Nikita Vishnevskiy: An Interview with the Artist and First-time Curator

by Michael Caines, October 2011

Nikita Vishnevskiy, a young artist whose work focuses on the serendipitous combination of found and made objects, has developed a keen editorial eye. Vishnevskiy sat down with Artwrit to discuss his first effort as a curator with the installation of Hermaphrodite, a group exhibition at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn.

MC: This is your first time curating a show. Could you talk about what that process was like and how you went about it?
NV: There are different processes and ways to go about curating. In my case I had the idea for the exhibition first and then I started going to open studios, visiting artists, and talking to them about my idea. The idea for Hermaphrodite sprouted from my own practice. I didn’t have space to make my work for a while, so I thought I would put this show together as a way to explore the ideas through other artists’ work.

How is the word hermaphrodite connected to your own work?
When I show my work the conversation often ends up in a kind of transgendered or ambiguous territory. Those are the words that people use to describe it. For myself, I end up categorizing the moves I make as being masculine or feminine, or thinking about what’s left brain or right brain. I don’t necessarily believe that everything that’s left brain is masculine and everything that’s right brain is feminine, but nevertheless I think it’s an interesting idea to apply to art making. There’s always a way to equalize or balance the situation. So if I think of a certain gesture as being masculine, I have an impulse to balance it out with a feminine gesture.

How do those terms break down? How do you decide what exemplifies the masculine or feminine?
I end up categorizing. For example, if I think of steel and concrete as quintessentially masculine, because of the weight, mass and texture, then I might think of a satin ribbon as being feminine. That’s one of the ways I might look at it. I’d put the satin ribbon together with the rough concrete, which for me creates a certain kind of balance.

The beginning of your curatorial statement is really interesting. You say for example that you want to avoid “polar categorization,” and I’m interested in why that’s something to be avoided in the framework of this show.
As a viewer, you might not say it, but you may think that a work is by a man because of certain qualities, or that it represents a certain sexuality for similar reasons. So one of the goals was to try to avoid that kind of male/female categorization that already exists as a structure in our society.

Hermaphrodite is a really complicated term because, as you acknowledge in your statement, it’s been reclaimed by the inter-sex community. But traditionally it has a stigma attached to it as a word, and at the same time I respond to it as a beautiful sounding word.
Well, it comes originally from Greek mythology, referring to Hermes and Aphrodite combining. The deity refers to a bisexual way of being. The word has been stigmatized, and we might see it in tabloids. There’s a kind of attraction and repulsion that happens with it, I think. We want to know about it but we don’t really want to see it. So I think the fascination and repulsion was another way of looking at it: It is this state where you are both attracted and repulsed, and are stuck in a space in between.

You talk about states of limbo being important and you seem to be hinting at that right now.
Yes, exactly. When you’re sure of something and then in the next moment you suddenly aren’t. Or when you’re in between two places. I was trying to use the limbo state very abstractly.

Another thing I’m curious about, from looking at your own work, is that you seem to be drawn to everyday materials, sometimes found things, or things that are hand-made—abject, maybe, although that is too loaded a term. That particular aesthetic evoked by prosaic materials is threaded throughout the exhibition in the choices that you made. Do the materials, in your mind, connect to the theme, or is it incidental? There’s also a kind of media hybridity throughout the show, as in, “That’s not simply a painting, that’s not simply a sculpture”.
Yes, that’s definitely a part of it. Media is another way of looking at this theme, the “hybridity” that you’re talking about. That was a conscious decision. There’s an “in-between” state in much of the work, as you said, “its not a sculpture, its not a painting.”

It’s another way to escape polarity or categorization. I think if you can think about something other than “that’s a sculpture” when you first look at something, it opens up possibilities. There’s a certain freedom in using the kind of materials that are in the show. You mentioned the term “abject” and from the very beginning I was interested in the hermaphrodite because I saw the term as liberating and maybe a bit repulsive, maybe something a bit gross or something you might not want to think about.

