Graham Nickson: Italian Skies

Jill Newhouse Gallery, May 6 – June 5, 2009

Most of the work I have seen by Graham Nickson over the years—whether in oil or watercolor—has been figurative, often bathers interacting as if they were caught in the middle of a dance movement—strident poses moving from full body to classical gesture, where everything is connected in the realm of aesthetic intersubjectivity. The show at Jill Newhouse, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is different. Here the emphasis is on recent watercolors (2005-2008) of Italian skies, mostly sunsets, and a group of sumptuous small oil paintings from the early 70s. The composite experience of seeing both together offers a glimpse into an evocation of aesthetics that is at once intimate and distant. One feels these places—whether as architecture, as in the artist’s renderings of a Roman courtyard (1973) in the oil paintings, or as nature as envisioned in the watercolors. Given the intervals of time, each group of paintings carries an oblique heritage, an isolated, romantic, somewhat withdrawn penetration of the objective passage of light. The results suggest a distilled chromatic temperament, though not hermetic in its painterly application. This is particularly apparent in the sunset variations that pervade this exhibition, in some of the early oils and in virtually all of the recent watercolors.

Graham Nickson, "Sarageto VIII," August 2008. Watercolor on paper. 22 × 30 inches (55.9 × 76.2 cm).

I find this relation between architecture and nature interesting because it allows thought to enter into feeling. For example, in the watercolor, “Sarageto Dawn: Red Sky, Last Day, August 2007, no. 8,” striated secondary hues—contrasting orange and purple—jut horizontally from left to right with a slight diagonal bending downward in the top right corner. This might be juxtaposed with “Sarageto III, August 2008,” with primary colors like those in the horizontal paintings of Kenneth Noland from 1968. In Nickson’s “Sarageto III,” the cerulean sky at the top descends into a bright yellow with an intense cadmium red toward the center. The lower one-fourth of the painting reveals a country landscape shadowed in a mixture of dark blue and purple. The divisions of space in “Sarageto III” suggest the triadic format of the 17th-century painter Claude de Lorraine, who also painted in Italy, in which the canvas is divided between foreground, middle ground, and background. The only difference in the Nickson watercolor is that most of the space is within the sky, not the land below it. Yet somehow the sky integrates into the landscape, as if inextricably bound in all its vibrant color, through the artist’s keen observation and dexterous hand. (Here the obvious precedent is English Romantic painter John Constable, but Nickson, who is also British, informs his clouds with a greater vibrancy and density suggestive of Clyfford Still.)

The above description suggests a formal analysis in contrast to a thought-provoking one. Yet, at this juncture, I would like to credit Graham Nickson’s paintings—whether small or large, figurative or landscape—with the notion that formalism is not empty of thought. Particularly in the great English tradition, the concept of painterly form is replete with thought: one cannot distinguish between the two. To envision form—to see it—is to understand the workings of the mind behind it or in front of it, as the case may be. Take the small square oil in a gray painted frame titled “Tuscan Nightfall, Trespiano” (1973). The painting shows a long view from a mountain height looking toward a few scattered lights in the distance below. The dark greens and purples are hallucinatory, somewhat incredible that they could exist together. It is dusk where one sees the last sign of light, the orange flare caught in a single cloud. One might argue the worth of such a painting in simple formal terms; but in fact the simple terms—the language of art—within this landscape are quite subtle and complex. One has to ask: How is it possible that this distant view of a village at night can produce such strong and sustained feelings that hold the attention of the viewer? When confronted by an emotional reaction to dispassionate classicism, how is it possible to feel something divorced from the kinds of spectacles that appear to overwhelm contemporary art over the past decade?

The process of engaging in one aspect of this perceptual experience also includes the other. The eyes are not separate from the brain but are part of the same interactive process. Ultimately, one might say that to perceive form in the landscape—in the billowing, saturated sponges of color represented as hovering clouds—is a matter of coming to terms with the language of art. The scholar and aesthetician Nelson Goodman wrote frequently on this phenomenon. For Goodman, the coming to terms with the language of art in painting—in Nickson’s case: a landscape—is a signifying process, a process in which the complexity of the form conveys meaning. We reflect on the meaning of what we see because doing so is an indelible human act, and therefore we must be drawn into it in order to receive it. The time it takes for this to happen depends on how long it takes to feel connected. It is the experience of anticipation, like hearing a lover’s faraway voice, yet finally so close. The language soon becomes clear.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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