Q&A: Nick Clifford Simko
By Rafael Soldi | Published February 25, 2016
Nick Clifford Simko is an interdisciplinary artist who utilizes digital photography and computerized loom technology in his practice. His work has been exhibited at museums and galleries in Baltimore, Richmond, and Washington DC. He holds his BFA in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He is currently pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts in photography at the University of New Mexico.
Rafael Soldi: Lets talk about your beginnings—you actually graduated with a degree in Art History, Theory and Criticism. How did your research and interests lead you to some of the earlier work that you did?
Nick Clifford Simko: I wrote my thesis about the impact of art history in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. While looking at the role of the devil-cum-satyr character in his self-portraiture and sculpture photographs, I discovered that Mapplethorpe had unprecedented access to Pictorialist photographs at the Met in the 1970s. These late nineteenth-century photographs were really captivating to me because they come from a time before photography was really accepted as an art, so the images are theatrically staged and depict subject matter usually found in historical painting. At the same time, the male nudes in the photographs masquerade as statuesque forms amid ancient ruins in an attempt to veil their loaded eroticism. These photographs are all about the construction of appearances in visual art as well as in queer culture. Just as Mapplethorpe was looking to his lineage as an artist, I have been doing much of the same in my own studio practice where I’m considering the past while adapting it in reaction to the contemporary moment I’m living in.
RS: When I spend time with your work I see an ongoing intersection of the queer male body and the performance/mask through which we obscure our true selves. What role does identity play in your work? Are there other themes that you feel are paramount in your work?
NCS: The queer male body for me is all about performances and appearances. Growing up I had access to images of the male body in both museums and on the internet. Roleplay and posturing run throughout all of these sources, and they point towards varying definitions of maleness. Coming to understand the male body in this mediated way continues to propel my exploration of how our identities are built from our exposure to specific cultural influences and forces.
I think looking at the past with a critical eye is very important in my work. Though I am very invested in the study of history I've come to learn that it must be challenged as much as it is venerated. Hegemonic narrative chronologies persist whereas others disappear completely, usually by being willfully suppressed or intentionally forgotten. Much of my recent work, especially those in tapestry, are about negotiating my interest in art history while simultaneously dismantling it through the destruction of the weavings that I design.
RS: Much of your recent work has involved tapestries. How did you arrive at this process and how do you feel it functions to inform the themes within your work? What role do your whole tapestries play compared to the torn pieces in Fragmentia?
NCS: I have always loved tapestry as a story-telling medium though I convinced myself that I would never be able to weave a textile by hand that could convey the figurative types of images I wanted to depict. However when I was in college I learned about the jacquard loom and its mechanized weaving process, which lead me to design my first weavings using photographs that I shot in the studio.
Tapestry for me is very important because of the odd place it occupies in history. It is grand and historical, and it has a place in country houses, palaces, or the so-called “decorative arts” department of museums. Tapestry can sometimes become wallpaper, even though it is populated by blockbuster stories from literature, poetry, myth, or the Bible. It demonstrates narratives with bodies that are life-size, however unlike a painting or a photograph, we tend to look at its materiality as opposed to through it like a window. It is physical. So for me, who spends a lot of time on the computer with digital files dealing with the idea of body, making woven tapestries is an exercise of turning that which is immaterial into something material. It is about taking fantasy and bringing it physically into the world as a thing you can look at as an image but also hold in your hand.
My earliest tapestries are whole in that they are rectangular in shape with all of the borders intact. These weavings are akin to those on display in museums not only because they feature all or most of the original composition but are also supported by traditional means of textile display, such as a backing cloth and rod pocket. On the other hand, my most recent tapestry works are torn up into fragments and pinned to the wall. I’m really drawn to this way of working because the breakdown of the weaving structure visually and materially up-ends the precision of the digital photo composite that makes up the tapestry design. I really enjoy destroying and tearing up these meticulous images because the process mirrors how history hands us information in tattered pieces as opposed to wholes. It is cathartic to spend a large amount of time planning and then let loose with the objects in hand. It is very exhilarating.
NCS: Aaron and I met through the Baker Artist Awards website when we were both living in Baltimore. He approached me about a studio visit and after we learned that we had a lot of common interests as artists we decided to collaborate on a project called Strange Terrain at EMP Collective. The project was about queerness, obscured histories, man’s relationship with nature, and the role of decorative textiles in culture. The works we made together took on the form of tapestries, digital prints, and mammoth sculpture. My favorite piece we made together was called The Stake. I had been reading Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, specifically about the execution by burning of sodomites in renaissance Italy. Together we decided to make a life-size stake as a kind of monument to those who perished as a result of persecution. The sculpture, which is 13 feet tall, has a surface made of fabric printed with photographs of mine and Aaron’s skins and an ingenious wood grain pattern that Aaron overlaid on top. It was our way of implicating ourselves as artists and as people in relation to queer history.
Neither of us had ever collaborated with another person before and even though it was very rigorous, we are eager to continue to make new work.
RS: Your making process is fascinating to me—it is all about construction and deconstruction. You often begin with making images which are then deconstructed and put back together, and then often made into something else (i.e. a tapestry) and then sometimes torn again. We reach a point where we are looking at a 4th generation/reproduction of your subject. Why is this important to you? What attracts you to construction/staging versus straight/documentary photography?
NCS: Usually I start out with a compositional idea that I then build up out of many individual photographs that I shoot in the studio. Then they are cut-out in digital imaging software, then woven, and then the weavings are torn up. I think that we are really used to looking at historical types of images and having them be explained through wall text or a catalogue entry. I’m really interested in the invention that happens when information is lost in translation. By adapting images over and over again in altered forms, it is always my aim that I might understand something I’m making/seeing in an unexpected way. And I certainly hope to facilitate this kind of exploration in the minds of my audience as they look at the finished work.
Though I’ve done some documentary photography before, I always come back to constructing photographs because it is what I really love to do. I think that documentary photography can be equally as staged, but I like to execute the ideas that I have in a studio environment after research, sketching, etc. There are still plenty of surprises that happen in my studio-based process and I go with the flow even if it means deviating from what I initially planned on doing. I find that a requirement of being an artist is being open to the unexpected.
RS: What are you working on now? Is your MFA program changing the way you approach your practice?
NCS: I started my MFA program at the University of New Mexico last fall. So far I have continued to work with the figure however I am gradually expanding my practice from two-dimensionality to three-dimensionality. I am also really interested in drawing, which is something I have always loved to do but I have never incorporated it into my practice as work in its own right. Lately I’ve been looking at Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Matthew Barney, all of whom utilize tactile sculpture and mark-making in one form or another while still considering the human body.
My experience at UNM has been filled with support and generosity. Passionate artists surround me at all times and I feel privileged to know their points of view. The photo program at UNM is outstandingly interdisciplinary and I know that as I continue my exploration of different art-making methodologies my decisions will be met with critical encouragement. I’m excited to exercise new ways of doing and I have nothing but support for that in my program.