Nicole Reber is a Brooklyn and Los Angeles based artist who is in a constant state of research. Through her work, she investigates materials and community frameworks. We met up with her at her studio in Brooklyn to talk to her about her solo show “Allure” at Outside Gallery in North Adams, Massachusetts. “Allure” was an exploration of the beauty industry’s outsider subcultural movements. She shed light on its competitive internal drama and the insurgence of online shoplifting communities. She is also celebrated for starting and managing the art publication Packet alongside Chris Nosenzo and Christine Zhu. It is an esteemed, well-curated, representation of young artists today. Packet is self-published and produced biweekly in Brooklyn. The Packet archive is now held at MoMA, New York City. You can purchase a subscription online or buy the latest version at the Whitney, Gagosian book store, or Printed Matter.
So let's start by talking about your last solo show.
That was at Outside Gallery in North Adams, Massachusetts (two blocks from Mass MoCA.) The show was called “Allure,” and it focused on the YouTube beauty industry. I got really into beauty reviewer channels the last 6 months (not just the purchases or the makeovers), but the interpersonal drama in the beauty industry. There are all kinds of small independent beauty brands, and they fight with each other, purposely giving each other negative reviews on their eye shadows and other stuff. They post negative reviews and get two million views. There are whole drama channels where people gossip for 15 minutes about nobodies. (No one that you would care about.) I was trying to take elements from the beauty industry, the gossip channels, the shoplifting communities off of Tumblr.
What did you show?
The show had a zine component. It had some different iterations of the text pieces. This was my first time doing white on white monochrome pieces. I wanted there to be an element of blending (like facial contouring), so the idea was to get the text to blend into the board. There were paintings that were in different kinds of nude, finished with just one line. They were done in reference to the face models that tell you how to highlight your face depending on what face shape you have. I was trying to paint in the same style as a makeup artist who does contouring or airbrush makeup. Going back to these magazines made me feel like a teenager. I found myself asking, “What face shape am I? I don’t know what face shape I am.” Then you look at model and she is all done up and you’re like, “Well, I’m not perfect like that.” There is a grand version and a self-actualized version. The text pieces functioned as a conversational middle ground between the contour paintings and the poppy airbrush portraits.
There was a video piece too?
The video was of pictures from Tumblr. This was the second video I ever made. It was projected onto the ground (on this furry carpet) because I noticed all of these girls had shag rugs. I wanted to play with new mediums with this show. I wanted to do video, do painting, do text.. I don't want to be just one kind of artist. I feel like play is important, and that was a big component of this show for me.
Do you ever feel boxed in with your text work?
It is the thing that has resonated which is cool. I love that they are iconic pieces. There are people who have worked in letter boards but moreso as elements of signage and not for language. I’m especially interested in the new ones being monochrome and having different fonts. They're conversational in a different sort of way (or representational in a different sort of way). It is cool to use text in a way that someone would use painting. I was stuck on a train for two hours, and everyone was tight knit so I had a visualization of where everyone was afterwards. There was a man wearing a hat that said The Voice of Reason, and there was overhead baggage. Someone was putting on chapstick - she had a ponytail. There were two guys reading a magazine. They were crossing their legs. The piece ending up being a visual representation of memory using text. I have been thinking about how I can use text like photography. There are so many ways to do text. That to me is my natural skill set. I got a B.F.A. in writing, and I focused on contemporary poetry. It would be stupid for me to not use what I am good at, but, at the same time, I am a nihilist. I do things that I am not good at all the time. So that was what made this show really exciting for me, incorporating themes that people associate me with, and experimenting with new mediums. I can't rest on just text. I don't want someone to see my name on a flyer and know what I am going to do. That expectation of a style can be a killer.
So back to the themes of “Allure.” What are the shoplifting communities off of Tumblr?
People shoplift and give each other shoplifting advice on Tumblr (mostly teenagers). They go to stores, steal and then post Instagram lifestyle pics of like, 22 face palettes. They are really pretty pictures that they anonymously post. Then they tally what it would cost in the store. They all encourage each other to steal and break their number boundaries. I’ve seen posts where people steal $3000 worth of merchandise. I was interested in the mindset of somebody obsessively watching these YouTube videos, and following these blogs, and how these websites generate bad behavior (whether it be gossip or stealing.) These videos get million of views, but amongst my own friend and age group, it’s not like we’re using the language of these videos or developing expectations for these YouTubes like these younger, more rabid fans are. Approaching it from another niche like the art world, there were a lot of parallels that started to find themselves become of the themes of the show.
How did you find these Internet subcultures?
I was reading an article about the shoplifting stuff, and I thought, “This is crazy.” I started my own fake Tumblr and started following and watching the conversations. I tapped into this weird world that I felt like I shouldn’t even be looking at. Even the YouTube stuff, it's one more of a major level and I was always into fashion stuff but not like these gossip channels. They are really crazy and people spend their time talking about others who are so low on the totem poll. That is exciting to me. What drives you to think that is something you want to do with your life?
You studied competitive piano, got your B.F.A. in creative writing, and now you are painting too. What experiences have made your creative practice evolve?
In piano, I had a really strict teacher. Outside my mom, she was the probably the most influential authority figure in my life when I growing up. Her name was Dr. Weide. She was in her 70's when she was teaching, and she would travel an hour away from Santa Barbara to teach her students. She had a doctorate in piano. She had a genealogy chart on her wall, but instead of it being a family tree, she had a piano teacher tree that stemmed from Béla Bartók and Frédéric Chopin. Every week I had to be super prepared, because it would be a real nightmare there and on the drive home, if I hadn’t pulled my shit together and practiced that week. That kind of accountability still lingers in my day to day studio practice- I get really stressed on days off, or anytime I feel like I didn’t use my time to my best creative advantage. I had a piano in my first apartment, but I really should get a keyboard or something, playing is my meditation. It’s kind of funny though, always playing classical, got me into the wordiest music, to kind of bridge that communication gap. I have always been super into music especially early emo. Bright Eyes. Sunny Day Real Estate. Those bands changed my life.
That makes sense since Bright Eyes is mostly poetry.
Yes. Totally. I'm so obsessed with Conor Oberst. I am telling you every binder had his photo on it. I just bought tickets to see him next month. I've seen him maybe 30 times. I was the ‘travel-across-the-state’ sort of fan. That music made me want to write. I was doing journalism in high school, and I wanted to write poems. When I applied to programs in New York, I applied to NYU's music business school, and I didn't get in. I wanted to start my own record label. That was my high school dream. I got into Pratt's creative writing program, and I really wanted to move to New York, so I went. The writing program was a win. It was what I was good at. And then, when I was in art school, I made friends with people who were doing creative visual stuff, and I was like, “This seems like fun too.” Drawing is hard for me, so I did photo. Then I started doing these text pieces (about 2 years ago). I started painting, but I really had to get over this mental block of not being some high level photo realist. I think approaching painting from a writing background has allowed the works to be more succinct and playful than they would have been if I was creating with a whole series of formal rules around the work.
I’ve learned there is always a way to make work that is direct a piece is, the more effective it is for a viewer. I think when you can finding that style for yourself, your mode of thinking can become clearer, and creating can become more natural. That sweet spot is when the work becomes successful and can take off.
What is Packet?
Packet is a biweekly art publication that Chris Nosenzo, Christine Zhu and I run. We sell it around the city. Printed Matter sells it. The Whitney carries it now. MoMA PS1. Gagosian Book Store. We do the art book fair circuit and then we have subscribers (which is really dope.) People from all around the country get it. We make it by hand every two weeks. It is really DIY, and something we’re all really proud of. There’s really no one else who is producing at this rate right now that I know of. We have done 83 issues of this in the last 3 years. We were a cultural partner at NADA this year. It was dope to be at the hallway of NADA and just in my row of booths 5-6 artists that were showing at NADA had been in Packet in the last year or two. There were so many people who have been in Packet who are being shown on a more significant level, and it is really cool to find people when they are figuring out their voice. Those points in time deserve to be printed. Those conversations need to be out there. People learn from them. There are not enough conversations with artists about how to get paid or vocalize...
That’s a really important conversation - getting paid as an artist...
Yeah I was too kind for too long, and I just started to look at the careers that I respect, and you try to emulate that succinctness. There’s a misconception that every email is an opportunity. Everything you sign up for will take time, and I’m hitting a stride of confident self-centeredness in what I’m doing. I’m always asking for things now, and am stricter about accountability with everyone I work with. This isn’t a now thing- it’s my career.