Shifting gaze

Candace Nicol

"What is the female gaze?" asks Candace Nicol.

"What is the female gaze?" asks Candace Nicol.

Photo/Brad Bynum

Candace Nicol's Orna: Sections of Panel One is on display at McKinley Arts & Culture Center, 925 Riverside Drive, through June 6. For more information, visit www.candacenicol.net.

Printmaker Candace Nicol possesses a rare, winning combination: a nice, likable personality, the ability to create consistently interesting artwork, and a work ethic that has kept her creating new artwork in recent years, despite a recent spate of health problems, including a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Her exhibition Orna: Sections of Panel One, on display in the Gallery West of the McKinley Arts & Culture Center through June 6, is all new work, nine 12-inch-by-12-inch panels, decorated with callograph printmaking, gel transfers, and drawing. The nine panels are presented as single panels spaced around the gallery, but Nicol also conceives them as interlocking puzzle pieces, part of a planned series that she says will eventually reach over 80 panels.

The subject matter, like much of her previous work, is the male nude. More specifically, these panels present male nudes as decorative ornamentation—the Orna in the title of the exhibition refers to ornamentation.

“It’s also a play on history and how women have been used in decoration,” Nicol said. “I’m twisting that a little bit and using men as ornamentation.”

Nicol is also an art instructor and gallery manager at Truckee Meadows Community College. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nevada, Reno, and her master’s degree from Boise State University. She says that growing up in Nevada affected her perception of gender representations in art and the media.

“I grew up in Nevada, and I always thought it was wrong going into casinos how women were exploited,” she said. “They wore their skimpy outfits. I grew up in the ’80s, and that was a time when there was a sexual revolution in the media. There was a lot of nudity and sexual innuendo in the movies. But the men were never fully uncovered. And I just thought that was wrong. But I was still afraid—afraid of even looking at the male body because of my upbringing. I grew up in Elko with a Mormon mom and a Catholic dad."

As a graduate student, she decided to tackle that fear head-on and explore the cultural taboo of the male nude. She researched the history of the male nude, and used images of male nudes in her art work.

“I personally think the male nude is really interesting to look at, the muscle structures and the way that they form,” she said. “And the hair! Guys have so much hair. And I’m a woman—why wouldn’t I like to look at men? Why do I have to be restricted to just do my own body or a female nude? Both men and women have been taught to look at women, not look at men. That’s changing just in the last 10 years, women are objectifying men. And in the media, men are more objectified. But what do women look at? What is the female gaze? I never figured it out in my thesis.”

Nicol says that, the question of the female gaze was a central impetus for her work in graduate school, but it’s now an innate part of her art.

Her current exhibition focuses on the idea of ornamentation, which she defines as “putting meaning on the surface in a decorative way.” She cites the contemporary craze for tattoos as an example of meaningful ornamentation.

“It has meaning behind it,” she said. “If you ask somebody about their tattoo, they’ll have a whole story.”

She says she’s also excited to explore these ideas over the course of such a long, planned series.

“As time changes, the artwork will change too, and I wonder what will happen when I get to 80, how the panels will evolve. That’s important to me because of the memory. That’s one thing about MS, it’s affects my cognitive ability, me memory, so it’ll be interesting to see what’s important to me by the 80th panel.”