Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Transcending Borders: The Sculptural Memories of Nancy Rivera

You could consider it the immigrant dream. Since coming to Utah from Mexico with her parents as a young teenager, Nancy Rivera has gone to university, embarked on a promising career and found a partner to share her life. She has made Utah her home. But the plaintive, melancholy nature of her work at Ogden Contemporary Arts, works at times brimming with paradoxical associations, subtly unveil the duality of an immigrant’s dreams, tethered between two worlds.

Rivera’s presence in Utah’s art world is often so subtly woven that it might escape notice until one delves into her impressive CV, revealing the breadth of her accomplishments. After obtaining her MFA from the University of Utah, she served as the visual arts program coordinator for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. More recently, she assumed the position of the Utah Museum of Art’s Director of Planning and Programming. Beyond these roles, her impact resonates through curatorial work in exhibitions like UMFA’s 2021 Space Maker and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s current exhibition, A Greater Utah. Alongside her curatorial work, Rivera has cultivated a thriving career as an artist, earning recognition both locally and nationally. Her debut series, “Herbarium Obscura,” some of which featured in our 35×35 exhibition in 2016, comprise cyanotypes that delved into the intersection of artifice and nature. While her roots lie in photography, Rivera has ventured beyond its confines. She first explored the realm of fiber art in “Family Portrait” and “(Un)documented,” both of which unraveling the threads of her personal immigrant experience. In her “Impossible Bouquets” series, she deftly engages with art history, challenging, as one critic aptly framed it, the patriarchy.

For the works in No Present to Remember, Rivera returns to fiber art to transform photographs from her Mexican childhood, images depicting idyllic scenes with family members.  She prints the images on fabrics which she submerges into the waters of Great Salt Lake, symbolic of her adopted home in Utah. The saltwater not only transforms the fabric into a malleable sculpture medium but also infuses the artworks with layers of paradoxical meaning. While salt traditionally acts as a preservative in textile production, Rivera’s process paradoxically strips the images of their vibrancy, imbuing them with a sense of ephemeral fragility and the passage of time. It is through this alchemy that Rivera captures the mercurial nature of memory, identity and the shifts and fades within.

Once the fabric is treated, Rivera sculpts the fabric into forms reminiscent of crumpled paper or garments forsaken at a lake’s dried bed, evoking a sense of abandonment. This deliberate contrast against the tender moments captured in her childhood photos strikes a chord of poignant dissonance. In the resulting sculptures, the images are a challenge to decipher, echoing Rivera’s exploration of memory as a complex dance of fragility and resilience, clarity, and distortion.

If you saw Return, the inaugural exhibit at the University of Utah’s new Gittins Gallery you may have noticed an example from this series: in the image a child at the seaside, holding the hands of two adults, one the adults is obscured by the bend in the stiffened material. At Ogden Contemporary, 18 similar works are on display, hung on the wall in a grid or stacked along a table and a trio of shelves. The sculptures beckon for interaction. You’ll want to smell them, to touch them, to pinch and flatten them. To restore them. Resist the urge, but embrace the longing —it is here that the essence of Rivera’s work unfolds, bridging two worlds, two dreams, through the delicate dance of memory and art.


No Present to Remember, Ogden Contemporary Arts, Ogden, Nov.3, 2023 – Jan. 14, 2024. Opening Reception, Friday, Nov. 3, 6-9 pm.

All images courtesy the author.

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