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Alchemy of the Sea

Christopher Nitsche fuses found objects to sail on the threshold of memory, transition and ‘extant history'

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Whether one is landlocked or raised on the water, the image of a ship evokes myriad ideas. For artist Christopher Nitsche, the vessels are used to explore “memory, passages, waking dreams and transitional states.” Nitsche’s new exhibit at Jacksonville University, fittingly titled Passage/Memory/Transition, includes 2D and sculptural work, and the large-scale, site-specific installation Liminal Ship.

“The title itself is all-encompassing,” says Nitsche. “I’m using all three galleries. The first gallery is going to have some pedestal and wall sculptures, some steel, some mixed-media, as well as concept drawings for helping plan out the installation itself. The installation will be in the second and third galleries. It’s site-specific to the space, to pass through the connecting wall between the second and third gallery spaces.”

A former civil engineer design drafter, Nitsche used 3D Rhino to measure the gallery and design the ship’s layout. “When I was a civil engineer, I had that experience of taking a site, surveying it and getting a feel … to come up with an idea of a good work to go in ‘there.’ Each installation is specific to its locale. For some works, I like to say site-responsive.”

Nitsche estimates that from bow point to bow point, Liminal will measure between 35 and 38 feet. Over the course of the summer, he did prefabrication of the framework which will become the installation. He also gathered lumber, which was then repurposed. “The two halves will be distinctively different; since it’s dealing with aspects of associated memory but also a passage or a transition.”

For the installation, artist and JU associate professor Jim Benedict and JU visual art students will assist Nitsche. “It’s a teaching experience as well,” says Nitsche, who’s spent the past decade-plus as a Savannah College of Art & Design professor. “And I love when I have students involved to see what it’s like to conceptualize this thing and to realize it.”

Nitsche has had great success in this realization of his work. Since the early ’80s, his works have been in 50-plus group shows and 25-plus solo shows, from Colorado and Los Angeles to Japan and Serbia. A multi-award-and-grant recipient, his works ae showcased in dozens of visual arts and mainstream media outlets—elicitng a wide range of appeal.

“You know, of all people, children seem to naturally ‘get my work,’” he laughs.

He says his art is “eclectic,” with myriad processes—mixed-media sculptures and drawings, found objects, welded steel and site-specific installations.

The symbol of the ship is a journey both allegorical and personal for Nitsche. Raised in a family of sailors in Northern Illinois, Nitsche cites a “generational connection” to the water. His grandfather was a sailor, his dad was a master sailor; his brother is a master sailor.

“We lived right off Lake Michigan and had a small boat, a Sunfish. It’s a tough lake to sail sometimes. I didn’t have a need to be on the water, but the movement of sailing is magical.”

The sensorial sailing experience steers most of his work. “When you’re sailing, the passage is patience. You’re at one with wind, water and weather. Everything is connected; you really have to be in tune with all of that,” he explains. “For those who feel like sailing is the only thing they want to do? I can really understand that.”

Nitsche’s nautical experience and resulting consciousness are aesthetic. “I find the form beautiful. From the bow view, it’s a majestic angular presence. I try to mimic some of these qualities in my installations and sculptures.”

He concedes working sailing into his art is conceptual. “The presence of boats and ships is attached to almost every culture. It is in navigation and travel, but also as ceremonial crafts, such as rowing the dead to the next spiritual plane. So the ship is a carrier of cargo, passage, soul and memories.”

Nitsche first used ship-as-metaphor some 20 years ago. “It began when my wife and I lived in the mountains in western New Mexico after I got my MFA from the University of New Mexico. I wanted a focus to my art, and ships, with my understanding of the form, seemed a perfect fit. I started building forms on our land, with native natural materials. Living far from water let me explore the ship form as a metaphorical vehicle without literal associations to the sea.”

Using what he calls “urban detritus” to build gives the works form. “Household throwaways are the indigenous material of urban society,” he explains. “I have a profound interest in making use of repurposed objects.”

At Savannah’s Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, the 2018 outdoor installation Away is a junkyard of plastic bottles, buckets, cans and wiring, from a river. These literal 21st-century castaways are suspended in a web hanging within a framework of lumber, which in turn rests within an cluster of trees. The overall effect is ghost-like, ruminative and environmental: Whether the ship is “dead,” in motion, or a mere relic is a judgment demanded of the viewer.

Nitsche has collected timbers from the aftermaths of Hurricanes Mathew and Irma; flea markets are stops on his search; Jacksonville Humane Society’s Thrift Store is a favorite. He goes “steel digging” in the metal salvage yards of Asheville, where his daughter attends school.

“Based on experience, and the step-by-step path I’ve chosen in creating my art, the first criteria is, ‘What is the object’s potential meaning, and can I get a lot of it?’,” he explains. “My studio is filled with dozens of containers, carefully labeled with accrued toys and objects. Depending on where my mind is, and the amount of desired pieces, a sculpture is born.”

While on a much smaller scale than his installations, Nitsche notes that his sculptures still share parallel, similar concepts. “The mixed-media, found-object sculptures have meaning in the choice of materials. These works are like dense-packed cargo holds, where toys and household items play off each other in ironic and satirical associations.”

As part of what he calls his “continuum” Flora and Fauna series, the piece Like Cats and Dogs is indicative of a more humorous merger of found objects, universal signifiers and the omnipresent ship form. “That piece and series are dense-packed wall pieces, toy-like things, that have irony and levels of satire.”

Like Cats and Dogs is a compressed grouping of toys in various poses, smashed into a crowded mob of recognizable brands (Garfield, Hello Kitty, Scooby Doo) and lesser-known items. The effect is innocent and menacing; colors, limbs and smiles are seen amid this clot of fun items crammed in a claustrophobic knot, molded within a ship-shaped form.

“For that piece, I was thinking about the current political travails. There’s always something immediate that fires up the creation of that work. Irony, satire and wordplay—I can invoke some thoughts and feelings that are personal or draw universal. Any of these objects speak beyond ‘what they are.’ They transcend themselves; that’s where I think there’s a parallel with the installations.”

The exhibit includes 2D pieces of graphite, acrylic and colored pencil, and welded works, which reveal a kind of morphed, freer take on the ideas of memory and transition. “Those are distinctive and this is where it really gets into flow, movement and passage. Some of these look serpentine and like rivers and the form is really deconstructed—but they’re all ships to me.”

This flowing and unrolling of personal and universal timelines can be hard to articulate. Nitsche’s skills as a visual communicator, using and arranging materials into forms and pieces, deftly trigger the audience’s personal recollections and experiences.

After decades of exploring these concepts, Nitsche’s journey of singular insight and engaging work continues. It’s a voyage which he hopes the audience will join.

“I ask a lot of the viewer to spend some time with the pieces and ask, ‘Why are these things here?’ Then they can draw their own conclusions from that. From childhood to adulthood, there could be these things where any one viewer could draw their own meaning from this. It’s a contemplative recollection that I work with.”

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Christopher Nitsche’s Passage/Memory/Transition, opening reception 5-7 p.m. Oct. 4, Jacksonville University’s Alexander Brest Gallery, ju.edu/cfa.

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