A Landscape of Industry: An Interview with Nina Elder

If you’re like me, you probably drive past them all the time and never give a second thought: cell towers, radio antennas, power lines, fracking structures and electrical substations–all part of a larger infrastructure that we rely on to connects us to a variety of systems and grids to sustain life as we know it. Santa Fe-based artist Nina Elder (#96) has been documenting the intersections of the natural and man-made in the American landscape for more than a decade. In her most recent body of work, Power Line, currently on view through October 25th at the Inpost Artspace in Albuquerque, Elder continues her thoughtful examination of our relationship with these architectural oddities through the lens of landscape painting. I recently caught up with Nina to ask her a few questions about her work. – Claude Smith, Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor

Nina Elder | Hawthorne Munitions Depot, 2012, acrylic on panel, 48 x 60 inches; image courtesy of the artist

Claude Smith:  In addition to being an artist, you are co-founder/co-director of an off-the-grid residency program, PLAND: Practicing Liberating Art Through Necessary Dislocation in rural Northern New Mexico, and now the Residency Director at Santa Fe Art Institute. Aside from the busy schedule, do you feel your studio practice has changed in light of your additional responsibilities?

Nina Elder: In regards to PLAND, my studio practice is influenced by living, building, and hosting artists off-the-grid in myriad ways. In choosing to live the way most of the world does, which is with out ready access to drinking water, electrical outlets, military protection, cell phone coverage, and waste treatment, I am acutely aware of how dominant, yet camouflaged, our infrastructure is within the United States. Being co-founder and co-director of an alternative, off-grid, arts non-profit has taken time away from my studio practice, but has positively charged my focus and my ability to see the contemporary landscape in a more realistic framework.

Nina Elder | Defunct: Ojo Caliente, 2011, acrylic on panel, 48 x 60 inches; image courtesy of the artist

CS: As a self-proclaimed “landscape” painter, your work definitely offers a departure from the typical sunsets, panoramic photographs or mythic notions of idyllic beauty that pervade the genre, especially here in the Southwest. Would you talk a little about your approach both technically and conceptually?

NE: I am painting a contemporary landscape, one that is full of fence lines and mines and cell towers, yet still has the majesty and space that once, and still, evokes the American Dream. There are no brush strokes in my paintings, as each colors’ edge is incised into the panel with X-acto blades. There are no puffy clouds or romantic shadows. The places I paint are the same everyday; things like winter or dusk or sadness do not affect them. Industry is an indelible mark on the land I love, and I paint the same hard lines and affectless presence that are inseparable from a realistic view of the southwestern landscape.

Nina Elder | El Huerfano (The Orphan), 2011, acrylic and gesso on panel, 36 x 48 inches; image courtesy of the artist

Nina Elder | El Huerfano (The Orphan) II, 2011, acrylic and gesso on panel, 36 x 48 inches; image courtesy of the artist

CS: What sorts of experiences led you to become interested in landscape/land use/the American West?

NE: I grew up in Colorado Springs, in the shadow of NORAD. My father wrote civilian contracts for Reagan’s Star Wars. At some point I realized how strange it was that the military had the might to hollow out entire mountains, and shoot secret lasers into space, pretty much in my backyard. I have spent my summers since childhood in the Pecos Mountains, in New Mexico. The beauty and isolation of that area inspired Robert Oppenheimer to build Los Alamos Labs, and the Manhattan Project, and thus the atomic bomb, right across the valley from our family cabin. It is amazing to me that people do not absolutely freak out about these things. I hear about the cold war, and missile mania, but I grew up complacently among lasers and missile bases and atomic fall out. I make art about industrial land use because it is so environmentally and ethically complicated, yet so visually ubiquitous.


Nina Elder | Double Feature II (Alamosa), 2009, acrylic on panel, 48 x 36 inches; image courtesy of the artist

CS: Your practice relies heavily on research to gather historical data and images, soil samples and even radioactive charcoal to investigate a variety of subjects. Is there something specific about New Mexico that propels you to explore areas outside of the arts? Do you think you’d be making the same work if you lived somewhere else?

