David Nelson's moving exhibition at 80WSE Gallery has brought renewed attention to the rigor and depth of David's wide-ranging artistic practice. Praised as a "wonderful artist" by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, Cotter also describes the timely exhibition as follows: "About one thing there is no ambiguity, and that is the loyalty of Mr. Nelson’s artist friends. One of them, Nancy Brooks Brody, helped salvage his work when he died in a state of physical and mental debilitation. She, along with Jonathan Berger, organized this beautiful show and contributed to its keeper of a catalog." The exhibition closes October 24, 2015.

Visual AIDS hosted an informative guided tour of the exhibition with both Nancy Brooks Brody and Jonathan Berger on the opening weekend of the exhibition. Here, Buzz Slutzsky interviews Brody about the exhibition, as the beginning of a longer dialogue, documentation and potential oral history project around David's work. Highlights from the interview are below, with a pdf transcript of the entire discussion attached at the bottom of the page as well.

Buzz Slutzky: How did David Nelson’s work change after [his partner] David Knudsvik died?

Nancy Brooks Brody: Well prior to David K dying, David’s work didn’t contain representational imagery. He was interested in process, time, chance, and gesture. He was working with the natural world—using paint, casting. He was making objects that were engaged with time and light and the body. Then after David K passed, that’s when he started to draw that little figure, the trainman, which was an object that belonged to David K. He started drawing it kind of it obsessively—all the different parts of it—the hooks between the cars, the hat, the dice. He spoke of that series of trainman drawings, as well as his knot drawings, as a bit of a lifeline—they gave him something to do. He didn’t want to care about whether they were good drawings or not. He needed to be working. It was a necessity.

BS: I think it’s so interesting that his work doesn’t read immediately to be about childhood, but it seems that he’s drawn to these childhood objects. His curiosity about nature is childlike. He talked about digging the holes at night because he was ashamed to be a grown man doing this “child thing.”

NBB: That’s a really good observation, because he spoke about digging. I remember him telling me, “all kids dig holes.” He said that digging was a primal gesture that all children were compelled to do. Even the train tunnels he got on Ebay are from a child’s toy train set. And the toy train figure. And the spirograph is a toy.

BS: And a hole.

NBB: And a hole.

BS: And if I remember correctly [from the exhibition walk through], he found the wooden spirograph broken, and then fixed it in the store.

NBB: He found it at an outdoor flea market and he fixed it right at the stand. The people selling it weren’t even really sure what it was, or what it did, or if it worked. He stood there and spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what it was, whether it had all its parts, and whether it worked.

BS: Was David very mechanically oriented? Was he very good at tinkering with stuff?

NBB: Yes. His dad taught him the skill of carpentry early on. David could build anything. He had a real natural sense—and could work with many materials. He never said “I am a painter” or “I am a sculptor.” These labels weren’t relevant to him or his projects. It was just “by any means necessary” to make whatever, wherever his curiosity led him. And I think you’re right about the childhood—this interest and fascination of his surroundings, with nature and partaking in collecting all those things.

BS: I remember someone saying [at the exhibition walk through] that he was collaborating with the ocean—with the natural processes of the earth.

NBB: That’s something I wrote in the essay: that he “collaborated with both the sea and the earth with a cigarette dangling from his lips.” He was always part of it but also an observer of it. Somewhat outside of it. David looked at how the world leaves marks and records of itself.

BS: Like a witness.

NBB: Yes. With curiosity.

BS: But the way he was talking about children digging holes, it was like he was observing humans with the same level of distance.

NBB: Yes. If he were alive, I think that would be a really interesting question to ask him about. Where does he position himself within that? He’s engaging in it, he’s curious about it, he’s also kind of drawing from it, and participating with it… it’s an interesting space he occupies. A lot of the things he’s doing are records of something.

BS: Especially the photograms. It’s literally the way that a paper records light.

NBB: Totally. And imprinting and recording the hole. The shape of the hole. Those very early photographs of the wind and the grass that’s making circles in the sand. These marks that nature makes that he’s…

BS: It’s like he’s recording a residue of these events in micro-natural history. He collected all these natural history materials but he was also seeing them play out on a day-to-day level.

NBB: I think so. Those photographs of the marks that the wind drew look amazingly so much like the spirographs that he drew so many years later—and they look like irises, which look like the surface of the holes, and the tunnels are holes, and the paintings are of eyes, and belly buttons, and mouths...They’re all holes.

BS: I like that he makes holes into a positive form. We normally think of holes as negative space. That’s something he was doing with the casting.

NBB: Mmhmm. There’s those long tubes he made photograms of that he called landscapes—tubes are holes! They’re these winding pathways.

BS: In terms of your work on this show, what your process with Jonathan like? Not only on what to include, but how to arrange it as a narrative?

