Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber on the end of the world real and imagined, hope in art and life and our fascination with spaces that exclude us
Haines Eason: I came to your work through The City. Well technically I came to your work through an installation at the University of Kansas’ Spencer of Museum of art… I quickly found myself swept up in the art and borrowed a copy of The City, read it several times and fell in love with it. Through your website I learned about your other projects, including Accidentally Kansas, Empire. Your work has common themes of collapse, abandonment but explores diverse vantages. My first question: what are you two working on right now?
Lori Nix: If you’re referring to the show that was just last year it was “Big Botany.” Art wise we’re starting a new body, a new series which we’ve been talking about for months. But we probably won’t physically start it until after Christmas. And we don’t believe in talking about the work before it starts; we don’t want to jinx it. But other than the artwork we’re working on a commission for the Nobel Museum in Stockholm.
HE: Can you talk about that, or is that under wraps?
Kathleen Gerber: I think we can talk about it a little bit. They’re putting together a traveling show sort of geared towards young adults aged 12 to 14 and are commissioning dioramas from a dozen artists that are based on some past Nobel literary award winners.
LN: And we were given “death” and “power” as our topic. So “death” is my diorama, and it’s about The Plague by Albert Camus.
KG: And mine is “power,” and it’s Lord of the Flies.
HE: Oh wow, that’s very interesting—a book I used to teach, I used to be a teacher. Both very suitable—the themes and the works themselves—for what you two have done.
KG: I think that’s why they chose us [laughing], they didn’t give us “love,” etc.
HE: Let’s pivot. I don’t want to pry too much into your current work, aside from the commission, so let’s talk about the themes of your work in general and our current moment now. I don’t know if you feel comfortable going down this path with me, but the post-apocalyptic themes in your work… We’ve just had a town burn down in California—to the ground—do you ever look at yourselves and say “wow, we’re building these supposed landscapes, but they might seem more and more real”? Do you ever wonder if the work you are doing is less and less fantastical and more and more nonfiction?
LN: I mean, yes, especially with the latest body of work. Empire. We didn’t mean for it to be so topical. We started it before Trump was even a presidential candidate. We started Empire in 2015. Our first one was “Arch,” and we just worked from there. We finished up working on interiors, I still wanted to explore the idea of empty cities and we decided to do some landscapes… It just ended up being so of the moment. Kind of turns my stomach a little bit, that we’re in the middle of this as opposed to this is our future. This is our here and now.
HE: Talk to me about “turns my stomach” a little bit. Do you feel a responsibility as artists to, through your work, force people to think things about their reality, or do you just make what inspires you and leave it to the viewer to make what they will of it?
KG: I think it’s a little bit of both… We generally make what we feel strongly about, and sometimes that’s just based on architecture that we see rather than like a situation. It’s more shapes and colors and things like that. But you know, we’re inundated with things. We’ve been on this sort of post-apocalyptic course…
LN: ...course since 2005...
KG: ...yeah since 2005, so in a way it’s hard to not continue in that vein because we’re kind of in that track. But yes, it’s felt really weird.
LN: Like it feels unsettling. I am hoping that the next body of work that we do will be a little happier?
KG: Well, I think we’re going to do what we can to take a break from the apocalyptic overtones.
HE: It sounds to me like your art is a refuge for the two of you… Probably the product and the process… And, it sounds like to me, given the way our present is beginning to align more and more with these scenes you two create, these worlds you’re constructing, you’re trying now to find a different escape that’s diverges from the present, which is so dark. Meaning, you’re now looking for something positive. Does this make sense?
KG, LN, together: Yeah, exactly.
HE: So, without prying too much into what the next project could be, where do you go for inspiration when you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing for as long as you have?
LN: We go back to the art museum. We look at historical paintings. That’s where we go for inspiration. The Hudson River Valley painters have always inspired us. They were an inspiration for some of the skies you see in Empire. But we definitely look at paintings.
KG: Well, even the whole idea of Empire as a theme with the Hudson River School, they were some of the first people who saw this [continent’s] grand new land and great new ideas and we responded to the idea that “it’s all going to be wonderful” by saying “oh wait, we’re stomping all over this”...
LN: [laughing] …“all over this new frontier”...
KG: [laughing] …yeah, “oops.” But yeah, definitely painting. We still want to continue working with models. I’m not sure what would ever take us away from that. We just enjoy the process. But then, building some of these last scenes for Empire, they got really big and very sculptural. That has a very nice appeal, so maybe that might be…
LN: ...a future path. Make something more installation based where you go in and experience it in a three-dimensional realm as opposed to flat on a wall.
