Seeing David Nicholsons oil paintings in reproduction is like reading the Cliff Notes version of Shakespeare -- the themes are lurid enough to be entertaining, but without the extraordinary language the bawdiness and blood can be mistaken for pulp. In the flesh, Nicholsons theatrically realist pictures evoke comparisons with the deft technique and sensational subject matter of Delacroix, Gros and Gericault.
His subjects include full-length, 19th-century-style portraits of his bohemian friends as well as scenes of wild animals. Another series of paintings, which are clearly allegorical, depicts the butchering of a sheep in Morocco. Several portraits depict Nicholsons wife and muse, Suellen, who is posed as a glossy harlot or as a kind of neo-goth fallen angel.
The Montreal-born Nicholson, who has no formal artistic training (and in fact is an amateur middleweight boxer), has exhibited his work in "Painting as Paradox" at Artists Space in New York and "Supereal" at the Marella Gallery in Milan. Nicholsons work is currently featured in "Beautiful/Grotesque," a group show on view at Riva Gallery on West 20th Street in Chelsea, June 17-July 24, 2004. The work of David Nicholson is also represented by Aeroplastics Contemporary in Brussels.
Ana Finel Honigman: Why do you choose to paint in oil?
David Nicholson: I find it funny that artists often use cheap industrial materials designed for temporary use, like fiberglass for example, and still insist on the archival, historical significance of their work. There is certainly a tradition, particularly in sculpture, of making work that conceptually engages the notion of transience or was practically designed for short-lived use. But making a sculpture out of butter or plaster to decorate a banquet or even making the entertaining automatons that aristocrats used to enjoy is different from ignoring that component of the work and pretending that a prop from Spiderman or Cremaster has the same permanence as an oil painting.
AFH: But a movie props historical value is as an artifact from its era.
DN: Perhaps, but that still doesnt qualify it as art. Most people might claim that props from Spiderman would be out of place in an art gallery but they would still find them interesting to look at. I understand the impetus to look at things that define our times, but I am still amazed that anyone thinks it is interesting to cull their subject matter from second-rate pop culture like B action films. I mean, if it's shit as pop culture, what the fuck makes it an interesting starting point for art?
AFH: Yet you use porn as a reference point by painting models with constructed and sculpted porn-star physiques.
DN: I am referencing porn less than I am updating the notion of ideal beauty. And I do not restrict my female nudes to any single standard. There is an assumption that porn and art both exalt a prototypical type of beauty, but in actuality, art history offers a wide and varied standard for female beauty. Oddly, throughout art history, there is less variety in the male nude than in the female nude. The porn pinup type of body is one of our contemporary beauty ideals, though porn, particularly Internet porn, actually presents an enormous range of real bodies. Art offers girls from Rubens round models to Schieles gaunt, grunge gamines.
AFH: Right before Sept. 11, 2001, you did a series of paintings about East/ West tensions. How did that series come about?
DN: That series was painted in Morocco after I spent three months traveling through the country alone. I ended up spending a lot of time with a family in Meknes, and the people in the paintings are the father and eldest son of the Sefiani family. His father was a surgeon in Meknes; he delivers most of the citys babies and is a very religious man who was educated in France.
We became close friends and I learned a lot about our respective cultures over the course of my stay with them. I'd arrived in Morocco in the middle of Ramadan in 1995 and I was completely naive about the holiday and about Islam in general. As I learned about Islamic culture, I began to participate in the fast and the traditions.
My timing was fortuitous, because I was there just long enough to experience the Fete du Mouton, as it is called. Those paintings are of the sacrifice of the ram that we performed in commemoration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac.
AFH: Why did you choose to represent this ceremony in particular as emblematic of your relationship to your hosts and their culture?
DN: I couldn't get over the fact that they actually cut off a ram's head, instead of symbolically replacing the animal with a surrogate, in the way the lamb acts as a surrogate for Isaac. It was strange and beautiful but also a shocking reminder of how divorced we in the West are from the land and from death.
