Nicole Dyer’s power lies in her ability to manipulate the viewers’ emotions into reflecting her own. Her scenes are familiar -- a bedroom interior, a pantry still life, plates of food -- but her amplified color palettes, weighted strokes, and exaggerated materiality transform them into narratives that reflect our own complex experiences, anxieties, and moments of being. Dyer’s paintings are familiar and playfully neurotic. Looking at her work is like visualizing a memory of a moment, where the moment itself is blurred and abstracted through the emotions, anxieties, and thoughts that nourish it. In Dyer’s painted world, space is simultaneously compressed and expanded. Her paintings are rooted in the personal. Dyer isn’t just showing the viewer a scene, but rather immersing them within that moment. They are honest reflections on life, the objects that surround and interact with us, the people we care about and don’t, and the humor and energy that lies behind it all. Through her work, Dyer is laughing with the world and encouraging us to do the same. Her pieces celebrate the ridiculousness of personal and social life, highlighting the discomfort, awkwardness, and tumult that weaves through our experiences everyday.
Nicole Dyer currently lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland and earned a BFA in Drawing from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2013. She has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the United States, including most recently a two person show Regular Goods at Terrault Gallery (Baltimore, MD, 2018) with Saffronia Downing. This past winter, Dyer was an artist in residence at the Wassaic Project in upstate NY.
You recently finished a residency at the Wassaic Project. What were you working on during that period? What was the experience like?
Wassaic was amazing. Residencies have their weird little drawbacks but they also have the biggest benefits ever. I was there in the winter and Wassaic is a really small, rural town. All there was to do was paint which was both a blessing and a curse. I spent everyday in the studio — if I woke up and felt I needed a break that wasn’t really an option. Id take a walk and that’d occupy me like 30 minutes but then I’d have to go to the studio. That discipline became a welcome challenge that pushed me to dig deeper and play more in my work. I started having fun again in the studio. I was coming from a place where I was more just “going through the motions” and sort of stuck in a rut. When I suddenly had 24/7 access to the studio I felt like I was able to make a years worth of progress in a short amount of time. I decided I could just have fun and maybe go a little crazy. I wanted to see what I could get away with. That's when I began incorporating glitter, rhinestones, collage. The paintings aren’t even that wild but it's better for me to feel a little bonkers. I loosened up. It was fun!!
Can you talk about your choice in materials and the process of incorporating those newer elements, like the glitter and rhinestones, into your work?
I noticed my paintings [in the past] were kind of onenote. I starting wondering — how many different ways can I portray this object? How many different materials can I utilize? I got really excited about thinking of how to paint things. For example, if I’m trying to paint a scarf, the scarf could be a thick, knit texture OR whatever is around the scarf could be a thick, knit texture. The scarf itself could than be flat, detailed, impressionistic, blocky. There are so many different ways to paint a scarf.
At first I was painting objects from photos on my phone, google images, or memory. Soon I made the (duh) realization that I could set up still lives in my studio and paint from those. It's simple but a total game changer. Once I did that I began playing with how to make an object appear shiny, lumpy, matte, or whatever. I surrounded myself with materials and worked at it like a puzzle. At Wassaic there’s a kids after-school space called the Arts Nest which is this little loft where there are art classes. I would go up there and couldn’t help but be inspired by the space which was filled with organized bins of googly eyes, glitter, markers, pens, puff balls, all these things. I was looking at what the kids were doing and was so inspired by their freedom of expression. I started collecting materials, their little scraps, I would find on the ground to incorporate into my paintings. Kids are so cool — they just have fun and play. I really tried to turn off my filter and think more like them. I don’t want to be making a painting with just paint. I want to laughing in the studio. I was doing a lot of that.
The materials definitely pull in elements of playfulness and humor into the work, even when the subject matter might be more personal, intimate, or sad.
Most of my paintings are about things that are really hard for me to deal with and can be kind of sad. But I’ve always painted them in these bright, poppy colors. A serious, intimate, or quiet moment could be painted using jewels, bright pinks, electric blue. I think that’s how we go through life a lot of the time. We’re sad but we’re also just trying to live our lives — so we put on a bright sweater and off we go. Playing in the studio helps me get through things.
Can you talk about your subject matter itself, which is largely very personal? What is your process thinking through it, incorporating or constructing narrative, and developing these still lifes?
My work for many years has been about memories, usually recent ones. I started doing this in college where, in order to get myself to leave the studio and be social, I would go to a party or on an outing with the intention that I would then make a painting about it. They were pretty direct memories but memory is wild and distorts things. Or is selective. That would end up reflected in the work. Often the work becomes a panoramic view where I’m trying to fit in as many details of the experience as possible. That's also where I can use my artistic liberties- I am able to show the viewer more than what a photograph can do. Alternatively I can choose to show you just a quick, small detail of the moment. These days I’m taking more artistic liberties such as creating still lives and utilizing those in place of actual memory to portray something specific.
In the painting ‘Bedside Table’, my intention was to portray the bedside table of my mind more than reality. In the painting I portray a table full of supplement bottles, books from a boy I was interested in (that I wasn't reading), mementos from a recent trip to Mexico. Stuff like that. It's a bit cluttered while in reality I am somewhat clean — My brain on the other hand is a cluttered mess. What I wanted to talk about with this painting was the boy and the anxiety I was feeling over my health and body. The painting is a collection of things I have in real life that I’ve shaped together to depict those things.
