Uncomfortably Curious: Menstruation as a Medium and Visual Chaos- An Interview with Queer Artist Nikki Zuaro
By Sierra Blumenthal
Interview conducted on June 1st, 2018
The enigmatic work of 23 year old Nikki Zuaro exudes a presence that is most aptly described as ‘chaotic.’ Zuaro’s work is loud and overwhelming, giving the impression of being in a crowded place where individual conversations and voices come together to form a non-communicative noise; yet if one pays close attention to the layers of this visual conversation, there is much to be parsed out from the chaos. Zuaro’s art reflects the influence of street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who she cites in her artist’s statement as imbuing her work with the spirit of anatomical deconstruction as well as the employment of palimpsest, which is the reuse and redesign of something that leaves traces of its previous form. Like Basquiat, Zuaro layers colors, symbols, and texts to construct a chaotic whole made up of unified, stable (or previously stable) parts.
As for subject matter, Zuaro explores various social taboos revolving around the body, mental illness, sexuality, and menstruation. It is her goal to shock viewers in order to grab then hold their attention in order to demystify the subject and offer a platform for educating about these taboo topics. Another artist who heavily influenced Zuaro’s work, particularly her projects involving menstrual blood and the vagina, is feminist artist Carolee Schneemann. Schneemann first performed her 1975 piece titled “Interior Scroll” in East Hampton, NY. The performance consisted of Schneemann unravelling a scroll she had inserted into her own vagina that was inscribed with a criticism she received that her art work was “too female” and too “messy.”
Schneemann’s influence carries into Zuaro’s work in their shared endeavor of unabashedly making visible messages normally constricted to inside one’s self in addition to the demystification of the vagina. Schneemann writes,
"I thought of the vagina in many ways-- physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers. This source of ‘interior knowledge’ would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship.”
Zuaro credits Schneemann with inspiring her to work with menstrual blood, saying, “While I was studying Schneemann’s piece called ‘Interior Scroll’ in college, I became immersed in the ideology of using my body, sexuality, and mentality in my own work. I recently started using my own menstrual blood in my paintings because of her influence. Creating those pieces made me realize that my process has become an art form in itself. Being able to experiment outside a traditional box was liberating and is something that I want to move forward with in my work.” This statement echoes loudly in Zuaro’s work, and it is through the chaos that the unification of the outside and the inside reverberates even louder.
The first time I came into contact with Zuaro’s art was when I went to pick up my friend who shared a townhouse with her. Nikki answered the door and invited me to sit in their living room to wait. As I made myself comfortable in her house, I was confronted with Hermaphroditus’s huge yellow phallus at eye level and an onslaught of vibrant color and sex imagery. Aside from the subject matter of the painting, Hermaphroditus seemed to fill up the entire room with its larger-than-life dimensions. As I waited, my eyes traveled around the painting multiple times and with each reading I was presented with a new element I hadn’t seen before. It was remarkable to me that an artist could make their work pan in and out of focus like this, and whose colors were as bold and chaotic as their subject matter.
Since this initial introduction, Zuaro’s work has continued to evoke what she describes as “an uncomfortable curiosity” that is piqued by bold lines, clashing colors, and tumultuous compositions that form her work’s aura--an aura that can be considered confrontational at the very least. Amidst its chaos, her work is not simply empty noise; it carries a message that is communicated precisely through this chaos--one of inner turmoil consisting of the body, the mind, and the more mysterious aspects that come together to form the human experience. Ironically, it is through this layered and opaque chaos that we are able to encounter human emotion most clearly. Approaching difficult concepts and political contentions, Zuaro’s art gives a voice to taboo subjects in order to remove their perceived threat in an effort to reorient viewers. Processes such as menstruation garner their own shock, yet Zuaro’s work almost aims to beat the audience to the punch. Zuaro’s art shocks viewers first in order to make them confront their preconceived negative assumptions and disrupt norms on taboo topics, a move which makes Zuaro’s art that much more impacting.
NZ: How do you want to do this??
SB: Do you want to start by introducing yourself?
NZ: Yeah sure, my name is Nikki Zuaro and I am an artist based on Long Island, NY. And my main medium is acrylic paint and spray paint.
SB: And when did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
NZ: Probably around my senior year of high school. I was struggling with what I wanted to do with my life but art was always a constant and something I loved doing.
SB: Would you say that there was any defining moment for you that pushed you toward this career or was it something you grew into?
NZ: I think it mostly was because of my painting professor in college. He really pushed me to my potential and saw something in me that I was previously doubting at the time. So I guess little bit of both growing over time and being heavily influenced by another artist that I look up to.
SB: What inspires your work?
NZ: If we are talking about my main body of work...A lot of street art/graffiti, the bold lines, colors, and chaotic layering that’s scrawled on the walls. As well as mental health, death, sexuality, and human anatomy. Going over to my experimental work, that uses menstrual blood, obviously the menstrual cycle, life, the vagina, and the taboo around it all.
SB: Starting with your main body of work, you mention the concept of 'chaos' in your bio as well. I'm curious about your work's relationship to this chaos-- What makes this a necessary feature of your work and what role does it play?
NZ: I feel like there is always a lot going on inside of my mind...thoughts consuming other thoughts, hence the chaos I bring up often. It’s necessary for the chaos to appear in my work for the audience to see my thought process through constant layering; building up to my final thought.
