NEW LONDON—In fulfilling her dream of displaying her work in a New York City art exhibit, New Londonite Marjorie Nilssen will give the Big Apple a taste of the Lakes Area arts community this summer as she heads to Manhattan with her latest series of abstract paintings.
On August 2, Nilssen is scheduled to present her one-day “pop-up” show at the Rogue Space gallery in the city’s Chelsea District—a miniature Mecca for established and upcoming artists alike.
As both a professor of art at Ridgewater College in Willmar and a multimedia artist by trade, Nilssen has held a life-long love for not only creative expression, but for the big city as well. However, after three years of unsuccessful attempts to gain admission into an existing exhibit in New York City’s arts district, she has decided to take matters into her own hands, renting out her own gallery which will feature 15 paintings as well as an artist’s reception to meet with like-minded creators.
“I was taught as a very young child that if you have a lifelong goal, it’s possible to achieve it,” she said. “A lot of people have these goals in mind, whether it’s travel, or they want a certain job, but put them off, or say ‘I’ll do that when I retire.’ Well I don’t want to wait until I retire to do the things I want to do. I want to live my life to the fullest extent possible, and that’s why I’m having the show, and that’s why I’m doing it in New York.”
While Nilssen has no shortage of experience and training in a variety of styles and mediums—holding a master’s degree in art and creating regularly from her studio in Atwater—difficulty networking with gallery directors paired with increasing demand for concept-based art makes gaining acceptance to a New York art gallery, for those living outside the city, all but impossible.
Many gallery directors in Chelsea, as well as Minnesota, favor works centered around a specific theme, such as art based on love, death, recovery, loss, etc. Nilssen’s work, however, is unapologetically devoid of meaning. Rather, the emphasis is placed on pure visual aesthetics.
“My students often ask of my paintings,” ‘what is it about’ or ‘what does it mean?’ I tell them my paintings don’t have an underlying story, nor are they based on emotions or feelings. The paintings are about themselves. They are based on form: line, shape, color, texture and value. All of my paintings come from process versus a preconceived idea. I am always searching for unity in each painting.”
Similar to work of Jackson Pollock, Nilssen’s paintings explore the formless abstract, blending complementary hues with craggy textures and dense layering. To the untrained eye, many paintings resemble a stylized Rorschach test. Though unlike the famous inkblot test, her goal is not to create ambiguously recognizable images. Instead, she asks her audience to overcome the brain’s natural tendency to perceive a pattern where none exists (pareidolia), such as a face or figure in passing clouds and simply appreciate the image for what it is.
“It’s very common for people to be confused by my paintings, and most people are confused because they try to make sense of them,” she said. “You don’t see a sunset with a boat on the lake, or birds, or an image. So a little trick I teach my students is I ask them, ‘can you look at one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or one of my paintings and say ‘oh, I really love those lines, or I really like that color?’ That’s hard to do because its ingrained in us from a young age to look for images or pictures.”
Although no two paintings are alike due to her aversion to following themes, characteristic of much of her recent work is the use of encaustic paint—a blend of oil paint and melted beeswax with roots training back to second century Egypt.
The encaustic method involves hardening the oil-wax blend into a colored crayon, and, while holding the crayon between a pair of tongs, melting it with a torch over a flame-resistant wooden canvas.
While this method is more difficult and time-consuming than using standard acrylic paint, Nilssen prefers the involvement required by the technique, similar to the way a potter might prefer using a homemade wood-burning kiln as opposed to one that runs on gas.
“I chose it because it’s very sensual, it’s pliable, you can melt it layer it, scrape it. It’s more intimate than acrylic, more intense. But it also takes longer to dry as well.”
As she prepares to present her work to her most diverse audience yet, Nilssen hopes the experience will provide her valuable networking opportunities for additional artistic ventures in the future.
“I’m hoping it’s a seed,” she said. “It’s not going to be the end, it’s just the beginning.”
Lakes Area Review by Brett Blocker