Back to aeroplastics homepage
Back to homepage
Back to articles
David Nicholson
03.12.2006
We often forget that history is not history when it is happening - it is life. David Nicholson's modernizations of old-master methods and allegorical compositions are vital reminders that great art is always relevant.

Though painting has reclaimed its past dominance in the art galleries, the experience and appreciation of painting in today's international art-world has become less about looking and more about registering the artist's energy or "reading" the artist's meaning.

Contemporary figurative artists are often judged on content, or given too much credit for merely attempting to tackle the monolithic history of great painting, while the products of an underlying lack of skill are passed off as intentionally ironic statements. Viewers are encouraged to ignore questions of dexterity and mastery, as artists are given license to remain inarticulate in their expressive medium. Set against this grungy, poorly-formed and lazily executed aesthetic, in which paint is relegated to a supporting role as a tool used to illustrate the artists' conceptual aims, David Nicholson's art comes as a genuine shock. His inspiring proficiency with painting as a skill and a lineage is a welcome reminder of what is lost when artists try too hard to compete with other areas of visual culture by producing flashy, cartoony imagery, or when they debunk art's importance by passing off empty, adolescent satire as significant contributions to the lineage of painting because, at bottom, they are intimidated by history.

Instead of trying to negotiate a position for himself within postmodernism's nebulous framework, Nicholson strives to place his work within a historical continuum. "Postmodernism is completely empty," he asserts. "It is a watered down form of skepticism. It applies to a condition of blinding chaos but offers no guidance or solution. And worst of all, it is a crutch." Nicholson's indictment of contemporary art's most fundamental foundation might sound severe, but he has earned the right to be critical of a culture whose standards are so unequivocally lax compared to his own. The Montreal-born Nicholson has no formal artistic training, yet he has taught himself to produce remarkably well-rendered paintings employing old-master technique and aesthetic. And in his articulate disdain for contemporary critical discourse, he personifies Barnett Newman's astute remark that, "aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds."

Seeing Nicholson's 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. Nicholson's theatrically realist pictures appear flat in reproduction. But stand in front of them, and the skin he paints looks like flesh, the faces are disarmingly mobile, expressive and alive, and the environments he creates are as dense and dimensional as real space. One after the other, they evoke comparisons with the deft technique and sensational, brutal subject matter of Delacroix, Caravaggio, Gros or Gericault.

Despite his opposition to the theoretical tenets of postmodernism, Nicholson acknowledges that he lives in a Post-Modern culture through his choice of subject matter, which encompasses porn, drug addiction, the Iraqi war, and portraits of a multi-cultural array of feral sexual models in ornate, yet sinisterly gothic settings. The models are immediately recognizable as late-twentieth century because they display the period's subculture markings of tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair. (Several of his portraits depict Nicholson's wife and muse, Suellen, who is posed as a glossy harlot or a kind of neo-goth fallen angel.) The tension at play between Nicholson's traditional style and methods and the definitively, defiantly post-modern appearance of his models creates a compelling contrast that makes his work far more than simply a vehicle to flaunt his technical dexterity.

Eros (2005)

Nicholson's 2005, painting "Eros" exemplifies the commanding disparities in Nicholson's compositions. In this large-scale (160 x 500 cm) tableau, he depicts six diversely magnificent nudes playfully preening in a pastoral idyll. The girls' full, firm figures are complimented by fresh, juicy, fruit scattered around them, tight bunches of blooming roses and swatches of sensual fabric draped from branches and over the table, where food and drink are elegantly arranged. A similarly harmonious relationship between setting and sitters is established in the juxtaposition between the sexual danger indicated by the floral "sleeve" tattooed on one archly intelligent-looking redhead's arm and the massive, muscular, black dog she tries to restrain from attacking a small, oblivious Chihuahua.

Though they are posed as nymphs in nature, none of these girls appear wholly natural. Some wear arrestingly contrived make-up, others have glittering piercings and a few have breasts that are obviously artificial. Revealingly, Nicholson cited art history as his basis for portraying these self-crafted beauties when he explained in a 2004 interview that he and I conducted for Artnet magazine, "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."

