Eros, 2005, Oil on canvas, 160 x 500 cm, Private Collection, Germany
David Nicholson’s paintings of porn stars, skulls, wild beasts and feral femme fatales make many viewers uncomfortable. Not because of their salacious subject matter but rather because his extraordinary talent is intimidating. Art world sophisticates are accustomed to dressing up smutty subject matter in conceptual jargon. They are at ease with the messy, gloopy, feverish style of Cecily Brown, Thomas Ruff’s cool pixels or John Currin’s overwhelming cartoon creations, but Nicholson’s technique triggers serious contemplation. In contrast to the playboy posturing of other artists citing porn or appropriating cultural references, the Montreal-born, Berlin-based painter’s background and approach bypass contemporary art’s concerns with fast-paced, trend-obsessed culture. Instead, the self-taught artist’s interests are historical, his relationship to paint is sensual and his technique is confidently not au courant. Yet Nicholson has work in the same collections as Anselm Kiefer, George Condo, Edvard Munch, Frank Stella, Degas and the Chapman Brothers. He currently has work in “Sex Rules" at Vienna’s Apartment Draschan and Berlin’s “No Sugar for the Monkey.”
Nicholson, (who – full disclosure – is my best friend of almost ten years) and I discuss his work while eating dinner and admiring ladies in Berlin’s Café Fleury.
Ana Finel Honigman: Besides just liking beautiful women, is there another reason why you repeatedly have the female as central to your subject matter?
David Nicholson: People think I paint women because I am girl-crazy but that makes no sense. It can’t make any sense. Everything I paint takes too long for my motives to be that light. It will take hours and hours, layers and layers, no matter what I am painting. I could be painting a leg or a knee and it doesn’t just get done. It is not light. It is not a passing fancy. It seems light but that is part of the illusion. If it is going to be exceptional, or something you really want to look at, then the effort to make it needs to be much more substantial. I sometimes make the same mistake of assuming that I can just be interested in something and whip it together but it just doesn’t work that way. I have an idea for something that just gnaws away in my head and then I start wondering what I am going to do with it and how serious I am. If it stays with me and I keep coming back to it, then I can start to really address it because it takes months to do what I do and I need to really mean it. I can’t do it light but I can’t keep it up without renewing my interest in it. I need to keep rediscovering it and renewing my interest in it as I progress. …and of course I pretty much like girls too!
AFH: Why do you only work with professional models when you have such a generous appreciation for most women?
DN: There are always people who I want to work with, but I’ve come to understand that working with them would actually be a headache.
AFH: And professional models aren’t?
DN: Even the ones who do other things like finance or whatever else, but they are also professional models and accustomed to being observed in that way. It’s too hard to get them to act. There are many people who say something with their looks and how they dress or comport themselves. They can be very expressive about who they are. But when they are asked to do that self-consciously, then they can’t do it. If you stop a girl on the street and ask her to act a role, even if the role is being herself, usually she can’t do it. It is a lot of effort to get a girl off the street to just relax and start emanating the same thing that drew you to her on the street. If I told you to look natural, you couldn’t do that. Your face would change and your body would change too, especially if you were nude and not used to being nude in front of strangers.
AFH: Yet you must find something inspiring in some girls’ unself-conscious charm, right?
DN: I always think that. I always see people who I think I’d want to paint. But practically, I can’t paint that much and therefore I need to realize that and cast people who can actually do what I want them to do.
The Pornstar, 2003, Oil on canvas, 203 x 137 cm, 80 x 54 inches, Private Collection, Italy
AFH: Do your compositions reveal themselves to you as fully-formed, mapped ideas?
DN: No, never. It always starts as a little idea and then I have to start building around it and fleshing it out until it all makes sense together. The connections and associations all need to develop. It is the same for music or writing or anything. It doesn’t emerge fully-formed.
AFH: How do you respond to viewers’ responses to your work?
DN: I don’t know whether this happens to me more than other artists, but it completely confounds me when people tell me, and they tell me often, what I should do.
AFH: Do people often do that?
DN: People will tell me, “you should paint this,” or “why don’t you paint this other thing.”
AFH: I just tell you what I think you shouldn’t paint.
DN: It’s the same thing really.
AFH: No it isn’t.
DN: It is. Really. What I find interesting about that is that there seems to be an assumption in those suggestions – and I am just trying to make sense of it, because I can’t make sense of it any other way - that I can decide what to paint the same way that I decide what shoes to wear. That is not true. In fact, in order to paint anything, even a shoe, you have to really want to. Its not like wanting to eat a cheeseburger for lunch. It can’t be that kind of want.
