How did the Power Suit series come about?
I started making them in 2017, right before my first solo show at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn, Strange Business. I was freshly out of graduate school, and I had been working with fabric, making costumes, but hadn't been laser-focusing on garments as icons quite yet.
2017 was the height of #MeToo, so the ousting of Harvey Weinstein, like for a lot of people, was very much on my mind. And I just immediately had this very visceral response. I kept seeing all these photos of Harvey Weinstein and his black tie attire and, I don't know — somehow my own experience of trauma, and my own rage and anger came out through recreating that black-tie look, but gendered as a woman. I wasn't really calling them “power suits” yet, but the first piece I made in the series was called Tuxie. It resembles a tuxedo hanging from its breasts flopping over a dowel, and has two sleeves with hands that just hang there.
At what point while making — or after making — that piece did you realize it was going to be a larger series?
I mean, Tuxie felt really nice. It opened something up. And it coincided with me preparing for my show, because I had started making these anthropomorphized control top sculptures, where the form is taken from a control top on a pair of pantyhose. I wanted to have wall works in addition to the sculptures, and realized that the control tops were connected to Tuxie — really thinking about the corporate world and the business space, and how the costuming and clothing of those business spaces play out on women’s bodies.
So I delved into that and made a few more power suit pieces for that show. One is called Tycoon, which was like a crucified pinstripe suit that hung on a dowel. And then I also made Bullet Blazer. That’s when I first made the bullet bra with torpedo-like conical breasts, and now I can't stop.
Can you talk about the throughline from that work into your more recent work? Good Cheer also has conical breasts and is draped over a dowel like Tuxie, and Leggings for a Satyr feels, maybe, like an on-the-wall version of the control tops.
That work came about because I had another solo show at BRIC, Gymnasia, where I really dove into the ancient Greco-Roman roots of athletic culture. And through that, I really became interested in working with tech fabrics. Tech means, in the garment world, that they serve a purpose — like performancewear. So there was this merging, and I was asking myself, Well, can you still call them “power suits” if they're in athletic mesh?
Good Cheer is a cheerleader sports bra paired with a sort of pennant flag skirt hanging from a dowel. I love attaching nipples to pieces, too. There's a few pieces of mine that have little flourishes in the nipples, and so the whistles in Good Cheer were — I mean, I couldn't resist. [Laughs.] I never did cheerleading, but I have the utmost respect for competitive cheerleading. It's an intense sport, but they're perceived in this highly sexualized way. And I'm obsessed with that. It's still just this thing that's like, “Put a bow on it! And smile!” It's a sport where you really are asking who has the power a lot.
I think Leggings for a Satyr has a different intention than my Control Top sculptures from Strange Business. The Control Tops are unabashedly powerful and free, the Leggings for a Satyr are a bit trapped: they’re pegged on the wall — the wooden plug hints at castration — and the pockets are pulled out and empty. In making the piece I wanted to take some of the Satyr’s mythological perversion and power away while at the same time having him remain comical, sassy, and vulnerable.
I hadn't thought of it in these terms before, but hearing you talk about it just now, it feels like there's two different senses of the word “performance” at play there: there's literally performance wear — this will help my body do things — and then there's businesswear that's like, this will help my body perform visually better.
That's definitely all there. And, you know, I love that idea of donning something with this, like, tragic hope of performing your best. It's just so human and wonderful to me. But there’s also a sadness there.
I mean, as a woman, with either sports or business, you have to put something on to perform better because you're not good enough, or your body's not. You have to shape it up or something. It's still sort of this trying to do better. Which is fine, but it's not connected to a deep self-care. I don't mean the self-care industry, but an actual, spiritual caring for oneself. It's more of a performative caring for oneself.
Can we talk about this in terms of the Joan of Arc pieces? It feels connected to what you're saying in that Joan of Arc has been so deeply mythologized — been made to be various things over time — that who she actually was underneath this image we have in our heads is sort of lost. Thinking about that performative trying to do better, Joan of Arc seems like someone who very much succeeded in that performance — so much so that it obscures something about her for the rest of time.
