Nicola Ginzel, “Composite No.1: Trident Cherry–Right in the Middle” (2009-17), Hebrew dictionary page, ink, wood glue, hand-embroidered thread over graphite frottage, backed with fabric, 6 x 3.5 x 1 inches

About his choice of flags and targets as subjects, Jasper Johns famously said: “[they] were both things — which are seen and not looked at — examined.” Nicola Ginzel – who has used a flimsy, two-ply paper napkin printed with flowers as the substrate for one of her pieces – would likely concur with Johns on this point: she too uses things most of us have not stopped and examined. The difference is that many of the found objects she incorporates into her work possess a short shelf life. Their sole purpose is to be expendable.

While Ginzel’s choice of found materials speaks to a society in which disposability at every level is a commonplace, deeply ingrained mechanism, I do not think needless waste is the sole subject of this work, but one of its many concerns. This is because there is an autobiographical current dissolved throughout the work: she chooses her substrates –such as a wrapper from a meal shared with someone — based on the particular meaning they have for her, but then turns that initial set of associations into something devoid of the anecdotal. Using materials such as thread, ink, oil paint, graphite, and gold leaf, Ginzel transforms her superfluous things into talismans.

A talisman can be made out of anything, as Frank O’Hara makes clear in the opening lines of “Personal Poem:” 

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case…

O’Hara believed these “two charms” helped protect him.

Nicola Ginzel, “Fluorescent Fragment: Napkin” (2013-15), hand-embroidery, commercially printed paper napkin, ink, BEVA archival backing (as shown on a pedestal at Step Gallery, Arizona State University, before being mounted on a used, stained, wooden stretcher and retitled “Fluorescent Fragment: Blümchen Zweimal Eingerahmt” [“Fluorescent Fragment: Little Flowers Framed Twice,” 2013-17])

While Ginzel uses daily detritus and other mass-produced, printed materials associated with collage, I would not call her a collagist. She does not glue pieces of paper and other two-dimensional objects together, as Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch, Anne Ryan, Jess, or George Schneeman, just to name a few, did in their collages in the past century.

What Ginzel does in her work seems to me unique among contemporary practices: She embroiders a variety of disposable items that we are likely to encounter in our daily existence. Here I would make another distinction: whereas embroidery is an act of embellishment or exaggeration, Ginzel’s sewing is form of drawing and stitching together, with all that that implies.

I think of the objects she chooses as “sheddings,” a kind of skin we toss in the trash because it no longer serves a purpose.

By hand-embroidering a disposable wrapper, she literally records her devotion to a throwaway object, rescuing it from oblivion — with each stitch a form of counting, The ephemeral object becomes marked by time. Preservation and transformation are central to her processes. She told the critic Lily Wei that she wanted “to extend the life of things on their way to being destroyed.” That statement seems to me to be one of the keys to the work

Ginzel’s lines of thread quietly call attention to the thing itself, while transforming it into something more. Just exactly what it becomes is open to speculation. Earlier, I suggested “talisman” but that does not tell the whole story. Embroidering the objects of her attention isn’t all she does, but it is the thing that she does most often when it comes to a flat thing.

In the case of her objects — which will be the subject of a future essay — Ginzel does a variety of things. What the two bodies of work have in common is scale and means: these are easily portable works made with non-artistic means. Their identity as disposable, ephemeral things is obliquely mirrored by the use of stitching, which is to say a non-studio activity that can be done anywhere. The stitches become raised lines consisting of innumerable small sections (or points): it is a way of drawing on a found surface, as well as a palpable record of time melded to a short-lived, non-reusable item. She has made frottages from the raised line by placing a sheet of paper over an embroidered work and going over it with pencil.

Here is a partial list of the things Ginzel has used in her flat art: paper and plastic wrappers and cardboard packaging from a variety of sources, including a potato chip bag; a flattened box that once held a bar of fragrant soap; a greasy wrapper that once held an unspecified fast food item; a drug store prescription; a floral-print paper napkin; pages from a seven-language dictionary and a German cook book; pieces of clothing; a torn section of brown wrapping paper with the words “TRUE VALUE” printed on it in red.

