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Interview with David Nicholson
04.04.2008
Seeing David 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. In the flesh, Nicholson's theatrically realist pictures evoke comparisons with the deft technique and sensational, brutal subject matter of Delacroix, Caravaggio, Grosz or Gericault. They may 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.

Although painting has reclaimed much of its past dominance in the art galleries and on the art market, during the past century the experience of appreciating painting has become less about merely looking at the work and more about registering the artist's energy or 'reading' the artist's meaning. Viewers are encouraged to ignore questions of dexterity and mastery, and artists are permitted to remain inarticulate in their expressive medium. Thus, figurative artists are judged predominantly on content or given over-much credit for their attempts to tackle the monolithic history of great painting. For these artists, an underlying lack of skill is often passed off as an intentionally ironic statement. At the same time, conversations about talent and technique are reserved for abstract artists, who are working with an arguably anachronistic set of well-worn aesthetic concerns.

Nicholson's inspiring proficiency with the act of painting is an important reminder of what is often lost in this artistic climate, when contemporary artists try too hard to compete with other areas of visual culture by producing flashy, cartoony imagery, or strive to 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 art's history. The Montreal-born Nicholson has no formal artistic training, yet he has trained himself to produce remarkably well-rendered paintings deftly employing old master technique and aesthetics.

I met David when I first started writing for art publications. His portrait of fellow artist Alex Arcadia in the pose of a Van Dyck subject was generating interest and awe among New York's gallery goers. In was a striking retort to the trend for grungy painting that was then dominating the gallery scene, and David's warm, unpretentious and scintillatingly intelligent conversation quickly became one of the refreshing rewards of being in Manhattan. Here we continue our dialogue by email between David in Texas and myself in England.

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

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
Where do you cull your source material from?
DAVID NICHOLSON
More and more, my source material comes from direct experience. Whether I'm hiring models or acquiring objects to represent, I am increasingly painting from life. Particularly in the past year, I've focused on taking the time to accumulate what I need in a more direct manner. But I don't have any rules about this kind of thing; I have no problem taking an image and using it for my own purposes. It really depends upon the subject that I have in mind and the needs of the particular painting. I'm visually stimulated by many sources, so it only makes sense to me that my responses will also come from many sources. For example, a couple of months ago, I decided to paint a dead rooster. I just figured that the best thing to do was go buy a rooster, kill it and paint it. Alternately, I could have accumulated dozens of pictures of roosters and then put the painting together that way. That's always another option.
AFH
Do you consider that option less legitimate or creatively authentic?
DN
I don't think that one is more legitimate than another. Both would require an enormous amount of study in order for the painting to succeed. They just involve me in different experiences. Although, I will say that the method I chose was a lot smellier.
AFH
In the end, what, besides smell, determined your decision?
DN
I thought it would be easier to just get the chicken. And it would be more fun.
AFH
Sounds less fun considering the smell.
DN
Well, the fun factor was that I knew I'd learn some things. For example, I learned that the smell of the dead chicken hanging in your living room comes back to you when you eat chicken.
AFH
I assume that your connection between the smell of the dead animal and its taste is an atavistic experience closer to how people have experienced their food up until our pre-packaged era.
DN
It was like tasting chicken for the first time. Then I thought about one of my dogs. He smells really good. And from there, I started to think that he'd probably taste a lot like how he smells.
AFH
Don't test that hypothesis. Returning to your decision in favor of killing instead of culling an image of the dead chicken off your computer; do you feel that painting from a pre-existing image, either a photograph or on-line source, is inherently about the photograph and not what it represents? A photograph is an image that has already been mediated by another artist's creative vision. How can you look past that intermediary and use it as a neutral representation of the object, subject or event you want to paint?
DN
Well, I don't think there's any such thing as a neutral representation. And no, I think that the object, for me anyway, always rules. I know what I can see through a photo. And I don't need to touch something to know what it feels like. So, I know what you mean. But I think your point is too broad to be useful.
AFH
Too broad in what sense?
DN
It assumes too much. For example, how do you know the photograph is the work of an artist? Or that it was even thoughtfully made? And how do you know how much filtering the painter introduces to his use of the image? To be sure, some work departs very little from its photographic source, but that's still a choice the artist made. I think all that matters is the result. I'm very pragmatic about these issues: if the end is good, that's all that matters. I don't care how the image was achieved. Besides, no one seriously confuses my work with a photograph. Or even with my photographic sources.
AFH
Are you interested in or inspired by the photorealist movement of the seventies?
DN
Not really. I know it's critically loathed and I think that reaction is a bit ridiculous. But despite disagreeing with dismissal of the movement, I have to say that I generally don't care that much for the work. I find it tedious and boring. I also think it fails to make the paint itself look beautiful.
AFH
Yes but the point of the movement is to limit the distance between the painted surface and the photographic source.
