There is a fascination with bodies, in particular the female body, fabulous and constricting, in the collages of Gladys Nilsson on show at Hales London gallery. Nilsson is an artist in her eighties, she was born in Chicago where she still lives and works. Nilsson was a pivotal figure within a group of artists who exhibited under the name ‘Hairy Who?’ in Chicago in the mid-sixties and later were known as the Chicago Imagists. Using humour, popular culture, vernacular images, cartoons and movies in their work, they challenged the dominance of American pop and minimalism.
In 2019, an important exhibition held at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) and at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill was a rare opportunity to see these works together. The exhibition, Games, at Hales London is an opportunity to see some recent works by Gladys Nilsson. It offers the chance to think about what defines and reconfigures the canon.
Event (2020) is a collage depicting a bold silhouette, her body twisted in a posture difficult to maintain. “I have always been very free to bend and twist people into impossible ways of standing or falling or sitting” said Nilsson in a recent interview, adding “I collect postures, I watch people, what they’re doing and how they interact with one another. I invent interaction, and I elaborate on it”. The works in the show begin with these bold female figures and their different bodies. It requires an active way of looking, letting the eye wander across their surfaces.
Around the main character in Event, there are several cut-out images taken from art historical representations. A late Northern Renaissance portrait, a Greek-roman figure, Egyptian statues, Greek and Roman figurines, the David of Donatello and a piece of Botticelli’s Primavera. These elements are located within the collage, surrounding the main figure. They are key elements of what built and defines the Western art historical canon. Juxtaposed to that main figure, they disrupt the idea of beauty, proportion and rules.
“Contrast is important to what I’m doing”, says Nilsson. She explains her way of working: “I start out with the big figures, and then I boil it down to smaller and smaller figures—tiny people who are doing silly stuff. (…) these tiny people are risqué and haughty.” The different ways in which the body is represented expand the potential narratives in the works, and question how we understand the female figure in cartoonish silhouettes, in renaissance imageries and in popular culture.
In A Cool Front (2015) a main figure is boldly outlined with her body twisted. Her face is looking sideways, and a bright green eye seems to watch the spectator. Her torso is torn, leaving space for two smaller cut-out faces. A child is peering out, her elbow lying within the line of the dress, corset or armour of the woman’s figure. A sense of self-worth and self-beauty pervades the image. “The female figure has taken over because the older I get, the more I think back on the women in my life – aunties and grandmas and cousins and that kind of thing. And the older I get, the older I look”, explains Nilsson.
The experience of one’s body over time supposes the need to adapt, constantly readjusting to changes we can’t control. What pervades is the joy that freedom from convention gives. At times of strong socio-political currents, the climate crisis and issues of social justice, to look again at the work of Gladys Nilsson makes us reflect on a language that is unrestrictive.
Ilaria Puri Purini
Curator of Programmes
Hales Gallery, Tea Building, 7 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA. Open Thursday to Saturday, 11.00–18.00. Exhibition continues until 11 December 2021. www.halesgallery.com