Artist tries to step in same river twice

When artist Nicole Gagner left her North Dakota home at the age of 18 for the sunny seaside town of Monterey, Calif., there were changes she didn’t expect.

“I guess I went home over Christmas and all of my friends were there but they kind of moved on and we were all doing different things. The connection wasn’t quite there anymore,” Gagner said. “My grandmother sold her house. So many memories are connected to that house. Spending Christmas at the grandma’s house that wasn’t her house anymore… it felt so surreal, like we were pretending.”

And that’s always a problem, she said, when trying to re-create scenes from her study abroad in Venice, or just a memory of home. That effort to recapture a fleeting feeling born of a transient experience inspired her senior show, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” which opens April 17.

“Nothing translates perfectly. You only sort of get the feeling you were looking for,” Gagner explained.

On the one hand, Gagner likes that she can permanently capture a single moment in time with the stroke of a brush. It’s why she concentrates on painting as her primary form of self-expression.

“Every single mark you make records something specific that’s just in that instant,” she said. But it’s just a swath of color from a larger picture.

For her photography in this show, she plays with her own struggle to re-create her experiences by constructing buildings from cardboard and staging new environments.

“The photographs were kind of made in a fit of homesickness and nostalgia,” she said. She mimicked the kind of houses one would construct as a child and took photos, playing with scale, angle and context in her framing of them.

“The objects themselves are kind of funny, but the photos have an eerie lighting and make you feel unsettled,” she said. “I guess a lot of the feeling of the photographs came from other photographs that I’d taken that had a really specific sense of place with the lighting. I was trying to go back and recapture those feelings.”

But painting is still her first love. Photos are nearly disposable, she said, made for the masses and for portability. But oil paintings maintain a glow about them that pushes the art form closer to permanence.

“The textures and the colors you can’t get in any other medium,” she explained. “It speaks to a very old tradition.”

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The earth crumbles and even mountains wear down. And even the greatest artists see their pieces damaged, lost or destroyed over the centuries. But Gagner insists that painting will endure the millennia: “It seems outdated, but it never will be because it will always be a way to say something you can’t say any other way.”

‘You Can’t Go Home Again’
223 8th St.
April 17
7-10 p.m.

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