NBB: David’s work luckily was saved. He almost lost it all. It was salvaged, and put in storage. So we had a lifetime of work to choose from. And because he didn’t have a big career, there weren’t works out in different collections that we had to borrow back. David intentionally kept, and held back, a lot of his best work. He traded a lot with other artists. David loved other artists’ work, so he also had a terrific collection of artwork from all his friends, and consequently, his friends had his work. We didn’t have to go far to borrow his work. Everyone was quite generous.

Though this material was not easy for me, Jonathan was a pleasure to work with. If either one of us had a question or a strong idea or feeling about something, we made room for conversation. But in most cases, we felt quite similarly, or in time, we got to a similar place.

One great thing was that we both knew we wanted to show his late paintings. I laugh, because they were decidedly not the favorite of any of the friends. We knew they were really good! We were determined and excited to show the paintings and were secretly excited by the challenge to win people over and show them how good they were.

BS: The first room of the Holes is an amazing first impression. It’s a curious, exciting thing for people passing by to see.

NBB: Yes, people were looking in from out on the street while we were installing. Like, “what are those things?”

BS: It’s confusing to look at. It’s a hole and it’s solid. It negates your assumptions of what objects can be.

NBB: Absolutely. And I think that’s something that happens a lot in David’s work actually.

BS: Yeah, for sure. I learned a lot about formalism from this show. The way David explored materials and forms is important. It’s a little bit shocking to me that he hasn’t had a bigger career.

NBB: And that formalist part is a good observation. David wasn’t naïve. He went to shows, he looked at a lot of art. He had a terrific library. He shared lots of artists with me. He was out and about. It wasn’t like he was a guy that nobody knew, or that didn’t have any connections, who was making art in cave. He didn’t take a position for or against any kind of theory or ideology. But he had a strong sensibility. And strong ideas, sense of self, sense of material. And that was wrapped up in his curiosity, and his love of nature and science. Those things all seeped into his work. He was a true artist in that way. It wasn’t “idea first.”

BS: It was about finding out.

NBB: I think mostly, yeah, until he exhausted that. With finding those timers, the hourglass timers, he wrapped those in paper, he cast those, he broke those, he made photograms of them, he did drawings of them, he photographed them… He did every way until he exhausted it. Even with the trainman, he cast it, he drew it, he made photograms, he made resin casts of it and submerged that in some of the holes. He buried it within the holes.

BS: Wow. It’s almost like he’s restoring something from the past back to a resting place.

NBB: Completely. One of the last pieces are those toy tunnels. I think it was an attraction to the tunnel itself—because they are weird and beautiful objects and it’s about the portal, and going through the ground.

BS: He always made precise formal explorations but they were always mediated by boyhood. This is something I see a lot in my work and in my friends’ work that I see around me. It’s almost like queerness prevents childhood from ever being resolved.

NBB: That’s interesting. I knew about David’s walks when he was growing up. His entire natural history collection was from being a boy in nature in California. Being gay in the woods. He grew up in Southern California, in the mountain range near Palm Springs. He lived in an idyllic setting. It wasn’t an idyllic family scene—but in terms of nature, for a queer kid who was curious about the natural world, he got to lose himself in that.

I remember when I first saw the tunnel in his studio, in Industry City, he had the tunnel laid out on the floor. He was figuring out the wire with the bone rings attached to it that probably came up about 3 or 4 feet. I remember just immediately really liking the tunnels but not being entirely sure about that gesture with the wire...with the bones rings. Years later, after we had the show completed and installed, we connected the wire and put the rings in concentric order. I saw how it completes the sculpture. That was the final gesture. The piece is so grounded, but the wire lifts it, engages it, pulls into space, into a different location instead of remaining low to the ground. I realized that the bone rings are kind of like tiny smoke rings. And that’s the last thing David made.

Nancy Brooks Brody is an artist born and raised in Manhattan. She began showing her work in the 1980s and since then her work has been in many galleries and institutions, including New Math, Andrea Rosen, Exit Art, Virgil de Voldere, the Brooklyn Museum, White Columns, FRAC Haute - Normandie, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Bernayand most recently Shane Campbell, Andrew Kreps and Joseph Tang gallery. Her work is in the public collections of MOCA, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angelos FRAC Haute-Normandie, the Fonds National d’Art Contemporaine, the Braddock Carnegie Library, and many private collections. Her artwork has been reviewed in publications including Art in America, The New York Times, Time Out/New York, the Village Voice, The Sun and The Huffington Post. Brody has also made videos and designs for dance. She Is a founding member of fierce pussy, and she co curated Movement Schmoovement, at La Mama La Galleria in 2010. Her work is currently on view at MoMA PS1 as part of the exhibition "Greater New York."

Buzz Slutzky is an artist and writer who works in a range of media, particularly in drawing, video, performance, and sculpture. From 2010-2012, Buzz was co-curator of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History.

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David Nelson