Cover Story - Conceptual artist Nikita Gale explores the language of advertising, one photograph at a time

“I wanted to go into corporate America and do all that bullshit that everybody does or feels pressured to do.”

When an artist uses a camera to make art, it usually qualifies her as a photographer. By that rubric, describing Atlanta-based artist Nikita Gale as a “photographer” is technically accurate but misses the point. Gale is a conceptual artist working with ideas about advertising, technology, and language and, at various points in her creative process, a camera is used as a medium for portraying or exploring those ideas.

Her approach is uncommon in Atlanta’s emerging gallery scene, places like MINT Gallery or Beep Beep Gallery which have more of a lowbrow focus, but it’s also earned her a recent six-week stint as artist-in-residence at the Center for Photography in Woodstock, N.Y. She’s been included in recent group exhibitions as far away as New Mexico and New York City. Sometimes her process involves taking photographs of photographs laid upon photographs to create something that resembles a collage, both recalling and updating Barbara Kruger. Other times, such as her recent installation for Dashboard Co-Op’s Ground Floor exhibition, her photographs draw attention to what isn’t visible rather than what is. By carefully arranging and installing photographs that resembled functioning mirrors, the viewer could see the room with their self removed from it, like an imagined suicide. Heady stuff, right?

Yet, Gale’s work is anything but an inward-gazing, life-of-the-mind pursuit. Gale is engaged with a game of perception and recognition that permeates popular culture: She works in advertising for a Sandy Springs-based travel company. “Working in advertising is one of those things where you get to see the other side of what’s actually going on — what people are trying to get you to think when you look at their ads,” she says.

That behind-the-scenes knowledge manifests itself in her art. In the series of collage-like photographs “Ad Tension,” Gale lays photographs of violent events atop classic advertisements, creating deeply unsettling connections between bold slogans and American history. In one, the image of a lynched black man, hanging by his neck from a tree, sits atop a burger-filled Hellmann’s advertisement that reads, “Burgers really swing with real mayonnaise.” The play between text and image is straight from an advertising playbook, but it is jarring in a way that feels fresh and raw.

Other works have absorbed her industry skills in different ways. In the photo series “Perspective,” Gale places mirrors at the center of the photo to create a second image that contrasts sharply with the world around it, like a picture in a frame. It’s a simple idea, but Gale manipulates color and perspective to give the image a sense of vertigo. Gale doesn’t just draw you into the image, she makes you feel like you’re falling into it.

Gale, 27, was born in Alaska, growing up there and in New Jersey. She studied anthropology at Yale and worked as a corporate headhunter after college. “I wanted to go into corporate America and do all that bullshit that everybody does or feels pressured to do,” she says. Then, she says, she quit drinking a couple years ago and picked up a camera.

“I got this sort of clarity. Y’know, there are all these ideas I want to explore and things I look around and question. That’s when I really started using photography as the medium I wanted to use to express these ideas I have.”