HE: That sounds really exciting. [Laughing] I would travel for that. There’s something in all of us though … everybody I’ve shown your work too, they just can’t seem to get enough. They, just like me, say things like “I would love to be in that scene” even though it might be a scene of, I don’t know, an impossibly large octopus crawling out of a shipwreck down on the bottom of the ocean. You think “why would I want to be there?” and yet you do… A lot of people seem to be with me on this. They want to be in these scenes even though they depict life without humanity, both literally and figuratively. What do you attribute that to?
KG: Well I was going to ask you, what makes you want to be there?
LN: I think it would be very quiet, you’d just hear birds chirping and insects buzzing. You wouldn’t hear cars honking for a change. It might be very peaceful.
HE: Maybe we’re selfish? Maybe we all want the world to ourselves?
HE: And what you present is all the fun stuff we’ve made without the assholes who made it.
HE: Is that fair to say?
HE: That’s me putting words in your mouths and I’m not supposed to be doing that.
LN: Well we’re agreeing with your words, so.
HE: That’s indeed what I see. So, you’re looking for something positive; you’re hoping maybe, again, without prying too much, you’re considering installations or something more inhabitable for your audience. Is anyone inspiring you on that front? I read on your website that travel is … you two say you like to travel through film and through museums, but you must take the occasional trip. Have you been out to see Meow Wolf or any other installations?
LN: Noooo. Believe it or not we’re homebodies. These models take so long to build.
HE: Okay, let’s switch gears here. Lori, I know you grew up in Kansas. You have an interest in disaster and other associated dark things because of the natural forces you witnessed here in Kansas. Tornadoes, heat waves, etc. Kathleen, what is it that inspires you? You both seem so wed in the fascination with this side of life—the darker side—Kathleen what is it that brought you to the table as far as this style of work?
KG: Well initially I was just bored after my day job, and Lori was happily working away on things. I was a little jealous, so I asked her if she had anything I could help with, and she just smiled, and she said “I do!” That sort of started it. I have a background in faux finish and specialty surfaces. So I started out painting things. I’d never really built miniatures, but there was more and more to do, and I would try it, and this work is something for which I have an aptitude… But I really enjoy doing the paint work and putting the patina of age on things. It’s a nice challenge to make a piece of plastic look like old rusty metal or faded brick because, really, I can’t think about the apocalypse stuff too much, I get freaked out.
HE: So wait a minute, so Lori: you’re sort of the foundations and the walls and the grist and earth of the scene, and Kathleen, you’re the veneer and the surfaces?
KG: Yeah, I am.
HE: Lori, I don’t think anyone would have realized you would be … scared’s the wrong word, but scared of the decay. That really surprises me!
LN: Well Kathleen, she’s fearless. She’ll just attack a scene. I’ll step away from it, and she just attacks and makes it dirty and decayed. I don’t find the stuff precious; I just don’t push the decay far enough and she does. But I’m also standing behind her shoulder going “more, more, more!”
KG: Followed by “I think you’ve spent long enough on that.”
HE: So Kathleen, you’re a little obsessive in your focus?
KG: Apparently I am, yes! But Lori sets a really good pace and framework. She’s a great overall colorist, and when she’s laying out the scenes she’s often thinking of how six or seven scenes will look in a gallery. She’s really conscious of the color palette and what’s going to work well together. That I’m a little hit and miss on. But then once that is established, I can make a good drip for you, a shiny puddle and
LN: And a nasty drain pipe and everything else.
HE: That’s a really good skill to have, Lori, to be able to zoom out and think of a space that doesn’t even exist with your art in it before it’s even done.
LN: Well, it’s always easier to think about these things than it is to actually do them! Thinking is the easy part.
HE: So, Lori, how would you describe your work mode in contrast to Kathleen’s?
LN: I’m… Well, god, Kathleen, how would you describe me? I’m a…
LN: Taskmaster! I’m a bit of a bossypants. I can always keep Kathleen busy. Like, “hey, you need another assignment? Let’s do this.” I’m always pushing the deadline and trying to get things further down the road and resolved.
KG: You’ve got a better overall viewpoint, so you see the whole framework and keep the large parts moving and make sure I have stuff to focus on, but I can get lost there, so you will say “okay, okay, let’s work on this for a bit.” It seems to work out for us.
