Bay-area native Kim Nicolini spent her first thirteen years on the Peninsula, shuttling back and forth between Pacifica, a working-class town then filled with remnants of the surfer counter-culture, and the City. She remembers both as places where creativity was highly valued and dates her interest in the arts back to the encouragement she received from her mother, school, and surrounding "habitat." Moving to the far less "hippie" environs of Vallejo after the eighth grade, Kim was shocked to find that the fashions and values that seemed so natural back home suddenly made her different from everybody else. Unhappy in her new home, Kim soon left to live the wild life on the streets of late 70's San Francisco, where, despite facing more traumas than a teenager should be able to survive, she found her creative impulses newly stimulated by the acidic sounds and ill-scissored images of the upstart punk scene.
After leaving the Bay Area for a few years, Kim returned in 1981, settled in Vallejo, and realized that the North Bay had its own fledgling "alternative" scene peopled by individuals who were "different" in the same way she was. In between taking classes at Solano Community College, Kim started working seriously on her art for the first time and took advantage of Vallejo's "thrift store culture" to collect the raw material with which to make both her body and her art into "found-object" collages. She also began to write poetry.
Kim graduated from Solano College with a host of awards, then moved on to the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in English, worked extensively on her poetry with famous writers like Michael Palmer and Robert Pinsky, and experimented in sculpture, graduating with honors in 1988. Since leaving school, Kim has worked for several Bay Area organizations dedicated to helping the underprivileged, focusing most of her attention on exposing them to the diverse and vibrant cultural scene in the Bay Area. She has also been the featured performer at numerous poetry readings at popular San Francisco venues such as the Paradise Lounge, Cafe Babar, The Elbow Room, and Farley's, as well as at Booklover's Haven. In recent months she has once again turned her attention to visual art.
Writing of her poetry, Bay Area arts figure Stephen Parr has emphasized Kim's ability to dig "deep inside herself, deconstructing and demystifying the body in a passionate performance of personal politics." Certainly these words apply equally well to her visual art, with its foregrounding of the naked female form in colorful crisis. Indeed, her visual art appears to materialize and make visible what Kim digs out from deep inside herself, the blood that flows from trauma, the yellow-orange bile of bitter anger, the blues of loss and regret. To put it another way, the colors she extracts from her insides serve to discolor the bodies in her painting, to make them unnatural in order to show the pain that the 'natural,' smooth surfaces of the glamorized nude body normally hide. Kim's emphasis on the human figure thus has far more in common with early twentieth-century Expressionists like Egon Schiele, whom she deeply loves, than with the conservative realism of contemporary artists who seek to turn back the clock to a well-ordered time before the degeneracy of Modernism. She also has many affinities with other so-called Neo-Expressionists of the postmodern 80's, particularly with bleak visionaries like Sue Coe, another one of her favorite artists.
At the same time that Kim returns to the human body, however, she also challenges the conventions by which our visual perception has come to understand it. Even the more abstract Expressionisms and Neo-Expressionisms are highly painterly styles that confine themselves to what the brush and palette knife suggest. Kim's art, by contrast, is often a riot of media, mixing painting, found images, mirror shards, fabric strips, strands of beads, and any number of other odds-and-ends. It is in this refusal to allow the painted surface to stand alone that the influences of of 'thrift-store culture' and the deliberately imperfect and often outright 'ugly' look of punk posters are most obvious in Kim's art. Just as she allows 'inauthentic' Pop-Art imagery from everyday consumer and media culture to intrude, often to humorous effect, on the authentic emotional tone of her poetry, Kim permits the refuse of that culture to litter the visual field of her painting, almost as if to say that even the most existentially pure responses we have to the traumas and tribulations of everyday life are actually cobbled together from fragments of pre-packaged 'experiences' or at least cannot be articulated without the help of found imagery to knot our amorphous perceptions together.
But to say all this is, however innocently, to obscure the gender issues at work in Kim's art. After all, it is not the human body 'in general' that appears in Kim's art, but, with rare exceptions, the female body. And while Kim's synthesis of multi-media collage with the emotional intensity of Expressionism clearly does speak to the near universal sense, at least within the first world, that our existence is increasingly hard to to make any one, coherent, permanent sense of, and indeed seems to consist of a series of transitory and never entirely reconcilable senses, in the plural, that duality in her work also speaks of the ways in which this sense of contemporary existence is particularly and more fundamentally applicable to the condition of women. Many of the found images Kim brings to her art are images of women, stereotypes of the feminine as culled from consumer culture of the 50's, 60's, and even the present day. They thus speak, not only to the general fragmentation of existence, but also to the ways in which such stereotypes have sliced-up the wholeness of women into so many 'useful' parts: dishwashing hands, hair to impress the husband's boss, breasts to excite him, and a cunt for him to ogle and fuck. Kim's art is not easy to stomach. It confronts you with the traumatized insides that line the photogenic exterior of human bodies, of women's bodies. But sometimes what seems unnatural to our perceptions, what shocks instead of soothes us, is the only thing that will make us aware that there is a dark underside to our 'human nature,' that 'nature' is itself a construct, and, like most 'construction projects' in contemporary society, can have enormously detrimental environmental impact.
Reading this now, I'm struck by the fact that I was using the opportunity to do the sort of writing that I otherwise shied away from. To be honest, my communication has always inclined towards the complex. I've been using large words and larger asides since I was in elementary school. But my political convictions and personal investment in Bad Subjects specifically and the study of popular culture more generally made it difficult for me to be comfortable writing long, lavish sentences. I still have the reflex inside me that resists them, though now I'm supposed to be writing that way for professional reasons. Still, whenever I need to come up with something impressive-sounding from a scholarly point of view, I feel a little squeamish. Somehow, though, the fact that I was writing this catalog copy for Kim, for an show in Vallejo, made it easier for me to push my inhibitions aside. I do like the bit about "construction projects" at the end, I must admit. And there are a couple of other turns of phrase that appeal to me still, like "Kim permits the refuse of that culture to litter the visual field of her painting." What I like best about this strange thing I wrote, though, is that I think it does a pretty good job of giving you the feel of Kim's art. I'm sure Skylar would have something quite different to say about her mom's oeuvre, though.