CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The individual works of Charlotte-based artists Grace Stott and HNin Nie can be tidily summed up as “subversively cute.”
Stott points this out less than a week before her tandem show, Me and My Girlfriend, opens at Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston on Fri. July 26. The exhibition, which runs through Sept. 13, focuses on the power of female relationships and feminine identity.
“We were already working together at Goodyear Arts Collective [in Charlotte],” Stott says. “We’d been talking about doing a collaboration for a while, so it was perfect timing.”
Despite what the show’s title may suggest, Stott and Nie are not romantically involved. They’re strictly platonic “girlfriends,” although Stott admits that she and Nie have an “art crush” on one another.
Their affinity for each other’s work comes as no surprise, considering that their aesthetic preferences are similar. Many of their works are whimsical, colorful, and female-centric, with an underlying sense of rebellion lurking within the brightness.
In other words, they’re subversively cute.
“We like similar colors and imagery,” Stott says. “But our execution is a bit different.”
“”We like similar colors and imagery. But our execution is a bit different.” – Grace Stott
How so? For starters, Nie often begins a project with a definite message in mind, a tendency that perhaps stems from her experience as a filmmaker.
One example of Nie’s narrative-focused style is her “Post Feels” series, which stars a character named Negative Nancy. Nancy, who “represents change,” as Nie puts it, is placed within various situations in which a relatively clear interpretation can be drawn.
One painting, for instance, features a crying Nancy standing in what appears to be a glass box. She’s surrounded by a jungle, with tigers on either side of her, sticking out their tongues. “FEELS” is written in trembling pink uppercase letters above the box.
“‘Post Feels’ is all about what you do with those negative emotions and how you channel them,” Nie says in a video on her website. “[Nancy] is definitely a reflection of change.”
“‘Post Feels'” is all about what you do with those negative emotions and how you channel them.” – Hnin Nie
Nancy herself recently underwent a significant transformation.
In November, Nie began painting the character in a proactive and aggressive manner. “I wanted to make Nancy less meek, more powerful,” she says. That shift in attitude fits with the female empowerment theme that lies at the heart of Me and My Girlfriend.
Where Nie has historically worked from a deliberate internal space, Stott prefers to create from the subconscious. She tends to follow her muse without putting too much thought into the overarching message. That doesn’t mean that her work is devoid of purpose, however, it’s just that the interpretation is often subjective and supplied by the viewer.
“When I’m creating, I’m not necessarily thinking it through in terms of ‘what does this represent on a larger scale,'” she says. “When I’m in my studio, it’s between me, my brain, and the thing I’m making. It becomes contextualized when it’s put into the world.”
Take, for instance, one of Stott’s recent ceramic pieces titled “Lounging Ladies” that was posted on her Instagram (@stott_pots) on International Women’s Day. It features six nude, colorful women, of various body types, blending fluidly together to create a unified square.
Could it be a comment on how women are stronger together? Perhaps a celebration of the vast scope of female body types and personalities?
It could be either, both, or neither. The conclusion is left up to the viewer.
“There’s a lot of responsibility in creating professionally,” Stott says. “But I try not to think too much about that, otherwise it’d be hard to create in the first place.”
The Me and My Girlfriend exhibition will highlight works from Stott and Nie’s past, as well as pieces they’ve assembled specifically for the show. They’ve been working together in the same building in preparation for opening night, often bouncing ideas off of one another until the wee hours of the morning.
“We show each other our work and ask for feedback. You know, ‘what should I do, what do you think about this,’ that sort of thing,” Stott says.
Nie replies: “But I think the most we say to each other is ‘that looks really good!'”
One of the pieces that perhaps best represents the main thrust of the upcoming exhibition is a female hand created by Nie titled “HELL RAZOR MANICURE.” It’s a standalone, mannequin-style pink hand with red nail polish. At the end of each finger is a weapon: fire, a spear, a pitchfork.
“It’s about turning nails into self-defense,” says Nie, who once worked as a nail technician. “It sort of started with the whole ‘Me Too’ movement. It’s about women standing up for themselves.”
The current timing of an exhibit about female empowerment, given the greater sociopolitical context, is not lost on the two young artists. Both are staunch feminists. In fact, they met at one of Stott’s shows, which Nie dubbed the “first feminist show in Charlotte.”
In their own small way, the duo strives to embody female strength during an era in which gender wage discrepancies, abortion rights, and sexual harassment in the workplace are at the cultural forefront.
“I think it’s important to continue to assert our identity,” Stott says. “I think [creating] is a simple act, but one that can be empowering for people to look at, as well as for the individual making the work.”
“It’s important [to have this show now] with Trump as president and politics being run mostly by older white men making laws about our bodies,” she says.
“Of course, it’s always better to be fighting these problems with a friend,” she adds.
This article originally appeared in The Charleston City Paper.