Nancy Tobin, Patrick Swayze, 2021. Mixed media, installation view at Outer Roominations, Eureka, California. Photo: Gabrielle Gopinath

Nancy Tobin

Online at Field Projects in New York and at Outer Roominations in Eureka, California

Nancy Tobin’s sculptural installations were recently on view in “Afterlight Online,” on the Field Projects website, and at Outer Roominations, a festival of outdoor sculpture and installation in rural northern California. Tobin creates her freewheeling, ephemeral environments at a wide array of locations, ranging from abandoned, post-industrial zones to pristine landscapes. Many involve colorful smoke bombs and other small-scale pyrotechnics. Most take place at remote private sites where they can be accessed directly by only a few viewers. Her “guerrilla installations” find even briefer existence inside 24-hour supermarkets and convenience stores before they transition online. All of her works move across platforms, carrying on a vibrant double life in the digital sphere. 

Online, each Tobin installation takes its place in an archive with an object-centered narrative. Some series, like the oceanfront commune fantasy North Jetty Swells (32) (2020), are defined by site. Others are linked not to place, but to particular objects that provide a narrative through-line. Referring to Tobin’s mass-produced materials as protagonists seems odd; and yet, scrolling on Instagram, the narrative pull generated by her installations in series is hard to ignore.

This tendency for inanimate objects to appear imbued with agency is exemplified in Umbilical Pilgrimage (2019–21), a performance containing no human figures that documents the travels of a set of extra-long, pink plush fabric cords. Across the series timeline, the cords, which appear in each posted image, engage in antics that become increasingly personified: twining about the porch of a Craftsman house, slithering from beneath a boulder on the Pacific shore, draping across a luggage trolley at poolside, making their way out of a shopping cart to inspect the eggs in a refrigerated case. 

The dated, mass-produced objects that play major roles in Tobin’s installations and Instagram stories form a metonymic portrait—West Coast Boomer as end user. The toy soldiers, popcorn kernels, lace doilies, palm fronds, and stuffed fabric replicas of largemouth bass that proliferate in the busy, neon-lit installation Church of the Womb: A Shrine to the Mother (2020), featured in “Afterlight Online” and included in full on Tobin’s website tokenize bits of the mental furniture associated with a certain generation and place. The prevailing design sensibility—part classic California, part South Pacific—reflects Tobin’s formative years spent on military bases in California and Hawaii. Materials often appear bent on overcoming limits or restraints; objects subjected to tension are forever busting loose and breaking free.

Nancy Tobin, North Jetty Swells, 2020. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

These multimedia environments, structured around objects like Kewpie doll heads and inflatable pool toys, channel daffy Pop vibes. Molded plastic souvenirs, novelty trinkets, and holiday decorations get severed from the economic fringe and refurbished within the artist’s order. Plastic hula fringe might have been snagged from a fraternity kegger; crochet doilies and garishly colored, Native American-inspired polyester blankets will be familiar from thrift stores and flea markets nationwide. All three elements figured in the textile-based arboreal installations that Tobin created for Outer Roominations—Patrick Swayze and There’s No Place Like Hamlet, which embellished a red alder copse with tiki skirting and dangling, ovoid lengths of pink and aqua felt. Sensuous textures, outdoor staging, and unabashed enthusiasm for all things festive, frivolous, and girly make Tobin’s installations come across like Rococo-adjacent eruptions of excess, cutting through the grain of their sometimes majestic, but often gritty and impoverished surroundings.

These juxtapositions call attention to the fevered weirdness of the cheaply made objects that cluster at the economy’s low end. Tobin’s installations celebrate the surreal strain of gutter Americana exemplified by thrift shop wares, as artists from John Waters to Macklemore have reminded us. They reward viewers who are willing to be entertained by the mere existence of such camp spectacles as a claque of plaster-molded mannequin hands. Just about all of Tobin’s materials are produced in almost inconceivable bulk in the Global South for American buyers; many celebrate national holidays or commemorate cultural touchstones. Estranged through assemblage, fallen from their retail price points, these materials have little in common except the fact of having been fabricated for a market characterized by profound susceptibility to manufactured needs—which might, at this point, be seen as the United States’s defining attribute. 

Like the Shinto-influenced anime of Hayao Miyazaki, in which lumps of coal and sheets of paper are revealed to possess a life force and even personality, Tobin’s animist object-world admits no nature-culture divide. When she stages her installations in remote and spectacular places, her framing of the landscape implies that the power of any place resides partly in the mental embellishment viewers bring to it. Photographic images documenting the installation Moonstone Rainbow (2020) show a coastal wilderness where a gnarly serpentine crag can be unironically illuminated by a violently colored inflatable rainbow. In Lullaby (2019), dozens of sculpted hands reach out from a sandy riverbank beneath a lavishly graffitied highway overpass. 

At its best, Tobin’s placemaking comes across as a sort of redemptive Velveteen Rabbit act, reinvesting degraded objects with a measure of enchantment through creative reuse and/or abuse. If tiny naked plastic babies, flocked Christmas trees, vintage garter belts, and other obsolescent, monumentally trivial figments of the object-world can be reframed to mean something beyond the narrowly defined purpose the system intended them to serve, they become better objects to think with; their existence becomes richer than what their makers had originally envisioned. Umbilical Pilgrimage and Patrick Swayze seem to propose that the same might be true of us onlookers.