After helping her and a couple other fellow artists hang the new show at Viridian Artists this past weekend, I sat down with Vernita N’Cognita at a little gourmet pizza place around the corner, just off 10th Avenue. She’s been associated with the gallery for more than a decade and is now its director. I consider her the presiding spirit of compassion in that little gallery, someone who has a cool sense of humor and a warm heart. She changed her name from Vernita Nemec to Vernita N’Cognita as an homage to the “unknown artist,” which is consistent with her vocation as director of exhibit space for those who aren’t represented by more commercial galleries. As an artist, she’s built a long-standing reputation in branches of art I know much less about than painting: performance, installations, collage. She was a part of the SoHo scene in the early 70s when it was just emerging, and has been a recognized figure ever since—she’s still being invited to perform in spaces at various sites around the world, though she’s never achieved fame or earned much for her work. She comes from a Catholic family in Ohio, raised by what sounds like a pair of caring, attentive parents, her mother a housewife and her father a tradesman, and this upbringing has been the subject of some of her most interesting and lyrical performances—which are invariably about the way it feels to be a woman in contemporary America. She calls herself a feminist artist, yet when she describes her work, it sounds more subtle and literary than polemical. What I took away from our conversation was a sense, now more than ever, that an artist needs to define the nature of “success” and what it means in a personal way. In most cases, it can’t be about money, nor even about the scope of one’s audience: artistic integrity might ultimately depend on being able to make a living doing something else. And not ordering the tenderloin.
Vernita: When I started out, I lived on 11th. Then on Christopher. Now on Canal St., where I’ve lived for a thousand years. I was mostly painting and doing installations. My first gallery was SOHO20, one of the first feminist galleries. I’m still on their board of directors. Actually, I’m curating a 40-year retrospective for them. After I left SOHO 20, I showed in colleges and other alternative spaces. Then at Gallery 128 on the Lower East Side. Now, in addition to Viridian, I curate a restaurant in Queens. Restaurants make sense except for the fact that the work smells like food. (She laughs) I did a show there and I made my price list like a menu: appetizers, main course and dessert. I ran this arts organization called Artists Talk on Art, which was an historically important organization for ten years. You don’t get money for any of these things, but it broadened my reputation. People think I’m a helper for artists.
As Lauren Purje pointed out, there isn’t just one art world.
People forget that Mary Boone went to RISD and the guy who wears the bathrobe and makes films. . .
Julian. She went to school with him. So of course he shows in her gallery.
You almost have to define what you mean by success.
Some artists don’t want a gallery to exert control over what they do. You have to figure out how to make money. How have you done it all these years?
I always tell my students, get a day job. I taught at Brooklyn College for nine years and I got grants. I adjuncted at a lot of colleges, Hunter, Jersey City State College. I taught at SVA for one year. I got screwed out of that job by a friend because I got into a car accident. I was able to get workman’s comp. I was so panicked about money I wrote a hundred letters a day. I got Blue Cross to give me cash. I made the other driver pay. I had a few thousand to go on for a few months. I freelanced. I used to make soft sculpture for a lot of medical magazines. I did a heart made out of red fabric. I still have it some place. Then I worked for one of the artists who was in our recent photo show. He was a graphic designer and I was his studio assistant when we were still doing paste-ups and mechanicals. In ’99, I started at Viridian.
Feminism is still the focus.
Yes. No matter whatever form, performance, installation or collage, it’s either women in general or my personal life. For the last couple years, my performances are about being an older woman, how I’ve become invisible. It’s a psychological state. In 1999, I did a performance about things my mother told us. My mother would give me all this advice. Find a good man. Never let the heels of your shoes wear down. Always cross your legs. Never order the most expensive thing on the menu. It had a whole litany of these things. I came from a pretty poor background and didn’t have the exposure and training that someone who came from a wealthier background would have. So it all helped, this advice. I did. At least I was somewhat well behaved in public. My father was an appliance repairman, worked for a department store and when people would buy new appliances . . . well, refrigeration was his specialty. My mother was a housewife. She had this wonderful collection of clippings, about this thick, and she would go through them every night, and they represented dreams, fantasies, wishes, a beautiful home, how to arrange your furniture, how to tie a scarf around your neck in a pretty way. I pored over them. I loved her clippings. I worked them into the performances. Before that, my first real performance, was on the corner of Spring and Wooster. There was a building there. It was the beginning of SoHo in 1978. There was a wall with inset windows, but they were boarded up. You could climb into it and stand there. I would dress up in these long gowns with a long apron on, and I would sweep the street. My partner was in a painter suit. He was painting the wall. That was a performance. Housekeeping on the street corner. I got a Jerome Foundation grant for this piece I did called Private Thoughts, Private Places. It was a performance about sexual fantasies of teenage girls. Lace curtains. It was based on these drawings I did of people making love, which my mother discovered in my underwear drawer. It was a beautiful performance. I did that at the L.A. Women’s Building. I did it here at Franklin Furnace. I have another one called Mexican Memories where I wrote this whole song translated into Spanish and I was working with this musician at the time who was an architect, and he had this whole setup with samplers, and we worked with echoing.
It sounds as if your approach to feminism is simply about what it feels like to be a woman. It isn’t explicitly political.
It’s personal politics. We all wonder about the meaning of life, the meaning of art, what is the value of what we do? That’s really what they’re about. We have to get a job to support this art habit that we have. We’re all doing something else. Often people who don’t have that day job are making crappy art.
After all these years you’re still being invited to give performances in so many places.
And I’m not famous. I don’t have a dealer. It’s so hard for anyone to get written about. It makes no sense.
The Internet is the new reality. You don’t have to be written up in a conventional way, in the print media.
Our goal shouldn’t be fame. It’s all so distorted that we feel that need. With the Web, if you have a website, you’re there. You’re available. You don’t need big bucks. Everything’s changing. We’re at a big shift in how people connect with art. It’s a matter of adapting.