It's the End of the World As They Know It

It's the End of the World As They Know It

Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber’s vision of the future is miniature, intricate, and apocalyptic.
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber Subway

Subway, 2012, aluminum sheeting and rod, styrene, basswood, acrylic rod, sand, 2 x 2 x 8 ft.

Courtesy of the artists and ClampArt

An insect on instagram showed Lori Nix the perils of creating art that is, perhaps, a little too convincing.

The 48-year-old artist leans against a stool in her Brooklyn studio as she recounts the story. She was visiting her mom in Missouri last summer when she spotted a grasshopper in the lawn. Nix took a photo, posted it to Instagram – and then watched the confusion unfold. “My followers thought it was a model,” she says. “I felt like such a schmuck. It’s like, ‘Sorry, guys – it’s real.’ ”

Blurring the line between the real and the fabricated may be an occupational hazard for Nix, but it serves her well. For more than 20 years, she has produced dioramas of increasing textural complexity and conceptual depth – initially for exhibition as photographs, then as a commissioned side business. As she tells the grasshopper story, Kathleen Gerber, her partner and collaborator of 18 years, sits at a desk across the studio shaping a rat from a sliver of clay. Between them sits a diorama where the rodent will make a cameo: a series of battered newspaper boxes, each a few inches tall, with their contents spilling onto the sidewalk, blaring headlines such as “Gloom, Despair, Agony, Ennui” and “It’s Over.” The phrases reflect the end-of-days themes – and the wit – that pervade the couple’s work. Once the sidewalk scene is complete, it will be shot and digitally composited in front of a diorama of skyscrapers. The resulting photo, Sentinel, is for the Empire series, set for exhibition this fall. It will be the first show billed jointly as Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber (their previous projects were credited to Nix), a change that speaks to the evolution of their partnership and the work it has yielded.

Nix first attracted attention in 1997 with her series Accidentally Kansas, photos she took of dioramas inspired by her upbringing in the Midwest, but with tragic twists born of her fascination with disaster: a car that slid into a pond, with headlights faintly visible underwater; houses flooded above the second story. The collection showcases the aesthetic she honed studying photography at Truman State University and Ohio University’s graduate school, though the dioramas themselves were simpler, populated with store-bought props and shot with shallow focus to obscure bare-bones backgrounds.

Sculptural sophistication followed in time, especially once Nix and Gerber began working together in the late 1990s. Gerber had studied glass, first at Illinois State and then in the grad program at Ohio State, and just as her soft-spoken demeanor is an ideal match for the delightfully acerbic Nix, so is her skill set. Nix envisions the diorama concepts and does much of the general shaping, while Gerber handles the finer work: small objects, finishes, textures. They pack the scenes with detail — “because I don’t know what the camera is going to catch,” Nix explains — and insist on creating nearly every element by hand, working with materials including pink foam, styrene, clay, Komatex (a rigid PVC sheet), poured plaster, and whatever other craftstuffs and hardware are required to produce the desired object. Even the backgrounds were handpainted until the sheer size of the projects made it impossible; now they digitally add photos they’ve taken of skies. All told, a given diorama can take upward of six months to produce.

Their dystopian vision has resulted in an ongoing series, The City, that debuted in 2005. It depicts interior spaces against a post-apocalyptic backdrop: a subway car, a casino floor, a laundromat, all abandoned and decaying. It’s the collection that won Nix the 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship for photography and for which she’s best known; the photos have been shown around the world and were published in a 2013 hardcover book. (Though they haven’t produced any new work for The City since 2015, Nix says she has three or four new scenes in mind.) That success enabled the duo to spin off a commercial business, Nix + Gerber, that has produced dioramas for clients ranging from Tic-Tac and Oreo to Wired and Time; BBC America even had them create sets used in internet promo materials for its 2013 show Copper. The specifications of commissioned work can be daunting – Gerber says that with typical turnaround times of two to three weeks, “you just can’t get the detail, so we do our best” — but regardless of scope, the work remains captivating.

“The craftsmanship is mind-boggling,” says Brian Paul Clamp, owner of ClampArt gallery in New York City, which has shown Nix’s work since 2010. “It’s amazing how many conversations I have, trying to explain to people what they’re looking at. There’s confusion at first, then awe and fascination once they start diving into all the wonderful details.” Clamp credits that depth for their work’s enduring appeal, noting that there’s always more to find in the photos. Nix and Gerber’s morbid streak, he adds, enhances the allure: “People delight in the dark humor.”

Because the dioramas take so much time, the artists exhibit roughly once every three years. Their focus now is on finishing Empire, which debuts November 30 at ClampArt, and a companion book, Failure, that shows all the false starts they went through assembling the series. Empire is a sequel of sorts to The City, one that replaces its predecessor’s confined interiors with vast exterior scenes: an overgrown park, a caved-in city, that abandoned sidewalk with its newspaper litter and rodent problem. The pair is excited about the project, though Nix confesses that she’s also unnerved by the increasing prescience of their work. It’s starting to feel a bit too real, even for her.

“It’s tough, because our art is talking about post-apocalypse and climate change, and we’re kind of on the verge of it right now,” she explains. “I make these jokes and try to keep things light, but even so, it’s like, ‘Do people really want this on their walls?’ We should be doing utopian scenes, but it’s not in me.”

She pauses, then looks across the room at Gerber.

“Do you think we should be making ‘pretty’?” she asks. “Could we even make ‘pretty’?”

“I don’t know,” Gerber responds, slowly looking up from her rat.

“Yeah,” says Nix. “I don’t, either.”