Nicole Gordon Paints Psychedelic Dreams

By David Jenison on May 23, 2018

If someone drops acid at Disney World, will the experience be more magical? That depends on the person's perspective and the type of trip that unfolds, but the options can range from beautifully enlightening (it really is a small world after all) to the darkly terrifying (those country-music playing bears are freaking me out). In a possible nod to both extremes, Chicago-based artist Nicole Gordon paints surreal dreamscapes that balance childlike playfulness and phantasmic nightmares, allowing viewers to absorb the visuals in wildly different ways. Epitomizing this variance, her work often includes tea cups inspired by the Mad Hatter ride at Disney that famously makes some people cheer and others sick

Gordon's latest amusement park-themed pieces continue the deep dive down the rabbit hole. In addition to references like the tea cups and the Cheshire Cat, the post-apocalyptic dreamscapes portray the main characters in black and white as if to suggest the visual narrative falls outside the confines of standard reality. PRØHBTD spoke with Gordon to learn more. 

You had a show last year titled Dehydrated Rainbow, which is packed with all types of potential meanings. What does it mean to you, and how does it reflect the visuals in the new works? 

The original idea for the title stems from a work of art that was created by my husband’s brother when he was a child. It is a three-dimensional rainbow made of paper, and we keep it like a relic. On the top of the rainbow, it says “Dehydrated Rainbow: directions on inside of package.” There is a tab where you can peel the top of the rainbow off to reveal the directions, but it has never been pulled in four decades. It’s very purposefully frustrating, which is the point. If you pull the tab to get to the meaning, it will no longer be art. I was also drawn to the phrase as the title because a real rainbow is the last thing in the world that could ever actually be dehydrated as its hydration is all it really has. On a literal basis, I think the title is fitting because of the contrast between the vibrant colors in the dreamscapes and the black and white figures that inhabit them.  

The teacups are a common visual motif in your new show. Did you specifically pick the teacup because it references the presumably insane Mad Hatter? In what ways are the Mad Hatter teacups a metaphor for life? 

The teacups can remind us of order, social structure, daily routine and civility. Maybe that is why [Alice in Wonderland author Lewis] Carroll placed the Mad Hatter in charge of the formality in the story—because he could turn it all on its head. But the teacups take on a life of their own outside of the story and through the Disney ride. The ride is often simultaneously exhilarating and sickening, not unlike these opposing feelings that we experience when trying to navigate through many aspects of our lives. 

Carroll's Cheshire Cat also appears in the art. What symbolism does the cat represent in the Alice narratives that you wanted to convey your artwork?

The Cheshire Cat is one of the most distinctive characters in the story and the most enigmatic. It is a character that operates on a different level and is therefore difficult to trust. However, the concept of the Cheshire Cat pre-dates Carroll and was incorporated by him into his story. The exact origin of the concept is fittingly mysterious and unreliable with different accounts and theories. The image of the Cheshire Cat that I use in my paintings was found while researching defunct amusement parks. This [image] was from one with an Alice in Wonderland theme. One of the haunting qualities of Carroll’s cat that drew me to it was that its body tends to fade away while the smile remains… not unlike the fading of a rainbow.   

In the 1960s, people started to see drug themes in Carroll's work, and some suggest the mushrooms Alice ate were psychedelic. What do you think about this theory, and is it reflected in your art in any way?

I’m drawn to Carroll’s work due to the psychedelic nature. It is extremely creative and has its own logic, which is purposefully inconsistent and apart from the logic that guides our everyday lives. If I had to guess or theorize, I would say that Carroll primarily intended for Alice in Wonderland to entertain and to provoke thought, and understood that it would be open to multiple interpretations. Many artists do this to make it interesting… even to themselves. 

A great example is the question the Mad Hatter posed that drove everyone nuts for years: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Carroll intended for there to be no answer and eventually made one up to get people to stop asking him. Part of the creation process for me is to try to operate in parallel meanings. In that sense, the work is not a mystery that is meant to be solved by the viewer, but rather something that puts them in a unique place and causes them to have thoughts that are out of the ordinary. 

Do you see darker themes than most in Disney-related visuals, and which Disney tale is the darkest?

Disney is the epitome of pure happiness. When anything is purely happy, I think that most of us have an instinct to be skeptical. So, I don’t see anything intrinsically dark about Disney’s visuals, but they are a great utopian foundation that I use to trigger that skepticism. In that sense, the less dark a tale is, the darker it can become with a little nudging.  

Many classic Disney tales have origins that were not so innocent. So, in a sense, the natural skepticism that we have is well founded. For example, in the source material for Cinderella, the stepsisters end up mutilated, and pigeons eat their eyes. In the Hunchback of Notre Dame’s source material, there is hanging, starvation and the exhumation of skeletons from the grave. The list goes on and on with other classic Disney tales. I don’t blame Disney for not wanting to give their target audience nightmares, but there will always be something unsettling about the glossy end-product for adults if they view it from the right angle.  

What are some of the more important social themes you tend to convey in your artwork?

Each series that I do is different. In prior series, there may have been some social themes that were apparent, while in others, they were more visual explorations. With this series, I have been primarily focused on the core concept of creativity when over-programming goes away. When a child has the time and freedom to go into their self-constructed worlds—that is, through their own looking glasses—fascinating things come about. I try to tap into that place myself during my creative process and let traditional logic fade away.  

What are your three favorite colors, and what emotions do they convey to you?

I honestly don’t think of colors in that way. The best analogy that I can give is that of musical notes. By themselves, they can be pleasing, but not moving. The interesting thing is the combinations and transitions. I put a lot of thought into the palettes that I work in. For this series, I have chosen a much brighter palette with more primary colors but have limited their usage and juxtaposed them with black and white.  

You keep a database of images that you use as references. Is there a particular generation or decade that tends to make up a larger share of the images?

It is all over the board, and the concentrations change dramatically over time as my interests change and evolve. I have drawn from imagery from periods as early as the 1500s through contemporary imagery.  I often weave together imagery from several time periods to make the narratives seem timeless. 

Your artwork often deals in dreamscapes. Are these happy dreams or nightmares?

I will say that I am a very happy person. However, I have always been the type of person who enjoys watching horror movies, murder mysteries and other things with a bit of shock value. I think that probably comes out in my work. In my mind, I can happily inhabit a dream that might be going a little downhill.  

You studied art in Florence and Michigan. How did your European and American educations differ?

My time studying in Florence was much less structured and formal than my experience at the University of Michigan. In Florence, there was definitely a great sense of learning through experiencing life around you rather than a focus on classroom studies. Undoubtedly, my interest in art history peaked during my experience abroad and the ability to spend so much time in and out of museums. 

Spanish designer Armuseli created fashion items featuring your artwork. What are the most visually effective ways to merge pop art and couture fashion?

To be honest, this is not a question that I think I can answer with any great authority. This was my first experience with a collaboration of this kind. I was more of a bystander through the process and was as curious as anyone to see how the two worlds would merge.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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