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Portrait of the Artist: Ellen Nielsen

Installation, Performance, Sculpture Add comments

Ellen Nielsen pulled back the floral-patterned curtain at the entrance of her home and studio to reveal a rainbow-felted tree adorned with fake birds. A shadow box of sequin typologies, pinned like shiny dead butterflies, hung at her other side, framing her in a bright sleeveless dress with matching red lipstick. These creations, she explained with cerebral self-possession, act as a “queer, feminist celebration of ornament and kitsch.

“I’m confused about irony,” Nielsen confesses, “because I genuinely like the things that I like. I actually like disco.” As one of her many part-performance, part-object projects, Nielsen is involved with the Pyramids of Pluto, who throw disco-focused events at clubs in the city. At a recent event at Berlin nightclub, themed as a physical manifestation of the internet, Nielsen created a giant web that would hold images of cats, in reference to the popular memes, and hang from the ceiling above the dance floor. Her theatrical experiments extend to puppetry, too, through an ongoing involvement with the Baltimore Annex Theater Collective.

In her studio, which resembles a fabric store, she pulled from a stack of material one bold pattern that had hung within snow-covered woods for “wintervention.” Textiles take on many forms in Nielsen’s capable hands. For an upcoming show in May at the Plaines Project, she is “domesticating a tree” with triangular cocoons around its branches made of nineties floral patterned nightgown fabric. Nielsen, showing a predilection for the sinister, compared the resulting shapes to nests of Tent Caterpillars, which blanket Chicago’s trees with web-like creations that hold “thousands of worms wriggling inside.” The narrative of infestation works in tension with the cheery print and offers a glimpse into the weighty concerns that underlie Nielsen’s pink-tinged practice.

She poses her “highly consumable” embellishments against Modernism in painting and architecture. In a performance titled “pombomb,” Nielsen threw a giant pink and yellow pom-pom at the Aon Center’s Modernist façade until the colored orb fell apart. Influenced by Bruce Nauman’s durational performances, she ran back and forth in a flowered frock, hurling and retrieving the fluffy ball in an act of soft terrorism, of sorts.

Nielsen was equal parts strong and sexy as she stood beside a huge and vaginal paisley sculpture (“hippie/raver/goth”) in her kitchen expounding on the form as a loose signifier of Eastern custom, colonialism, fertility and American psychedelia. With exuberance, the artist plays with conventions of beauty and gender that are constantly, if not explicitly, reinforced in objects of the everyday. The heteronormative narratives imbedded in our surroundings, for Nielsen, are suspect. She offers a compelling alternative trimmed with ribbons, lace and buttons. (Lee Colon)

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