Okay, so in those two pieces I was imagining Joan’s dominatrix horse stable as a way of her kind of taking back her own representation, which has been so co-opted. I mean, there are far-right groups in France who put Joan of Arc on this crazy political pedestal. I didn't know about that when I made the piece, but it's what you were talking about: how she's really used, and no one really knows what it was really like for her. So I think maybe the only power that I could give her as a historical figure is something where she is in control.
There’s another interview with you about the Power Suits where you talk about this tension between rejecting, but also being attracted to “the material and form that these gendered garments and objects have assumed throughout history.” Can you say a little bit more about that push and pull there, for lack of a better phrase?
To give a personal example: I have a power suit, it's incredible, and I love those iconic 80s and 90s power suits for women — with the huge shoulder pads and the double-breasted collar. And when I wear a suit, I feel pretty powerful. I'm kind of obsessed with the look of it and that feeling.
However, through this garment or more the idea of it, there is an equation of masculinity and power, a lineage of feminism that is linked to capitalism and white supremacy.
I also want to ask about the scale of each of the pieces. This feels like an obvious point to make, but, like, they aren't one-to-one to the size of standard human business suits. They're larger than life and hanging on the wall.
Scale is important to me because if you want to accentuate something, it usually works best if it's larger than life. It just has more impact. It elevates something that is normally kind of mundane, or not thought about.
The other reason is that I like imagining my sculptural characters as these larger than life personae, as giantesses. Do you know that piece by Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon — en katedral? It’s this giant woman, and there’s a famous photo of people just walking into her vagina. [Laughs.] I love that idea, and there's something about that piece that I always go back to with my work.
What about it do you go back to?
Well, I think about the fact that when you’re growing up women are taught about their bodies, to an extent, from a sex education curriculum... but there’s a disconnect between sexiness and sex. There's this mysteriousness to it, this, No, don't ever show it. But on the other hand, a lot of cultures throughout history have had this core importance of exposing a woman's genitals — how it can bring good fortune, how it can ward off evil spirits, or represent fertility and power. So I am interested in that kind of divine feminine understanding, and then also the fact that you can enter this sculpture’s body just really takes everyone back to this place of curiosity, and knowledge, and understanding of where they came from. And you can't say no to it: everyone's gonna go in.
I mean, that echoes an experience I see a lot of people have in the gallery with your work — there's this cool process of defamiliarization that clicks in their eyes.
What do you mean by defamiliarization? Like how I abstract a little bit, or —
Yeah. Like, for me, before I saw Deep Pockets for the first time, I thought I knew all there was to know about pockets, and I never really considered that something worth thinking more about. And then, blam, there’s this huge sculpture on the wall telling me, Think about pockets! Or in Champion Princess there are these big curly nails sticking out of the sleeve.
I think I've always been really interested in and drawn to super long nails. To grow your fingernails out that long takes dedication. It's also often thought of as gross, and I like that: that it's something that goes from being feminine maintenance to kind of a world record competition. It’s taking something that you’re given and letting it go to the extreme. I feel like there’s a fuck you in that.
With Deep Pockets, I was just thinking about the history of the pocket.
What is the history of the pocket?
This is a European history of pockets, but pockets showed up for men fairly early — probably around the Middle Ages — but still haven’t really shown up for women.
So I was interested in why that was, and basically it's because women were property. If you want to leave the house, you need to bring things with you. And if you bring things with you, you're going to have more ownership over what you're doing, and power to do whatever you need to do. So essentially pockets were just left out of clothing because they didn't need to go do anything. That was the idea.
Then, close to the Industrial Revolution, women started to wear these things called chatelaines, which were kind of a cross between jewelry and clothing. They were made out of silver or metal, and they would clip to your waist coat and carry a variety of things that you might carry in your pockets or purse: scissors, sewing supplies, a mirror, maybe a powder kit, a hairpin — whatever you need, it would be there. And they would clank around when women walked. There's writing that you can find that talks about the clanking of women’s chatelaines walking down the street.
Later, with the suffragettes, the clothing that they chose to wear had plenty of pockets — there was a New York Times article about how they were astounded at the amount of pockets they had. [Laughs.]
What was the New York Times’ moral judgment on that? That these women have too many pockets, or —
Too many pockets. It's not nasty or anything. It’s satire, a little bit.
And when women started wearing pants, pockets were put in — but it kind of has become this thing where in women's jeans, pockets are just smaller. [Laughs.] Like, you can barely fit your own hand in a pocket. That's where we are now.
