“Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

–Andy Warhol

The way I see it, there are two types of modern art. The first is the kind I cock my head and cluck my tongue to for fear of not coming across as a sophisticate in public. Rothko, Pollock, Johns, and other artists whose work a five-year-old could have done belong in this category. 

The other is the kind I actually enjoy viewing. No other artist’s work better exemplifies this category than that of Minneapolis’ own Nicole Houff. She creates curious little scenes populated by classic Barbies – and often classic Kens – and then photographs them. Although Barbie wears a blasé expression by design, and Ken has the vacuous grin of an ideal trophy husband, Nicole nevertheless manages to coax a range of emotions out of her plastic subjects. It’s really something else.

“I’m a very social person, but I hate photographing people – when creating art, I thoroughly enjoy having absolute control,” said Nicole. “When I’m only dealing with Barbie, I can sit and finesse her for hours without worrying about annoying her. I love not having to be considerate about my model’s comfort!

“Every detail in my photographs are real, and it can take an incredibly long time to get them all exactly the way I want. When I made Astronaut Barbie, it took ages to get the cheap little green aliens surrounding her all to stand up the right way. And as soon as one fell over, they would all start to domino. I was screaming at them by the end of it all. My process is a special kind of crazy.

“I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their color pallet was very specific with certain pinks, teals, and greens. I especially love that late ‘60s orange. Media from that era also provide a glossed over, hyper-posed, almost plastic view of humanity: polished to the point of being unrealistic. And who reflects all of that better than Barbie, who first came out in 1959?

“People speak about Barbie like she’s a real person, which is something you can’t say about other toys. She is a commonality that resonates with people of all ages and genders, with baggage both good and bad. People have even written entire theses about Barbie’s social implications. As a kid I never put that much thought into her, but now I find her even more compelling for creating a level of dialogue that no other toy could have.

“My work is polarizing. A lot of people love it. I’ve also had plenty of others poo poo it over the years, saying it isn’t art at all. But that’s the beauty of art – it’s undefinable, with a different meaning to everyone. If everyone liked the same art, we’d live in an incredibly boring world!

“I unveiled one of my newest pieces last year, which depicts Barbie as a Pan Am stewardess during the golden age of air travel. A mother came up to tell me how much she loved it, while her young daughter just glowered. Finally the girl looked up to me and said ‘You know Barbie’s a pilot now, right?’ I told her that Barbie can be whoever you want her to be.”

To learn more about Nicole’s “special kind of crazy” and see more of her work, please visit nicolehouff.com.


by David Scheller