February 14 - March 11
M E N
13 Monroe Street
New York NY 10002
Although it closed sometime in mid-March, Nicholas Cueva’s eponymous painting show at M E N is still worth talking about. The show was ostensibly about the the ocean—or, as Nick described it to me, memories of the Pacific Ocean as he experienced it growing up in what might be called a Christian commune. True to the subject-matter he’s grappling with, the concept of deity, or even the more pagan animism of lesser gods attributed to a particular site, moment, or pattern of behavior was inscribed across each painting he exhibited.
Humor mingles with the intuition of divinity. Let’s suppose there’s a forgotten, originary name for every object and natural process we can discover. Let’s also say that the names Americans in particular have ascribed to things belie their authentic potency. Following this, the Pacific Ocean might have received such a designation as a kind of placating spell against an expansive body of water that was often deadly. Riffing off of this idea, I’d like to think that Nick has depicted the beach culture he grew up in as floating in an oily mesh of unknowing. I’m referring less to the stretched fabrics he uses for a pictorial substrate than the faces that seem to peer out of his works. In Strange (2017), the largest painting in his show, a palette recalling John Van Hamersveld’s iconic “Endless Summer” poster reveals two surfers composing the eyes of a sort of monstrous visage. The surfers have no relational involvement with the face; and the viewer herself might even overlook it as something incidental to the picture’s composition.
Remaining with Strange for a moment, I’d like to point out some general strategies that continue into other paintings included in the show. The use of stretched fabric lends Nick’s paintings a “design-like” feel, which he only seems to incorporate so as to showcase painting’s more disinterested and anti-utilitarian precedent. At first glance, what leaps to the eyes is the way Nick renders figures, which morphologically vary from painting to painting. Each figure is infused with personality and rendered with great economy, set against a coded landscape that more or less farcically engenders a face. Sometimes these faces are overtly comic, sometime they’re mock-tormented; in any case, the fact that they’re more apparent in photographs of the paintings than in person illustrates how they’re not a part of the picture or scene depicted so much as each paintings’ underlying materiality.
All of this ties in with an overarching idea: namely, the thought that there might be something mythic or originary underlying the banality of human products and innovations. I think it’s beautifully right that Nick should use surfing as his thematic locus. Skateboarding appropriates sites already earmarked for utilitarian convenience (swimming pools, parking lots, rooftops, etc.), athleticizing ideated points of navigation within these areas. Surfers, by contrast, throw themselves headlong into the wilding surf, buoyed by nothing so much as a surfboard and the nebulous promise that someone or something will come to their aid if anything fails.
It’s almost perfectly reasonable that off-the-grid encampments near the ocean (in California or elsewhere) should place their trust in some kind of higher power. If nothing else, it’s a blow to the face of consumerism that the lifestyles wrought by a fecklessly deregulated economy should compel groups of people to decamp for more “fundamentalist” modes of life. I feel that by inserting Rorschach-like faces into his compositions, Nick is gently mocking the believer's claim that a divinity shapes our ends: an intelligible, or at least believable, reason why anything exists rather than nothing at all.
It’s the duty of art, as opposed to design, to cultivate a sense of neutrality (or, as some would call it, “ambiguity”) antipodal to a more one-dimensional and overtly understandable reality where a single object is ascribed only a single value or purpose. Vying with the one-dimensionality of technology and design are niche, crafts-like innovations, such as the surfboard, which, as cultural signifiers, are variously multifunctional for the different people who use them. A surfboard is an arrow pointing to the ocean, which endlessly shades into neutrality as it spills out toward the horizon. In the severity of its indifference to human needs, the ocean becomes invested with semiotic weirdness of all kinds: ghosts, aliens, portents. But in this, it also allows itself to become an analogue for painting, which Nick has chosen as a vehicle for delineating figures stranded in a mesh whose immensity they can never understand, where the ingenuity of human design is but a spectral blip on an immeasurable compass. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer & artist currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems & reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, Louffa Press, Drag City Books, & other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading & discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street (NY).view all articles from this author