Los Angeles

Nicola L., Cloud, 1974–78, ink, cotton, wood, 63 × 35". From the series “Pénétrables,” 1968–2012. From “Shell.”

Nicola L., Cloud, 1974–78, ink, cotton, wood, 63 × 35". From the series “Pénétrables,” 1968–2012. From “Shell.”


Cloud, 1974–78, a body-size construction by Nicola L. (1932–2018), is a large, wall-mounted rectangle of cotton canvas measuring five feet high and three feet wide. From it hang five pockets of fabric that respectively mimic a head, arms, and legs. This object is one of the artist’s “Pénétrables,” 1968–2012, so named by French art critic Pierre Restany in the late 1960s. These wearable works were paraded in various art and non-art settings around Europe in the 1960s and 1970s by figures such as musician Caetano Veloso, attendees of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, and the artist’s own son. Indeed, they are paintings you can put on and animate with your body.

Cloud is installed alongside other pieces by Heidi Bucher (1926–1993) and Olivia Erlanger (b. 1990) in “Shell,” a pithy eight-work show at Del Vaz Projects. The exhibition’s metaphorically rich title draws, among other things, upon both the escargot motif that frequently appeared in Nicola L.’s art and Bucher’s 1972 “Bodyshell” series of wearable sculptures, which she made while living in Los Angeles. “Shell” is a stimulating invitation to mull over the fecund conceptual junction of woman/body/architecture/habiliments: an especially important set of interlocking ideas for feminist artists in the second half of the twentieth century.

Most of the works on view are objects that imply the body but from which the body is, of course, absent. They invite visitors to imagine putting them on, taking them off, or walking around inside of them. I found that they are better described as inhabitable rather than penetrable, as each piece offers the viewer an entrance, either symbolic or literal, mining the slippages between wearing and dwelling (like the small shift between habiller, the French verb meaning “to dress,” and habiter, the word for “to dwell”). Situated off the inner courtyard of this gallery—a spacious Spanish Revival–style home in Santa Monica—the domestic setting of the space provides a felicitous backdrop for the objects on display. 

Similar to the inside of an abalone or oyster shell, Bucher’s hanging sculpture Untitled, 1978–81, is glazed in mother-of-pearl pigment. To make the piece, Bucher adhered a blouse with splayed sleeves, frozen in glue and covered in pearlescent paint, to a large round piece of foam. While Nicola L.’s painting is wearable, the clothing employed by Bucher functions differently. It is a skin once worn but now molted. In a series of works that Bucher called “Einbalsamierungen” (Embalmings), 1973–78, she mummified personal and found garments, including pantyhose and nightgowns. (She made the works after she left Los Angeles and returned to Switzerland in 1973, just two years after women there were given the right to vote.) For Bucher, clothing functioned as an evocative container of bodily memory. In a 1981 interview, she explained: “At the very beginning, I embalmed my own underwear. . . . I would also call the underwear skin, that is to say, a very, very personal shell. . . . When I do this, I hold on to a part, a moment from my life . . . so these are perhaps discarded shells, discarded skins, which are then solidified . . . in order to lighten them, in order to bear them, in order to create a new state for myself.”

If Bucher’s work in this exhibition is metaphorically inhabitable, Erlanger’s Act I, 2022, solicits the viewer to move around in a dollhouse-style space with their eye; the setting also happens to resemble an eye. This diorama contains a pair of miniature doorways within an ocular convex shell made of Plexiglas, all of which are set into an eyelid-like frame covered in floral wallpaper. In this work, the interior of the home and the seeing body are one.

All the pieces here struck me as willingly vulnerable things. Calling to mind literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s description of deconstructionist, feminist, and postcolonial ways of thinking as a “radical acceptance of vulnerability,” they are objects offered to the viewer in a spirit of openness and curiosity.