Many of the pieces in the show seem to sit in that place. I’m thinking of one piece that really made me laugh, the work by Patrick Walsh called Museum Piece with Fountain, which at first looks like a dish with cigarette butts and wax and a kind of crappy box. But when you read the title it becomes way more complicated and funny.
Yes, and there’s popcorn in there, too, so there’s a nice buttery smell [laughs]. There’s something both abject and precious about it.

There’s been a wave of this kind of work. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but there has been a cultural movement around work that is made in a much less precious way, with these kinds of materials. I wonder why this kind of work has become so compelling. Or maybe I should ask why it’s compelling for you?
I think I’m attracted to work that’s hand-made. More slick work can start to feel like decor. I mean so much is mass manufactured, so the idea that someone might build something, maybe using similar techniques as a manufacturer, but for totally different reasons and where I can seen the hand back in the work, is refreshing.

Moving around this show there’s a piece up on the platform by Lars Van Dooren called Flattened Dirge. The first view is a kind of person-height frame with some hanging paper with pieces cut out to allow light to pass through and cast patterns of shadow on the floor and wall as viewers walk around it. There’s a kind of hybrid drawing that’s in a bricked up window niche behind the panel, and it feels like a tiny, dirty cathedral–the space looks filthy, while the piece itself is quite precise. It creates a very reverent space in a very unlikely context, as the show is in a fairly raw, unfinished basement.
I’m interested in these kind of musky basement spaces, they have qualities that create happy accidents for much of the work. I think this kind of space opens up different kinds of conversations. For example the kind of private, sexual things that people think about, they kind of keep them in the basement of their heads [laughs].

Maybe to close we could talk about your piece. As a curator, you were quite naughty and put your own work in the exhibition.
I thought about changing my name for it, but decided it would be better to be honest. pre-pubescence is a piece on the wall, a cast cement square with one of the corners knocked out and used as a shelf. And it has a wooden structure made of found pieces that have been notched, creating a kind of hobo/folk construction that’s kind of haphazard. The wooden structure supports a poster that’s hanging with its back facing out. The poster is vintage from the ’80s and is balanced on these two drinking straws that I sucked cement into so they’d harden and act as a support.

There’s also a drawing balanced on the upper right corner.
Yes, so the poster and the drawing kind of face each other, and they’re both portraits. The poster is of Buster Poindexter, a singer who used to be in the New York Dolls. The drawing is of Agatha Christie in graphite on paper. Agatha Christie was someone I read when I was younger. I was raised by women; my grandma took care of me and read Agatha Christie mysteries to me. She creates all these people, and often you’re seeing the story through a male detective’s eyes. The characters stereotype each other in an attempt to solve the mystery, making generalizations about women and men and behaviors and lifestyles. Then Buster Poindexter is the ex-lead singer of the New York Dolls, a very androgynous band remembered more for their style and their makeup, their platform shoes, than for their music. In the ’80s he left the band and became this slick, money-grabbing, martini-drinking character in a tuxedo, singing “Hot Hot Hot.” So I think this goes back to performing, and how artists have the freedom to turn themselves into someone else.

On the one hand you have Buster Poindexter who radically alters his identity, and on the other you have a mystery writer where the mystery is solved by considering identity based on a series of norms. It’s a very interesting combination of perspectives.
Sure, but it’s also okay if you just see the piece as a cool combination of materials. Like, if you notice that the pop straws are full of concrete, I think that’s nice or some people might like the way the drawing is done.

Do you think you’d like to continue to curate after this experience, as an ongoing aspect of your practice?
I really see it as a project, and I kind of have a problem with the idea of the curator as someone who exercises power over people and chooses them for a show. I think from the beginning I was more interested in talking to the artists and now we’re better friends, or understand each other more.

Visknevskiy is featured in a solo show, GLORYDAYS, at HEREart in New York starting November 2.