Josep Nicholau, Yellow Sky, 2009
Oil on canvas; 190X130 cm
Courtesy of the artist
Excerpt from the Barcelona Diary (May 13 – 18): Josep Nicolau and Friends
Before a recent trip last May, I had not been in Barcelona for near twenty years. Although I had fond memories of this insurmountable Catalonian cultural stronghold – with spirited people, fantastic architecture, magnificent Art Nouveau, Surrealist painting, the bohemian legacy of Picasso, and, of course, the extraordinary tapas, fish, and full-bodied wines – my travels over the past two decades had taken me to other Spanish cities. Several times I had been to Madrid, Valencia, Valladolid, and Salamanca, but for some reason, kept missing Barcelona – until, in the summer of 2009. My reunion with this mesmerizing city associated with the work of the architect Gaudi occurred somewhat indirectly as significant events often do. One evening in New York at the Don Quixote Restaurant adjacent to the Chelsea Hotel, I was introduced to an ebullient painter from Mequinensa, Josep Nicolau. It turned out that Senor Nicolau was in New York on the occasion of an exhibition of his recent biomorphic abstract paintings at a small gallery in West Chelsea. Upon seeing his work the following day, I noticed that it carried a strong Catalan influence – in the earth colors, the impasto surface, and the subconscious organic forms composed in a tense relationship to one another. Our discussion in the gallery was lively and brimming with ideas – filled with humor and generosity of spirit – a mixture of traits I have come to associate with artists from Barcelona.
As events unfolded over the ensuing months, largely through Nicolau’s inspiration and kindness – along with the assistance of two younger artist colleagues, Santiago Adeoye, and American expat, Rodney Samuleson – I was invited to attend a full-scale exhibition of Nicolau’s paintings and assemblages at the Municipal Art Center in magical Mequinensa (a small, but historically important town about two hours inland from Costa Brava) that proved one of the most authentically unpretentious and celebratory occasions I have ever experienced in relation to a museum exhibition.
Josep Nicholau, Fiesta Cart, 2007-2009
Oil and collage on canvas; 205x122 cm
Courtesy of the artist
What are these irredeemable, highly sensible, often perverse paintings that suck the light into their brilliant varnished surfaces? First of all, Nicolau is an original and therefore could never been labeled “Postmodern.” He is indelibly stuck fast in the tradition of Modernism in a way that extends and interprets a tradition that lives and breathes according to the gestural deviations that Nicolau’s paintings and assemblages have to offer. There is not much room to move. Like I say, the surfaces are tight – both inward and outward, curiously with little room for illusion. The only illusion in Nicolau’s paintings is what weaves through the syntactical force of the light that can leave this viewer breathless. There are few paintings other than Caravaggio, Courbet, Josep Ribera and Goya’s pittura negra paintings – the latter two painters being housed in the Museo Prada) – that can perform this was for me.) Nicolau’s work span a lifetime of incessantly plugging away at the veneer of life to go further into the unconscious, to relieve the burden of life, and transform it back into painting. Take Fiesta Cart (2007-09), a work that visually espouses a more or less typical Catalan theme. One could argue that the forms ascending from the carriage of his diagonally rollicking cart are humanoid – like rocks can appear human along the Costa Brava – with two brilliant red tail lights from an automobile piercing the upright incest-like creature at the top edge of the painting. The luminous crevices throughout Nicolau’s paintings seethe with pasty ointments that give his radiant penetrations of the surface an ineluctable mystery. His weirdly enshrouded series of landscapes transformed into figurations appear incredible in the sense of projecting disbelief that such organisms exist within the recesses of the human mind.
Further examples include recent paintings, titled Yellow Sky and Goat’s Horn. In the first, a bulwark of towered rocks lets loose from the stratification of the earth as if shifting between flora and fauna, suggesting Jacob Bronowski’s segues between plants and rocks. It is not a matter of one containing more life than another if, in fact, we comprehend the interchange of matter and energy. In the second, a similar pile of rocks includes a goat’s protruding horn as a sexual armature. Embedded within the base of the rocks is a half-sphere holding the energetic contours of the shapes together, where at mid-point above the sphere two hands are overlaid one upon one another. For the painter Nicolau, the metaphysical citadel of human reflectivity resides somewhere at the source of art. Returning time and again to this citadel, he sweeps the refuse away, implanting the ground with a space-age vigor that resounds with fertile conflict, whereupon he discovers a torrential form of reconciliation and a new course for humanity.
Rodney Samuelson, Black and White Spring
Oil on canvas; 121 X 18 in
Courtesy of the artist
For Adeoye and Samuelson – in their concurrent exhibition at Con Galleria in Barcelona -- the course may be parallel on some level, but the forms are unique unto themselves. Adeoye, in particular, wields a managerial penchant for appropriation as he hoists painted reproductions of the Paleolithic stone goddess commonly called the Venus of Wellendorf to unrealized heights. Upon viewing this tribal figuration against various backgrounds on which markings and signs suggest the evolution of scrawled or printed language, Adeoye represents the figure as a demystified entity in a nearly absurd context. Scarcely on the same aesthetic scale as Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi, the artist positions the Wellendorf more as a linguistic harbinger rather than reducing it to a mere object of connoisseurship. Rather than a sign of prehistory, Adeoye furthers raises the possibility of its neutral status within tourist brochures as serving the needs of a industry in perpetual need of serving the ordinary merchant class to which it appeals. Rodney Samuelson, who speaks fluent Spanish down to the most subtle inflexion, has moved away from the loose gesture in painting to hermetically sealed faces and figures that suggest visual puzzles within a crowded field.
These works may appear as segmented paintings in which the surface is divided into a grid with modular compartments or, in some paintings, using more curvaceous forms with applied textural marks beneath the surface on which he paints. Although Samuelson was trained and practiced as an artist in the United States, his adopted style of representation appears remarkably close to painting from the Iberian Peninsula. Even so, I hesitate to read these peopled signs in terms of irony. They impress me as something more expressive, something lost or destroyed from another place and time. They equivocate between harrowing sadness and joyful abandon. While reduced in color to a kind of monochrome involving close tonalities in browns and grays, or occasionally black and white images, resembling woodblock prints, these paintings impress me as searching to revive a sense of human tactility and sensitivity through the looking glass of a minimalist reduction.
Santiago Adeoye, Venus of Willendorf sketch
Oil on cardboard; 18 X 24 in
Courtesy of the artist
Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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