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Nicole Shaffer

Nicole Shaffer

Laura Woltag

Nicole Shaffer.jpg


Nicole and I sit in her art studio. Or rather we lay together on one of their works in progress — a piece she conceives of as a “bench” at the moment, covered in light pink carpet with a large, central crystalline gape lined with sharp pink halite clusters. We have to adjust our bodies to lay on our sides around the bubbling, cubic, pink hole between us. So much like a cunt I’m simultaneously turned on and aware I’m being tugged into an undercurrent of material seduction. It’s how the piece wants to work on me. I put my hand inside and feel the roughness of the shiny rocks. It’s majestic, abrasive. 

As a sculpture artist, Nicole selects materials that exist through the violence of extraction and which are byproducts of an originary trauma. Pink halite — formed via the extraction process for mining borax in the Southern California desert — has cycled through Nicole’s sculptures over the past year. As a material, they tell me, it is suggestive of the quartz crystals that surrounded their childhood life with hippie parents. While Nicole’s work employs and indicts the artifacts of appropriative and extractive white New Age culture, it does so through a kind of material twinning. Pink halite is an aesthetic and material twin to rose quartz, a more common crystal, known for its heart-soothing properties. But pink halite’s existence as a byproduct of extractive practice, rather than a primary extraction of a geodetermined material (like rose quartz), opens a new set of relational configurations in Nicole’s artworks. Familial and familiar meanings projected onto the objectworld are disrupted. Pink halite invokes awe in its majestic composition, while knowledge of its origin makes evident the violence that facilitates this very experience.

Nicole’s artworks ask the viewer to consider the violent histories of materials to facilitate a kind of intimacy with form that is against dissociation and denial, and also pro-pleasure. Her works hold open a question about the kinds of feelings, sensations and new associations that can be formed through an experience where the viewer is asked to engage with their own affective resonance and desire when it is built through cognitive dissonance. The affective impact of this question on me is the feeling of shame, the creation of a loose space to process and re-relate with the shame of my complicity in dissociation. Nicole’s works offer a kind of radical empathy and joyful accompaniment in shame. 

“I want to hang this piece into the wall so I can sit in it,” Nicole says of the bench we’re on. I try to imagine this, and it stretches my perception of the possible in the small studio with a row of windows. “If I create a fake wall over the window, I can inlay the bench vertically into the wall, and then put foam [repurposed from another installation] in the hole and sit in it like this,” they say, as they open their elbows and knees and recline into a boat-pose position. 

Nicole and I are friends and former romantic partners, and my experience of her art is entwined and saturated with these affections. We eat pesto pasta she made for us on the bench. They made the pesto from basil, nutritional yeast, and wide parsley leaves (for our digestion). We report back on the events we’ve attended recently. They share the liberation they felt at the Transecologies panel discussion at CCA with local artists Craig Calderwood, Nicki Green and Jordan Reznick, in which they heard about a gay rhinoceros couple profiled in Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance. This leads us to discuss how they navigate the complexity of their femme identity in their work, challenging its definitions and associations. 

Nicole gazes toward the window, to the future false-wall with inlaid hanging bench: “This summer I want to create sensory delight pleasuredome furniture. I want to create an environment where cognitive dissonance doesn’t exist because the violence of the materiality is transparent, not opaque. And simultaneously, it’s customized for my body.” 

Nicole’s exuberant fidelity to pursuing utopic queer landscapes through her art and life moves me. We talk about the cognitive dissonance that enables us to navigate life, so often complicit with this world in its overlapping structural violences. Against this disembodied, self-dispossession, they use a proprioceptive attunement to their materials to create things that transform their (and the viewer’s) consciousness through physical orientation in space. This leads us to discuss Gins and Awakara’s Reversible Destiny Lofts — apartments the architect-artists created that stimulate and challenge the body via uneven surfaces and jarring colors, which heighten the senses against the cessation of embodied, felt experience that’s death. “And they both died!” I say. And we talk about how we’re both going to die. 

Not unlike the work of Gins and Awakara, Nicole’s work is utopic; she’s building a world to float in glamour, for pleasure, to adjust somatic inner axes that are otherwise shaped and attuned by the cruel world of bodies in and under capitalism, patriarchy, whiteness, ecocide. And to not have them be separate facts: this world, her interventions, possible pleasures. And like Gins and Awakara, there’s a consciousness in the installations of what they are working against: rape culture. 

Nicole’s expansive placemaking also extends into her domestic zone. In dreaming on the couch hanging from the ceiling in their apartment, I’ve had glimpses into what happens to my body when it’s not habitually resting, but releasing into an intentional hold via her next-level furniture. Her domestic installations create an eros of ambient flotation via the otherwise utilitarian, mundane objects that conventionally exist for the purpose of reproducing our labor. In Nicole’s hands, these objects and their ideologies are tied up in the service of reconfiguring the bodymind in awe, wonder, a gentle, swaying submission toward another way of sensing. 

Jamuna Shrestha

Jamuna Shrestha

Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson