Psychic Junkyards: Willa Nasatir

by Lauren Cornell


The photography of Willa Nasatir is hard to place. It connects to contemporary approaches to still life or portraiture as seen, for example, in the work of Eileen Quinlan or R.H. Quaytman, where the subjects portrayed have been reflected and refracted out of recognition. But it has also been likened to the work of Lee Bontecou for its tactility, its rough-hewn edges and inorganic textures, and it draws upon queer aesthetic history. In recent exhibitions, at White Columns and Chapter in New York, Nasatir has continued to expand her artistic territory, moving away from works where she set upon photographs often violently, torching or drowning them, to creating and rephotographing elaborate sculptural arrangements. In this conversation, we discuss her process and approach, her negotiation of photography’s “nascent” history, and, the way the subconscious manifests in her work.


LAUREN CORNELL: Your exhibition at Chapter NY marks a departure from previous works where you’ve frozen, charred or submerged photographs or otherwise developed them in atypical elements. Can you describe this new approach and why you gravitated towards it?

WILLA NASATIR: In these new larger works, I photographed prints through a spot-lit screen which I made from plexiglass and latex. I have two somewhat oppositional goals within all of my processes: on the one hand, I want to make images that are materially felt and tactile; at the same time, I want to posit photography as a medium for capturing the immaterial and the intangible—light, reflection, and shadow. Those earlier gestures can be read as performative; there’s a funny violence to scratching off the surface of an image of a body, or setting it on fire, but I’m thinking less about the action there and more about how, when photographed, these processes are transformed from something very legible to a less recognizable, more affective tool.

LC: Several aspects of the works are hard to read for the viewer, including the objects portrayed. For instance, in Untitled (Candle #2), the candles are extended by spoons stuck into their bases and what looks, at first, like brittle leaves appear, on a second glance, to be flattened mopheads. Do you intend to make the objects in the photographs partially indiscernible?

WN: I think of photographs as naturally distorting the “truth” of their subject. Photographic effect often complicates one’s understanding of a subject and its environment, rather than clarifies it. I’m not trying to obscure information necessarily, but to emphasize the idea that, formally, this is a depiction rather than a document. At the same time, we’ve been conditioned to cycle through images really rapidly, and I hope to make work where the experience of viewing is extended, and new meaning occurs with time.

LC: I think the elusive aspects of the work do extend the experience of viewing. I, for one, felt transfixed by these new works. There is a certain kind of otherworldliness to them. They recall, to me, the opulent palette of Jack Smith’s films or the surreal portraiture of Jimmy de Sana. Rather tangentially, I thought of Flawless Sabrina, her iconic, sumptuous drag, even the interior rooms of her apartment as depicted in photographs by Zackary Drucker. Do these references connect with you at all?

WN: Flawless Sabrina helped build a drag world that allows for transgression through radical shifts in persona and affect, and through make-believe. I don’t feel that my work is directly about that culture, but on a personal level I’m attracted to social movements in which people aesthetically self-define. This is apparent in drag cultures, like those Flawless Sabrina participated in, but also in the work of someone like Smith or Alvin Baltrop, both of whom use photography to illustrate other worlds, even underworlds, imagined and real. More specifically, I’m drawn to the relationship that drag performers have to handmade or approximated versions of glamorous objects and accessories.

LC: In our recent studio visit, I was delighted when you answered a few of my questions with “I don’t know.” It’s so tempting to overtheorize when answers aren’t readily apparent (and people do it so often!). It was refreshing that you admitted to not having an explanation for every facet of your work and that, in itself, seemed productive. Does this attitude—this confidence in not knowing everything—connect to your desire to make room for the unconscious or unknown in your work?

WN: Artists using photography have, for a long time, employed hyper-theoretical methodologies in order to advocate the seriousness of their work, and the labor behind it. I think this comes from a desire to legitimize the medium as a form of critical thought, to distance it from trade or documentation. I feel protective over the space I have in my studio to do things that I can’t explain. Similarly, I believe it’s important to preserve the space of viewing an artwork before it’s mediated by language. To me, the best work comes out of people examining their own subjectivity, which extends to their unconscious instincts or desires.

LC: The artist Carroll Dunham referred to the scenes in your photographs as “psychic junkyards.” Does this notion—of a space where subconscious desires or fears are deposited and piled up haphazardly—resonate with you?

WN: Yes, I feel like the subconscious, in its many different forms, can be a key to the broader cultural landscape. Photography has historically been used as a categorical, anthropological tool, whereas something like abstract painting is seen as a window into the unconscious, or right brain thinking. There is not one, stable, universal reality, it’s highly subjective. Photographs also have the potential to access or show that unknown space and I try for that in my own work.

LC: Often the body feels like an “unknown space” in your photographs. You’ve said that you prefer to depict the “experience of the body” or a “trace of it.” Does this more transitory, latent form of portraiture feel more true to you?

WN: I don’t think it’s more true, but when photographing a human body, the relationship of the photographer to the subject has a different weight. When someone poses, their experience of the world and their individual identity is as present in the work as the photographer’s agenda. It’s extremely collaborative—which can be incredible but you’re forced to relinquish control to a degree. I like the idea of creating a contained world in my studio where the subject doesn’t exist outside of the pictures. By looking at the photographic gestures and filmic tropes we use to imbue a subject with violence, nostalgia, or sex appeal, and then applying those to a composition of objects, I feel closer to a world of fantasy.

LC: You told me that you’ve exhaustively researched 19th century photographs of séances in which spirits were supposedly exorcised and captured with gauze. I imagine this captivates you because of your interest, as you describe above, in photography “as a medium that posits the immaterial or intangible.” How could you compare this process of materializing a spirit to your own work, if at all?

WN: When we look at those images now, the “smoke and mirrors” image manipulation is obvious, and almost quaint. But I am interested in them as a record of a transaction, where people were contracting amateur photographers to provide them with material proof of some mental discomfort that they felt, whether depression, schizophrenia, mania that couldn’t be explained in their waking life. Often times, people were complicit in these staged portraits, meaning they were aware of the mechanics behind the pictures and yet they suspended disbelief. Our collective desire for a visualization of psychological unrest is incredibly compelling to me.

LC: Would you say abstraction, as it appears in your work, is a productive retreat from the constant bombardment of representative images, advertising or self-promotion?

WN: I wouldn’t say I’m explicitly interested in abstract photography as a respite, but I would say I’m interested in decoupling photography from some notion of documentation based in reality.

LC: As a last question then, I’d ask about the limits of fine art photography and its potential to visualize. I never worry about the death of painting, but I do sometimes wonder if photography as an artistic medium could become a moot point. What do you think?

WN: I don’t believe that it’s possible for a medium to die. To my knowledge, there have been no instances where something has actually died, ever, outside of artisans being outmoded. The intense absorption of photography into our culture has exploded the medium, and it’s history, but I see that as allowing for a freedom and flexibility in the way that images are read, which is unprecedented. Photography was invented about two hundred years ago; in the scheme of human history, it is still in its most nascent stages as a medium.


Lauren Cornell is a curator at the New Museum in New York City. She was previously executive director of Rhizome. Cornell, along with artist Ryan Trecartin, curated the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial.

Willa Nasatir (1990) lives and works in New York. She has had solo shows at Chapter, NY as well as a White Room at White Columns, NY. Her work has been recently been included in group-exhibitions at Hester, NY; Del Vaz Projects, LA; Company Gallery, NY; and Drei, Cologne. She was a 2015 recipient of the Louis B. Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award. Nasatir graduated from the Cooper Union.


Originally published on Mousse 54 (Summer 2016)


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