In Dream and Soil: A Conversation with Bea Nettles

By Edgington, Colin | Afterimage, March-April 2017 | Go to article overview

In Dream and Soil: A Conversation with Bea Nettles


Edgington, Colin, Afterimage


Bea Nettles rose to prominence at the beginning of 1970 with her autobiographical mixed-media and photographic work. During that year she had a solo show at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum, or GEM) in Rochester, New York, and was also included in the seminal exhibition Photography into Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In 2014, the show was re-mounted at Hauser & Wirth in New York City as the retitled The Photographic Object, 1970 and was accompanied by a publication of the same name from the University of Arizona and the University of California Press. Nettles has been exhibiting her work for nearly fifty years and is included in the collections of MoMA; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Canada; the Phillips Collection in Washington DC; the International Museum of Photography at the GEM; and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Her newest book, Dante Enters Hell (2016), has sold out and is in nine special collections libraries including those of Yale, Duke, and Northwestern universities. In 2016, her early work began to pop up around the country in various exhibitions including at the Met, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Portland Museum of Art.

The recent reappearance of Nettles's early work--from the single pieces of the late 1960s to her Mountain Dream Tarot card deck (1975) and her visual autobiography Flamingo in the Dark (1979)--in museums and galleries is neither happenstance nor anomaly, but rather evidence of her importance in the history of American art. This work is visceral, poignant, humorous, and multivalent--and is as indicative of the experimental approach by many photographers of the 1960s and '70s as it is striking to twenty-first-century eyes. In particular, the return to materiality and the autobiographical in photography by many contemporary artists, as well as the mixed-media and photographic approach of painters today, prove Nettles was both ahead of her time and firmly situated within a legacy of artists (from Pictorialism to Victorian collage and book-making to Dada) in the history of photography. Although today artists must contend with the digital revolution, either embracing it or reacting against it, the impact of Nettles's layered approach, particularly in her early work, cannot be underestimated.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I met Nettles in 2005 as an incoming photography student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she was teaching photography and book-arts classes and is now professor emerita. I gardened for her in exchange for books and time from 2007 to 2008, which I count as a pivotal year in my growth as an artist and being. In August of last year, I reconnected with Nettles at her home in Urbana for a conversation about the recent exhibitions of her early work and Dante Enters Hell.

COLIN EDGINGTON: I had a student who saw your work recently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). I think it is incredible that these early works are being seen by younger generations. What does it mean for you to see it exhibited forty-five years later?

BEA NETTLES: Sister in the Parrot Garden, which is the piece on view at the PMA, was made at Penland [School of Crafts] near Asheville, North Carolina, in the summer of 1970. I would have been just out of graduate school. I still remember that piece because it was so difficult to make. When I coated Rockland Liquid Light photo emulsion on fabric it was extremely fragile; it would be processed just like a print, but if it folded in on itself the emulsion would smear and come off. It was delicate from start to finish. Often a mixed-media piece would start through experimentation and then I'd see the potential in it, or it'd crack open my thinking. I try not to be afraid or take myself too seriously with capital-A art, but I can be obsessed and I follow through on things. It is a delicate balance between my humor and being very serious, and I think my work reflects that. …

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