HE: And how did you two meet?
KG: We were both living in Columbus, Ohio, and we ended up working at the same art production company. I was working there full time, and Lori came in a couple of different times, initially to do some screenprinting. Later on she came in to run the CNC router—work on large stuff.
LN: And then I wanted to move to New York, and I needed a photo-related job. So I moved to New York, and Kathleen joined me.
KG: Yeah, I was a bit burned out at the [art production company] so the move seemed like a nice change.
HE: I am jumping all over here as we wrap up, so please forgive me, but I have your website open now, and the images are scrolling past, and I must say I am having trouble pegging a favorite time period.
KG, LN: Yes, exactly…
HE: For instance, in Unnatural History I’m seeing the ‘30s, the ‘20s…
KG, LN: [laughs]
HE: Okay so I’m assuming that laugh means I’m on target a little bit [laughs]...
KG: Yes, it does.
HE: Accidentally Kansas ... I’m seeing the Kansas of your youth, Lori, so probably the ‘60s and ‘70s. Empire is basically now, but The City is the most enigmatic to me because it’s both our present and not our present. There’s no digital technology in that world…
HE: There’s a card catalog, for instance, so it’s got to be the ‘80s, perhaps. I don’t know.
LN: Yeah. And we can’t tell you how long these places have actually been abandoned either. THey could have been abandoned a week ago or five years ago, or 100 years. It is all over the place as far as what the time frame is. I think we’re just doing it from our own experience.
HE: Well, do you have a favorite period in history … and don’t say Hudson Valley! [Laughs] Favorite decade?
KG: I’m probably a fan of the ‘60s. I love Mid-century Modern and all that.
LN: And I’m probably more a product of the ‘80s because I like the music of that decade. New Wave and some of the pop. I can say that this whole series of The City was inspired by the Talking Heads. Let me remember… Something about something piling up… “[Nothing But] Flowers.”
KG: I have never heard that before!
HE: No way. That absolutely makes my day. But one last thing, something that came out of a little corner of that last bit of conversation. The word abandonment. What is it about abandonment? You said abandonment, you didn’t say apocalypse, you didn’t say disaster, one of you said abandonment—it flew by so fast. One of you said “you don’t know when these scenes were abandoned…”
KG, LN: Oh yeah, okay…
LN: Well my childhood, it was in small town Kansas. Norton, Kansas. You would come across abandoned farms, abandoned farmhouses. I became so curious: how are these farmhouses still standing when people just left? You go in there and you’re playing around, and you see that the wallpaper is in fact fifteen different wallpapers deep. You’ll see old work boots… [To Kathleen] And what about your own grandmother’s house? Wasn’t it eventually abandoned?
KG: Oh they had to tear it down.
LN: So that’s where that whole love of danger and disaster really started, just from my childhood of playing in old, falling down barns and houses, and in new construction, in new houses being built in my neighborhood. So, a combination of new and old.
HE: I think we had the same childhood. I found a cabin in the woods, once, and that became a play fort. And I too used to play in the new construction as houses were going up. Maybe that’s why I am so drawn to your work. But Kathleen, what about you?
KG: Oh I didn’t have any of that! [All laugh] I grew up on a farm right off a really busy highway; it was just sort of us out there. But our neighbors across the highway, they did have some great barns that we would play in a lot, now that I think about it. This is central Illinois. Close to Champaign Urbana. I guess there were a lot of out buildings and barns, not so much houses and things. And you just wandered around, saw what was there, lifted up boards to see what was underneath…
LN: But I was exploring abandoned houses even up through undergrad. Me and a couple of friends would go out in search of places to photograph. Just driving around in the country finding interesting things to experience. Maybe that’s where the whole thing comes from.
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber have been making art collaboratively for over nineteen years. With studios in both Brooklyn and Cincinnati, they construct meticulously detailed model environments and photograph the results. For the last decade, they have found inspiration in their urban surroundings, imagining a future mysteriously devoid of mankind.
Their miniature fake landscapes and interiors reflect a love of science fiction and dystopian entertainment (think Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run), an appreciation for great architecture and an affinity with the Sublime painters of the Hudson River School. Because the work is of a model and not a real place, it creates a safe space to consider the larger ideas of disaster and our collective future. Devoid of people, these spaces become meditative, revealing not just mankind’s errors, but also our optimism, ambition and love of life.