Words by Colleen Dougher
“Oh, Oh God!” the 12-foot-tall elephant sculpture in An Official State, Andrew Nigon’s solo exhibition at Primary Projects in Miami, encompasses ideas the artist has been exploring for three years. Made from polyurethane foam, parts of old sculptures, discarded clothing and other items, the ultimate elephant in the room represents an obvious truth Nigon feels people hesitate to acknowledge: “[the] insatiable drive to improve while simultaneously living within bodies that are in constant decay.”
“It’s not like I’m trying to come up with an answer,” he says, “but just to investigate the strangeness of thinking that if I can just get this bill paid or if I can just get this job, everything will be OK. This is the way our brain works — trying to reach certain goals and thinking once that goal is achieved, we’re going to be fine. But that’s never the case. It’s always crumbling as we’re building. … I think it’s weird that the human brain cannot comprehend that concept. If it could, maybe it would just be really depressing, and we couldn’t continue on. I don’t know.”
That spot between hope and defeat informs Nigon’s exhibition, in which brightly colored party objects such as plastic cups and latex balloons mingle with darker discards to create a cast of what Nigon refers to as “seductive and tortured characters that permanently exist halfway from somewhere to nowhere.”
In “Candy Pop,” ticker tape hangs like party streamers from the antlers of a stuffed elk’s head. A cupped green hand emerges from the right side of the head and a rounded, orange balloon bulges from its left eye socket. The 12-foot totem pole “Disciples of a New Faith” is made of foam, clothes and previous sculptures. “It has a grotesque nature to it and the body parts fuse together, so your eyes have to trace the body parts to figure out which parts go with which body,” Nigon says. “It becomes a whole, and there’s a lot of paint and foam dripping down from the top. It’s a real mess.”
Nigon, who earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of South Florida embraces messes.
Six years ago, while molding clay into smaller works, he grew frustrated with the process. “I really wanted to create things that were much larger and fit in a room — not on a pedestal but that could sit on the floor and have a presence,” he recalls.
Nigon began experimenting with expandable foam, filling pant legs so they’d resemble actual legs, some of which are now part of “Oh, Oh God!” “The elephant was made up primarily of pieces I made over a 2 1/2-year period that never turned into finished products, or were shown, or were pieces that I thought were unsuccessful or had served their purpose. I would cut all of those pieces apart and throw them into this body that I was making.
“It’s kind of funny that in two years I went from making sculptures 12 inches tall to making an elephant that was 12 feet tall,” he adds.
When “Oh, Oh God!” debuted in 2009 during an exhibition at USF’s Contemporary Art Museum, the elephant held a more-aggressive stance and wielded a pink penis that appeared to be in midejaculation. The semen was made from resin.
In relaying his initial vision, Nigon explains that he had been translating Bible verses from English to Chinese and Arabic and back to English using online-translation programs. “I was chopping up the whole language, and I wanted to develop my own god for that chopped-up religion I was creating,” he explains. “I grew up Catholic in the Midwest, so I wanted to take the idea of that Catholic God, the very large and powerful father figure, and take it to the max, making [the elephant] as big as I possibly could and making the position extremely aggressive, and then on top of that, giving it an erect penis with semen shooting out so it’s almost like a totem to male aggression.”
After achieving this, he noticed that the glass eyes he’d stuck on the elephant’s face didn’t match its aggressive stance. “I thought it was cool, just looking at this enormous thing, and after a while, your eyes line up with the elephant’s eyes. And for me, that’s when it came to life,” he says. “There was a soul in it.”
While assembling the creature at Primary Projects, Nigon responded to that soul by toning down the aggression and replacing the penis with an antique table leg. The trunk in the original version is now the elephant’s left leg.
Nigon takes little care to protect his sculpture while transporting or storing it. “I like the idea that I can throw it up on a shelf or put it in the back of a truck and maybe a leg falls over, or something falls out of the truck and gets damaged,” he says. “I can now look at the elephant and point out certain things that have happened to it, almost like looking at scars on skin. There’s a reason why a thing is the way it is, and I don’t try to cover it up or fix it. I try to build in a way that encourages that sort of destruction.”