Mottled and sinister, the ceramics in Erin Jane Nelson’s Resting Spore summon memories of the puffballs mushrooms I encountered as a child in Appalachia, where they were best known as “devil’s snuffboxes.” To my young imagination, these fungi appeared as huddled bands of gnomes scurrying across my backyard, the opposite of the stately fairy ring mushrooms that also grew there. While other kids made wishes by blowing the seeds of dandelions, the queerer among us danced upon spore-filled trinkets left behind by the devil.
The works in Resting Spore share the cross-pollinated material heritage of Nelson’s other recent ceramics, providing a sculptural substrate for photographs, found images and objects, and other accessories. But while earlier works were born of her documentation of barrier islands and other fraught historical and environmental sites along the Southeastern coastline, these new ceramics were bred in captivity, conceived in a suburban Georgia garage during the humid summer months of pandemic and quarantine—stranger creatures for stranger days.
Like many of her photo-quilts and ceramics, these works integrate the real-life crises of our calamitous present with Nelson’s own characteristically twisted, fantastical vision—now distinctively more self-reflective. Though her flower-power aesthetic evokes eco-femme associations, the malevolence and futility of white femininity in particular suffuse Resting Spore like a sweet, rotten aroma. The affects traditionally assumed of white femininity—cuteness, sentimentality, fragility, tenderness—appear as warped and broken with some of the ceramic vessels bearing obvious scars of repair.
As has long been the case, Nelson’s investment in imagery of the natural world demonstrates more than millennial climate anxiety; it proposes an alternative to the limited perspectives of human subjectivity on a planet that our species has, according to most scientists, fucked over immeasurably. By adopting non-human, non-rational viewpoints, Nelson embraces poet Joyelle Sweeney’s characterization of the Necropastoral, described as “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects… It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mold.”
Despite their associations with death and decay, bugs, viruses, and mold are, of course, living things in and of themselves. Spores, after all, are reproductive units, the asexual foot soldiers of their species’ survival. Offering an alternative model, the text on Puddling narrates butterflies’ reproductive cycle: Puddling, Courting, Basking, Egg Laying. Shaping these moldy-looking, bug-ridden assemblages, Nelson cared for and nurtured her own weird brood, containers for dark dreams of survival, and products of another sort of lush fecundity: an imagination where impossible polarities—life and death, image and material, human and non-human, wonder and grief—are not conflicting or incompatible but strangely and beautifully inextricable from one another.