Nicola Ginzel, “Fluorescent Fragment: Blümchen Zweimal Eingerahmt” (“Fluorescent Fragment: Little Flowers Framed Twice,” 2013-17), hand-embroidery, commercially printed paper napkin, wood, ink, BEVA archival backing,
12 x 12 x 3/4 inches

“Fluorescent Fragment: Blümchen Zweimal Eingerahmt” (translation: “Fluorescent Fragment: Little Flowers Framed Twice,” 2013-17) began as a white paper napkin decorated with flowers. The printed design struck the artist as Bavarian in origin. Ginzel’s parents were born in Austria and immigrated to America via the United Kingdom in 1960. She was born in Hollywood, California, in 1968, where her father worked as a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. Her first language was German. In 1971, her family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she grew up. All of these factors play a part in her art without it ever becoming overtly autobiographical: she is not a storyteller in that regard.

In “Fluorescent Fragment,” Ginzel has unfolded the two-ply napkin into a square. After separating its two layers into separate sheets, she spread BEVA archival backing on one and rejoined them. This made the napkin stiff and more durable. She used two kinds of ink to stain and draw on the napkin, turning its white surface into different hues of salmon pink and shifting the graphic contrast between the floral print and its surrounding field into a relationship of color and tone. Fluorescent orange thread demarcates some but not all of the flowers. The fluorescent color and staining technique seem to suggest industrial poisoning or a heightened state of consciousness without announcing it.

Nicola Ginzel, “Ephemeral Fragment: NYC Goes Green” (2012), hand-embroidered thread on marker paper, backed with fabric, 14 x 17 inches

At the same time, “Fluorescent Fragment: Little Flowers Framed Twice” is a stained painting on paper, and it isn’t. It can be read as a feminist work, but does not confine itself to that context. In fact, it does not fit comfortably into any category. I believe this is one reason why Ginzel’s work has not gotten the reception it deserves. In addition to its modest scale and dependence on disposable detritus, it does not fit into the groupings and definitions we associate with these materials and processes. In fact, I cannot think of anyone else making art like this, which is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it?

Ginzel has framed the stained, embroidered paper napkin with the two halves of a repurposed store-bought stretcher that was once covered with inexpensive, prepared canvas. She has apparently removed the canvas to use in another piece, leaving its staples visible, and sawn the used stretcher through the middle in order to fit the size of the napkin. Ginzel seems committed in her practice to producing as little waste as possible. The visible gap between the two sections of sawn wood reminds us that nothing can be preserved forever and that any measure we take will eventually fail. The used wood stretcher, which is stained red in places, is periodically marked by thin washes of white in shapes that reminded this viewer of ragged thumbprints. The white marks look like residue, while the red stain on the wood further links the frame to the salmon pink napkin.

Ginzel then places the framed napkin — with its floral design — inside another box-like frame with a glass front, creating a wall-mounted object that embodies manifold associations without citing or parodying them: embroidery samplers; plastic tablecloths from a diner or chain restaurant; still-life painting. One thing that strikes me about “Fluorescent Fragment: Little Flowers Framed Twice” is that Ginzel did not do variations on a motif. Certainly, she could have done more works in this vein, using paper napkins with different floral designs. And yet, it is also clear to me that had she done so, she would have negated the reason for paying so much attention to a specific ephemeral object. Moreover, had she done a set of variations, her use of hand-sewing and her determined resistance to machine processes in her art would become less potent and meaningful. It is the attention she has lavished onto a single napkin that makes all the difference.

Nicola Ginzel, “Ephemeral Fragment: NYC Goes Green” (detail, 2012), hand-embroidered thread on marker paper, backed with fabric, 14 x 17 inches

Embroidery is central to “Ephemeral Fragment: NYC Goes Green” (2012). In this work, she traces the shape of a tissue wrapper, plus the words and images printed on its surface, onto a sheet of translucent paper, which she subsequently backed with fabric. The lines become a template for guiding the stitches. “Ephemeral Fragment: NYC Goes Green” transforms the shape and lettering of a tissue package into a hieroglyphic relief, a threaded drawing, and a sculptural object. The disposable container of flimsy, throwaway objects (tissues) has been transformed into something that is durable, delicate, and non-disposable, destined to be used and thrown away. While the stitching would seem to situate Ginzel’s the art within woman’s work and domesticity, I cannot help but think that the choice of a tissue package comments on the way society frames women and the idea of beauty in terms of usefulness and disposability: They too are both to be used and tossed aside.