In ‘Bed-Stuy Bedroom’ I had visited a friends apartment in NYC. His bedroom was super tiny, basically a closet. I remembered every object I could from this space, like, the whole apartment, and put it in his bedroom. I was incorporating parts of Wassaic into it too. I got really obsessed with health while I was at Wassaic and was listening to a lot of podcasts, reading books, and trying a lot of trendy products. I added those into the painting. It’s sort of a fake memory of that bedroom but it encapsulates a whole entire experience of a months time.
Can you also talk about how text plays into your work? It’s obviously inherent to many of the objects that you represent, but it also creates a specific story and message too. How are you playing with that?
Text has been in the work for a really long time. I first started using text when I studied abroad in Ireland (2012). I went there without a camera and the intention to document my experience through my work. This was before the iPhone so I didn’t have that luxury either. I had my sketchbook on me all the time and constantly drew from life and would incorporate little notes as well. Back then, my paintings were all on paper. I would put out a large sheet, around 5 x 7 feet, and would begin with a sort of description or title of the experience. Sometimes the writing would be covered up and sometimes it wouldn’t. I did that for a while.I got to the point where I felt it was not longer necessary but text has found its way back in other ways. Usually through labels or book covers. Text can operate as little hints or clues into what's on my mind. I like incorporating phones and text messages or notifications as well. It’s personal yet still anonymous. A little hint of what is happening.
I like the moments where your phone will come out, in the paintings as an object or with the texts, and also the sculptures of your phone. It’s funny because figures aren’t always present in your work, so objects then become these fillers for people in a way. The phone becomes almost an extension of a person.
My phone is my favorite model for sure. I try to challenge myself to not always rely on a figure. Instead using objects to suggest the presence of people. Cell phones are such weird little robot humans that have so much personality. They are often reflections of ourselves. Mine totally is! Ive been incorporating phones in my work for a while. If you look through my work over time you can see the progression of phone models. In my painting “Studio HH” I depicted my friend Anna and she has this ICONIC phone case of a giant pair of lips. A lot of people came up to me at that show knowing it was Anna and her phone. The objects we live our lives so closely with become these little self portraits. My paintings are all sort of self portraits. I have a friend who said this quote that I think is hilarious — we were talking about wanting to get rid of our phones but also not being able to and she was like, ‘If I don’t post this on Instagram, did it even happen?’ (laughs) And that is literally 2018 right there.
You’ve also made sculptures of the phone, can you talk about how you approach your sculptures as well?
My objects are all made of plaster and cardboard. They are this clunky, stupid, little things. Plaster is especially great because I can paint on it with acrylic and sort of make a 3D version of my paintings. I’m really excited about making them and how they function with the paintings. I’m not entirely sure how they function yet but I’m having fun making them and playing around. I actually just started taking a ceramics class!
How are you approaching content and subject with the sculptures, and what is that process is like?
So far the sculptures are more literal. I’m basically making the objects that I depict in the paintings. I like how they come out slightly wonky, too large, and sort of ‘dumb’. It’s like how my paintings represent a memory of the moment and not the moment itself. These objects are representations of an idea of an object that is real. I’ve never really been someone who needs to make a thing perfect or to represent it ideally. But I do like what happens when I try to make a thing and people know what it is, but at some point my own brain and hands distort it. That’s what’s great about memory because it’s almost like a third-hand representation of something. You’re brain gets in the way. Your eyes distort things and your brain distorts things and at some point your left with this entirely new thing. I like that.
Are you looking at source materials or imagery or is it a lot more of a memory-based process?
I like to work from memory. Usually I’ll think of something that happened and I’ll make a thumbnail drawing and work from that. I do have a cell phone and on occasion have taken photos but I often never look at them. In “Studio HH” I took a lot of snaps of bits of Hannah’s living room. Her space was full of the most interesting objects and fabrics and she had crazy art on the walls, crazy pillows, leopard prints on top of brouqade -- I was obsessed with it. I never looked at the references though until I finished the painting. Its hilarious because I ended up remembering everything in the wrong place! Like, I knew she had the Birth Of Venus somewhere in there and I thought it was a poster. Turns out if was actually the rug on her floor. I put patterns and details on the wrong objects in the wrong places. Thats cool though, that's what memory is like.
Can you talk about how you think about space and perspective?
I get credited a lot for flattening space, and it’s because I try to get so much into a painting that it all kind of flattens up or falls off. I want you to see the space, but I also want to tell you about the floor. I have to fit that in there. I’m trying to give you as much information as I need and that results in these really wonky perspectives. I learned perspective or something in school but I don’t care about that. You don’t often remember a room or space with specific, accurate depth perspective. You remember bits and pieces floating around in a panorama. You feel like you’re surrounded by it and you’re there. Also, I hate rules.
What is your background in painting?
I started college as an illustration major but quickly realised I hated being told what to do. I also took Painting 1 and didn’t like that. It was all oil paint and I disliked the set up, clean up, and how it took forever for anything to dry. So I majored in drawing and for a while made these little, illustrative, 8 x 10 drawings from life. My junior year [of college] I didn’t want to make those drawings anymore so to loosen up I set out to make a semester of shitty art and that was like, life changing. I got a bunch of materials and just started playing around and eventually learned acrylic was cool. I learned a lot about painting from looking at other peoples paintings. Both peers and more known artists.
Is there anything in particular right now informing your work or influencing you?
I’ve been thinking about ‘diet culture’ and this whole health and fitness culture that surrounds us. I am listening to a lot of podcasts and following a lot of Instagram blogs about health and fitness. Its finding its way into my work. It’s a lot about food, food rules, food ideas, and obsessions. I’m thinking a lot about how instagram and the internet influences us and how we live and see things too.