Nicholas Howey: The Color of Science
The Madoo Conservancy, Sagaponack, New York
May 22 through June 26, 2021
By ROBERT C. MORGAN, June 2021
Nicholas Howey is a painter. Some would call him an abstract painter, which in a certain sense is true. He is somewhere between the gesture and the hard edge. I find this interesting to the extent that watercolor – the medium used in his current exhibition – is not always precisely accurate. Even so, Howey’s paintings are a curious mixture of each. The geometry constitutes the idea – the concept, if you will – while the gesture encompasses the tactile sensation that I have equated with Howey’s paintings as long as I have known them. In this context, the medium of watercolor is a perfect match for Howey. This is not to say that acrylic on canvas is an inferior medium. His paintings in acrylic function differently, more exemplary in their texture and temporality, and possibly less indeterminate in their appearance.
There is an aspect to the paintings on display that makes ideal sense. The tactile sensation comes to the forefront of our attention. It suggests that the artist is unlimited in his use of abstract color and scale, and that the inaugural space retains exactitude and harmony. The choice of color is not only scientific (as the title of his exhibition suggests), but it recognizes a system of light held within the paintings. The light is perceived in relation to color and in recognition of the artist’s ability to control form endemically within the space where color resides. To say these paintings are brilliant is valid, but they are also searching. I would argue that for any work of art to register brilliance, it requires both a sense of doubt and an openness toward searching.
In Untitled 2019, there is a visual parenthetic maneuver in which the blue and the red encompass the yellow. The science is phenomenal – accurate to the degree that it exists within its own space (as many of these works do); but in addition there is a reference towards heraldry. The flag is figuratively waving directly in front of our vision. It is relatively small and openly secure. The three primaries hold their own without giving way to their potential geometry. We hear the echo of De Stijl, the license of Mondrian. Is he one of the forerunners in his series? Perhaps, but not exclusively. Nick Howey is too refined for that, too aware of his journey through modernism that brought him to his spacious feeling for art. The brilliance is retained on all sides. Untitled 2019, a work that is meant to be studied unequivocally without reliance on either the future or the past. The sensuality of the watercolor medium has given this painting its own light, its own unfaltering destiny.
Many of the works in this series can be addressed in a similar way without renunciation. I am thinking of Untitled 2020, in which the purple exterior at the top balances the three chromatic elements emanating from inside the curve downwards. Beginning from the top, there are red, blue and yellow. The balance of this unlikely combination of color is extraordinary. In Untitled 2019, Untitled 2020, and Untitled 2019, the notion of containment is very much present. In the first, the pale blue arc surrounds two dark circular entities; in the second, an enclosed red figure-8 nestles with a blue dot in the lower portion; and in the third, an evenly painted enclosed circle – blue outside, yellow inside – contains two red squares placed vertically. What do we make of these paintings? Do we read them as science or are they meant to engage our feelings?
When I look at the paintings of Nicholas Howey – whether watercolors on paper or acrylics on canvas – the subject matter appears relatively neutral. I generally focus on the color and space, not on their sign value. However, in these works, the sign value appears pertinent. I am reading these paintings more in terms of a transmission than a purely formal process. There are two other artists whose paintings have raised a similar issue: Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, both abstract expressionist painters. Howey, of course, is not an expressionist in stylistic terms, yet his paintings have always suggested more than I have been able to explain. The exhibition of these watercolors constitute an important statement in terms of what painting can be when we leave the categories behind and strive to focus on the work itself. WM
Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in America, Arts, Art News, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.
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