Studio Visit Nicole Reber

“I’m a collector,” Nicole Reber’s home is like walking into a life-sized cabinet of curiosities.  Her bookshelves are lined with mementos from trips, family heirlooms, and even a plastic Snoopy figurine. She has a formidable collection of art objects, both found and from friends.  Her hallway and living room is lined with art including a bronze bust, a painting of floating palm trees and boats, and a handmade swatch reminiscent of “tropical” themed restaurants and bungalows. Reber’s eclectic assortment of objects carries over into her interest in weaving together images and words into “found” narratives. 

Reber has been juggling her working spaces after a brief stint living and working in a shared  studio in Chelsea. Her home is her office and studio now, when she isn’t spending her time in other shared spaces and occasionally in Oslo, Norway. This nomadic studio situation hasn’t affected her workflow, however. Contrarily, Reber has produced work for as many as 16 group shows in the past twelve months. 

In the corner of her office, she stacks shoeboxes full of old magazines, notebooks and clippings. While some prefer to make collages out of visual images, Reber relies on text in the place of color and form. These clippings are ultimately the source material for her poetry-based works. After earning her degree in Poetry, Reber realized she “naturally gravitated to art”- her sign pieces developed as the love child between these two mediums. Varying in size, the proclamations are akin to sidewalk advertisements, however, these are a clear elevation from the average sign advertising coffee or a lunch special. Seeing these signs out in public would turn an average day into something more extraordinary.     

“The smaller paintings function more as poems or textual pieces, while when I’m making the later works I have more room to experiment- they are paintings.” A 6’ x 5’ (ish) black sign board dominates the left side of the office space- this work in particular allows for the type of narrative exploration Reber’s work has previously referenced, but can only sink her teeth into in a larger scale.  “I didn’t want to write about my own narrative- that wasn’t exciting to me.” We sit on her office floor as she explains, “It was much more interesting to imagine someone else’s narrative and contextualize that through art.” 

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The large black piece behind her is anchored by a quote from such a fictional protagonist, “If I were to commit a crime/ I would steal from the K-Mart on Astor Place.” This hypothetical threat feels altogether real, even though the speaker is foreign to the viewer. “I kept thinking about love and relationships so I thought about this teenage girl who is in New York and meets this guy and they start this petty crime spree stealing from the K-Mart on Astor place - you can see it from the 6 train station.” Thus the type of phrases and sayings in Reber’s “paintings” are intimate, familiar, and ultimately fleeting. They could have easily been lifted from my diary or my friend’s diaries, revealing the vulnerabilities and strengths of young girls slash bourgeoning poets. When the poetry is straight from Reber’s notebook, and mounted on physical surfaces the words gain weight and universality as statements of youth and wanting. Words, when decontectualized and isolated convey weight and symbolic power; the viewer is peaqued, and  completes the omitted narrative. 

Reber’s poetry transforms from esoteric and a largely private art form into a proud and artistic statement when reconstructed into the physical. “Closed for Private Event” possesses a dual meaning, not only elevating the street sign into art, but also isolating this banal phrase, allowing the viewer to reconsider possible narrative and intent. She actively tries to ease the distinction between written and visual imagery in her sign pieces, all formulaic and similar aesthetically, but striking when consumed beyond the purely aesthetic. In giving her poems new life as paintings, her prolific curatorial process has developed in the form of Zine printing: her “baby” entitled Packet Magazine. The weekly zines are a pure labor of love; the books are all uniquely screen-printed and don covers submitted by emerging artists. Packet exists as a merger of the zine and art book. The images have a snapshot quality but the delicate binding and printing of the publication, alongside the poems such as Reber’s “An Ode to Donald Trump” possess a knowing-awareness of the state of art publications as fillers for the literary and artistic community.

 Reber has worked on 30 publications in the past five years; for Reber, it isn’t just writing that keeps her going, but the constant stream of activity. “Wait, you have to see this,” Reber tells me as she reaches over to an inch-and-a-half thick book filled with semi-pixelated YouTube videos straight out of my childhood.  “My friend and I just listened to all this pop-punk and emo music one day, so I just thought we should screen cap all of these music video tropes.” The resulting book is composed and clean as we flip from a bevy of repeating themes such as “Old guy at the party” and “Singing outdoors to girls in their bedrooms”.  Here, we fill in the blanks where there are no words- the music is ingrained in your head somewhere still (if you listened to the copious amounts of popular punk that I did, at least), and the lyrics drift in the way lines of poems do, in small slivers.  In all of these explorations, poetry and visuals exist in symbiotic harmony.  

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Reber stands out as the type of archivist and chronicler who oscillates between collections of the virtual and of the physical. She lays out a series of collages - mock-ups for her soon-to-be series of Hawaiian vacation shirts. “Some of these seem kind of obvious,” she expounds as she gestures to a collage of hula dancers and semi-nude women ripped from travel advertisements from the 50’s and 60’s. “When I think of Hawaii, I think we first think of a woman’s body, and the inherent sexualization and exoticising of that body, so this narrative for me was quite easy.” The other shirts, however, differ from Reber’s normally dethatched and playful stance.  This particular shirt  chronicles, in a series of stills, the arrest of her uncle on the popular reality TV show, “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”  Even in this hauntingly surreal scene, reality television hardly “real”,  the narrative seems un-real. Her uncle was still a fairly distant member of her family; she didn’t know him well.  Reber fictionalizes the event, choosing to focus on aspects of her uncle she didn’t know about previously, like his two tattoos of his name, Bosco. Reber juxtaposes  the actual event of her uncle’s arrest  with the extreme camp imposed upon the event by its recording on television, amplified even more by its reproduction onto a holiday  souvenir shirt.

 Reber pours me more cherry 7-up as we rifle through her various books, listening to a “Girl Power” soundtrack.  Reber’s world feels like a prolonged adolescent sleepover, but through an adult’s hardened and wistful perspective. She takes the quirky, the forgotten, and intangible out of fantasy and puts into the real and present.  In her works the collections we’ve accrued take on their own destinies and thrive, not seeking, but self-proclaiming validation. Her own work will someday be apart of someone else’s’ cherished collection- a new layer to their own artistic narrative. 

by Emily Sussman

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