DN
Regardless of the thinking, that failure just kills any chance of the work achieving a separate and interesting life of its own. Paint has to be beautiful, as well as descriptive. That is how it speaks. It's the performance part of realizing a composition.
AFH
Do you consider paint itself the primary subject of your work?
DN
I do think its primary, but not to the exclusion of imagery.I try and apply paint with as much variety as I can across each painting. My ambition is that everything is rendered in different terms. I guess a useful analogy might be what verse is to poetry.
AFH
Historically, what are some examples in which paint is used in ways you regard as exemplary?
DN
Two years ago, I saw a show in Paris of Louis David's oil sketches. What amazed me most was how prosaic his brushwork appeared to be in each image. He seems to have consciously avoided any flourish or suggestion of virtuosity.
AFH
Do think that understated quality was because his mastery was already self-evident?
DN
I think that his aesthetic was very much an expression of his Revolutionary politics, as if there is a detached "age of reason" method. It does seem ironic that he had such passionate politics and ideas, and his imagery was so dramatic, yet he wanted to convey it all through an idealized and seemingly neutral handling of the paint. It's a pretense of course, and it makes for a fascinating vision. Yet for me the oil sketches were something of a disappointment.
AFH
Do you prefer pictorial flamboyance to David's austerity?
DN
It depends on the individual artist. To go from David's sketches to Fragonard is an instructive experience. Fragonard is really the outer limit of virtuosity for its own sake. It's wonderful to be seduced by his work.
AFH
Are there contemporary equivalents, especially in our era when paintings' texture matters as much for its assumed meaning as subject matter or line?
DN
There are. What immediately comes to mind is how I heard Jenny Saville speak once of de Kooning's surfaces. She asserted that he achieves everything possible with paint and surface. I think all painters respond strongly to that. Of course with de Kooning it is extreme. It is with Saville too. But I still think that one can experience similar feelings from a more subtle treatment. I just find it exciting to see how the paint is rendering the subject in all these separate instances.
AFH
When selecting your images, are you concerned that the shock of some of your subject matter might detract from the impact of your style and technique?
DN
Actually, I don't think I ever thought of that possibility. I'm always just trying to encourage the viewer to look closer. People admire my technique. And I am comfortable with that response. But it is not the end itself. It is an integral part of it, but not the whole.
AFH
Are you saying that you divorce the substance of the subject matter from your technical or aesthetic concerns?
DN
I can't divorce subject and technique. Technique and style don't evolve separately from subject. They are the inseparable. Without technique, there would be no subject. And vice versa. The same goes for style, which is also built from the subject. I think it's easier to separate them in words, looking back at a painting, but that's an artificial distinction.
AFH
Are you selecting subject matter that you feel you can successfully represent?
DN
It's not like I look at a possible subject and imagine whether it would be appropriate for my method or style. No, it is not as if I were looking at a box of chocolates to choose the one I like best. I get inspired or motivated by something that I find stimulating, and my work is a response to those feelings. And I have a strong sense of humor, so I often say 'fuck it, this is what interests me, this is what I'm gonna paint.'
AFH
Sure, but you paint porn images with Cupids, infants and little people. You must assume someone might react somehow.
DN
Yeah, I know there'll be a reaction. Isn't that the point? I mean, even if you don't like my work, at least it's never boring.
AFH
Is shock a reaction that you are intentionally trying to elicit?
DN
I suppose it is. I read Goethe's Faust Part II last year for the first time. I couldn't believe what I was reading. I don't know how Germans feel about Goethe. I assume he is their Shakespeare. But, I can't imagine how one could tame Faust. It just doesn't seem possible. It is so outrageous. It shocks me. And I think that's certainly part of its power. I'm listening to a recitation of the Iliad right now. I haven't read it in years, and the prose translation I first read was weak. Not true of the version I'm hearing now. Homer's detailed, brutal, unapologetic violence makes Cormac McCarthy seem genteel.
AFH
Are you trying to create a tension, like the one you observed in David, between your surfaces and your subjects?
DN
I think that there should always be some tension or grace joining the method and the subject.I also want to get beyond the domesticated classicism that we seem to have inherited.
AFH
Is using porn imagery your way of updating a timeless set of concerns about desire and sexuality?
DN
I want to investigate what is behind the subjects that painters and poets have represented over the centuries. When I look at Michelangelo's Last Judgment, for example, I see a sublime, tormented sexual imagination. It makes me wonder how much more difficult the work would be had all the exposed genitalia not been covered up by another artist.
AFH
Yet if the impact is still evident, than does overt sexual display necessarily add anything significant?
DN
Well, he painted it that way for a reason. So, the tone would be incredibly different. It would have been less easily purified without the sexual parts having been painted over by Volterra. I believe that the overt sexuality was part of his intention.Obviously the work is shocking regardless of whether there is full nudity, but it was definitely tamed by the censor.
