Graham Nickson: Cumulus, Monumental Trees and Transient Skies
Curated by Karen Wilkin and Rachel Rickert
Works collected by William Louis-Dreyfus
New York Studio School
September 4 – October 21, 2018
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, September 2018
Graham Nickson, who has been Dean of the New York Studio School on West Eighth Street for thirty years, is presenting an inspiring show, almost entirely of watercolors, devoted to trees and sites close to him--physically and metaphysically (the exhibition was curated by Karen Wilkin and Rachel Rickert, both affiliated with the school). Nickson, originally from England, has become a New York artist--albeit one whose figurative strengths tend to go against the predilection of gestural abstraction still alive in America, particularly in the New York art world. His early work tends to focus on persons in various states of undress at the beach; but the heavy drama of the skies is present decades ago in his work. This show, which emphasizes the heavens in Tuscany, studies of the Sydney Opera House from a distance, and a long sequence detailing an epic tree in a country home in Old Westbury, Long Island, offers dramatic landscapes and colors that present a figurative but never literal treatment of the world of nature.
Nickson belongs to a British landscape painting tradition going back to Constable and Turner, but he has spent too much time here in New York to feel particularly English. Instead, he takes part in an international painting community, one that takes note of the past but does not reflect a particularly specific cultural (and geographical) idiom. As a result, we see here a delightful collection of natural studies whose drama--one body of water is painted gold, and shifts in the dying light--is intensified by Nickson’s excellent sense of structure and long experience reporting on the upper atmosphere.
White Sun (2015) is the largest image in the show; it is also the only one painted in acrylic. It is a painting of a setting sun in Tuscany. Larger than the rest of the pictures in the show, White Sun presents a small central circle of white surrounded by several penumbras of yellow whose outer edges tend slightly toward the jagged; this part, indeed, the entire image, attains an apocalyptic intensity that is generally representative of the work we see. The yellow imagery is surrounded by a sky that is brown, pale jade, and, toward the middle of the composition, a matte pink--colors that offset the dramatic nature of the sunset itself. Beneath this skyscape, completing the composition, we see a thick vegetation: stands of purple and trees with grayish foliage back the very foreground of the image, which is devoted to deep, dark green leaves and, on the right, a set of narrowly angular trees that move upward on a diagonal.
Everything here is larger than life--visionary in the best sense of the word. Nickson’s background may have well prepared him for this intense sensitivity to nature; the British Romantic poets explored this world with a feeling and thought that possessed genius. Whatever the artist’s motivation and orientation, White Sun shows us nature in dynamic flux, although one in which the basic formal impulse of the painter is never last.
The set of paintings devoted to documenting the great tree in Nickson’s home in Old Westbury, Long Island, shows us how a gifted painter might work within a serially conceptual framework. Lined in horizontal rows against an entire wall of the gallery, we see the tree in various manifestations and circumstances--different seasons, different times of day and night. The trees’ roughly circular crop of foliage, structured by branches that extend a good distance from the main trunk, become a site of highly various painterly treatments. Monumental Tree--Serena’s Tree: Golden Light (2000) is a riot of deep colors: a dark, dark blue sky with added tones of mauve and reddish orange holds the upper strip of the painting, while the tree itself expands and dominates the space. It is composed of snake-like branches catching the late light of the day, with the leaves turned yellow and orange in the face of this intense twilight. Behind these twilit branches are those untouched by light; their dark green effects a merger with the dark colors of the sky. Standing on the light green of the meadow, with a reddish-orange path before it in the very front of the painting, the tree takes on mythic depth in its ability to overwhelm the viewer. Another view, with the same title except for the ending Nordic Light (1999) shows the massive structure of the plant in a triple sky: darkish blue on top, underneath which is a lighter blue--and beneath that a mauve lower sky with cumulus clouds of the same color. The rest of the landscape is dominated by the tree itself, which is slightly spiky, with rectangular brushstrokes denoting leaves, and in color, dark green and black. A band of greenish foliage is found behind the tree, while the greens in the the foreground are lighter.
The two examples are remarkable for Nickson’s ability to invest an atmosphere of close-to-apocalyptic abandon in relatively straightforward natural phenomena. The two examples I mentioned give the sense that the trees are massive, living entities we can describe but not control. Part of Nickson’s forcefulness as a painter has to do with his ability to see nature in supernatural terms--in ways that emphasize its otherness, as well as our awe in the face of such otherness. Despite their relatively modest size, the tree paintings establish themselves as pictures of unusual power. This is particularly so in the wonderfully prophetic watercolor, titled Sydney Opera House II (1999), an explosive merger of colors, in which the curved naves of the opera house are only a small comment on an outlook that combines a sky close to announcing the end of the world, highlighted with waters of gold. The sky is close to beyond description; the top is deep blue, beneath which is found a moody, mauve-infused band separated from the blue by a band of thin stripes of bright colors. Moonlight glazes most of the waters gold, which fill the middle of the painting. The gold contrasts to the point of pious intensity with the darker colors surrounding it, including the thin invasions of land painted black. Painted very small, off to the left at the bottom of the painting, we see the opera house, which is, oddly enough, a footnote to the grand scene going on above it. This work, with all its pictorial eloquence, never crosses the line of grandiosity.
In summary, it is clear that Nickson is an important painter of both moods generated by the natural world--in particular, the sky, bodies of water, and trees--and the forms that generate those moods. He is accurate without being incontrovertible. I would tend to place him in the British romantic tradition, equally outstanding in painting and poetry. But Nickson is by no means a historical or scholarly painter; nor is he a purely European artist. Rather, he is at pains to render a contemporary outlook on a tradition that forms him more than his New York audience may know. This means that the work cannot be easily categorized, either culturally or geographically. Instead, like so much excellent work being produced at this time, it is individualist to the point of isolation. But that is hardly Nickson’s fault; indeed, it is a consequence of his excellence as a painter. Nickson shows us how a radical interpretation of nature can survive the world of the Internet and social media--and do so without being judgmental or rude.
His paintings--and who would have thought so much could be done with the medium of watercolor, still considered a minor genre by some--take us somewhere else, maybe outside time. The rude force of his powerfully vibrant skies are meant to remind us of a moment when their clouds and colors announce the possibility of a different kind of world, one in which fine art records events in nature inherently beyond our ability to read them clearly. That he does this so well here, and so consistently, means that he keeps the act of painting nature alive--and is victorious over the downward pull of esthetic literalism and technology. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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