SB: The body is obviously a critical part of both your main work and your experimental work. Can you tell me about your evolution into The Red Project? What led to its undertaking?
NZ: I really enjoy breaking down the human figure into almost grotesque figures (maybe even alien-like). The Red Project wasn’t an evolution, more like a jolt. I was getting pissed off at public places, specifically at my college, for supplying free condoms but not supplying free menstrual products to people who have a vagina. So it sparked an installation piece where I painted bloody pads and tampons with written facts on them and hung them up in a unisex bathroom on campus. So after that I started developing more ideas about the issue and it progressed into using my own blood in my work.
SB: What does your process look like?
NZ: I had a few different processes because I wasn’t sure what would be best. I either cut out the canvas and wore it for an hour or so, bleeding directly onto it like a pad, or I used a menstrual cup to collect my blood then poured it onto the canvas. I then paint the background gold and outline the shape.
Process images from https://www.instagram.com/the_redproject/. © 2017, Nikki Zuaro. All rights reserved.
SB: For these pieces of canvas, after outlining the blood spots you wrote on The Red Project’s Instagram, “They are starting to look like maps to me.” I'm especially interested in your link between these and cartography, could you expand a little on that?
NZ: I’m glad that you see some mapping in my pieces. It’s definitely a new interpretation and I’m all for it. I think one can say it’s mapping out visual representations of the human body and being connected to human life. I think it’s something I can see myself exploring more.
SB: That sounds like a really exciting road to go down. Being that connectivity and communication are such vital components of your work, what do you hope that people take away from engaging with your art? And what are some of the different criticisms The Red Project has received?
NZ: I hope people become more educated on the vagina, uterus, and menstrual cycle. I find myself still learning everyday which is exciting. I hope it becomes less taboo to talk about one day and more understood by communities everywhere. I’ve had great positive feedback but also “what the fuck” feedback. So it really depends on the person and once I explain why, usually people come around or are more understanding. The people who enjoy it are pretty engaged in my ideology.
SB: Seems like a win-win either way; art is change, right? Can you describe your ideology for us? And what are some of the things you've learned since embarking on this project?
NZ: Definitely. My ideology behind the project is education. I want people to feel compelled to conduct their own research on the topic. I want people to feel uncomfortably curious while looking at my pieces. I learned that a place in India worships menstruation, they have a festival and everything. Which was a main inspiration for the final pieces I created.
SB: Tell me more about your current project.
NZ: Right now I’m exploring how to make spray paint look like watercolor and I’m finding success. When I first started my layering it was more bold and I slowly developed into trying to blend it together, which I’m working on right now. My new project is exploring just that; blending the layers together to be more unified but still chaotic. And I’m exploring different ways to express the human form in a ghostly manner. This piece I’m working on now really developed from everything that has happened to me these past two years. It was tough. Working on Avenues has been therapeutic for me.
As I previously stated, I went through a lot the last two years. My mental health spiraled out of control, I went through a tough breakup, and I felt like I was just overall stuck. These ghostly figures I have created in a dystopian-ish city truly represent my demons in every avenue of my life. I rendered this painting to look like it’s raining, and historically rain has always meant rebirth.. so basically it means that I’m becoming a new, better version of myself. I’m washing away the pain of my past and moving forward.
SB: Your aim to create something both unified and chaotic sounds like it represents that struggle perfectly, both personally and universally. I think the movement in your art is indicative of your desire to be “unstuck.” Really cool.
SB: So lastly, what is the relationship between your identity and your work? Do you find that your sexuality and mental illness manifest in your paintings?
NZ: My sexual identity was more prominent in my early work. But I always keep it in mind while I’m painting. I think it’s more natural now than it was. Its less noticeable now but still present. I identify as queer in all aspects, gender and sexuality. And still figuring it out. As for the mental illness..yes and no. It’s basically fuel to the fire...But It’s just one part of me, not the whole me. Even though half of my pieces represent some type of emotional conflict, there are plenty of other components that I consider while painting. I feel like I can’t just say definitely yes or definitely no because it’s more complex than that.
SB: Contributing to the chaos?
NZ: Oh, yes. Who doesn’t like stirring the pot a little bit? It gets people talking. I want my audience to feel, witness, and educate themselves on the chaos. ❂
Nikki Zuaro is an emerging artist residing on Long Island, NY. She has recently received a B.A. in Studio Art from Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY and will be pursuing an MFA in Painting at Savannah College of Art and Design. Nikki concentrates in painting with acrylics as well as using spray paint in conjunction. She produces paintings on a large scale to express her active brush strokes, hard lines, heavy layering, stencil-work, text, and abstract human figures to explore a chaotic relationship on her canvas...By doing so, Nikki developed a strong interest in graffiti and other forms of street art, which has greatly influenced her style. She also enjoys expressing dark subjects by using bright colors coexisting with chaotic layers; Nikki believes that it evokes anxiety and/or curiosity of the subject. Because she paints with intense and contrasting colors, many people have suggested that her work reminds them of the art that was being produced in the 1960 – 70s coming out of the West Village in Manhattan. While Zuaro focuses on serious topics, she also likes to play around with controversial issues by depicting them in a humorous way. No matter if the subject is serious or facetious, Nikki is always looking to provoke a reaction from her audience…[Bio taken from artist’s website]
Visit Nikki Zuaro’s webpage and Instagrams for more of her work: