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Brooklyn-based Rose Nestler has a talent for expertly stitching together bright fabrics, creating strong silhouettes and evocative details that comprise her signature soft sculptures, which tackle dark themes through humour and an apparent joyfulness. With the exhibition Power Walking in collaboration with Elizabeth Glaessner still on view until November 30 at London’s Public Gallery, we chat with the artist about finding inspiration, challenging conventions, and making sculpture do more than just standing still.
You’ve mentioned that you started pursuing art seriously in college. Looking back, were there any elements of your childhood that might’ve inspired or influenced you as an artist?
Growing up, I was more involved in theatre and music than visual arts. Theatre definitely influences the work that I’m making now, so I’ve sort of come full circle! In terms of other influences that aren’t as obvious, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to decorative objects and colour. For instance, when I was young, I was an acolyte at my church – now I’m pretty much an atheist, but I have strong aesthetic memories of all of the objects involved in religious ceremonies (the velvet, the chalices, the brightly coloured applique flags… I could go on!) My early obsession with these materials eventually moved to the uniforms, pennants, and pageantry involved in athletic culture when I was a competitive athlete in high school. I was subconsciously doing visual research throughout my childhood which has become a strong influence on my work today.
What have you learned about art, artists, and life in general from your family’s teaching experiences?
This is a tough question because no one in my family has practised or extensively studied art. My family taught me the importance of a solid work ethic, they taught me to be kind to others, they taught me to do what makes me happy. Basic albeit crucial values. Working hard for what I want has propelled me forward my entire life; finding and supporting my fellow artist community has been invaluable for me, and following my own path has been tough though exceedingly gratifying.
Your art examines quite serious issues by using bright colours, pliable materials, and humorous imagery. How do you balance the serious with the funny? And do you think it’s more difficult to do so in a medium like yours than in a more conventional one like stand up?
I believe the best way to talk about serious, political or dark topics in art is through a humorous lens. I often listen to stand up while working in my studio, so it must work its way in somehow! Sometimes, I fantasize about being a comedian myself, but the reality of that is that I’m far too shy. My work often acts as the comedian I aspire to be.

What attracted you to soft sculpture initially and what inspired you to make the shift from hardened, perfectly still pieces to ones animated by dancers and athletes?
What initially attracted me to soft sculpture was the task of using fabric as a sculptural material. I use it because everybody has a connection to the material; the clothing we wear acts as our second skin. Incorporating dance and performance into my work felt like a natural progression because even though I’m compelled to making sculpture, I’ve always struggled with the rigidity of it. I want sculpture to do more. Working with performers and video has answered this dilemma.
The Power Walking exhibition, currently on view at Public Gallery in London, features your sculptures alongside the paintings of Elizabeth Glaessner. How has the creative dialogue between you and Elizabeth shaped this exhibition?
I feel so lucky to have worked with Elizabeth in this way. Every piece that I made for the show was made in conversation with her and her work. I chose the textiles based on the colour palette of a lot of her previous paintings. The forms of my wall hanging sculptures were inspired by figures in her work. With each piece that we made, we shared back and forth through photos and phone conversations. We discussed witchcraft, sorcery, shapeshifting, mythology, kink and constructs of gender. Our exhibition is telling a story about this exchange.
Many of your works explore clothing as a sort of second skin that we wrap ourselves in for protection, decoration, and non-verbal communication. How important are fashion, design, and other ‘practical’ forms of art for our everyday lives?
Fashion and items of clothing are important for our everyday lives because they act as indicators for larger concepts and issues. They contribute to our identity and confidence. Clothing is a costume that we dress our bodies with, it can give us feelings of agency and power. However, there is also a flip side. The clothing we wear is wrapped up in history, within the lineage of garments there lies a shameful underbelly linked to colonialism, racism, sexism and classism. Through singling out specific items of clothing, I intend to examine the history of each garment as well as its future.

Your work uses a wide spectrum of artistic techniques and dimensions – fabric construction, dance, video, etc. How do you decide what new dimension to add next and when?
With each project or piece that I undertake, I consider what forms and materials best suit the content/context I’m delving into and what I want to say about it. Within this triad, I usually find some magic.
What do you think of the old Italian masters – Michelangelo, Sanmartino, Bernini – who were known for making marble look soft and airy? Although very different on the surface, are there any underlying similarities between their work and yours?
Bernini is my absolute favourite. I’m laughing to myself in comparing our work! However, I think the similarity is that we both love telling a story and creating a sense of kinetic energy. While Bernini was aiming to make marble read as soft or airy, I’m often aiming to make fabric look stoic and rigid.
A past exhibition of yours, Gymnasia, reminds us that perfection was once defined as the harmony between one’s mind, body, and soul. How do you find harmony between your second skin, your first skin, and all of those other bits underneath?
Gymnasia was partially inspired by my athletic past as a competitive rower. What I found so intriguing about participating in a sport was when I was physically exerting myself, I shed my identity as another completely, I could transcend. I would say that’s the closest I’ve come to finding harmony between my first skin (human) and my second skin (gender).

Where do you see your art in relation to the conventional standards of beauty and health and the movements that challenge them?
I hope that my work challenges conventional beauty standards although I’m drawn to grey areas where those standards are flipped on their side and become grossly enticing. I enjoy the tension between the pull of consumerism in terms of conventional beauty and the need to fight against it. My piece, The Hand that Feeds, in this exhibition (Power Walking) is a good example of this tension; long nails are iconically feminine, growing them until they encumber your movement is both revelling in and rejecting completely the original standard of the perfectly manicured hand. I love that.
Considering your experience working at The Met and the Noguchi Museum, in addition to the many exhibitions you’ve participated in as an artist, you probably have a more personal relationship with museums than most of us. Are you getting sick of them yet or only falling deeper in love?
Though I love museums and have worked for quite a few, I think that their history is highly problematic and still needs upheaval, change and progress.
Your pieces have stood perfectly still, reached out to audiences from the walls, and danced across the room. Can we expect you to master teleportation anytime soon or do you have other plans for the future?
I have so many plans! I’ve started writing librettos for some of my video work and hope to incorporate more singing going forward. I’m looking at the work of Anthea Hamilton, Julian Rosefeldt and Shana Moulton (to name a few) for inspiration; the oeuvres of their respective careers is where I hope my own is headed!

Julija Kalvelytė
Wassaic Projects

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