So, anyway — that's my abridged version of the history of pockets.
This all feels adjacent to a conversation about bag culture, if that’s the right phrase. One of the pieces in the show is called Joan’s Sword and Saddlebag, and last year you also made a piece called Tool Bag. Which is to say: it seems like you, at some point, went from thinking about pockets to bags.
Well, yes, I am obsessed with the history of bags. There's this essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” She writes about the idea of the carrier bag as the first tool in human life — how as hunter-gatherers, humans needed something to put what they were gathering into. She goes on to see the bag as kind of a larger representation of the home, the house — the things that we put everything into. And then says that if it is truly a human act to collect and put the things that one has collected into a bag, then she can get behind being human after all, after years of talking about tools as being sharp, poking, killing, masculine, hunting things.
I love that essay, and I’m just thinking about bags as objects and how they relate to gender. And in a larger context, the idea of baggage, and holding all of one's trauma and life stories in this mental bag.
I think that we've actually touched on every piece in the show, except for Pink Collar. I don’t really have a good segue into that piece, but can you talk about it a bit?
Sure. The title goes back to work and class: blue collar, white collar, and pink collar as this potential gendered working class.
But it's inspired by a similar piece that's much larger called It's Ruff Out There, which is a massive sculpture inspired by Elizabethan ruffs. Pink Collar is the same kind of form, where it's this Elizabethan collar flipped around on itself and tied together with these two gloves. It began as this meditation on the way that I had made the last piece, and it's probably one of my more purely formal pieces.
How do you balance making work that is purely formal and work that is more conceptual?
Well, I mean, not every piece needs to be an essay. Not every piece needs to have this perfectly wrapped-up explanation or concept behind it.
And clearly, a lot of artists aren't worried about that at all. And that's fine. So I think, personally — as someone who is project-based and often research-based — that sometimes there are moments where I need to just be intuitive. And that it's okay that those two pieces sit beside each other in my opinion.
Absolutely. I feel like there’s something very valuable in not everything being explainable.
Yeah. And sometimes the work that's harder to explain is the most visually stunning, so you can't mess with that. You just have to accept it.
Much of your work is centered on women in the workplace and on athletics. Can you talk about what draws you to those two worlds in particular?
Well, I think that they’re both worlds that historically have been segregated by gender. And so, what interests me, and why I find a lot of commonalities between them, is when those spaces are flipped and turned on their heads by feminine energy, and what happens when women infiltrate those spaces.
In my work, I like looking at the aesthetic qualities of these spaces, specifically within clothing, and the garments that people wear within the sports and business worlds. Even if you aren't an athlete or a business person, you generally have an understanding of their structure, the color combos, the materials that are used. I really like that because I can get a universal read on a lot of the things that I make — but something's a little off about it. It's a jersey, but it has comical, kind of weaponized breasts sewn into it, or a business suit that’s like that.
Can you talk about the relationship between those fabric sculptures and your video work, then?
The fabric sculptures inspire a lot of my video work. Sometimes they’re props or objects within the video, and then any performers that I'm working with — whether they're dancers, wrestlers, or just friends of mine in a Greek chorus — the materials for their costumes are usually the exact same materials that the sculpture is made out of, so that there’s this very close relationship between all the objects and materials on the wall and in the video. The videos are really exciting for me because they allow the fabric sculptures to have more of a life, and this dynamic action and movement.
You mentioned wrestlers there: say more?
I've worked with two people who used to wrestle in high school, so they’re not professional wrestlers. But the same two guys have wrestled for me in two videos that I’ve made.
The first one was just part of my grad school thesis. That was very stripped down: it was these two wrestlers wrestling in costumes that I made that have these Velcro prosthetics attached to them. I shot it from a bird’s eye view because I wanted it to be displayed on the floor for the show, and then I just gave them a simple objective of: the body parts all have to become detached from your costumes, and then it’s over.
Then for my solo show that was at BRIC in 2018/2019, I expanded upon the idea of this ancient gymnasium and the roots of athleticism within Western culture. Wrestling was one of the first sports in the ancient gymnasiums, so I had the same two guys wrestle again, wearing different costumes, and that was one of the channels of video in that installation.
