Installation view of Nicole Havekost's "Chthonic" exhibition at Mia.

Flaws and all: Nicole Havekost’s chthonic sculptures

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I wanna offer my love and respect till the end

—Adam “MCA” Yauch, Sure Shot, 1994


Twice 10 years old, not fully told

Since nature gave me breath

My race is run, my thread is spun

Lo here is fatal Death.

—Anne Bradstreet, Upon a Fit of Sickness, 1632



As I write this essay on “Chthonic,” the exhibition of new work by Rochester-based artist Nicole Havekost now on view at Mia, we face the reckoning of an unprecedented loss of life and the trial of Derek Chauvin. To claim we are in extraordinary circumstances would be to forget the history of humanity. This is not the first politicized pandemic nor will it be our last. Nearly 40 years ago, America was confronted with the AIDS crisis, a paralyzed government, systemic racism, and rampant economic booms and busts. A century ago, we ended a global war only to be terrorized by other invisible forces: the H1N1 pandemic and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

To write about the twinned emotions of pain and elation contained within the body feels raw. Yet Havekost’s exhibition is warm, like a mother’s grasp—a safe space to pause in the midst of our present realities.

The definition of chthonic, a Greek word, is “concerning, belonging to, or inhabiting the underworld.” In a metaphorical sense, chthonic represents a person’s direct connection to biology and the ground. In other word, “from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Though Havekost’s exhibition was conceived prior to 2020, the work has taken on deeper connections during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lumbering forms in Nicole Havekost’s “Chthonic” exhibition at Mia.

The concepts underpinning Havekost’s work are rooted in the simultaneous joy, sublime embarrassment, and disorderly beauty of human biology. Through grotesque exaggeration of bodily forms, Havekost touches on the deep tension between the cerebral and corporeal existence of humanity. The artist reminds us that everyone exists in a body that was born and will eventually decay. For cis-gendered women, the corporeal realities of menstruation, childbirth, menopause, and every hormonal moment in between is a reminder of this bizarrely beautiful existence.

Havekost’s artistic practice is situated at the nexus of craft and art. For her exhibition at Mia, she has created a series of eight large-scale, soft sculptures and a large-scale, wall-mounted installation of hand-stitched forms.

Approaching the entrance to the US Bank gallery, visitors are immediately confronted by the anomaly that is Massed. The gaping, pustule-like forms of Massed are composed of dyed sewing patterns, hand-stitched together and stuffed with loose threads. Havekost has massed the dress patterns into honeycomb-like structures that span more than twenty feet long and ten feet tall—nearly the size of the gallery’s west wall. You know you’ve seen this pattern before but it defies a specific definition.

Reactions to Massed are often visceral and intrinsic.The repeated forms recall anatomy or biological structures: nests, wombs, open sores. Cellular memory, a biomedical theory that supposes that our very cellular structures contain a memory, is rooted within the repeated forms found throughout nature. Perhaps this is why Massed feels oddly familiar yet disconnected?

A close-up look at Massed.

Massed exists in a space defined by oppositions, a space co-inhabited by zit-popping videos and anatomical anomalies. It is in this nexus of gross and awe that Havekost’s work directly references the feminine experience. At once fetishized for what we have, women are simultaneously dismissed by society for what our bodies do.

Do not be mistaken. If the front space of the US Bank Gallery is a metaphor for the push/pull of the feminine experience, then the back gallery is an outright statement of reclamation of the aging, sagging feminine body. Havekost has created the large-scale figures out of ashen grey felt, eye hooks, and stuffing, and their awkward compositions recall the humble nature of humanity: Supine, Settle, Nourish, Lumber.

“I have spent, like, most of my life trying to control my body and make it do and be exactly what I thought it should be. Turns out your body has other desires and needs,” Havekost noted in a recent interview. Creating abnormal shapes out of sewing patterns feels appropriate considering how fashion has always transformed the human form, hiding the fecundity of life under layers of fabric and thread.

Havekost’s lumbering, resting sculptures feel at once humane and feral. They bring the physicality of the feminine body to the fore. By virtue of their sheer volume, the artist forces us to physically engage with the works. You have to strain, move, and climb under the works to see them in totality. If you are not careful, you could trip over a breast or limb. The eight figures are impossible to view from a single angle. They consume the space of the gallery.

Close-up of the stitching in Havekost’s sculptural figures.

The monumentality of the figures extends beyond the profane—exposed pits, tits, and butts—into a tender celebration of the feminine body, unabashedly proud of its droops, hips, and bellies. Yet this accepting embrace of aging does not dismiss reasons why embracing the female body is a radical act. Women are asked by society to prolong aging, even stop it, with anti-aging creams, plastic surgery, tapes, serums, and jade rollers. Postpartum actresses are expected to “get their bodies” back within days. Menopausal women are often made to feel embarrassed about their temperature swings and greying hair. We are barraged with products to buy and try that would ostensibly hide our imperfections. To not only accept flaws but display them, on a monumental scale, is indeed a radical act of joy and compassion.

These headless forms do not come across as perverse. Rather, in chorus with Massed, the exhibition speaks to something comforting (like a Muppet) or timeless (like Paleolithic feminine figures). In short, Havekost has created something magical, something that can contain two oppositional responses at once. Now, as we emerge into a new epoch, perhaps the most magical aspect of it all is how soothing it can be to be enveloped by radical joy. After all, don’t we all crave a bit of witchy wonder to soothe the aches and pains of the past year?