In 2001 before the World Trade Center attacks, Nicholson produced an allegorical photo-realist series of paintings exploring the cultural tensions, commonality and miscommunications between the West and Middle East, based upon his experiences traveling in Morocco during the mid-nineteen nineties. The primary subjects of this series were the father and eldest son in a family Nicholson came to know in the city of Meknes after traveling alone in the country for three months. The father of the Sefiani family was a religious European-educated surgeon who delivered most of the town's babies, and he generously engaged with Nicholson on subjects of faith, culture and heritage. Ramadan fell during the time Nicholson spent in the family's presence, and he participated in the fast and contributed to the rituals connected to the tradition, including the Fete du Mouton, the sacrifice of a ram performed in commemoration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac.

Reason and Fury (2006)

Nicholson's 2006 painting "Reason and Fury" is a direct, allegorical response to the horrific, nightmarish perversions of the cultural engagement he respectfully depicted in his images of Morocco that are experienced daily in America's war and military presence in Iraq.

In "Reason and Fury", Nicholson deploys imagery to overtake the empty rhetoric, mendacity and enfeebled verbal protests against the Iraqui war. He does not propose art as a form of activism but as a powerful means of expressing the awful damage and dangers inherent in war, because reason and language have been misused throughout the Iraqui conflict. As Nicholson eloquently explains, the faith that people have in the idea that reason will override humanity's baser, crueler instincts has been proven to be a fallacy time and again throughout our history. "The Enlightenment ended in the Reign of Terror," Nicholson says. "Reason, especially at this late date, is always suspect. In my painting, reason is what is used to make the weapons - the materials, the design, the mass production, the power, etc. And Reason is sadly what we use to authorize the use of these horrible innovations. It's hardly what saves us."

"Reason and Fury" is an arrangement of grotesque and surreal figures which individually reference specific art-historical sources, but which together from a powerful satirical statement in opposition to the irrational abuses of power that the American government imposes on Iraq in the guise of reasoned policy. Nicholson explains the organization within his canvas by declaring that it was "designed to be incoherent". Yet each of the composition's components has a clear conceptual rationale. Contrary to the usual composition of most images in any medium or style, Nichoslon arranges the key elements of this painting at the periphery - intentionally leaving a void in the center which symbolically represents what he describes as "chaos being pushed to the edges of the frame," in the same way that the media's portrayal of the war to its American audiences presents the miseries and atrocities of the conflict as tangential to the Administration's rhetorical pronouncements of success or improvement. Thus, a vacant horizon lies at the center of the image like a vortex, where nothing but plumes of thick smoke occupy the terrain.

"It's dangerous to put nothing in the middle," Nicholson confesses. "Picasso positioned his tragic horse in the center of Guernica and Goya's desperate victims were almost always situated in the center of his compositions, but instead of following these examples, I chose to put nothing but weapons at the center. Here, in the heart of my image, you find nothing but the barrel of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov! The figure of a half-woman / half-vulture bloodsucker ascending towards the middle, is to me some kind of arms dealer attended by her children, instead of little cherubim. From out of her cloud comes the products of her trade instead of the brilliant shafts of sacred light I'd seen in several of Ruben's "Assumptions" in Belgium after I began the painting. I thought it was a kind of bitterly funny connection to maken yet still effective."

Nicholson is amazed to find that the most contentious figure in the composition is the woman squatting at the far left, wearing a pig mask and squirting milk out of her splayed anus, a figure he lifted from a Bosch painting. On her own, she's an obviously obscene sight. But within the context of his overall image, the attention his viewers direct to her resonates with Nicholson as emblematic of the insidious hypocrisy surrounding most discussions of the war and underlining issues. "I am not totally surprised that she offends, but I am amazed that she offends much more than a severed head and a melted corpse," says Nicholson. Then, joking about distorted sensitivities he adds, "Really though, despite the milk, it's a nice ass. I think the painting offers something for everyone!"

Nicholson's referencing of Bosch and mythological monsters signifies the spiritual, psychological and rational deformation of humanity that is sadly inevitable in times of war. Perhaps the most painful aspect of this difficult painting is the scrawny infant sucking on his fingers in the image's foreground. Despite the angel wings emerging from his back, that child is at once the least distorted yet the most unsettling figure present, because of the way in which he recalls images of malnourished, neglected and mistreated victims of previous generations' wars. Those are images we have been raised to find shocking and to feel guilty about as descendants of groups who caused and benefited from global injustice, but similar images from the on-going war have not sufficiently penetrated mass mediate present. The child is at once a reference to Goya's Spain, to Vietnam and to Iraq. He is the universal victim of history's never-ending tragic warfare, and Nicholson skillfully positions him within art's engagement with that line of history so he can demand that we pay due attention to warfare's horrors of today.