AFH
Do you think that it was shocking enough considering its contemporary context?
DN
It's hard to recover the contemporary experience, but I think we can imagine it. People don't change that much. You just have to find an equivalent experience as an analogy. I look at Rubens, and I see an outrageously exuberant sexuality bursting out, and yet he was somewhat discreet. You almost never see genitals in his paintings. There is always a thin veil.
AFH
How do you apply these precedents to your own process?
DN
Works like these give me permission to not hold back. I painted milk coming out of a woman's ass, but I saw it in Bosch first. The only difference was that he painted someone drinking it at the other end!
AFH
Do you actually only formalize your understanding of your images in retrospect? Are you finding justifications, not explanations, for what you paint?
DN
That's a funny question. Well, I only formalize so much. Who am I to say what a painting means?
AFH
The artist.
DN
True, but have you ever had definitive proof of what a painting means? It's not possible. So, I'm fine with looking back and thinking up possible interpretations. I work on some paintings for months, but I spend more time looking than painting. And the final paintings never develop into what I thought they would. But regardless, these ideas are just justifications. A painting has to be its own justification and explanation, regardless of what anyone says about it. If it can't stand on its own, then I assume it's no good. George Steiner once wrote about Schumann being asked to explain a difficult etude he'd just performed. Shumann's response was simply to play the pieceagain. In the same book, Steiner wrote a lot about the idea that one can't prove anything about a work of art. The most that you can hope for is consensus. Steiner argues that this is the dirty secret behind most critical and academic writing about poetry and literature: it is nothing more than opinion and ultimately, it is very vulnerable on these grounds.
AFH
How much value to you place on contemporary criticism, or theory?
DN
I try and approach it with an open mind. I think there is so much of it and it speaks with such a particular tone, that it's a bit of a turn off. I also think that it bears a very uneasy relationship to its subject. Reading about art and art history can only offer limited insight. And I don't think critical theory is as meaningfully applied to art as it is to literature. In both instances, it can offer some insights and lots of information, but seeing and reading are fundamentally so different that I think art writing is inherently limited. And when intellectuals write about art, the results are often disappointingly predictable. Well-established intellectuals often gravitate towards work that easily supports prose.
AFH
You mean conceptual art?
DN
Or work that is OVERTLY socio-political, in the ways of Hogarth, Goya, Blake or Duchamp. Their art is fertile terrain for a writer. But so much of art history just reduces writers to generators of description. I suspect, on some level, writers resent this. They're always threatened with being superfluous. If I'm standing in front of Monet's Water Lilies in the MOMA, then why the fuck do I need a writer to explain to me? When I go home and read about Monet, will the residue of the viewing experience cling to the writing? Probably not. And why would I read about a Monet, when I can look at it?
AFH
It is a rarity to encounter a work in the flesh. And secondly, the author hopefully offers insights through word choice and critical engagement with the images.
DN
Well, if one doesn't encounter the work in the flesh, then there can be no chance at understanding it. I recognize that the goal of criticism is as you describe it. But what you are saying brings us back to the idea of images and technique. They separate too easily in critical writing, thereby maiming the artworks' meaning. With that said, though, I do realize, of course, that there is both good and bad writing on art. I once read Rilke's letters on Cezanne. It was a strange experience. It was an example of a genius completely defeated by his subject. I think that, at its best, great writing about art provides metaphors or tropes to stimulate an equivalent experience in words. For example, Robert Hughes once described hair in a Caravaggio painting as "black ice-cream." But I find this is rare in art criticism. In contrast to Hughes, there is Rilke's poem inspired by his experience seeing an archaic torso of Apollo. It is a very powerful response to visual art.
AFH
Yes, but that is one art form inspired by another, rather than a critical response to art.
DN
YES, BUT IT IS IN A REAL SENSE STILL CRITICAL. ULTIMATELY for me, reading great LITERARY CRITICISM is more satisfying than art criticism. It is a great pleasure to read Harold Goddard's essays on Shakespeare, for example.
AFH
Do you think that is because there is no translation from one medium to another? It is all writing.
DN
Yes. I really think that it is because the experience is essentially the same. It is reading about reading. It is words responding to words.
AFH
With your work, does the critical or viewer feedback you get often focus on the context or the technique?
DN
That's a good question. The answer is: both. The attempt seems to be to talk about them at the same time, which is not really possible without using metaphor. There again is the weakness of prose I am talking about. I do like hearing comments from people who are not knowledgeable about art. They often find fresh ways of articulating what they are experiencing while in front of objects. And often they will confess that words fail them. I like going to museums and galleries with intelligent but uninitiated viewers. It is often amazing the things that they will say.
AFH
Technique is what critics and viewers usually discuss when addressing your work, right?
DN
They do.
AFH
And interestingly, there are people who dismiss your work for being too technically adept.
