Soft Transformations

Kristin Nelson, installation view, “Make-Soft,” 2014, RAW: Gallery of Architecture & Design, Winnipeg. All Photographs: Jacqueline Young. All images courtesy the artist, RAW Gallery and Actual gallery, Winnipeg.

RAW: Gallery for Architecture & Design in Winnipeg’s Exchange District is a space known for its innovative and challenging installations. While preparing for her exhibition in the gallery, Kristin Nelson was impressed also by how dark and subterranean it was and she set about to change that character. “The space was this overwhelming heavy zone, which I decided I had to domesticate. I wanted to make the gallery soft because it is hard to get into, and even when you do get in you’re not sure where the stairs are and you’re fumbling for the bannister. I wanted to give the opposite sense.”

Her response was to design something that was like a showroom for a basement home-improvement show. She painted the walls white, put in lights along the stairs and added a working window, which she doubled with a video of her own bedroom window. Everything she did had a connection to the gallery. RAW has a portable bookstore with a unique range of books on architecture and design. Nelson, who is a weaver (she completed her MFA at Concordia in Montreal working on a jacquard loom), made a series of large pillow books that duplicated titles in the gallery, and the underground nature of the space was altered by importing three kinds of grass (turf, sod and seeded). Her compulsion was “to add more light and more life.” During the exhibition run, the elements contributed to that natural feeling. “It was a really blustery day and the window burst open and when I came into the gallery, there were leaves everywhere and wasps buzzing around the space. It was exciting for me because I was trying to bring summer inside, and that actually happened.”

Soft Architecture (detail), 2014, digital print on jersey by Spoonflower, sod, wall, 120 x 96 x 120 inches.

The exhibition is a slow discovery. The wooden panels that are digitally printed on fabric are copies of the stairwell panelling, and the hanging curtain with a printed radiator mimics the real beaten-up radiator hiding underneath. Her use of faux art is not meant to be confusing. “I definitely don’t want the trompe l’oeil art thing,” she says. “There is an element of that but I’m not trying to hide it, I’m trying to bring it to the forefront.”

Grass, 2014, grass seed, soil, light, motor, woodwork by Becky Thiessen, 42 x 20 x 20 inches.

Her RAW exhibition was called “Make – Soft” and her recent exhibition at Actual gallery in Winnipeg picks up on that naming. “Make Work,” which runs from November 13 to December 20, emphasizes the value of labour in her collection of loom-woven quotidian objects: paper towels, photocopy paper, lined stationary, a life-sized projector screen. Nelson is a subtle transformer; she takes flat subjects and turns them into objects of compelling wit and humour. She may produce soft sculpture, but the sensibility that makes them has a firm sense of how and where to proceed. ❚

Radiator, 2014, digital print on polyester by Spoonflower, 96 x 40 inches.

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Volume 33, Number 4: Correspondences

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #132, published December 2014.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.