Nick Flessa

 

 

 

ARTIST STATEMENT

My work concerns language, systemic racism, gender inequality, mental illness and historical inheritance.  I execute and maintain my mother’s archive as a way to create a space that allows for these experiences and their connections to be deconstructed, reinterpreted and connected. I collect, preserve, and arrange my late mother’s materials with the knowledge that individual objects not only serve as a historical record but also as a reflection of her as an artist. Through an archival art practice, I work to intervene, to mediate, and to create access with materials that have historically been deemed unworthy of preservation and consideration.  

So far, this work has taken the form of two publications and an exhibition. The book Case Number 87-447 was printed at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive and has been presented at the Quadrennial National Race & Pedagogy Conference at the University of Puget Sound and the UCLA Department of Information Studies Kenneth Karmiole Symposium in Archival Studies, as well as in readings at Wendy’s Subway in New York City and at the San Francisco Art Book Fair. Case Number 87-447 proposes the re-contextualizing of court papers as a way of making clear the intrinsic flaws in prosecution within regional judicial and law enforcement systems, so that we can readily recognize and dismantle their institutionalized forms of supremacy and domination.  

 The exhibition, Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa (Executed by Nick Flessa), was a solo curatorial presentation of paintings, drawings, poetry, and ephemera from the Janna Flessa Archive at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive. The publication, Recipe Box Book, is a semi-functional cook book containing high-resolution scans of the contents of Janna Flessa’s recipe box, on view in Death Production, which includes recipe cards, computer print-outs, newspaper clippings, comics and advertisements all housed in a wooden box. Some recipes are legible; others are obscured by water damage and the wear-and-tear of regular use. This publication was celebrated at a dinner, co-presented with the curatorial program Hosting Projects. It included favorite dishes and a living room installation to create a cultural and sensory context for the archival activation of the meal.  

 In 1987 my mother Janna Flessa served as the Assistant Prosecutor on the trial of Jerome Henderson in Cincinnati, Ohio. Henderson was sentenced to death by electric chair. That death sentence has since been reduced to a life sentence, due to evidence of a racially biased jury selection process and numerous attempts to retroactively petition the death sentence as racially discriminative. During the trial my mother was pregnant with me and retired shortly after I was born (Jerome Henderson shares my birthday). It seems beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of murder, but was himself victim to an overzealous prosecution team that wanted to push the death penalty. This trial remains curious to me because of what I saw as deeply personal and poetic resonances regarding the way in which the United States judicial system works as a tool of white supremacist domination, and the degree to which my family history intertwines with this function. My mother passed away in 2010 from misdiagnosed cancer, and I am left with only documents to piece through this historical inheritance. This is the subject of my book Case Number 87-447 (2017), the first project in my current body of work. The gesture of the book is straightforward: that of removing court transcripts from the vault of public record and placing them in a different, reproduced, more accessible context in order to call attention to their language and internal logic.  

The Exhibition, Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa (Executed by Nick Flessa)was a poetic overview of certain aspects of my mother’s life, using the archive as a generative space to address issues of race, class, gender and mental illness, through suggestive arrangements of the objects she left behind. The works included in the presentation were a portion of the items contained within the archive and it is my intention to execute unique arrangements, site specific to the venue or in situ at my childhood home as micro museum.  

Since 2016 I have worked as the Programming Director at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA).  LACA is a non-profit, non-circulating library and exhibition space focused on underrepresented communities within contemporary art. We collect artist books, studio and performance ephemera, and house the KCHUNG radio archive as well as individual artist archives. Our programming ranges from music, installation and performance to lectures, fundraisers, book launches and small symposiums. We also operate a small press using a Risograph printer. The space is committed to questioning and decentralizing notions of authority within archives and collections, re-writing and unraveling establishment narratives by democratizing otherwise disparate or stratified objects, performances and collections.  

My work proposes the personal archive in relation to the public archive as a constructive space for creating a more critical, historical vision regarding the function of the judicial system and the cultural contexts of language, gender and race in the United States. I am interested in the connection between my mother’s personal writing and the way that language manifests itself in public record, as a tool of oppression, misdirected. The future of my practice will continue to merge elements of her personal archive with the public court records to spotlight parallels between her life and the life of the man she helped sentence to death, exploring the ways in which she was both oppressor and oppressed, while shifting to focus on gender inequality and mental illness as it relates to being a stay-at-home mother in Southern Ohio. Possible next projects include a micro-museum of the archive situated in my childhood home with a week of site-specific programming once a year, a film based on the trial of Jerome Henderson and continued publications. The combination of chronologically disparate objects and texts juxtaposed against one another brings out the relational complexity of these materials and limitless new combinations of materials, mediums and methods to activate the archive.