Categorized | Interviews, Reviews

Nigel Poor @ Haines Gallery, SF + Interview

 For the past two decades, Nigel Poor has collected and organized human detritus into photo-based mementos of various kinds. These conceptual, emotionally rich presentations range from clinically-lit studio photos of everyday objects to nostalgic “dioramas” of rotting organic matter to non-photographic works that stand as fully realized abstract "drawing".  

18 Years of Date Books, 2009,  graphite and red ink on paper, 2 color digital prints 14 x 22

Poor operates on the principle that the smallest, seemingly most mundane items are the very things that reveal the most about how we live and what we value. Poor, you could say, is a professional obsessive, a forensic artist who’s made a career out of highly focused hoarding. She is currently engaged in a multi-year project (Do You Have 30 Seconds and Can You Get Your Finger Dirty?) in which she has collected fingerprints from more than 8,000 friends and strangers and transformed them into images (some as tall as seven feet) that demonstrate, at a readable scale, the fact that the fingerprints are as varied as snowflakes. In another project (Hand Job) she photographed people’s hands in any gesture of their choice.  She’s also “mapped” her own random thoughts in reaction to external stimuli (like radio broadcasts), and accumulated and photographed junk that she collects on daily walks. All pretty much represent her taxonomic approach.

My Faith and Anguished Face Collection, 2009, graphite and red ink on paper, 2 color digital prints 11 x 25.5"


Here, in The Relative Value of Things, Poor takes a different approach: instead of collecting things, she discards once-valued personal effects and makes art objects out of stuff that has no apparent value: lint, hair and book pages. This upending of her normal working method and, of established ideas of value, yields some surprising results. In the case of the lint/hair/book works, the surprise is how beautiful and how painterly they are. 

Lint book covers, 2007-08, 10.5 x 8.5" each, digital color images 

Arrayed across an entire wall in sizes ranging from 4” x 4” to 16” x 20”, they read like mash-ups of Mark Rothko and Clifford Still, but with specific associations: rag piles, multi-colored viscera, aerial views of the Earth, smeared pigment, honeycombs and, in the case of those spin-cycled books, grains of oatmeal with almost-legible text. The hair pieces read like gestural line drawings with an arc and flow dictated by the texture of the collected specimens; they range from lyrical to frenzied. Poor also makes drawings from Letterset type by inscribing the word “insect” 6,000 times in a shape that approximates the patterns of squashed bugs that accumulated on panels that the artist affixed to her moving car for that purpose.  

Poor transforms these “value-less” materials into 36 unique book covers, displayed in grids of 12, with the Letterset pieces spelling out the sentence “Someday I will be as insignificant as a swarm of summer insects.”

Hair book covers, 2007-08, 10.5 x 8.5" each, digital color images 

 With that mantra in hand, Poor accepts Thoreau’s challenge to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”  She examined the stuff in her life, decided what to keep and what to throw out and then photographed all of the discarded items. Those pictures, which form the uniform content of each book, are displayed across one wall in 2-page panels. Among the discarded items are dead bugs, a wedding band, a bra, books on religion, the butt of a marijuana cigarette, the artist’s hair collection, wisdom teeth, watches, income records, Polaroids from a previous project and baby shoes. For viewers, it’s a voyeuristic journey that puts trash and treasure on equal footing – and leaves wide-open the question of how we value things, while making clear that she who dies with the most toys probably isn’t the winner. 

Poor, however, doesn’t stop there. In an effort to engage the public in a similar self-cleansing ritual, she set up a website ( for people to report their purgative efforts. The results? Poor will use the postings (which can include both text and images) to create the final installment of The Relative Value of Things sometime after the website closes in May 2010. If the project catches hold, that is, if it goes global, one can easily imagine Poor as the chief curator of a pre-apocalyptic museum, creating displays that describe, in exacting detail, the excesses that make the human enterprise as poignant as it is doomed.

–David M. Roth
Nigel Poor’s The Relative Value of Things runs through Aug. 1, 2009 at Haines Gallery, SF, through Aug. 1, 2009. An artist-led audio tour of the exhibit is available at: (415) 226-3580.
Select works from Nigel Poor’s series Do You Have 30 Seconds and Can You Get Your Finger Dirty? and Hand Job are on view at Beatnik Studios, Sacramento, through July 28, 2009
Learn more about Nigel Poor:


