March 2009-- By-passing formal art school training, David Nicholson has painted his way past trendy concerns and fashionable focuses (and some might say prevailing neuroses) that consume other contemporary artists' approaches to creating and viewing art and their own career ambitions. Instead, the 38 year-old Canadian-born and Berlin-based artist brings a remarkable talent, thoughtful erudition, intellectual engagement and deep admiration for art history to contemporary subject matter without a current-day political or aesthetic overlay.
Represented exclusively by the Brussels Aeroplastics gallery, Nicholson has work in some of Europe's top private collections and has exhibited in Europe and the States. Emilie Trice, who selected Nicholson's 2006-07 'Melacholia (Suellen)' painting of his then-wife during their years in Texas as the representative image for the thirty artist "Lynchmob" show in Berlin, last month explains Nicholson's appeal. "David Nicholson combines painterly art historical antecedents, like classical portraiture composition reminiscent of John Singer Sargent's life-sized masterpieces, with contemporary content. But it's really his technical prowess with the brush that commands the viewer's attention and deserved respect. While most artists are focusing on conceptualism, Nicholson reminds us that to really be an artist, you need more than just an idea. You need exceptional skill that the majority don't posses. Otherwise, where's the distinction? In my opinion, his work instills an awe in the viewer for the artist's craft that has long been unjustly overshadowed by contemporary art's dominating trends. And I for one welcome a return to a more deliberate, patient and technically superior art."
David and I met in 2000 when he was exhibiting a portrait of New York artist and club kid Alex Arcadia in an exhibition at RARE gallery. We became immediate friends and have stayed close ever since. I am very proud to consider him my best friend; yet this is the first formal interview we have conducted in five years. Our conversation took place during the weeks leading up to the presentation of Nicholson's work in an exhibition at Leipzig's Museum der bildenden Kunste featuring highlights from Anna and Michael Haas's private collections. For that show, Nicholson's work hangs alongside plum pieces by artists including Anselm Kiefer, George Condo, Edvard Munch, Frank Stella, Degas and the Chapman Brothers.
David Nicholson, Eros, 2005, oil on canvas, 150 x 500 cm, Courtesy of Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussels.
Ana Finel Honigman: Painters of your generation such as John Currin, Jenny Saville, Lisa Yuskavage and Cecily Brown are also 'painterly' and share your salacious subject matter. Yet they seem to be considered more fashionable than you. Are there any the specific qualities or approaches that you think distinguish them from you?
David Nicholson: I don't know if they are more fashionable or just more famous.
AFH: Let's assume that they are famous because they represent something that the art community, or more general culture, wants to see expressed. In which case, what do you see as the substantive differences?
DN: I don't agree with that premise, but fine. I don't think we're at all that much different except in a superficial way, and we all struggle more or less with the burden of painting the figure. I approach it differently perhaps because I've rethought the whole problem through for myself, and seek continually to smash the restrictions placed on the problem of the figure from outside forces; I mean by anything other than painters or other paintings. I see that once one finds a voice, then anything is possible, and I feel free to do whatever I want. What I think separates us, is our respective response to tradition. I take a very long view and then a very close view. But my perspective is not linear. Instead, I see Modernism as just one avenue towards finding a strong and memorable voice.
David Nicholson and Ana Finel Honigman; Photo by Maxime Ballesteros.
AFH: Are you therefore refusing to directly engage with the Modernist tradition in a way that differs from Currin's self-conscious Post-Modernist rebellion against Modernism?
DN: I believe that the historic view, or the philosophical view of tradition, creates the assumption that there is an ideological reason for the birth of Modernism. Whereas, I think that it is much simpler and clearer than that. Perhaps the only linear element to my thinking is that I believe time has led to an accumulation of strong voices in art. The only meaningful issue in that discussion is how to distinguish oneself. And I don't refuse to engage with Modernism at all, I think I engage it directly.
AFH: What aspects of Currin's conceptual practice do you feel distinguish him?
DN: Currin's problems derive from his struggle with what he was taught at Yale and his education's ideological hatred of figure painting. This is the problem he refers to consistently in his interviews, and I think you can see it in his work.
AFH: Do you consider these concerns insular or somehow pretentious?
DN: I think his experience is very real and totally authentic. His work speaks of this trap. He is clearly engaged in a struggle, from which he seeks to free himself. For him, the danger is that his struggle can lead to crippling mannerisms. And ultimately, I believe that Currin just wants to paint free from this burden.
AFH: What about the other artists I mention?
DN: They are all somehow responding to feminism . . . Actually, scratch that. Cecily Brown is not making ideological art. She is just a painter.
AFH: Do you prefer her work to more political or ideologically concerned work?
