Gavin Brown’s enterprise has hosted its share of anarchic exhibitions that push the conventional envelope of display. Take Urs Fischer’s excavation of the gallery floor, for example -- or Rirkrit Tiravanjia’s serving of pulled pork dinners within the gallery space. Now it’s Peter Nadin’s turn. With "First Mark," his first show in New York in 20 years since escaping the art scene to pursue farming in the Catskills, Nadin has transformed the gallery into an enchanted forest.
Walking among the 60 rafter-skimming pillars of scarred hemlock filling one of the show's large galleries, a viewer can feel like a child lost in a storybook wood, alert to the dangers that lurk in the natural world. But no evil presence emanates from Nadin’s pilings; in fact, his rough-cut plinths support an assortment of sculptures in ceramic and beeswax, which he has bolted to the tree trunks or set up top, high above eye level. Nadin doesn’t just subvert the sculpture-pedestal convention -- he literally sends it up.
Viewers have to crane their necks and squint to catch a glimpse of what’s there: a dirty-white ceramic vessel with a Roman nose for a handle; boxes that resemble beehives; pot-bellied urns; candlestick-like totems, amorphous lumps of fired clay, a sinewy umbilical cord of a figure and an affecting self-portrait of the artist with one of his favorite pigs, carved into a pinioned, terra-cotta tile.
Since removing himself from the commercial art world two decades ago, the British-born Nadin, who is also a poet, has devoted himself to farming -- but he has not abandoned his craft. On his Old Field Farm in the foothills of the Catskills, he supplemented the chicken coop, goat shed, farrowing house, beehives and vegetable gardens with a large painting studio and and a rustic ceramics workshop that he built himself. (Full disclosure: I have been a guest at the farm on several occasions.)
For Nadin, art finds form in agriculture; his show at Gavin Brown links these two noble pursuits in a metaphysics of his own making. "The last years, while I wasn’t showing, have been fruitful," he told me at his opening last week, the dinner for which featured fresh produce and roast pork from his farm. "I had a chance to develop a new formal language."
In the 1980s, Nadin had established himself as a maker of eccentric, semi-narrative paintings. Earlier, in the ‘70s, he had collaborated with several other artists, including Peter Fend, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Richard Prince and Jenny Holzer, in a kind of mock-consultancy offering “practical esthetic services” to all comers (not too many came). With the late Christopher D’Arcangelo, Nadin also pioneered an alternative gallery in Tribeca, where Daniel Buren, Louise Lawler, Sean Scully and other artists layered their new installations over previous ones, into a gradual accumulation of the never-seen-before.
In 2006, Nadin published a small book, The First Mark: Unlearning How to Make Art. It is a work of cultural criticism as much as an allegorical, occasionally hallucinatory and often hilarious disquisition on human behavior which explores artists’ longing for "the wonder of direct experience." The picaresque tale recounts the journey of a self-important artist beset by mythic figures from art and literature who want to change him.
At Gavin Brown, Nadin uses products from his farm to create his paintings: the crusty yolks of tossed eggs appear in the splatter paintings that introduce the exhibition, and bee pollen, wax, pigment extracted from black walnuts, natural dyes and cashmere tufts from his own goats are used elsewhere. Painted on unprimed canvas and hung in heavy, highly polished black frames, they are essentially process works that detail the trajectory of their making, the transformation of the material of his life into art.
From a distance, Nadin’s darker canvases suggest an explosion of star nebulae. Viewed from closer up, they recall detailed, topographic maps of natural materials. One triptych looks like an expressionist still-life of a spray of budding branches. Another canvas, Icarus (2006), suggests a pileup of bird droppings. Something about these works -- the expansive, negative space, the thrown pigments -- echoes of Japanese landscape painting. But Nadin’s works are riled, full of turmoil; they seem to be working like hell to calm down.
The paintings, installed in the gallery’s front room, lead into the magical forest -- which is titled The Bo’sun’s Chair (2011) and has a price tag of $150,000. In this garden of degenerate gods, lopsided ceramic vessels stoop atop their pillars like primitive religious icons, gazing down at their worshipping flock. The syncopated arrangement of the pillars, which vary erratically in height, brings the room to life, and reflects the wild, eccentric context of the objects on display’s natural source. Urban it isn’t -- but it is urbane, visceral and playful.
After the forest comes Raft, a large, shallow reflecting pool installed in the middle of the gallery and filled with 6,000 pounds of horse honey (an unpalatable residue of the honey-making process that is fed to horses as a blood builder), black and slick as motor oil and with a fairly intoxicating aroma. Three distinct groups of objects rise from its dark surface. A complex of white ceramic beehives sits on an island of dirt and stone, suggesting the aftermath of a flood. A small, makeshift raft, assembled with sisal cord, holds pieces of broken pottery. And a group of roughly turned earthenware pots is set nearby, survivors standing proud above their inky reflections.
At the show’s opening, I heard more than one person compare Nadin’s work to that of Anselm Kiefer, who also thinks big and combines natural ingredients like sunflower seeds, straw and dry branches with manmade or industrial materials. Nadin is less burdened by the weight of history than Kiefer, but he is just as invested in expressing personal experience -- though in a much more light-hearted and self-mocking way. In place of a catalogue, for example, Nadin has published a country newspaper, The Bugle. A must-read broadside for sustainable farming, it contains recipes, poems, anecdotes recounted by artists, writers, architects and family members, as well as passages from works by Kafka, Tolstoy and Virgil.
In its entirety, “First Mark” both symbolizes Nadin’s return to the fold and represents the path that led him out of it, toward "the wonder of direct experience."
"Peter Nadin: First Mark," June 29-July 30, 2011, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, 620 Greenwich Street, New York, N.Y., 10014.
LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for Artforum.com, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.