AFH: I imagine you have to believe in the thing past a want for it. Do you think people might make suggestions more as requests? They want a certain thing to exist in the world, which is a David Nicholson rendering of whatever they think deserves your talent.
DN: I think part of it is, “If I could do that, then I’d paint this…”
AFH: Or maybe they just want your realization of their idea to exist in the world.
DN: Maybe. I met an artist recently who told me, “if I had your talent, I would only be painting war.”
AFH: That sounds like exactly the right way to approach you and articulate what she means.
DN: It is. But I think it misses something because maybe if she could paint like how I paint, she would only paint chickens or trees or something utterly surprising to herself. There are people who only want to paint trees. Maybe, if she reached that point then she would discover that she only wanted to paint trees or chickens or chairs.
AFH: You mean that then she’d stop thinking selflessly about how paintings as arresting as yours should address the horrors of war, and realize she could only devote herself to what interested her enough to fuel that process?
DN: Right. And what interests her might really be chickens.
AFH: And you’re interested in women...
DN: I just know that when I look at a figure, I want to engage with that. I see a figure and I think that there is something I want to render. I want to make that flesh like flesh and that form like that form. And I want to say something with it. And I don’t just paint women.
AFH: No, you paint stuff around the women.
DN: Right, but what about the skulls? I paint skulls repeatedly. I just keep coming back to them. I realize the subject has implications and attracts me. No one says I’m skull crazy!
Untitled (still-life rooster), 2007, Oil on oval wood panel, 110 x 73 cm, 43 x 29 inches, Private Collection, South Korea
AFH: But I thought that you were saying that the subject is of much lesser importance that the physical experience of engaging it. I thought your point was that you can’t select illustration for ideas; painting the thing itself determines what you find interesting.
DN: Yes, but that is all part of how you say something with paint. I can’t just decide to paint this glass. Though, actually, I can. I can decide to paint this glass and then decide to paint a world around it. I am asking what that world will say and how I can develop that world to say something, if I am interested in painting the glass.
AFH: Do you have the same responses as a viewer, or are you more willing to force yourself to engage something you might not like?
DN: It is the same when I look at art. I don’t know why I am drawn to certain things but I definitely am drawn to them. I go and stare and stare. There is this dog sculpture in the Louvre. I go and look at it and return to it every time that I am in the Louvre. It is incredible. It is just a dog. But it is incredible. You go over every inch and it is so clear that this artist loved this dog. Maybe you have to love dogs to care but I think anyone would love this thing. It is such a fine, fine thing, but it is just a dog.
AFH: Dogs are not just dogs.
DN: They certainly aren’t. But I need to be honest with myself and start really understanding when I just don’t care. I often will realize that but I’ll fight it and the more I fight, the less easily it comes. I get frustrated and start throwing things and its bad times for everybody. I am unhappy. My neighbours are unhappy.
AFH: Then it sounds like work. Suddenly, you’re building railroads.
DN: Its torture.
AFH: It just sounds tedious. You’re suddenly staring in a tight position at something small and frustrating.
DN: Every time I do something, to one degree or another, it is a fight to make it that way. It doesn’t just happen. It looks like it does but it doesn’t.
AFH: Like ballet.
DN: Sargent was like this. He wanted the final strokes to be natural one-off strokes. So he would do it and then if it wasn’t right, he would do it again and again. It is not casual to make it look casual. Today, I was trying to paint a ribcage and I just wasn’t into it. I couldn’t do it.
AFH: Do you think that one element of that is that the risks for you are just so much more extreme?
DN: I think so. When it fails, it just obviously fails.
AFH: Like bad acting.
DN: Yes, when it fails you notice it and its all just shit.
AFH: Whereas Dana Shultz can fuck up and it might go unnoticed, because there is a fine line between bad-good and bad-bad, and maybe who knows when its crossed over?
DN: Right, but with me that’s obvious to everybody. Look at Lucian Freud and you’ll see that. A room of his works and some are just bad. When his work is incredible, it is incredible. But the rest will be mediocre, they are just some fat person on a bed. But I look at him and think that he is just another guy who is walking a tightrope. I work entirely differently than he does but the mistakes are no less visible when its done.
AFH: My father always says, “there is no good writing, just good editing.”
DN: That’s not true though. You can edit shit and it will still be shit. And you can’t edit Shakespeare in such a way that it will suck. That can’t happen. You can edit “The Great Gatsby” to be a little tighter and more exceptional but the difference will be minor because it started as great. You have to be working with some primary material that is great….
Ana Finel Honigman is a Berlin-based critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents
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