NE: I have to turn this question on its head. I have tried to live other places, yet my work keeps me coming back to New Mexico. I feel akin to the legacy of multi-disciplinarianism and dilettantism that are embedded in the history of this state. No one in New Mexico is just one thing. The first colonialists were experimental archivists and anthropologists, as are many contemporary aficionados of Santa Fe style. Oppenheimer, the man that built the first atomic bomb, was an extraordinary poet, multi-culturalist, and art collector. As an artist, I have ended up learning more about quantum physics, industrial history, and land use than I could have absorbed in any class. One must have both passion and dispassion to live in the midst of so many complexities. The region evokes a curiosity that transcends disciplines.

Nina Elder | Rhyolite Mine, 2012, acrylic on panel, 12 x 24 inches; image courtesy of the artist

CS: Reading the titles of the works in Power Line, you give geographic locations like Ojo Caliente, Pojoaque, Maxwell, Alamosa and Huerfano. What is your relationship with some of these places you specifically reference in your work?

NE: When I live somewhere, my curiosity defines my geography. If I am going to turn on a tap, I would like to have seen the reservoir or pumping station where my water comes from. I know which cell phone tower is transmitting my signal. When I turn on the lights, I can envision the coal mine that fuels the power plant feeding the transmission station that electrifies the set of power lines that come into my home. It is all visual research, because I have no formal training in industrial infrastructure. That said, every place in my paintings have been a hub in my own grid of personal land use. Even defunct radio towers emit a cartographic memory. 


Nina Elder | Hoover Dam II, 2012, acrylic on panel, 48x60 inches; image courtesy of the artist

CS: The works in your oeuvre that don’t deal with industrial consumption focus on the waste or by-products of these processes. Would you say you’re being critical of these practices or do you operate more as a documentarian?

NE: I have been accused of beautifying the legacy of industrial land use. My work has also been called a dystopic and depressing. It is exactly this fill-in-the-blank perspective to which I aspire. We live so closely to land, especially because everything we use is sourced from the land. Industrial activity is seen by some as environmental disaster, yet it is inextricably linked to our ability to sustain contemporary life. Are these disaster sites? Are they monuments to human productivity? My paintings are as much questions as they are documentation.

Nina Elder | Defunct Pojoaque, 2012, acrylic on panel; image courtesy of the artist

CS: What’s in store for you next?

NE: I currently have work in several group shows: Disaster/Resilience, Harwood Art Center, ABQ, NM, Transmissions, Marin County Foundation, CA, Atomic Surplus, Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, NM.

I am getting ready for a three person show at The Harwood Museum in Taos, NM called Art for a Silent Planet: Blaustein, Elder, and Long, on view from February 22 to May 4, 2014.

I have a beautiful catalog hitting the presses any day now, published by The Churchill Arts Council, in conjunction with a recent show at The Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, Nevada. I am honored to be subject of an insightful and enlightened essay written by the Randall Miller. The catalog can be previewed and purchased at http://www.churchillarts.org/publications/.

I am working on a new body of work addressing wilderness and aridity, using reservoir silt to reproduce historic photographs of dam sites. You can see my work at www.ninaelder.com


Nina Elder is a painter, drawer, construction worker, and farmer. She grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico where she cultivated a curiosity about gravel pits, mines, and lumber mills. Her work examines the visual evidence of land use in the American West and its cycles of production, consumption, and waste. After earning her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, Nina returned to northern New Mexico where she co-founded an off-the-grid artist residency program called PLAND: Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation. Through paintings, drawings, and installations, she endeavors to illuminate that the contemporary landscape is the physical manifestation of modern needs, economies, policies, and powers. Nina’s work is exhibited and collected nationally, and has been included in publications such as Art in America and New American Paintings.

Claude Smith is an arts administrator and educator living and working in Albuquerque, NM. 


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