Thursday, December 1st, 2005

George Nick

George Nick: Recent Paintings
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue,
New York, NY

November 16 to December 23

George Nick: An Artist’s Conscience
New York Studio School
(8 West 8th Street,
New York, NY

October 27 to December 10, 2005

George Nick Athens in America 2005 oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches all images Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
George Nick, Athens in America 2005 oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches all images Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Underneath the luscious surfaces of George Nick’s paintings lurks a contradiction. His paintings fairly vibrate with the pleasure of observing and recording life. His forms and colors are vivid, even aggressive, but they’re never coarse; his paint application is energetic but even-keeled. His enthusiasm for idiosyncratic subjects–antique cars, rusting machinery, living room interiors, brownstone facades, postcard-like views of Roman ruins–seems surpassed only by his sheer joy of manipulating paint. Why then, do his paintings have such an edgy restlessness?

Nick’s paintings are the subject of two current exhibitions. Tibor de Nagy’s spacious installation includes sixteen canvases from the past two years, while at the New York Studio School, the nearly thirty paintings in “George Nick: An Artist’s Conscience,” cover the last decade. (This installation is the fifth and final stop for the traveling exhibition organized by the Concord Art Association.)

The recent paintings at Tibor are mostly of antique cars and building facades. In them the quality of light can be exquisite. Nick captures the polished surfaces of a roadster in “New York World’s Fair Car 1939 Delahaye,” 2003, with wondrously nuanced pinks, gray-purples and mauves; he revels in the hovering, distorting reflections, giving a luminous breadth to the metallic form stretching the width of the canvas. With a loaded brush, the artist has picked out highlights of fenders and chrome trim, nailing details that would seem fussy in less confident hands. Nick’s feat is two-fold: his colors evoke a very vivid and specific light, while his free-flowing brushwork gives an impression of impetuous (if not quite reckless) facture.

In many of the paintings at Tibor, the artist seems driven to test himself with plunging perspectives, off-beat subjects, and exotic illumination. The challenge pays off with some handsome paintings–and as if to underscore the agility of his attack, Nick scratches into the wet paint of each his name, the title, and date.

This spirited approach—call it an Impressionist’s love of light, delivered with Expressionistic panache–reappears in the entirely different “The Red Socks Won the World Series,” 2004. Again Nick has briskly divided the canvas with a broad diagonal, then elaborated with bright details, but this time the point of view is more extreme. Viewed from street level, the tops of brownstones angle forcefully corner to corner across the canvas, with rows of windows and trim measuring out the vertiginous height. Again Nick’s colors–absorbent orange-red for sunlit brick, steely blue-gray for the windows that half-reveal interior spaces–powerfully convey a particular illumination, so that the articulations of the facades seem to press into the descending light.

George Nick Type 25B Bugatti 2004 oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches
George Nick, Type 25B Bugatti 2004 oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches

The full range of the artist’s explorations becomes apparent at the Studio School. Here, the rather tight installation and the great variety of subjects—rusting machinery, interior scenes, portraits and still lives, in addition to the facades and cars—lends an aura of constant experimentation. The artist seems compelled to paint the unpaintable; the canvases include an interior glimpsed between shelves packed with a dozen whimsical glass sculptures; an antique car in such a dark space that its highlights glint almost like stars in a night sky; the darkly silver form of a plane (or really, half a plane, as it’s severely cropped by the canvas edges) inside an equally gray shed. Somehow, Nick’s hues make all of these scenarios convincing. Almost all, anyway: one has too look two or three times at the glass sculptures in “Penelope and Her Suitors,”

2001, to grasp their locations.

