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A Painter of Modern Life
06.01.2009
Art world sophisticates are accustomed to dressing up smutty subject matter in conceptual jargon. They are at ease with the feverish style of Cecily Brown or Thomas Ruff's cool pixels. But David Nicholson's exquisite renderings of salacious conetent triggers serious contemplation. In contrast to the playboy posturing of other artists who cite porn as expample of cultural gratuity, the Montreal-born and Berlin-based painter's background and approach bypass contemporary art's concerns with fast-paced, trend-obsessed culture. Instead, the self-taught artist's interests are historical, his relationship to paint is sensual, and his technique is confidently not au courant. Yet Nicholson has work in the same collections as Anselm Kiefer, George Condo, Edward Munch, Frank Stella, and the Chapman Brothers. He currently has work in "Sex Rules" at Vienna's Apartment Draschan, Berlin's "No Sugar for the Monkey" at the Stattbad, where he poses for photographer Maxime Ballesteros with his favorite model Eden Berlin. Here Nicholson (full disclosure: he's a close friend of almost ten years) and I discuss his work while eating dinner and checking out chicks in Berlin's Café Fleury.

Eden Berlin and David Nicholson.
Eden Berlin and David Nicholson.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
Besides liking beautiful women, is there another reason why you maintain the female body as your central subject matter?
DAVID NICHOLSON
People think I paint women because I am girl-crazy, but that makes no sense. It can't make any sense. Everything I paint takes too long for my motives to be that light. It will take hours and hours, layers and layers, no matter what I am painting. I could be painting a leg or a knee and it doesn't just get done. It is not light. It is not a passing fancy. It seems light but that is part of the illusion. If it is going to be exceptional, or something you really want to look at, then the effort to make it needs to be much more substantial. I have an idea for something that just gnaws away in my head and then I start wondering what I am going to do with it and how serious I am. If it stays with me and I keep coming back to it, then I can start to really address it, because it takes months to do what I do and I need to really mean it. I need to keep rediscovering it and renewing my interest in it as I progress. ...and of course I pretty much like all girls too!
AFH
Do your compositions reveal themselves to you as fully-formed, mapped ideas?
DN
No, never. It always starts as a little idea and then I build around it and fleshing it out until it all makes sense together. The connections and associations all need to develop. It is the same for music or writing or anything. It doesn't emerge fully-formed.
AFH
How do you respond to viewers' responses to your work?
DN
I don't know whether this happens to me more than other artists, but it completely confounds me when people tell me, and they tell me often, what I should do.
AFH
Do people often do that?
DN
People will tell me, "You should paint this," or ask, "Why don't you paint this other thing?"
AFH
I just tell you what I think you shouldn't paint.
DN
It's the same thing really.
AFH
No it isn't.
DN
It is. Really. What I find interesting about that is that there seems to be an assumption in those suggestions - and I am just trying to make sense of it, because I can't make sense of it any other way - that I can decide what to paint the same way that I decide what shoes to wear. That is not true. It's not like wanting to eat a cheeseburger for lunch.
AFH
Do you think people might make suggestions more as requests? They want a certain thing to exist in the world, which is a David Nicholson rendering of whatever they think deserves your talent.
DN
I think part of it is, "If I could do that, then I'd paint this..."
AFH
Or maybe they just want your realization of their idea to exist in the world.
DN
Maybe. I met an artist recently who told me, "If I had your talent, I would only be painting war scenes."
AFH
That sounds like exactly the right way to approach you and articulate what she means.
DN
It is. But I think it misses something because maybe if she could paint like how I paint, she would only paint chickens or trees or something utterly surprising, even to her. There are people who only want to paint trees. Maybe, if she reached that point then she would discover that she only wanted to paint trees or chickens or chairs.
AFH
You mean that then she'd stop thinking selflessly about how paintings as arresting as yours should address the horrors of war, and realize she could only devote herself to what interested her enough to fuel that process?
DN
Right. And what interests her might really be chickens.
AFH
And you're interested in women...
DN
I just know that when I look at a figure, I want to engage with that. I see a figure and I think that there is something I want to render. I want to make that flesh like flesh and that form like that form. And I want to say something with it. And I don't just paint women.
AFH
No, you paint stuff around the women.
DN
Right, but what about the skulls? I paint skulls repeatedly. I just keep coming back to them. I realize the subject has implications and attracts me. No one says, "I'm skull crazy!"
AFH
But I thought that you were saying that the subject is of much lesser importance that the physical experience of engaging it. I thought your point was that you can't select illustration for ideas; painting the thing itself determines what you find interesting.
DN
Yes, but that is all part of how you say something with paint. I can't just decide to paint this glass. Though, actually, I can. I can decide to paint this glass and then decide to paint a world around it. I am asking what that world will say and how I can develop that world to say something, if I am interested in painting the glass.
AFH
Do you have the same responses as a viewer, or are you more willing to force yourself to engage something you might not like?
DN
It is the same when I look at art. I don't know why I am drawn to certain things but I definitely am drawn to them. I go and stare and stare. There is this dog sculpture in the Louvre. I go and look at it and return to it every time that I am in the Louvre. It is incredible. It is just a dog. But it is incredible. You go over every inch and it is so clear that this artist loved this dog. Maybe you have to love dogs to care but I think anyone would love this thing. It is such a fine, fine thing, but it is just a dog.
AFH
Dogs are not just dogs.
DN
They certainly aren't. But I need to be honest with myself and start really understanding when I just don't care. I often will realize that but I'll fight it and the more I fight, the less easily it comes. I get frustrated and start throwing things and its bad times for everybody. I am unhappy. My neighbours are unhappy.
AFH
Then it sounds like work. Suddenly, you're building railroads.
DN
Its torture.
AFH
It just sounds tedious. You're suddenly staring in a tight position at something small and frustrating.
DN
Every time I do something, to one degree or another, it is a fight to make it that way. It doesn't just happen. It looks like it does but it doesn't.
AFH
Like ballet.
DN
Sargent was like this. He wanted the final strokes to be natural one-off strokes. So he would do it and then if it wasn't right, he would do it again and again. It is not casual to make it look casual. Today, I was trying to paint a ribcage and I just wasn't into it. I couldn't do it.
AFH
Do you think that one element of that is that the risks for you are just so much more extreme?
DN
I think so. When it fails, it just obviously fails.
AFH
Like bad acting.
DN
Yes, when it fails you notice it and its all just shit.
AFH
Whereas Dana Shultz can fuck up and it might go unnoticed, because there is a fine line between bad-good and bad-bad, and maybe who knows when its crossed over?
DN
Right, but with me that's obvious to everybody. Look at Lucian Freud and you'll see that. A room of his works and some are just bad. When his work is incredible, it is incredible. But the rest will be mediocre, they are just some fat person on a bed. But I look at him and think that he is just another guy who is walking a tightrope. I work entirely differently than he does but the mistakes are no less visible when its done.
AFH
My father always says, "there is no good writing, just good editing."
DN
That's not true though. You can edit shit and it will still be shit. And you can't edit Shakespeare in such a way that it will suck. That can't happen. You can edit "The Great Gatsby" to be a little tighter and more exceptional but the difference will be minor because it started as great. You have to be working with some primary material that is great....
by Ana Finel Honigman
Photography by Maxime Ballesteros
from Whitehot Magazine
featured in Interview Magazine
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