Erin Jane Nerlson’s Quilts Tie It All Together

Emily Gallagher

Erin Jane Nelson
Erin Jane Nelson's Monsieur Xolotl, 2017. Courtesy of Document Chicago.

In a recent interview, writer Jess Arndt expressed the hope that her recently published short story collection could “hold space for a different kind of multiplicity…that stretches or pokes at everything, including species.” This desire for multiplicity, and to create a way of being apart from a binary, describes the tragicomedy of living in a body in 2017.

Atlanta born artist and writer Erin Jane Nelson pokes at this multiplicity imagined by Arndt with a needle and thread. Nelson makes quilts. But these aren’t your grandmother’s needlework. Playful in their odd shapes and kooky textiles, experimental in their attempt to map digital space and technology, Nelson’s quilts side step the purely representational, and seek new hybridity. With dual presence in a solo show at Document in Chicago, and participation in a group show at Downs & Ross in New York, Nelson decidedly departs from a narrative driven practice, towards something else.

Nelson’s quilts contain a frustration with the human body. There are suggestions of body parts, and bodily shapes in the photographic textiles that Nelson digitally collages, and stitches together. Floating eyeballs and mouths in works such Epona Jane (2017) in Chicago, HermesSy Mossback (2017) in New York, contribute to the impulse to anthropomorphize the quilts. While the artist acknowledges that there is an implicit reference to identity, Nelson veers from the suggestion that her practice is meant to be representational, finding the “speculative possibility of moving beyond the limiting parameters of identity as we’ve known it for centuries–assigned or chosen,” a more pressing inquiry.

Nelson escapes the typical perimeters of identity by leaving humanity behind entirely. The artist’s most astute cultural commentary and dark humor emerges when engaging with the rest of the animal kingdom. A dog in a cow costume (Monsieur Xolotl, 2017) is just as likely to appear printed on Nelson’s quilted works as a sinister still life of tulips shrouded in shadows.

Erin Jane Nelson’s Azrail SheLeaky, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York.

This careening subject matter reflects a broadness that can only be described as interspecies, especially when coupled with the short piece of sci-fi Nelson wrote for her Document show. Sharing the same name as the exhibition, Psychopompopolis is a dystopian tale about ecological disaster that spurns the narrator to join an enlightened underwater species to survive.  The narrator describes her new experience of being:

“I feel my dog’s presence in one limb, my husband’s on another—we are still home together but now in this unit of disembodied sensibilities. It becomes clear that my body is no longer mine—that it is no longer human. I am breathing underwater and I have become something new, become with others in a strange container. I blink the eyes all over this body again and open them, focusing externally.” 

Nelson’s Document show is meant to create the sensory experience of being inside a Pyschopomp. Audio of the story plays on sit. The translucent fabrics of the quilted photo collages echo the watery world Nelson builds in her writing. A 20-foot mural produced in the space leading up to the show, contributes to this fluid new world order.

 The strength of Nelson’s current body of work is her use of digestible mediums to get at more complicated ideas, from the performative nature of gender in the writing of James Triptree Jr. to probing Paul Beatriz Preciado’s banishment of human exceptionalism. Though the Document space provides a world onto itself,  the pieces in the group show Red Hills of Lardossa prove Nelson’s work can stand on its own too.

Nelson’s exhibition runs through July 8 at Document Chicago, and at Downs and Ross Gallery in the Lower East Side through June 30.