Losing shape: Undoing the human body

by Danylo Loutchko

Artist Nicole Simpkins grew up near a salt marsh in New England.
There — in the undefined boundary between freshwater and saltwater — land and sea became a poignant metaphor for the ideas Simpkins expresses in her multimedia collages.
She explores the division between inside and outside and the thin separation between what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. The marsh, in Simpkins’ words, symbolizes “that kind of murky, swampy area where we can’t really tell where we end and the world begins.”
Another artist, Niki Havekost, makes doll sculptures that also express dual ideas about the human body —- with limbs made of sewing needles, whisks and other found objects, they’re both creepy and innocently charming.
These artists are the focus of “Undone,” an exhibition that premieres Thursday and will run through Feb. 19 at the Larson Gallery in the St. Paul Student Center. There will be an opening reception on Thursday at 6 p.m. with refreshments and a chance to speak with the artists.
The exhibition places Simpkins’ often violent and emotionally charged multimedia collages in conversation with Havekost’s puppet-like dolls. It’s a sensible combo — both artists deal with deconstructing the human body and exploring its relationship to its worldly cocoon. 
“Both of our bodies of work deal with women’s bodies,” Havekost said. “There will be a dialogue between that sense of violence or creepiness and accessibility. I think that [Simpkins’] work, the way that she uses marks, has a kind of visceral quality. You get a real sensation of how the work was made and how the hand was involved.”
Simpkins says she has always been interested in exploring boundaries, whether through her visual art or her creative writing — another field in which she has experience.
She received an undergraduate degree in English from Macalester College in St. Paul, along with a master’s in printmaking from Indiana University-Bloomington. 
While Havekost explores similar themes — and shares a background in printmaking — her expression emanates from a different personal locus.
“[The dolls] are self-portraits. They are related to visual explorations of my own body or my own physicality — what it feels like to be in my body,” Havekost said. “The tools [the dolls hold], especially with me being a mother and starting this work when my son was really small, are related to tools that, traditionally, women have used to create a home and create a family.” 
In addition to having limbs made of pencils or scissors, for example, the dolls’ abdomens are usually embellished with objects like spools of thread, zippers or pin cushions.
“I like that there is the inherent violence related to them, but at the same time there’s also a softness,” said Havekost. “I think that this edge or this violence has to deal with the self, and how one deals with one’s body and how one feels about one’s body.” 
The combination of artwork in the “Undone” exhibition creates a compelling exploration of the human body by two different artists. The exhibition also strives to ask the audience itself to question how they relate to their bodies and how those bodies relate to the world around them.
Art Opening: “Undone”
Where Larson Art Gallery, St. Paul Student Center, 2017 Buford Circle, St. Paul
When 6 p.m. Thursday
Cost Free