Like the peeling faded posters on a city wall, Nicole Charbonnet’s paintings offer a palimpsest of images that hint at memories built up over time. She credits her native city New Orleans for giving her a heightened sense of the lingering effects of history. “If you watch New Orleans, you see everywhere the effects of the process of time on surfaces,” she says, adding, “That’s true of every place, every person.” Exploring the ways we remember, both individually and collectively, and the ways we forget, she starts each work by memory, often an image that has existed in the culture of other paintings, on film, and in nature, for example. She then sands the paint down, forcing the memory to fade and hides them under other images and words constructed from layers of collaged newsprint, posters, wallpaper samples, children’s storybooks, and such: all these lurk below and above segments of pigment, gesso, cement, and sculpting paste. Charbonnet’s paintings are very textural and built up over long periods. The superimposition of textures, images, words, loose, watery washes of paint, and veils of translucent fabric or paper creates a visual threshold in her work, which is something to look at as well as to look through. These surfaces retain or reveal a “memory” of preexisting stages or structures. The result is a manuscript in which some images, colors, textures are obfuscated, while others remain visible, however, shaped or shaded by previous or subsequent gestures, images or events. As Charbonnet says, “Nothing is ever completely gone, so even if you don’t hold a conscious memory of something, it forms the fabric and texture of who you are. I try to re-create the process your mind goes through in becoming what it is. You see something, and it reminds you of something else, another context, another feeling, even while the original image remains.” In this act, the artist reveals less about herself, highlighting the process of making art instead.
Charbonnet uses stereotypical images of America as a way of exploring our past and present perceptions of ourselves and others as well as our identity as members of a society and citizens of a country that now seem to be in transition and in the process of redefining its values and agendas. Many of her works take images from our cultural landscape, especially westerns and American film noir, and reshapes the images. She sees her process of "erasing" the paint and adding other layers over it as one that both celebrates and criticizes the values portrayed in the films. "As Americans, we respond to the iconography of the Wild West because it represents some of our ideals—open space, independence, self--determination," she says. " I'm raising questions about their current viability in a changing world. I make them look old and tired, though still beautiful, to ask if it's time to relegate them to memory."
Nicole has noted, “Painting for me serves as a metaphor for the phenomenon of recollection. My process of painting mimics or simulates the process of remembering with all its layers and numerous textures. Hopefully, introducing into this process, images that come out of our cultural memory will result in paintings that will not only serve to illuminate the past but will also encourage interpretations which function as starting points themselves. As Adam Phillips says, ‘Remembering...is a process of redescription; the echo can be different each time. The past is in the remaking.’ I believe, with Bersani, that our language, whether visual or verbal ‘doesn’t merely describe identity, but produces moral and perhaps even physical identity...(and) is
precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.’”