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Uncomfortable Comfort: The Paintings and Sculptures of Nicole Dyer

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Comfort sits precariously between excess and absence, an ephemeral balancing act that evinces occasionally as a “just right” escape from the realities of American capitalism. One cannot truly appreciate comfort without experiencing its opposite: To luxuriate in comfort food, you must first have felt intense hunger. To authentically feel secure in a room with other humans, you must first understand what it feels like to be ostracized. Everyone struggles to avoid vulnerability and pain, but comfort is a moving target rather than a destination, manifesting as a quest, achievement, escape, or fantasy always just beyond reach. For many, comfort is a battle, and we are often so fixated on achieving this fugitive goal that life can become a Sisyphean labor to access that which is not possessable, at least not for long.

Nicole Dyer is an artist with an intimate knowledge of scarcity and overindulgence, and her exuberant canvases, papier-mâché sculptures, and installations explore the universal hunt for satisfaction through depictions of everyday products from the supermarket that surround us, rendered beautiful under her hand. Like the 14th-century Dutch still-life painters who depicted tabletops piled high with edible symbols of wealth, power, and mortality, Dyer, a 2013 BFA graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, compulsively catalogs the objects that attract her attention with the allure of satiety and wholeness and packs them into dense tableaus of excess.

 

Topo For Kpam, 2020, acrylic, aerosol acrylic, acrylic paint pens, collage, and stickers on canvas, image courtesy of the artist

 

My Pantry
, 2018, 
Acrylic, ink, paper, tape, puffy paint, candle, cardboard, paper mache, marker, glitter, and assorted objects on canvas with Acrylic, ink, and paper mache on cardboard
, 72” x 60” canvas, 14” x 6” x 9” boxes

After a 2018 visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Dyer was inspired by the Renaissance-era Vanitas paintings. She loved their over-the-top compositions filled with fruit, flowers, skulls, and meat, but also the vignettes of humans going about their daily lives in the background. Her favorite is The Well-Stocked Kitchen, with Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background (1566) by Joachim Beuckelaer. The painting teems with produce, poultry, and people preparing food, with a tiny scene in the background where Jesus speaks with Mary and Martha, clearly not seduced by the abundance of worldly pleasures.

Dyer has transformed the Vanitas still life genre for modern times by featuring today’s comestible objects of desire, emblazoned with elaborate packaging, logos, and text. Sparkling water, a middle-class obsession promising sensual pleasure and hydration with zero calories, is a generative symbol for the moment. Dyer portrays peppy La Croix cans and boxes, pale celadon glass bottles of Topo Chico mineral water, and Tiffany-blue cans of Vintage brand seltzer with a precarious specificity that makes them immediately recognizable, but also reshapes them into relics of fervent adoration, vague holy icons to the idea of health and fitness, of carbonated entertainment without the calories of soda.

“I am obsessed with the way people are obsessed with La Croix,” Dyer says. “It’s all in the packaging. It’s iconic! People want to be seen holding the can. There are loads of better-tasting seltzers but La Croix just nailed it with their design.”

 

Bedside Table, 2018, acrylic, collage, glitter, and assorted objects on canvas
Quarantine, 
2020, 
Acrylic, oil, spray paint, polymer clay, pastel, collage, stickers, glitter, googly eye, craft sand on canvas
, 62” x 38”

The artist admits she is delighted by commercial package design, as well as Instagram advertisements, and is fascinated by their effectiveness. “I love how a product can look so good you almost want to keep it on your mantel (Chobani, I’m looking at you!),” she says. “It almost doesn’t even matter if the product is tasty or functions correctly.”

“I think about consumption in the form of ads on my Instagram, sponsored influencers, and well-designed packaging, but also through the lens of my past in disordered eating. Being someone who grew up binging, restricting, and obsessing over ‘clean eating,’ consumption for me feels both good and bad, like the concept of comfort itself.”

Dyer struggled for many years with compulsive eating and admits that, in her desire to control her intake, at age 17 she began to shave down the number of foods she allowed herself to eat until, at age 28, she was left with just one. As her list of approved foods shrank, her paintings swelled with “domestic landscapes crowded with health books and food wrappers and children’s toys, the paint itself bloated with glitter and candy and sea glass.” Her paintings became a meditation on disordered eating in an age of overconsumption. The artist includes other objects that are more obvious sources of temptation for occasional installations, combining her sculptures of three-dimensional cakes, candy, desserts, and snacks replete with their garish wrapping and conspicuous fonts and logos. When piled up all together, they coalesce into a teetering composition that mimics the overwhelming experience of shopping in a big box store, surrounded by piles of tempting goodies.

For Dyer, the idea of comfort is clearly a double-edged sword: both tempting and torturous. “Food is often a comfort, but it could mean making a nice dinner or binging on the couch,” she explains. “I watch puppy videos on Instagram a lot for comfort but that can easily turn to two-plus hours of scrolling in bed and disrupting my sleep.” Although Dyer believes that the excessive search for pleasure, especially via screens, is fine occasionally, she then questions the standards for occasionality, which, for her, leads to moderation and self-control. “At this point, comfort feels like an uncomfortable topic for me, although I believe it’s supposed to be a good thing,” she says.

 

Bedstuy Bedroom, 
2018, Acrylic and collage on canvas, 
44” x 48”
Dinner, 
2019, 
Acrylic, spray paint, paper mache, hot glue, polymer clay, sea glass, pastel, on canvas, 
34”x 34”

In many images, the artist includes the ultimate object of desire: the smartphone held in a gnarled hand, displaying the intimate zing of a text message, the terror of a dying battery, the downward spiral of doom scrolling, and the way our devices have become simultaneously the ultimate barrier and point of access to the entire world. “Like consumerism, scrolling is an indulgence I love and hate,” she says. “I’m simultaneously trying to lean into it, but also setting little timers on my phone, which doesn’t work.”

Dyer explains that the act of scrolling can feed her work in productive ways because the various images, ads, and influencers reflect our current reality in an authentic and multifaceted way. “How we all show up with our little personalities on this little platform is wild,” she says. “Our world is experienced almost entirely through this little screen, especially after 2020. Maybe, probably, that is a bad thing, but it also is reality.” Dyer is intentional about depicting her phone in her paintings for this reason and her portrayal of texts, notifications, and tracking apps has become a specific marker of time. The artist has built an extensive archive of smartphone symbols and metaphors, with past work depicting her flip phone, iPhone 4, 6, and now 10.

For anyone inclined toward indulgence and asceticism, today’s screens tempt with ads for every kind of object of excess as well as the solution for every imaginable problem. Dyer cites her multiple obsessions with nutrition blogs, wellness influencers, YouTube workout channels, diet books and anti-diet diet books, smoothie recipes with protein powder, before-and-after transformation pics, and an abundance of photos of food.

“The infinite scroll goes on ad infinitum,” she says. “I can’t look away. Binge, restrict, repeat. Anxiety and confusion about the bodies we live in—what to feed them, how to move them, what they should look like—are not anomalies of our current culture, but symptoms of it.” Humorous, obsessive, and teeming with material culture, the paintings, sculptures, and installations of Nicole Dyer embody our collective obsession with having it all.

Happy Birthday (27), 
2018, 
Acrylic, glitter, gems on canvas
, 12” x 16”

Header: Pearl's Room, 2019, acrylic, papier-mache, collage, tape, marker, vinyl, polymer clay, stickers, assorted objects on canvas, photo by Michael Bussell

This story is from Issue 11: Comfort,

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