But when discussing the monstrosities and deformities that he represents in his painting, Nicholson is also careful to remind us of the difference between abstracted symbolic misery and the reality of war, which is rarely represented in all its horror. "The tumor on the infected baby in my painting is nothing compared to some of the real monstrosities that weapons produce." In summing up the message that his painting seeks to convey, Nicholson reflects that, "It fascinates me that Dante invented his own cosmology in the Divine Comedy. It seems impossible, but even at this late date we can all invent our own cosmologies again . . . Whatever we do, we must find an alternative strategy from what we are doing to avoid repeating the same brutal, destructive behavior. Perhaps compassion is simply the answer. Or maybe the hippie generation was right, and it is all about love. I don't know. But all the violent acts that is sadly inevitable in times of war. Perhaps the most painful aspect of this difficult painting is the scrawny infant sucking on his fingers in the image's foreground. Despite the angel wings emerging from his back, that child is at once the least distorted yet the most unsettling figure present, because of the way in which he recalls images of malnourished, neglected and mistreated victims of previous generations' wars. Those are images we have been raised to find shocking and to feel guilty about as descendants of groups who caused and benefited from global injustice, but similar images from the on-going war have not sufficiently penetrated mass mediate present. The child is at once a reference to Goya's Spain, to Vietnam and to Iraq. He is the universal victim of history's never-ending tragic warfare, and Nicholson skillfully positions him within art's engagement with that line of history so he can demand that we pay due attention to warfare's horrors of today.

But when discussing the monstrosities and deformities that he represents in his painting, Nicholson is also careful to remind us of the difference between abstracted symbolic misery and the reality of war, which is rarely represented in all its horror. "The tumor on the infected baby in my painting is nothing compared to some of the real monstrosities that weapons produce."

In summing up the message that his painting seeks to convey, Nicholson reflects that, "It fascinates me that Dante invented his own cosmology in the Divine Comedy. It seems impossible, but even at this late date we can all invent our own cosmologies again . . . Whatever we do, we must find an alternative strategy from what we are doing to avoid repeating the same brutal, destructive behavior. Perhaps compassion is simply the answer. Or maybe the hippie generation was right, and it is all about love. I don't know. But all the violent acts that make up the current political situation are being carried out by reasonable men and women. So reason is not the answer." Maybe the impact of skilled, thoughtfull, engaged and outraged painting can be.
by Ana Finel Honigman
Back to homepage

David Nicholson biography
Interview with David Nicholson

Back to aeroplastics homepage
For further information, please contact us
Bookmark and Share Share

The Slaughtered ram | Woman in pink | Untitled | Untitled | Melissa | Sierra Leone | The Tigers | The Lions | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Pet | Portrait of Alex Arcadia | Garden of love | Garden of love | Untitled | The Pornstar | Untitled | Untitled | The Dogs | The Dogs | Google Eyed Man | Recovery | Pope | Shylock | Untitled | Untitled | Eros | Untitled | Untitled | The Bull | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Satyre | Untitled | Untitled | Goddess | Cockfight | Ellysha and Evan with skull | Ellysha | Bridget | Dog Collar | Untitled | Untitled (indian) | Untitled (blonde) | The Guitar Player | The Guitar Player | Untitled | Pregnant nude | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Skull | Untitled | Reason and Fury | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | The four stages of cruelty | Grapes | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled (skull on book) | Suellen | Skull | Melancolia | Study for Melancolia | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Louisiana | Untitled | Untitled | Gabriella | Girl | Untitled | Untitled | Portrait of Suellen | Self portrait | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | Untitled | The rooster | Vivian on canvas | Untitled | Untitled | Chloé | Chloé | Chloe portrait | Bulls | View from the studio | JCVD | Untitled | Untitled | Maureen | Maureen #2 | Self-portrait with vampyre slut | Much have i travelled in the realms of gold... Caldwell's tales of endurance | Amor | Kellie peeing | Julietta La Doll | Elegy | Catfish | Selfportrait (Berlin) | Diana with meat collar | Selfportrait | Rochelle | Still life with music | Dog fight | Dance of death | 3 Muses (gallery view) |