I think the reason why wrestling interests me is that I find it very beautiful. It’s this intensely intimate sport — there has to be so much trust and sensitivity involved with your opponent, and I feel like it distills a lot of the complexities of masculinity. It’s this hyper-masculine sport — even though women wrestle, obviously — but it also is so homoerotic, so attuned to your own body and other people’s bodies. I like that there’s these contradictory elements in the sport.
How do you work through those hyper-masculine associations that come with wrestling?
I mean, I feel like wrestling also takes on this very symbolic form of a grappling. So I see it as almost this grappling with masculinity, because aggression is stereotypically thought to be very masculine. I'm not necessarily directly talking about this in my work, but I think a lot of people have noticed that masculinity is kind of in crisis, so wrestling is just an interesting way to distill a lot of that for me. It’s this grappling, but there's also such intimacy and sensitivity involved in it.
And the suits that I make for them, they’re like superhero suits in a way. I think the superhero is also interesting: often male superheroes are these pinnacles of masculinity, and their bodies have this very strange shape. They're sort of shaped like triangles: they're very strong on top, and they have these tiny waists. But there's so much pageantry involved with superheroes, with wrestling, and with sports in general, and pageantry is kind of a more feminine practice.
Can you talk about what you've been working on in Wassaic, then?
Last summer I was at another residency program, Lighthouse Works, on Fishers Island, and I started this series of ceramic sports bras. I was really into them, but because ceramics is a relatively unfamiliar medium to me, it took a long time, and I wasn't able to continue working on them.
So I picked them up again here. They’re hand-marbled clay bodies, and I want them to have this kind of ancient stone feeling once they’re fired, but taking on a contemporary shape.
What do you think that will evolve into? A series of sports bra ceramics?
I’m not totally sure yet. I think everything in this Wassaic studio is a seedling of a way larger project.
With the ceramic sports bras, I wanted to make a little body of work and then see where it goes from there. You know? It's nice to have these opportunities to just experiment, because then when I have studio visits in the city or applications, I can present these new bodies of work.
But, in general, I've made a lot of sports bras in different materials over the last year. It’s another really interesting item of clothing for me because you wear a sports bra to participate in athletics, but some people also wear sports bras to flatten their chest. It’s almost like a power suit. That’s what I call them. Because a business suit that women would wear in a workplace is kind of hiding the woman’s body and that feminine shape — making you into a man essentially, or giving a masculine form, and I feel like the sports bra is similar.
And I’ve always been interested in this, like, ancient future.
I’m really interested in history in general. I did another project a few years ago for my MFA thesis that was called Stone Age Toolkit. I carved these stone tools, and then I made a video that was modeled after a QVC, Home Shopping Network video, where I sell the tools in a very contemporary way. I was thinking about prehistory, maybe a time before women were objects, and what gender looked like before there was trade, before capitalism — and then contrasting that with housewives on QVC. Going back to that ancient future thing: we’ve come really far, but we also have not. Not not a lot has changed with how hand tools are used.
With the sports bras, I was having them resemble armor or breastplates in a way, too. I’m also marbling them to make them sort of appear to be stone, to give them an elevated quality in art. That’s interesting to me because it’s like giving the sports bra — which is a garment that’s not often seen underneath clothing — this monumentality. But at the same time, it’s so fragile. It’s not sewn in ceramic. It’s not real. It can crumble or break.
Rose Nestler is an interdisciplinary artist making sculptural and video based work. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College in 2017 where she was awarded a Graduate Teaching Fellowship. Her work has been exhibited at a variety of galleries and institutions including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Thierry Goldberg, Diane Rosenstein, BRIC, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, Ortega Y Gasset, Underdonk, Smack Mellon, University of Illinois/Springfield, Crush Curatorial, SPACE in Portland, ME, CUCHIFRITOS Gallery and Project Space, and PUBLIC Gallery in London. She has been an artist-in-residence at Lighthouse Works, Edward F. Albee Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Wassaic Project and Byrdcliffe Artists Colony. In 2021 she will be an artist-in-residence at Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, LA. Her work has been featured and reviewed in Juxtapoz, Vulture, Maake Magazine, Art Space, Art of Choice and Metal Magazine. She teaches at Parsons School of Design and CUNY College of Staten Island.
All Out / All In
2019 Summer Residency