Can one trace overall trends in Nick’s painting over the years? It’s interesting to note that the one painting which feels merely tonal—that is, with hues losing the force of color as they move lighter or darker—is also the earliest; the light of “377\75 Commonwealth Avenue,” 1986, feels far more sluggish than in more recent paintings. One notices, too, a recurrent enthusiasm for extreme, almost conflicted perspectives. In several cityscapes and interiors painted many years apart, three point perspective (with vanishing points not only at the horizon line, but also overhead) imparts almost dizzying distortions; like a fish-eye lens, it gives the impression of the image’s center being touchably close, and the corners plunging away. A curving storefront window bulges towards the viewer in “Katya’s Graduation (DNKY, Boston),” 2003, turning the sidewalk on either side into steeply receding diagonals. (The artist, at work, is reflected in one distant window.) Exaggerated perspective lines in “Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill,” 1990, turn a portico’s arch into a cavernous opening; a colonnade dwindles quickly towards a second vanishing point. Nick finds a novel way of including the same divergent vanishing points in “Memory of Air and Space,” 2004. Here, the wall of a living room recedes emphatically in one direction; in a moment the viewer will detect on the wall a perpendicular recession, no less dramatic, in the reflections in a painting’s glazing.

One of the treats of both of these exhibitions is watching how this restless artist varies his attack. Some of the paintings here, like “Salem Corner,” 1999, have the diffuse, atmospheric appeal one might associate with Impressionism. The energy of other images lies in extreme points of view; in some of these the colors tend to be hemmed by the dramas of design; hues add only atmosphere to the pressure of the drawing.

But in other canvases (and these are my favorites), colors pressure the drawing, giving substance not just to light but to the locations of objects within compositions. Many of these paintings, coincidentally or not, were produced during recent trips to Italy and France. At Tibor, “Isola Tiberina” (2005) has subtler colors and forms than many other works, but they cohere more powerfully. In this relatively small landscape, a compact group of buildings of non-descript browns and tans rest buoyantly upon a pinkish-ochre plane extending across the image’s lowest section. Small arches of bridges, press upon buildings from either side, while a sky of deep, modulated ultramarine blue braces the buildings above.  A small, squat tower atop the buildings—a paler, putty-beige–becomes their last projection into the blue. Here, Nick has used the weight of colors to qualify the location of all elements, giving to each an independent character—in the case of the tower, the wan  resolve with which  it peers from a distant perch. (Was the artist looking at Corot’s the “Island of San Bartolommeo,” (1826-28), a masterpiece of balanced tensions?)

At the Studio School, “Caesar’s Forum,” 2005, is one of several paintings with the same vital hierarchizing of color. In it, a ruin’s ancient wall, a rich orangey-pink in full sunlight, faces us squarely above tiers of shadowed walls. Beyond loom the white remnants of a colonnade, the shift in color giving palpable weight to the interval in-between. Nearby, in a ragged gap of wall, appears a green statue atop a slender column, tiny but resonant in its distance. In casual fashion, Nick has created a vision of what it means to be large or small, dense or expansive, proximate or remote, within the confines of a canvas.

The motifs of such paintings could hardly be more clichéd; how many hundreds of academic paintings and tourist postcards were produced on the very same spot? This would be reason enough to deter any contemporary painter. Nick, though, seems so indifferent to taste, high and low, that he conjures an image of truly classical vigor where you would least expect to find it today—in its original idiom.

Though painted a full decade earlier, “Tribute to Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony,” 1995, has much of the same self-contained vitality. This five foot wide canvas depicts the complicated space of a modern living room, made far more complex by a particular illumination: the late-afternoon light, flooding through a wall of windows behind the viewer, so that their frames cast numerous disjointed shadows across furniture, floor and walls.

Amazingly, Nick securely locates all these planes–folding in space, refragmented by the light–and does so with his customary aplomb. Various grayish-blues and purples hold their locations as shaded portions of walls and ceilings, while slightly lighter and warmer tones establish floor and sofa; the sunlit counterparts of each of these colors presses with just the right visual weight. The resultant image is compellingly real. Nick seems to have had a bit of fun, too. Among the objects divided into illuminated and shadowed portions are three paintings on the walls, and without missing a beat, the artist renders the colors within each one moving, en masse, from shade into light.

Looking through the very different paintings in the Studio School installation, it’s clear that the artist isn’t always interested in classical, hierarchical composition. At points, the shimmering energy of light and elegant shapes seems enough to satisfy him. In other paintings he prefers the accelerant of a vertiginous viewpoint, or the intensity of separate sensations, to a rhythmic give and take. But part of the intrigue of these curious paintings is their restive nature, and the depth of resources that the artist draws upon. Is he Impressionist, expressionist, or classicist? Painting at full tilt, Nick seems to pick as mood and motif suit him. The pleasure is ours, too.