Gremlin Cache, 1973-2020
Installation view Plains Art Museum
wood, foam, cardboard, screen, acrylic, epoxy, found object, projection courtesy of the artist
World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things
“Meet the Owner of America’s Best Roadside Attraction,” Atlas Obscura
Few artists have traveled the distances of this continent to the lengths of Erika Nelson. Over the last two decades, Nelson’s practice – which merges artistic process, writing, fieldwork, and public engagement – has been a singular force in the advocacy, preservation, and creation of rural visionary art environments. Through her work with the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, Nelson visits roadside attractions purported to be the “world’s largest” and then creates miniature replicas and shadow boxes that sit alongside documentation of the original object.
Through the World’s Largest project – both as a museum in Lucas, Kansas and a traveling “art car” – Nelson has presented these objects as surprising catalysts for a complex conversation on the nature of rural culture, economy, and representation. Nelson attributes the spark of this artistic vision to her formative experience of summer road trips away from her hometown in rural Missouri.
“As a kid, sitting backwards in the back of our family’s AMC Gremlin on long cross-country trips, I felt at home,” Nelson shared during a recent Tedx talk. “I watched us pull away from the place we called “home,” in a little, tiny town where I’d always felt out of place . . . but summer was great, no status quo, no paranoia about social cliques or standards – a new life with every trip . . . Sitting backwards, I’d see where we’d just been, receding off into the distance. If we were traveling west, I was looking east. When I would turn around, I would join the forward-facing discovery of making our own way.”This sense of reflection within movement is the starting place for Gremlin Cache in this exhibition, which draws from images gathered from the approximately 300 sites Nelson’ has documented during her work, through a process that takes her far from Lucas, Kansas for up to six months each year.
Through the vantage point of the backseat of the Gremlin, Gremlin Cache presents Nelson’s “wanderings through American culture, as expressed by place,” telling a personal story that, as the images and miles accrue, presents a layered consideration of how culture, history, and national identities shape these very objects – and the act of travel itself. Nelson’s piece lays bare the relationship between many of these objects and the implementation of the interstate system, with its complex rural-urban relationships. Gremlin Cache balances the transformative community collaborations that gave rise to many of these structures with an understanding that these representations offer only a partial understanding of a place or its history.
These reflections are often shared by Nelson as she travels the continent as an independent artist, educator, and thought leader stewarding connections between rural communities, public and folk art, and creative community development. While this work has taken her to town halls, universities, and humanities councils, it has also, true to the spirit of her vision, led her to social spaces such as a Spam carving workshop in Topeka, Kansas.
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