An Artist Couple, Working Side by Side for 15 Years, Combine Powers in San Francisco

May 12, 2016 10:25PM

Jay Nelson and Rachel Kaye collaborate on several projects, including their San Francisco home and raising a child. But when it comes to their creative practices, the husband and wife are quick to point out that they don’t collaborate. They work side by side.

Indeed, the two have been living and working in parallel for over a decade. Nelson, a woodworker and architect, and Kaye, a stylist and painter, have been a couple since meeting 15 years ago in Santa Cruz, California. In the years since, Nelson became Facebook’s first artist-in-residence, winning attention for the inventive modern treehouses and mobile dwellings he designs and builds. Kaye, meanwhile, garnered acclaim for her colorful, swirling paintings and graphic drawings. Together, the couple transformed part of an old barn into their light-filled art studio—and they started a family. In San Francisco, a new exhibition at Chandran Gallery, aptly named “Pairing #2,” celebrates their fruitful partnership.

The very design of the exhibition is unique, a fact that comes as no surprise if you’ve seen any of Nelson’s previous work. The show prominently features a two-story installation he built specially for the gallery. A series of wood lattices and enclaves guide and frame the viewer experience, providing particular viewpoints and perspectives from which to look at the paintings and drawings.

The husband and wife both contributed recent works to the show. Though they’re stylistically distinct from one another—Kaye works in pattern, her paintings busy and layered, while Nelson tends toward the monochromatic and geometric, even incorporating textual elements into some of his collage-like works—you can’t help but notice a common color palette and a shared penchant for the abstract.

Likewise, while the two artists find inspiration in different places—for Kaye, it’s the rhythm of the day-to-day, and for Nelson, it’s more spiritual, even existential—they both describe themselves as process-driven. “We realized we share in every other aspect of our life,” the artists wrote in a statement, so “why draw the line in the studio. While we don’t directly mark on each other’s work, we leave an imprint and surrender ownership.”

Exactly where does personal life end and a professional life begin? Where, “Pairing #2” seems to ask, is the boundary between the self and the other? This one-of-a-kind exhibition finds fertile ground in the overlap, in the blurry space in between—the collaboration, even when it’s unwitting.


—Bridget Gleeson

Jay Nelson & Rachel Kaye: Pairing #2” is on view at Chandran Gallery, San Francisco, Apr. 22–Jun. 3, 2016.

Follow Chandran Gallery on Artsy.