Ironically, I discovered Christina Nicodema’s work on Instagram, the social media platform where she sources a large portion of her imagery. Instagram has become the venue of choice for artists, curators, educators, and collectors to share and connect with others with similar interests. It seems as if a new social media platform is developed yearly to share with our “closest friends” the perfect birthday cake, a new puppy, or a new artistic discovery. This sharing of information is what Nicodema refers to as the “collective unconscious.” We have become addicted to the internet and the easy access it provides to a wide range of information with just a click of a button. It has become a source for information overload, not too dissimilar to Nicodema’s paintings. However, unlike Nicodema’s paintings, the internet has become an origin of untruths, often showing humanity at its worst. Social media can often project a false reality, one that is multi-layered and complex. Nicodema reflects on such complexities while creating a world all her own. Her paintings are flooded with color, and at first glance, appear to be pure abstraction. Her technique effectively draws the viewer into the work, revealing Nicodema’s complicated juxtaposition of imagery. One becomes a participant in her work. Upon close examination, animals, fruits, meats, flowers, and trees begin to emerge and become the composition’s heart.
Although both animals and food dominate Nicodema’s canvases, there is a human element in her work. Metaphorically, she uses heavenly indulgences such as cakes, cereal, fast food, and candy to represent our obsession with food and how humans have irresponsibly exploited our planet. She illustrates how the animal kingdom has had to adapt to a world we created, distanced from nature and full of environmental destruction. Throughout time, some cultures have imposed their dominance over animals, and at times brutally, while other cultures have worshiped them. Nicodema invites us into her world where the competition for survival is apparent. In the beginning, humans hunted for food, not for sport. However, as societies developed, and as technology advanced, the treatment of animals has become more inhumane. Nicodema depicts these barbaric forces that affect both humans and nature.
In Genesis 11:1–9 we read of a tower, with its top in the sky, being built in Babylonia. However, the tower was never finished and the builders were dispersed around the world, into separate nations, speaking many languages. The direct result of this event was the diversity of language itself. Nicodema often references the Tower of Babel in her titles, possibly because she visually structures her compositions to reflect this shape, or possibly to illustrate the diversity of living creatures among us. Two severed goats’ heads are at the center of Nicodema’s The Tower of Babel, Goat, 2019. Two additional goats flank the composition, one skinned and hanging from a meat hook while the other is draped over a beautifully decorated cake and a mound of melting ice cream. A small swine stands in the foreground with six legs, two of which appear to be dragging underneath the charming piglet. Nicodema addresses the harm caused by genetic modification. As our population grows, science is manipulated to produce ever more meat and larger, more succulent fruits and vegetables. In The Tower of Babel, Impala, 2020, we experience a baboon devouring the leg of a lifeless Impala, nature’s example of survival of the fittest. Nicodema’s scenes are both disturbing and delectable, and that is just the point. She not only calls into question our treatment of animals, but also the way we treat one another.
Nicodema also addresses the ideas of waste and excess. In Freak Shake Mountain, 2020 and Freak Shake Mountain, White, 2020, an overabundance of uneaten cakes are piled atop one another creating a massive landfill. Once again, the viewer is called upon to reflect on our responsibility to the world we inhabit. Nicodema’s paintings are not meant to casually confront. We are not able to take a quick look and move on. Just the opposite, she wants the viewer to spend time with these works, look more closely into a world we do not often see, and contemplate our role, ask ourselves if we are complicit in systems of exploitation and profit.
Artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Walton Ford, Wayne Thiebaud, Henri Rousseau, Ashley Bickerton, and Sue Coe come to mind when one looks at Nicodema’s paintings. She is influenced by the Dutch still-life vanitas painters, who first cautioned about the perils of overabundance. Nicodema takes cues from art history. For example, the sublime, an artistic effect made popular by artists such as J. M. W. Turner can be often seen in Nicodema’s work. In her painting, Shipwreck, 2020, she recreates a small yet powerful backdrop from Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky’s painting The Shipwreck Near Mountain Of Aphon.
In The Fly, from Songs of Experience, William Blake analyses his actions. He describes how his decisions affect even the smallest living creatures around him, “Little fly,/Thy summer’s play/My thoughtless hand/Has brushed away” (1-4). Nicodema is drawing similar conclusions. In her first solo show at Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art, ‘Mayfly,’ her title is carefully chosen. Once the mayfly hatches, its lifespan is only one day. Their peak comes quickly, and their life ends quickly. Nicodema believes that civilization is also nearing its peak. We have found ourselves so consumed by the things around us that we do not even notice when a life is brushed away, and when we are often the ones responsible.
Christina Nicodema: A Life Brushed Away
Tina Ruggieri, 2020
Assistant Curator, Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts
UAB | The University of Alabama at Birmingham