Nohl Catalog Essay

by Ann Wiens, August 2007 (unedited)

by Ann Wiens, August 2007

Made with simple black sewing thread drawn through plain white cotton muslin, Chris Niver’s embroideries are the approximate size and substance of handkerchiefs. Handkerchiefs…it’s nearly an archaic reference, like button hooks or washboards or typewriter ribbons. Like so many things in our disposability-oriented culture, handkerchiefs have given way to something easier to consume, easier to throw away, effortless. The work once involved in something so banal as handkerchief use—the washing, starching, ironing, and folding—is no longer necessary. But along with the effort, what else is lost?

Chris Niver’s recent images appear, at first glance, simple. Nearly effortless. A few quiet black lines, centered on almost-square white grounds, describe prosaic landscapes: sluice pipes trickling water into modest pools, narrow ravines split by well-behaved waterfalls, somewhat humorous renditions of Skull Island, stripped of its menace and foreboding.

Their simplicity is deceptive, though. Spend a minute looking at any of the “Sluice” images. In each of them, a small, quiet pool of water nestles between sloped banks of earth—steep but not too high, some grass and weeds apparent here and there. A drainpipe pokes from the bank; we can see into its dark, round mouth, but we don’t know where it goes. Maybe a little water trickles out. These images offer no context—our viewpoint is starkly limited to the pool, the banks, the pipe. There’s no distant background to orient us, no color to offer clues about the climate or vegetation, not enough shading to determine the time of day, weather, or season.

As Niver limits our view of the scene, he widens our perception of it. These images are Spartan and objective. We’re not led by the nose to any particular conclusion about them, so we’re left free to imbue them with our own interpretations, to project our own idiosyncratic visions and anxieties upon them. They may seem funny. Or lonesome. Or sexual, with their fluid-spewing orifices, undulating mounds, and bushy vegetation.

The process through which Niver arrives at these seemingly straightforward images is also key to their inherent complexity. They begin as sketches, black ink on white paper. Niver sketches the same scene repeatedly, multiple versions differing only in the quality of a mark, the gesture of a line. Most of the landscapes are invented—fictional, yet authentic. Sometimes, they are copied from works by notable artists of the past: Courbet, Church, traditional Chinese painters. By starting with a scene already studied and composed by another, Niver adds yet another round of repetition.

But we never see the ink drawings. They, in turn, are repeated in embroidery, stroke for stroke; quick marks of the pen reinterpreted as careful stitches of black thread through white cloth. As sketches, these images might be nearly effortless, a simple artistic exercise. But as painstakingly stitched embroideries, they become something else entirely. They’re absurd, in a way. Why has Niver chosen to spend his time—hours and hours of it—repeating these humble scenes in the labor-intensive medium of hand embroidery?

Like most intricate handwork, it’s a meditative process, an essential combination of thinking and not-thinking, of looking, drifting, and doing. And therein lies its value, for both artist and viewer. These pictures take us somewhere, but it’s likely not Skull Island, a drainage pond, or a remote mountain ravine. It’s somewhere different for each of us, and we can’t get there without a little effort. Niver shows us a path that’s simple. But it’s not necessarily easy.

Made with simple black sewing thread drawn through plain white cotton muslin, Chris Niver’s embroideries are the approximate size and substance of handkerchiefs. Handkerchiefs…it’s nearly an archaic reference, like button hooks or washboards or typewriter ribbons. Like so many things in our disposability-oriented culture, handkerchiefs have given way to something easier to consume, easier to throw away, effortless. The work once involved in something so banal as handkerchief use—the washing, starching, ironing, and folding—is no longer necessary. But along with the effort, what else is lost?

Chris Niver’s recent images appear, at first glance, simple. Nearly effortless. A few quiet black lines, centered on almost-square white grounds, describe prosaic landscapes: sluice pipes trickling water into modest pools, narrow ravines split by well-behaved waterfalls, somewhat humorous renditions of Skull Island, stripped of its menace and foreboding.

Their simplicity is deceptive, though. Spend a minute looking at any of the “Sluice” images. In each of them, a small, quiet pool of water nestles between sloped banks of earth—steep but not too high, some grass and weeds apparent here and there. A drainpipe pokes from the bank; we can see into its dark, round mouth, but we don’t know where it goes. Maybe a little water trickles out. These images offer no context—our viewpoint is starkly limited to the pool, the banks, the pipe. There’s no distant background to orient us, no color to offer clues about the climate or vegetation, not enough shading to determine the time of day, weather, or season.

As Niver limits our view of the scene, he widens our perception of it. These images are Spartan and objective. We’re not led by the nose to any particular conclusion about them, so we’re left free to imbue them with our own interpretations, to project our own idiosyncratic visions and anxieties upon them. They may seem funny. Or lonesome. Or sexual, with their fluid-spewing orifices, undulating mounds, and bushy vegetation.

The process through which Niver arrives at these seemingly straightforward images is also key to their inherent complexity. They begin as sketches, black ink on white paper. Niver sketches the same scene repeatedly, multiple versions differing only in the quality of a mark, the gesture of a line. Most of the landscapes are invented—fictional, yet authentic. Sometimes, they are copied from works by notable artists of the past: Courbet, Church, traditional Chinese painters. By starting with a scene already studied and composed by another, Niver adds yet another round of repetition.

But we never see the ink drawings. They, in turn, are repeated in embroidery, stroke for stroke; quick marks of the pen reinterpreted as careful stitches of black thread through white cloth. As sketches, these images might be nearly effortless, a simple artistic exercise. But as painstakingly stitched embroideries, they become something else entirely. They’re absurd, in a way. Why has Niver chosen to spend his time—hours and hours of it—repeating these humble scenes in the labor-intensive medium of hand embroidery?

Like most intricate handwork, it’s a meditative process, an essential combination of thinking and not-thinking, of looking, drifting, and doing. And therein lies its value, for both artist and viewer. These pictures take us somewhere, but it’s likely not Skull Island, a drainage pond, or a remote mountain ravine. It’s somewhere different for each of us, and we can’t get there without a little effort. Niver shows us a path that’s simple. But it’s not necessarily easy.