DN: I don't think we have to politicize every time someone paints a nude. I like what I've seen of hers. But I like Saville too. She has a beautiful way of painting and gorgeous colour. Her use of colour suits her subjects beautifully. She paints within Rembrandt's tradition of the grotesque female nude. That is why she is often compared to Freud. I suspect Saville and Brown are also quite free in their work, but I don't know. Currin is not. But he admits this. And it has nothing to do with technique.
AFH: Your more recent work is softer, more subtle and psychologically engaging. Do you consider these closer to portraits and less about models posing as something other than themselves?
DN: I don't think my more recent work is more psychological, I think that's an illusion. I've always done work that focuses on this part of human experience. I also think my 'monster truck' paintings as you've called them are psychological. I think they are "subtle" too. They are also outrageous. But I love a pageant and a spectacle. I don't think these experiences are necessarily shallow.
AFH: I don't think that I am saying that the more extravagant works are "shallow." I am more saying that they are loud and that can be distracting.
DN: Well, loud and distracting can be powerful too. And within that noise there can be some very subtle quiet moments. The question is really about public versus private, and about expectation. We love candid moments and private reflection made visible, sometimes...Sometimes we want something public. I remember a female country singer complaining that she couldn't convince Dolly Parton to drop the persona in the ladies room and just be a regular woman. I love Dolly all the more for refusing such an absurd request!
AFH: Even Mary Boone confesses to loving Dolly Parton. But back to the more bombastic aspects of your paintings, are you ever concerned that some women might find your subject matter too offensive to engage with it on more intimate levels?
DN: I'm sure some woment will find it offensive, but I can't help that. Anyone who knows me or talks to me will understand pretty quickly that I'm not a misogynist. But you can't please everyone, so why worry about it.
AFH: Besides not being burdened with potential political correctness concerns, what do you see as the main differences between how you make and respond to art versus the work and reactions of artists with formal art-education backgrounds?
DN: This is a touchy area for me to comment on because I have almost no direct experience with it. I can only comment on what I encountered when I initially considered going to school. I once substituted at SVA, at a friend's request. But that was the first time that I was in a classroom, so I am definitely no expert.
AFH: But you must notice the ways other artists, like Currin, have been shaped by their art school experiences?
DN: I can comment on what I have observed it does to other artists and I have very mixed, even troubled, feelings about the whole method. I am sure that what I think will sound arrogant, but fuck it: I think the whole approach is hopelessly misguided.
DN: As a tool for learning I think that crits are nearly useless. Or rather, what crits teach is beside the real point. A crit teaches an aspiring artist to be verbally articulate or proficient in a very specific argot. It teaches students ways of thinking about art making.
AFH: Aren't those handy skills?
DN: But the crit system forgets about the way objects speak for themselves. I don't think the skill is useless, but rather overvalued.
AFH: So what are the benefits of art schools that lead aspiring artists to apply and commit themselves to an art school education?
DN: I think that it's an indoctrination process designed to shape thinking and therefore influence what artists do and how they do it. It's akin to subscribing to a religious order. I also think that it teaches philosophy backhandedly and poorly. But what's worse than the flaws in how it teaches is that philosophically-, or ideologically-driven art is generally bad. So beginning with that premise is, in my mind, adding an additional disadvantage to the pre-existing store of massive disadvantages we all begin with anyway. Take Currin as an example. He is very candid about his feelings that art-school education did little more than pour poison in his ear until he was forced to choose between total self-loathing, and just saying "fuck it, I'll paint chicks with big tits." What can one say about such a phenomenon? Shall we blame the victim? Personally, I myself think it's mostly bullshit.
AFH: Do you paint with a specific audience, or collector, in mind?
DN: Yes, I paint for the judicious one. That's what Hamlet advised the players to do. When I read that at 17, I felt he was speaking to me since I think, and have always thought, that I was one of the 'judicious ones.'
AFH: Are you talking only about your collectors or are you hoping for a 'judicious' response from all areas of your audience?
DN: That can be a collector, a painter, anyone.
AFH: And what do you mean by 'judicious'?
DN: Someone who will take the time to look, and is open enough not to insist on viewing through some distorting lens, like ideology...feminism, or post-structuralism or some other form of bullshit.
AFH: Do you consider your technique a vocabulary you use to express your subject matter or do you select subjects you think will visually jibe with your technique?
DN: How I paint is how I paint. I didn't choose it from a box of available techniques, like one chooses from a box of chocolates or something. Subjects are the same. It takes an enormous amount of energy and commitment to finish my work. If the subject does not inspire me then I can't bring it to life. So I could argue that the subject and technique choose me. It sounds corny, but I really believe that's what happens. I just do my best to let it come alive, and get out of the way. Stevie Ray Vaughan is my favourite example of an equivalent artist in music. He was a perfect conduit for music, which came from somewhere else. To me, that is a great artist.
David Nicholson and Jana; Photo by Maxime Ballesteros.
ArtSant would like to thank David Nicholson for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman