Moroccan-born French artist Nicola L., who died in 2018, is the subject of this small exhibition (on view through July 23), which surprisingly, is the first presentation of her work in the U.K. The artist’s childhood years were spent between France and North Africa, but in 1950, when she was almost 18 years old, she left for Paris. There, as she worked between abstraction and figuration, Pop art took hold, though that wasn’t a term she used at the time. Ideas of the collective and equality were key in a practice that had feminist politics at its heart. With a serious yet playful eye, Nicola L. worked between art and design. Although her anthropomorphic furniture pieces—including White Foot Sofa (1968), La Femme Coffee Table (1969/2015), and Red Lip Lamp (1969)—are functional, their forms also raise questions about the objectification of the female body.
Following the suicide of her Argentinian mentor, Alberto Greco, in 1965, Nicola L. destroyed the abstract paintings from earlier in her career and began to produce her first “Pénétrables.” These wearable fabric sculptures, as well as protest banners such as We Want to Breathe and Same Skin for Everybody (both 1975), brought individuals together to create singular organisms. Skin for 3 (Remembering Alberto Greco) (1975/2014) and the trio of Forest (1974), We Don’t Want War (c.1974/1995), and Flower (1974)—all included in the show—present such a strong bodily pull that I wanted to slip inside, donning each one like a second skin. All of these works relate to The Red Coat (1969, not included in the exhibition), a well-known piece designed for a performance by Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. The Red Coat stripped the performers’ bodies of individual identity, conjoining its wearers in communal effort.
Three snail-shaped Plexiglas lamps in yellow, green, and blue (1995), represent The Snail Suite. From 1989 until 2017, Nicola L. lived in an apartment at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. During those years, she transformed her space so that, wherever possible, things took on the spiral form of a snail shell. These three snail lamps are innovative, stylish, and cheering in their bright colors. Here, they are installed alongside four paintings from 1990. The artist returned to painting then, making the human head the focus of her work in the “Planet Heads” series, which underscores the singular importance of human consciousness in creativity.
Though this is a tiny exhibition, featuring just 18 works, it represents a reasonable range of Nicola L.’s work, with the exception of film and performance, which are notably absent. It also anticipates a forthcoming monograph, to be published this fall, as well as a major survey of her work at Camden Art Centre in London in 2024. Think of it as a taster, to whet the appetite for more to come.