“I prefer the Spice Girls to Jung, you know?”: An Interview with Pippi Nola

Pippi Nola talks boys, painting, and intimidation tactics with Moya Lawson.
Date 25 July 2021 Interview Moya Lawson Photography Hendrix Hennessy-Ropiha

Pippi Nola, Cool girls let their t shirts do the talking, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 650 x 910 mm.

Pippi Nola’s BOYZ, currently on view at play_station in Te Whanganui-ā-tara (Wellington), explores ideas around performance and desire through vivid, allegorical imagery. Here, the Tāmaki Makaurau-based painter discusses the exhibition and her broader thinking with play_station facilitator Moya Lawson.

Moya Lawson: BOYZ explores your relationship to ‘boys’—as opposed to men. What are ‘boys’, in the context of this show?

Pippi Nola: Boys represent attraction and disgust and flirtation and cheekiness all mixed together. Making yourself sad on purpose by going to Mecca to smell the perfume ur ex wore, looking around to find the source of the sound of skateboards on the street (and see if they’re hot), making out in the bathrooms of a party…terrible sex that is funny to tell your friends about the next day and really good sex that is also funny to tell your friends about the next day, super baggy pants, screenshotting dick pics u never asked for, making your Bratz dolls make out when you’re a kid…all that stuff is what boys feel like to me. 

I’ve always seen boys as sort of objects to project my personality onto…lol…I like the word ‘boys’, it has a cuteness to it. I associate lots of positivity with that word, as opposed to ‘men’ which feels boring, lame, and kind of creepy. I like highlighting fun and playfulness in my art and there’s lots of fun to be had with boys even if they do suck sometimes!  

Why did you want to make a show about boys?

A lot of my practice has been centred in girliness, looking at the ways in which I see myself, dramatizing memories and thinking about the way I’m really just an accumulation of like, every character I’ve ever seen on TV or something. In a lot of these shows, there’s always a male counterpart to the girls (e.g. the powerpuff girls had to fight the rowdyruff boys in one episode). Boys are vital to the performance of girliness because they are who you’re performing against, you know? But also, they are part of the performance—not to sound too Butlerian—they set the scene, are the backdrop and can be used as props. The show is trying to touch on that…

“I’m super conscious of using the same types of angles and compositions that you’d find on the camera roll of your friend. Super cropped close ups, images that feel edited in some way, candid moments that aren’t candid at all, each scattered between screenshots of texts, memes and cute puppy pics. We’ve all become both the director and storyboarder of our own lives.”

To me, your painting style plays a big part in expressing your ideas (while also totally being an extension of your personality!). Do you have tactics in your choice of subject matter, materials or display which help flip our expectations of painting?

I’m a huge fan of, I guess, really basic feminism 101 install tactics. For example, all the paintings are at my height (perfect for my viewing pleasure!). I use those shitty canvases you find at the $2 shop as I can’t be bothered stretching them myself—like, do I live in the 16th century? And I find a lot of painting standards that supposedly make your work ‘respectable’ really boring and innately misogynistic. It’s easy for people to forget that these are imaginary rules made by men, for men. This is what I don’t want my work to be. You know, I use acrylics because I’m impatient and oil paint irritates me. (That being said, I love Gabi Bowden forever, she uses oils and her paintings are very impressive and inspiring). These are small, conscious, passive aggressive choices made to irritate the boring old men in the art scene who obsess over these rules.

So BOYZ is about girls as much as it is about boys, maybe even more so? You’re playing into these constructs, in a way that is comfortable and, as you say, playful.

Yeah for sure—and when I say girls and boys the words are very much in quotation marks, like, I’m more interested in their vibes than their literal meaning. There’s a part of me that enjoys the way people want to project things onto artwork. It’s interesting to see what they see, even if their interpretation was not my intended one. I feel as though the boy/girl binary is absurd but simultaneously so real. We were all raised to exist within and see ourselves as opposing sides of this binary. So, there’s something to be said for acknowledging the effect and fallout of its existence. It’s much more productive, to me, to explore this idea rather than pretend that it hasn’t, in some way at least, shaped who I am.

I personally see your work as having an element of parody to it, performing archetypes in a bright and splashy way to make us rethink how we view them. In your case, however, it’s not the girly girl who’s being poked at, but the patriarchal standards that define and diminish her. As Romily says in the text alongside the show: ‘The “Cute Girl” is smart too!’ Do you think through archetypes in your work?

Yeah definitely, I’ve always been a sucker for an archetype! But I prefer the Spice Girls to Jung, you know? Jung thought archetypes were innate in us, like naturally occurring but really it’s just deep social conditioning that makes us express our personalities the way we do. The Spice Girls were given their personalities by the media because a journalist couldn’t be bothered to learn their real names and I think that’s much more accurate as a metaphor for what’s happened to all of us in terms of how we view ourselves. Rather than running away from that or pretending it’s even possible to escape, I find it easier and more fun at least to lean in. I’m not the girl who sets out to explicitly break the mould, I’m more the girl who makes a million copies of the mould to the point that people eventually get so tired of looking at it they have no choice but to throw it away. I like making art about the stupid and silly and frivolous but treating it seriously. If the world inherently doesn’t take you seriously, then yes, there is power in taking your own silliness seriously.

Yeah I get you! In the same vein I read your work as having a double-edge—it can be fun and flirty and silly, but is also rebellious. I’m thinking of the blowjob POV painting in the play_station show. Even though the viewer is in a supposedly submissive position, it feels like the viewpoint is still quite assertive, looking up at a gorgeous hairy Greek god from beneath his crotch. 

Yeah I totally know what you mean…I like contradictions I suppose. To me that painting can be read way too easily as sinister but it’s actually more a joke than anything. Like when you’re a teenager and desperately trying to have or enact really dramatic and meaningful, or painful experiences where there aren’t actually that many, you know? That’s funny to me…With that piece, I was thinking about painting a super homoerotic image through the eyes of a straight girl lol. It’s kind of contradictory but actually really harmonious; worshipping at the altar of good dick while still hating men or something…

You say your paintings are an accumulation of experiences and projections, like a build-up of every television show or magazine you’ve ever read. It makes me think I need to reconsider how my tween obsession with Lizze McGuire probably still shapes my sense of self lol. Does nostalgia come into your work—for our Tumblr, MSN and TV-network formative years?

Yeah nostalgia is definitely something I always seem to touch on, even if I don’t want to! It’s one of the most compelling feelings I think for a lot of artists to play with but it’s also so hard to recreate with art. I love the feeling of nostalgia but I feel like our gen is almost over-saturated with nostalgic content at the moment, like the whole ‘relatable’ thing or throwback posts on the internet. It took me ages to figure out that true nostalgia is so much deeper and more intimate than just googling Neopets or something (which was like my whole art practice a few years ago lol). I like the way Selena Gerzic uses nostalgia in her paintings, she’s so good at adding that layer of darkness or sadness that’s necessary in conjuring an emotion like that. In my paintings, I think a lot about memories, specifically the ones that are captured in old Facebook photos or camera roll. I’m interested in how they are disingenuous because we remember shit happening the way we wanted it to have happened, not the way it actually did. It’s like a forced nostalgia; you know, is listening to a sad song to make yourself sad the same thing as actually feeling sad? 

I know what you mean, Main Character Syndrome pretty much defines the current moment, it’s a meme but deep down we’re all actually doing it. Someone told me that BOYZ felt like the story-board for a film—lots of dramatic camera shots which make up a detached but exciting narrative—what are your ideas around bringing drama into your work?

I love that! There is an element of drama in the photos we take everyday. I’m super conscious of using the same types of angles and compositions that you’d find on the camera roll of your friend. Super cropped close ups, images that feel edited in some way, candid moments that aren’t candid at all, each scattered between screenshots of texts, memes and cute puppy pics. We’ve all become both the director and storyboarder of our own lives. The painting of the foot in this series is an example of this. That was taken from an Instagram post I saw. Someone had edited in a tiny man under her foot. And I loved the tiny man, but didn’t include him in my painting because I wanted the viewer to feel like the tiny man. I suppose I wanted to conjure the scene. There are all these tiny intimidation tactics I think a lot of femmes have learnt subconsciously in order to feel in control, and that feels powerful to me. Dirty jandals, a fresh pedicure and a girl walking obnoxiously loudly past you, her sandals snapping on the pavement. That would be like, such an iconic opening shot for a movie!

Pippi Nola, Terror: the violent echo of a sandal smacking the sole of a girls foot, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 650 x 910 mm.

Pippi Nola, That Kurt Cobain lyric about how fish don’t have feelings… it’s sad cos he’s pisces:(, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 710 x 455.

Pippi Nola, The creases in ur pants make my heart skip a beat, 2021, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 650 x 910 mm.

Pippi Nola, I don’t trust straight boys that wear makeup, 2021, acrylic, glitter and stickers on canvas, 460 x 355 mm.

Pippi Nola, It’s not the load u carry that breaks u, it’s how u carry it, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 555 x 710 mm.

Pippi Nola, BOYS. Installation view, play_station, Whanganui-ā-tara, July 2021. 

Pippi Nola, BOYS. Installation view, play_station, Whanganui-ā-tara, July 2021. 

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