sculptures, even though you probably want to, so they're very much visual, but there’s a ton of action imbued into the objects. Do you feel a symbiotic relationship is necessary between the video and sculpture?

I feel okay with letting my sculptures show on their own without video. I've made a lot of works without thinking about video, because I knew I was making them for a bigger group show or something. In a solo setting, if it's just my work, it feels really necessary to have sound and video. Because, like you said, it bridges the gap between a physically static work and a story I'm trying to tell. I like to achieve a material/tactile feeling that you see with your eyes, but you get to fully experience it in the video. Maybe it's almost like a trance-like state for my viewers that I'm aiming for with some of my shows. Having video with the objects really helps to do that. I didn't grow up super religious, but as a kid I got really into church. Now I’m an atheist, but I got really into the ritual, and the materiality of the objects, and the sound and singing of a spiritual, religious experience. If I can get there, to the “church” feeling, I'm on the right track. That's a big goal, but somehow I feel like video really helps.

Visit Rose Nestler’s artist page.

︎: @rose.nestler

all images (c) Rose Nestler