Nigel Poor
 David M. Roth: If I came to your studio right now what would I see?
Nigel Poor: Right now I am re-working a project called “Hand Job”. I started it in 2004. “Hand Job” is a simple photographic series that requires each person who visits my studio to be photographed wearing a white t-shirt that I supply. The image is a portrait of a hand against a white background.  I ask each person to place their hand on their chest, making whatever gesture they choose. Though it is not a traditional portrait, the hand supplies much of the same information found in the face.  Through the hand, things such as emotion, age, labor and experience are expressed.
I say I am re-working it for two reasons; one, I have recently gotten into working digitally, which absolutely amazes me because for years I railed against it saying I would never accept digital photography.  I still photograph with a 4×5 using film but I am scanning the negatives and making 20×24” digital prints on my new HP printer (not trying to advertise here).  But the really new development is that recently I had the opportunity to meet a man named Ralph Zackheim who is a very talented graphologist. He preformed an analysis of my handwriting and it was fascinating.  He describes handwriting this way: Every time we write we are drawing a picture and it is a drawing of what is in our mind.  Thinking about his quote and how writing is obviously related to the hand, I have decided to expand my “Hand Job” project and slightly change the direction. Over the next 4 months I am hosting three events where people will come to my studio to have their hand photographed and then have a private meeting with Zackheim to have their writing analyzed. I don’t know the exact outcome but the images will be combined with parts of Zackheim’s analysis.
I do tend to work on several projects at a time so if you visited you would also see some images of scanned hair, a shelf with pieces of books that have been washed and dried, bags of lint and human hair, piles of books with marginalia for a project I am thinking about and a stack of books I would love to read but will never get to.
DR:. Did you ever consider a career in anthropology or in the sciences?
Jonathan, Lint on Pane, 12 x6"l
NP: When I was in graduate school I worked at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in the entomology department. I spent my time primarily pinning insects and helping to organize the hundreds of trays that stored the insect collection.  At one point Nabokov worked there and there were lots of labels and notes in the drawers with his hand writing.  In one of the trays I discovered a note from a woman who had donated her husband’s entire insect collection. In the note it said he had disappeared while on a collection expedition to New Guinea and was assumed to have been “eaten by natives”. This was written in the late 19th century. There were so many treasures to discover; not just the insects but wonderful notes and things left behind by other people who had been there. 
In many ways, that experience dictates the way I work now. I love this idea of collecting and trying to understand the world through that model. I often think about working like a scientist but I also know that a real scientist would laugh at my concept of what it means to work in that mode
DR: After decades of collecting, what made you decide to start throwing things out?
NP: Well, perhaps it is my New England puritanical background. I really do believe as you get older you should own less and less and I want to live more prudently. Meaning, I want to use things wisely and learn to stop the wanting, to be more aware of the way I “need” things that aren’t necessary. So I thought if I made a project around this dichotomy, I would have to confront that impulse. When some people get anxious they eat or shop or drink. When I get nervous I throw things out. I think it is an attempt at control but dang it all, I still own too much so I will be working on this until the day I die. But really I want to just own what I need, not have an excessive amount of “stuff”. But I still collect lots of things, like found metal and books with interesting marginalia, other people’s lint and dirt from various places I travel through. I live in this contradiction of collecting and purging, and all that has changed is I grow more aware of it.
DR: Looking at your book, “The Relative Value of Things,” feels a bit voyeuristic. People see your wedding band, your bra, books you’re read, dope you’ve smoked, teeth that were once inside your head. Does putting that kind of information out there for the public make you a bit uncomfortable?  
Hair Collection and My Four Wisdom Teeth, 2009, graphite and red ink on paper, 2 color digital prints, 11 x 25.5"
NP: I know it should but it surprises me that it doesn’t because actually I am a fairly private, shy person; so this self-exposure portrays yet another personal contradiction. When I started making photographs in 1982 and up until say 1990 I did everything possible to keep things about myself out of it. I did pretty straight ahead “documentary” style work. (Of course we could debate how autobiographical “documentary” work can be). Anyway, around 1990 I had a chance to photograph corpses that were being dissected at a medical school and that changed everything for me. I am not sure if it was the experience of looking so closely at the inevitable or seeing the inside workings, but after that I felt somehow it was OK to do use myself as a source and not feel like everything had to come from the outside world. This is a roundabout way of humbling expressing that all of a sudden I found myself interesting. And I have always been a spy, someone who loves to eavesdrop on conversations and looks through windows and speculates on others’ lives. So in some way, this project and what it reveals is a way of spying on myself. There were, of course, hundreds of boring objects that I divested myself of during this project [“The Relative Value of Things], and of course I selected to photograph the more provocative ones, items that would create some kind of narrative and work off each other to put together a “story” of who I am — which may or may not reveal anything of true substance.
DR: About your lint “drawings”. Do you feel any affinity with the photographer Vik Muniz?  He makes representational images from all kinds of cast-off things: food, garbage, industrial machine parts. His intentions are obviously very different from yours, but I’m thinking of how, in your current show, you take something of no value and turn it into things of real value – value in the sense that they’re for sale in a gallery.