The silhouettes outlined in the stitching of “Ephemeral Fragment include familiar New York City landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building; a figure with arms akimbo; leaves and fruit; words, slogans, and numbers; and a barcode, along with various abstract shapes. The arrangement of symbols brings to mind a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics mixed with modern languages and signs, reminding this viewer at least that we live in a hodge-podge of languages and codes that we are constantly sorting through and interpreting.

Ginzel’s color runs the gamut from fluorescent orange to minimalist white. In “Trident Cherry—Right in the Middle,” which is from the Composite Fragment Series (2012-2017), the artist began with a page from a Hebrew-English dictionary. Dictionaries are compilations of definitions, which are theoretically long lasting. They, like the cookbooks she also uses, convey a world in which order and sequence prevail. Ginzel’s work suggests otherwise.

The top, bottom, and sides of the page have been wrapped around sections of wood paneling, turning the piece into something between a box and a tablet. Stained and stitched, it looks like something that has survived an unspecified catastrophe. Ginzel never names the event out of which the work seems to have been born.

The word “Trident,” derived from a gum wrapper, has been stitched across the surface twice, evoking the weapon wielded by the gods Poseidon (Greek) and Neptune (Roman). The Greeks believed Poseidon was the god of the sea, while the Romans believed Neptune was the god of lakes as well. Below the top iteration of the word “Trident,” we notice another stitched word, “cherry,” set into the middle of the page. Torn and frayed pieces of a floral-print napkin are pasted to the top and bottom of the tablet, with a vertical spill of wood glue connecting them. From the bottom of the amber-colored, trunk-like column of glue, thin green leaves shooting down into the soil can be read as roots. Has the trident been turned into a tree?

Nicola Ginzel, “Gold Fragment: BgDmBrdge” (2008-09), Wendy’s chicken sandwich wrapper, 23-carat gold leaf, gold leaf, metallic thread, oil paint, backed with fabric and BEVA adhesive, 10 x 13.5 x 1/8 inches

Looking closer, we see the words “right her” on the dictionary page abutted by the stitched word, “cherry” on the right and partially encircled by the embroidered silhouette of a cherry on the left, creating the composite phrase, “right her cherry.” Certainly Ginzel invites us to interpret this term. In the works from the Composite Fragment Series, she brings together different material sources to construct an object. Her use of found language connects her to Concrete poetry, but again she stands apart from such artists as Haroldo de Campos, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Eugen Gomringer, and others. If anything, she has pushed the possibilities of concrete poetry into a new territory, where the stitching transforms the words and signs into something else. While I have concentrated on a small selection works done across a decade, I want to also state that Ginzel makes works in which words play no part. In “Gold Fragment: BgDmBrdge” (2008-09), the artist starts with a Wendy’s chicken sandwich wrapper and, after backing it with fabric and applying gold leaf, metallic thread, and oil paint, arrives at an unidentifiable something that feels Byzantine, that has survived through centuries of conflict and upheaval.

Ginzel’s interest in transformation and the inherent healing power of certain materials connects her to artists as disparate as Yves Klein and James Lee Byars. I can associate what she does with a wide range of very other artists — from Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz to Joseph Cornell, Philip Hanson and Antonin Artaud to Outsider artists — but in the end they all fall away. Her use of sewing to draw, write, and stitch defines a territory that is all her own. Why Ginzel — who moved to New York in 1995 — is not better known and has never shown her work regularly is inexplicable to me.

Nicola Ginzel has a studio at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

One reply on “An Artist Who Turns Detritus into Talismans”

  1. It is heartening to witness a critic willing to give his full attention to an artist who has found herself, for whatever reasons, outside the usual paths of “art world” circulation. For those of us who have known, shown, collected and/or, otherwise, loved Nicola’s work, Yau’s special and noteworthy attentiveness is most welcome—art that carefully ruminates requires the same in return, and that’s what we have here. We look forward to more (as mentioned above) on Ginzel’s objects, her hand-scaled, potent and compact bundles of power…

    David Dixon
    @ Cathouse FUNeral / Proper

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