An Interview with Victoria Nunley: The Role of the ‘Wild West’ Fantasy and a Lone Cigarette as a Method of Emotional Exploration
Our youngest exhibited artist, Victoria Nunley, was born in 1991 in New Jersey, earning her MFA from Boston University in 2018. The paintings ‘The Epiphany’ (2022) and ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ (2022) are currently on view at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, in Fabien Fryns Fine Art’s premiere exhibition Facial Recognition. In an interview with the artist, she expands on the themes and symbolism present in her work, from the notable elements of a romantic ideal of the ‘Wild West’, to the recurring motif of a cigarette.
Beginning with the ‘Wild West’, these elements are seen in both artworks, such as the cowboy boots, a cowhide vest, the bright blue of denim clothing, and a red handkerchief wrapped around one figure’s neck. The paintings are rife with imagery of the classic Western. Nunley states that she may be American but both sides of her family are from the East Coast and are generally located around New Jersey and New York City, having been there since immigrating between the 1890’s-1950’s. For the artist, this underlying theme belies her “East Coast fantasy of the Wild West” and is evocative of the narrative of a lone hero embarking on journeys to face hardships, struggles, and triumphs, in a harsh and unfamiliar environment. This stylistic reference indicates the emotional hardship of facing situations beyond one’s control. Nunley’s cartoon influence is related to the Golden Age of American animation (ca. 1928-1960), seen in the stylization of the characters’ belt buckles and vests.
Nunley relays how the development of her characters and themes were part of a process of personal development, the ideas presented in the paintings working hand-in-hand with the artists’ movement through various emotional arcs. She states that:
“I was really trying to figure out how to approach such complicated emotions. How do you paint sadness? You can’t paint someone crying and say that’s a painting about sadness, because it’s not. It’s just a painting of someone crying… How could I paint about loneliness, fury, misery, and bravery?”
For the artist, the purpose of a thematically-laden artwork served as a way to build a narrative and composition with its own internal logic and symbols. An overarching theme tied her less to the real and freed her to listen to what the painting needed as well as indulging in some whimsicality. For example, in ‘I’ve Been Thinking’, the artist had started with the idea of a blanket pulling back and down, like a slow reveal, a slow realization. The artist proceeded to expand on this in the interview, indicating several of the symbols used in this particular artwork and how they have been used to unite both the composition as well as the narrative. The patterned blanket was utilized to symbolize the thoughts of the character, with repetition signifying rumination. These patterned elements are indicative of a countdown to a decision-making moment, starting with the number five playing card, then the four flower petals, fingers counting out three, a cup emblazoned with the roman numeral “II”, and a single flower. Victoria explains the further symbolism of playing cards, stating:
“I started using playing cards because they infer gambling… what are relationships, but a gamble? Truly. The playing card pattern on the blanket in ‘The Epiphany’ is specifically the king of hearts… the suicide kind, because it looks like the sword he’s holding is going into his head. This talks about the decision of the protagonist to end [an intimate] relationship herself”.
Even though, further elements in ‘The Epiphany’, such as the massive tears and body spread in the shape of an X, indicate an unwillingness in the decision. The cigarettes are a recurring motif in her body of work because, for Nunley, they serve as an acknowledgment of one of the most miserable times in her life. A habit the artist picked up as a simple serotonin-boost activity, transformed into a symbol for transition, rumination, and plotting — anything relating to the passage of time. There’s an inference of the past, present, and future within a lit cigarette, when considering the object, the viewer internalizes the lifespan of a cigarette, from carton to ashtray.
The duality of Nunley’s work lies in the use of wit and humor in relation to difficult human emotions. Although, seemingly opposites, the artist believes that humor is a tool to invite the viewer deeper into the work by encouraging them to consider a second reading of the work in their search for meaning. The multi-dimensionality of this helps to create a rapport between audience and artwork. The interview concluded with her statement that “these two paintings I made for Dubai are actually the beginning of another arc in my work. I’ve made two more paintings on this subject since, and I plan to continue as I explore my own personal growth”. One certainly looks forward to what is still to come from this exciting, young artist.