Lint book covers, 2007-08, 10.5 x 8.5" each, digital color images
NP: There are aspects of Vik Muniz’s work that I admire very much particularly that notion of using humble materials like dirt, sugar, chocolate, thread, garbage, clouds etc.  I also deeply appreciate the creative surprise of his work, especially the earlier work. But the artist who really blows my mind that way is Tom Friedman. Earlier I mentioned that experience of photographing in a medical lab and how that was a huge, creative turning point for me. Well, the second significant event for me was seeing a Tom Friedman show that Renny Pritikin curated when he was at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.  He was the first artist I really looked at who used humble materials in a way that inspired me. I am not saying he was the first to do that but I am saying it was a show that sunk in and changed the way I worked.
DR: Your projects tend to have, what they call in the tech world, “long tails”. That is, they are multi-part; they spread “virally” out of one idea into others.  Can you talk about that?
NP: Well, I think that is how the mind works: one idea just naturally leads to another and that is very exciting to me. Again back to Tom Friedman. Before I saw that show I was a photographer — and I don’t want to sound overly dramatic — but when I left that show I was no longer a photographer; I clearly realized I was interested in ideas and responses and that finding the correct delivery system for that idea or response was what mattered.  I started working with other materials and seeing connections and accepting that one idea couldn’t be thoroughly explored through just one medium or one question. 
Hair Drawing
 For example, is it really interesting to look at objects that once had value that no longer do, like the objects I got rid of in “The Relative Value of Things”. And if you are going to do that why not add a joke about collecting on top of it by making a set of twelve books that are all the same on the inside but when seen together as a grid on the wall, create a new piece. Meaning, if you are a collector and you want that piece, you have to accept the redundancy of the inside of the books.  I find that amusing just as I find it amusing to look at my own contradictions and foibles.
DR: Speaking of projects that are long-term, let’s talk about your fingerprinting project, “Do You Have 30 Seconds and Can You Get Your Finger Dirty?” You’ve collected more than 8,000 prints. Where do you find the time to do this?  These kinds of transactions are far more time-consuming than just giving the DMV your thumbprint.
NP: I started this project in 2002 and you are the first person who ever pointed out how time-consuming it is. And you are right, there is a huge part of this project that is invisible and gets forgotten, and that is all the conversations that have happened between myself and these 8,000 or so people. I don’t have in-depth conversations with everyone, but often getting a fingerprint leads to a conversation and that takes time and consideration. There is something intimate about this project. I must hold a stranger’s hand, ask some intimate questions and get to experience this person who is trusting enough to participate. Each time I take a person’s hand in this project and put ink in their finger and press it on the paper I learn a little something about them. People give away quite a bit by their touch and how they react to a stranger taking their hand.  Some people get really excited and have ideas they want to share or stories they want to tell and of course I love to listen to them. So yes it can take a lot of time. 
DR: You mentioned that you recently started to split your studio time between SF and Woodland. Bay Area people are probably scratching their heads. What’s up with that?
NP: It started as simply a logistical move. I teach at CSU Sacramento but live in San Francisco.  Making a 90 mile drive twice a day four days a week just wasn’t something I was willing to do.  When I got the job I decided I would get a place near school and set up my studio there.  Since I live in SF I didn’t want to have a second place in Sacramento, I wanted to try something different, something smaller and by luck I came upon Woodland.  I drove down Main Street, saw a for rent sign in a store window, went in and talked to the landlord who said “Oh you won’t like the space for living it is too big, it used to be a dance studio.”  Well, can you imagine hearing anything better?  I was hooked; I rented the spot immediately, all 2,500 square feet not realizing it was actually 30 miles or so from school. 
I think if Bay Area people saw what kind of space is available outside of the city, Yolo County would be overrun. Woodland just has an aesthetic I appreciate — lots of characters, a great public library, good dumpsters, lots of deserted buildings on Main Street to walk by and contemplate, all sorts of people, loud drunks occasionally yelling on Saturday night and beautiful church bells ringing on Sunday morning, and I can watch and hear it all anonymously from the second floor of this historic downtown building.  I spend a lot of time alone there and I like that very much- it is where I work and where I think.
DR:“Someday I will be as insignificant as a swarm of summer insects”. It’s true. But why are you entertaining this thought?
NP: Oh boy how can I not?  To paraphrase John Coplans, we are terminal beings. That is our condition. We have to live out life wondering if there is truly any meaning to what we do and think. We don’t have much time and everything we hold as important slips away from us. Yet even given this irrefutable knowledge we persist. We live with this contradiction: there is nothing more important than what we are and yet there is nothing more inconsequential. It is heavy and hard and dark and yet all we can do in the face of it is make the best use of the time we have. 
Denial of Death & Watches from Various Men in My Life, 2009, graphite and red ink on paper, 2 color digital prints, 11 x 25.5"
DR: What haven’t you spoken about here that you really want people to know?

NP: I would like to end with two things from John Cage’s rules: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is later than you think. And here is the real kicker: Save everything. It may come in handy later!




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