AFH: Did you feel that these paintings reference or comment on the Orientalist tradition?
DN: The European painterly tradition of illustrating the East isnt lost on me, but these works are too personal to be reduced to some kind of contemporary cultural tourism. My experience in Morocco was a crucial part of my development as an artist and as a young man. I made the journey to Morocco when I had become stuck in my life and scared about how to proceed. That was the most beautiful and private experience of my youth.
And beyond that specific series of paintings, I continue to draw on that experience often in my work. When I first starting showing people this series, before 9/11, people were confused about what I found moving and compelling in a subject that they considered esoteric, outmoded and irrelevant. People had a problem seeing past the identity issues that they assumed surround my decision to paint a culture that is not my own.
AFH: Who or what would you cite as your strongest art historical or cultural influence?
DN: Rubens is a force that has influenced every painter who came after him, directly or inadvertently. An artist like Klimt had a style and Egon Schiele had a style, but they were not going to absorb anybody the way Rubens overwhelmed his contemporaries and perfected the visual language.
AFH: Are you interested in historicizing contemporary issues by using an esthetic taken from art history?
DN: I'm really less interested in history than in esthetics. Museums and books divide artwork, but tomorrow I can go see Rembrandt and Lucian Freud just down the hall from one another -- so theyre both here right now. And theyre each relevant in their own way to contemporary life and contemporary issues. Art is most effective when commenting on art but articulating contemporary concerns for posteritys sake is always part of arts function. Perhaps that function is more needed and most relevant now.
I think the current fixation on pop culture in art reflects our anxiety about finding meaning in a culture that is dangerously close to meaninglessness. Perhaps art has become a digestive culture organ, because there is really no time for us to digest the visual chaos that makes up our contemporary culture.
AFH: If our visual culture is so vast and limitless that in many respects anything is acceptable, are you proposing that a medium like oil painting can help us distinguish value between all the images and messages we receive?
DN: I don't think the power of art has changed at all, but I think our ability to recognize and slowly contemplate art's value has diminished. The aura is still there and I am often struck by how powerfully people are moved by different kinds of art. But part of arts power is that ultimately looking at a painting is as isolated and private an experience as reading a book.
AFH: Would you say that pluralism has replaced the importance of value with the need to attribute meaning to work that is inherently second-rate?
DN: Well, in a sense, yes. I find it strange that so many artists are obsessed with contemporary culture. One byproduct of Modernism and subsequent philosophies is that artists often seem confused about arts function and unaware of how to access the ephemera left around from centuries of accomplishment. I was moved by the way Harold Bloom eloquently condemned the idea that "genius" is an outmoded concept. To me that is a real problem. Why is it that history can tell that there was a difference between Shakespeare and his contemporaries but we are incapable of discerning taste distinctions in our contemporary culture? Is Modernism really anything more than a revolution in taste? An historian would probably disagree. Being an historian must be a drag.
AFH: Do you feel that, as an artist, you need to engage art history directly without the mediation of critical theory or academic discourse?
DN: If you want to be a poet, then you have to deal with Shakespeares influence and spirit. If you want to be a painter, you need to go directly to Rubens or Michelangelo. What Rubens and Shakespeare have in common is an enormous range of gifts and limitlessness. Rubens overwhelmed that whole world with his style. Even Van Dyke could not get out from under his influence. Van Dyke, as a history painter, is always a second-rate Rubens. If you want to paint the female, or the male nude, you have to address Rubens. Or if you want to paint. . . anything! He really did everything as well as can be done.
AFH: But the ideology that devalues taste now would also want to put Shakespeare in the context of his era, not above it.
DN: What kind of absurd ideology would lead to such a distorted sense of taste? This attitude is bred in the academy to serve the academy. We teach students in our universities to reduce greatness because this stance elevates the intellectual and shrinks his or her subject. I just think that context is much less important than the work itself. What context could possibly overwhelm Rubens Medici Cycle?
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.