Alicia Nauta's imaginative collages take you from dusty bookshelves into other dimensions

Her printmaking opens portals to other worlds, suggesting that "fantastic possibility" lies ahead.

Her printmaking opens portals to other worlds, suggesting that 'fantastic possibility' lies ahead

(Alicia Nauta)

The first step for printmaker Alicia Nauta is choosing the right bookshelf to build from. She routinely hunts garage sales and secondhand shops for her source material. The fifth floor Picture Collection at the Toronto Reference Library is a favourite stop. When I meet her there, she focuses her search that day on the section marked "design" and quickly pulls an armful of titles. She leafs through the manuals, guides and encyclopaedias, bookmarking items of interest: an unusual scalloped border, say, or a printer's ornament.

"I like this shell," she tells me, flipping the book in my direction. "It's a piece from the Jurassic period that's been replicated in this Philadelphia-style dresser from the 1700s. But, mostly, I just like the shell." Its spiral looks mathematical and perfect. "This is maybe the most enjoyable part," she says. "It's shopping." And what treasures she finds here only cost the price of a photocopy from the machine around the corner.

(Alicia Nauta)

Nauta makes psychedelic works of speculative fiction. The various diagrams of antiquities, botanical drawings, the elements of retro fashion, decor and design that she's copied and clipped are pasted together into dreamlike virtual spaces that feel detached from any one epoch or era. Conjured from the contents of dusty bookshelves, her practice opens portals into alternate dimensions. Her visions take shape across many different media: she's made album covers, posters, wallpaper, beach towels, shirts, zines, art books and prints.

On view until November, visitors to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in Toronto will encounter four large-scale billboards designed by Nauta. Installed at the threshold between city and island, the works there ask voyagers to think about gateways and what they represent.

(Chris Foster)

At the docks, a billboard picturing nine open entryways signifies our present time. "I feel like there's all this change happening," Nauta says. "There are all these paths to take." Another panel compacts the relics of human history — the vases and statues and tapestries — into a single geological layer. That's the past. To imagine the future, the artist has offered two different visions. One features a water fountain displayed centrally with a seed fern (currently extinct) seen thriving to its side. The other finds the earth turned to desert. A human hand sinks beneath the dunes.

"I was never happy with my drawings," she tells me. "I couldn't express what I wanted to." Collage, then, was a breakthrough. She realized she could communicate what she desired with the illustration she found. The scanner bed has become one of her primary art-making instruments. She prefers its in-machine processes to Photoshop. Sometimes, she'll wiggle a page across the copier's glass to manipulate and distort the reproduction like stretching a piece of bubble gum between your fingers.

Her practice derives at least partly from a fixation with thrift shops: the way they embody a sort of museum of mass culture; how those shops satisfy a very human compulsion to want to look at objects — almost as a source of comfort. Her aesthetic is influenced by the maximalist tendencies of the '60s and '70s, she says. "The saturated colours, the graphic designs and the bold, geometric patterns." Those were some of the generations of style that were cycling through secondhand outlets and vintage stores when she began visiting.

The source books she gravitates toward are from the same era — things like quilting instructions, gardening guides and architectural dictionaries, illustrated with hand-drawn, pre-computer graphics. She sometimes enlarges a picture three or four times its size to illuminate the idiosyncrasies of its original artist. She likes to find where the pattern admits it was not born digitally.

(Alicia Nauta)

In Nauta's visual universe, archways, doors and columns are a major motif — "anything to suggest going into another dimension," she says. Works like Losing the Pattern and Fever Dream propose that new realities with new sets of rules lie ahead. "The first way to change the world for the better is to imagine something else," she tells me. "The rules of society are always changing and we get to write them." Her world-making is a reminder that we're all right now engaged in the activity of world-making.

It's important to examine the patterns of human history closely, the artist says. We see where they lead and where they break down and how they might be reconfigured to take us somewhere new. There's fantastic possibility, her artwork suggests, waiting in the bookshelf.

See more of her work:

(Alicia Nauta)
(Alicia Nauta)
(Alicia Nauta)

Alicia Nauta's artwork is included in the exhibit Over Horizon Beyond alongside the work of Melissa Fisher-Rozenberg at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal from June to November 2018, part of the Summer 2018 Ferry Terminal Billboard Project. Nauta is also an exhibitor at the 2018 Toronto Art Book Fair running July 5 to July 8.

About the Author

Chris Hampton

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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