lady of leisure wear

Nicky Carvell’s work explores a bright and bold world: hyperactive stickers sit with oversized bubble gum sculptures that take the viewer back to lost utopian moments.

Neo post-pop artist and pioneer of the ‘naff graphics’ movement Nicky Carvell is probably the most colourful person you will ever meet – in every sense of the word. From her ultra vibrant persona (exuberantly kitted out in her signature ‘leisure wear’ look) to her shock of violet peroxide hair and trademark glitter goth eye makeup. Her bold, maximal, playful hyperactive art works manifest in intricately complex, eye-searingly magnificent prints which she applies to large scale metal plates, huge stickers, sculptures, mats, clothing and even home furnishings. Inspired by nostalgic memories of forgotten utopian leisure centres and hyper optimistic 80s and 90s advertising graphics, that she fell in love with growing up in her cherished hometown Hemel Hempstead, Nicky’s unique take on these forlorn buildings and decaying structures is a never-ending source for her own inimitable world vision. A former post graduate of the Royal Academy of Art, she has shown in exhibitions all over the world and is currently partaking in ‘Wearable Expressions’ at The Palos Verdes Art Centre in LA which celebrates her own ‘Nikwear’ clothing line in the context of fine art.

Hi Nicky. Your work is not only a feast for the eyes, but also incredibly emotive. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind your work?

It’s about failed modernism really, which can be quite sad. I grew up in suburbia – Hemel Hempstead which is a new town, so a lot of my family are from the east end of London. But they all got offered a ‘better life’  in Hatfield, St Albans or Hemel Hempstead in these utopias built for working families. So we went from a tiny cramped house in the east end to the ‘promised land.’ But then over time when you go back to these places you see the civic concrete, the abandoned outdated structures and the buildings that were once so hopeful, have now all been left to decay. And they try to brighten them up with a jazzy façade, and it just doesn’t quite work. That tension between the urban grittiness - the failed concrete and the wacky plastic signage that’s trying to be quite American, but it doesn’t quite get there… And I look at all that quite affectionately.

So do childhood memories play an important role in your art?

Yes – when I was a teenager I always went to a place called ‘Leisure World’ which had 3 night clubs, a swimming pool, ice skating rink and bowling. And it was on the top of a hill with this faded blue and yellow tower and an actual turret! It was literally this castle of teenage dreams. So I always used to go up there but I never fitted in. They wouldn’t let me in the clubs or anything just because I wasn’t dressed right. And the irony was I was wearing actual full on leisurewear. But because I was a girl, I wasn’t dressed revealingly enough to get in. So my experience of Leisure World was mainly being outside dressed in leisure wear and looking in longingly at this epic place.  It inspired me even more, because I couldn’t go inside and that made me imagine...

There is something deeply spiritual about your work that’s draws the viewer in - almost a higher presence that comes through - is this intentional?

Well people cannot stop staring at my work so I feel it must communicate on a spiritual level. That’s not an intention but I guess it is quite hypnotic – the shapes, the forms, the colors. I was quite frantic when I was younger and I’ve calmed down a lot now, but I do find I draw every day, and maybe that is a kind of meditation. It’s like an outpouring of the inner workings of my brain – not really ‘art therapy’ intentionally – but more trying to make the world I want manifest itself, magic voodoo stuff!! It wasn’t easy growing up as a teenager standing up for myself – so maybe in a way there is some therapeutic value, but more in an affirmative way. It’s like having my own mandala or something, to concentrate on.

Tell us about the show you did in a church?

It was during a festival called ‘Spirit of Soho’ and while I was making the work, I had the idea of Francis Bacon in my head and all the frenzied energy and history of Soho – gay bars, strip bars, architecture etc. And when I put the work up in the church I wasn’t ready myself for the impact it would have in that very beautiful, ancient context. Everyone gasped when I unwrapped it – even the pastor! It surprised me because it really worked against this Huguenot French protestant stone work. And to see that my work spoke on that sort of historical level - I couldn’t believe it!

I want to be rebellious – not for anyone else but to push my own senses

What are your ‘beliefs'?

I’m not religious or anything. But I do like going to Hindu temples, and I find Hari Krishnas fascinating. They have this idol called Jagannath who has giant eyes – very hypnotic, and you go in front of him and give him offerings and it makes you feel great. That’s the most literally spiritual I get! When they start dancing around it all gets a bit too much for me, so I just watch everyone.

Explain the synergy between art and clothing as you see it?

I think that crossover came at a point where I felt always putting something in a white gallery made too much sense, and I always want to push myself. I want to be rebellious – not for anyone else but to push my own senses. I’d got a bit too comfortable in a gallery space. I enjoy the reaction of wearing one of my tee shirts – just walking down the street and people looking and talking to me. People come up to you and chat to you about it.  My work is abstract but it seems to affect people quite emotionally, and out of the gallery space people seem easily able to chat about it to me, and I like that.  

You were part of a show called Synaesthesia – do you have this condition?

It’s interesting because that was named by the curator of the show and she named it after seeing my work, so I think she thought the same thing. I think my visual memory is very strong so I get associations quite strongly and rather than colours, I get visual images so it’s similar I think. I do get photographs in my mind of forms and shapes when I watch certain TV programmes or listen to music like Nirvana or E17.

You previously created printed cushions that smelt of candyfloss, when I look at your images they have an aroma to me – maybe tropical or like 80s bubble-gum erasers…Are you going to do any more work with scent?

There’s a bit of an irony to that because about three years ago I lost my sense of smell completely! I cannot smell anything at all now! I went to the doctor about it. I’m not sure if I banged my head in the studio or whether it is from working with chemicals – it’s just gone, and the doctor now says I may never get it back. They offered me a nose job so they could find out what’s going on but I’ve got used to it now. I can only taste certain things now too – so I love curry and Chinese food and really salty things. Maybe in a way I’m now even more reliant on my visual –and also my hearing is really super sensitive.

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