DN
I know that it's mistrusted, but I can't help that.It's silly, really. We don't suspect great technique in music or dance, or anything else that's well-made. I know the conceptual and historical roots for this criticism, but I think we can move on. Don't you?
AFH
Alright, but one more question in this vein. Why are you selecting subjects which warrant such labor-intensive and historically weighty depiction?
DN
Well, labor-intensive is the nature of how I work. Whether anything I paint is warranted is not at all a question that comes up. I assume you're asking if it is important enough to be given "serious" treatment? You know, I don't think in terms of "historically weighty" or "serious." I think in terms of painting. So the only thing I consider is whether or not I can sustain an interest in what I'm doing long enough to finish the painting. This doesn't always happen. I may think I'm excited enough to bring a painting to completion, but fail to do so.
AFH
How often do you select SUBJECTS that simply don't sustain your attention and end up being abandoned?
DN
All the time. It happens to every painting. Most get past that point. But others don't. Every second you have a model in front of you, there is a process of selection and rejection. And you definitively must make choices. Then you must choose all the other elements that accompany that decision. You must make decisions about color and shape and all the other compositional aspects of the painting.
AFH
How much of this process is conscious and how much is instinct?
DN
Intuition has to take over. Otherwise, you could question the thing to death before you even begin. And then you'll produce nothing as a result. Part of the process is wondering, 'why do I like this?' or 'what does this say?' And self-doubt is also instrumental. Every week, I go through a phase in which I’m convinced that what I’m doing is worthless. But then, usually, I lighten up and decide that it might be all right. Vacillating between those extremes is part of the process, unless I just give up and abandon the subject all together.
AFH
Do you ever consider that you stop at the right point, or do you think of these abandoned works as failures?
DN
Sometimes the unfinished thing is good, but sometimes it's not. If it's not, then I scrape it off and start over. But that decision is rarely an issue of me changing my mind about the deservedness of the subject matter. A few years ago I saw a painting van Aelst did of a dead chicken. It was painted 400 years ago, but I was so taken with it that it inspired me to want to produce one of my own. I was so impressed by the power of the painting that I felt an urge to answer it. Even to try and out-paint it. The only historic part that impresses me is that time seems to disappear in front of the painting of a chicken. Because that image was so extraordinary, the man that painted it seemed to be right next to me, as if he were alive and speaking. So if there is such a thing as a burden to me, it is not so much an historic burden as an artistic burden. I wonder; can I paint something this memorable, this beautiful, and this profound?
AFH
Are many of your works direct answers to the challenge of historical precedents?
DN
Of course, not everything I do has such a direct precedent. But usually some precedent emerges as I work and I then realize that my memory is guiding my decisions in ways I hadn't anticipated. I suppose that I am always thinking about what I might find inspiring. Whether it's a nude, a face, a dog, a chair, or whatever the original inspiration might have been.
AFH
Is there a specific narrative or underlining set of intellectual concerns that you want to convey to viewers with your tableaux, or are you intentionally leaving the plot in your paintings open to interpretation?
DN
That's an interesting question. Overall, I suspect that my work is more lyrical than narrative. And, I do want to leave a lot open to interpretation. I also don't want to overburden the image before it is actually executed, like a Procrustean thing that must be cut to fit a pre-conceived idea. Rather, I want it to emerge and reveal itself to me through the process.
AFH
Are you saying that your understanding of the images' meaning is gradual?
DN
I don't always know what its saying as it develops. I've had friends ask me what a painting means, and sometimes I honestly don't really know. I have an intuitive idea, but sometimes not much more than that. As for underlying intellectual concerns, well, I do wonder what the universe I'm creating is about. You know, I ask what this place is where these things I'm painting are going on. I don't have an answer really. A.C. Bradley once wrote about nature in Shakespeare, posing the question: what is the moral character of nature in the plays. He pointed out that nature in Shakespeare will only tolerate so much evil in the world before it violently reacts to correct things. In that correction all of the evil is wiped out, and a lot of the good gets taken with it. I love this kind of examination of art, and I wonder if Shakespeare consciously constructed the plays with this principle in mind. I feel that there is a fundamental optimism in my work. I think in the color and exuberance of what I do there is a strong sense of celebration, and a love of life. I think that permeates the work.
AFH
Are you painting your utopian vision?
DN
By utopia do you mean 'no place'? I guess I'm trying to re-create the world in terms I think appropriate.
AFH
Is there a moral message to your work? Are applying this vision of Shakespearian organic morality to your work?
DN
Well, that's a tough one. I don't specifically pursue a moral vision, but one is inevitable I suppose. I try to leave it open. Clearly if I paint something violent, that violence is morally offensive, and yet I paint it with relish, and looking at it gives pleasure. So I'm not sure there's a clear answer. I don't seek morality in the art I love, if that answers the question. There's nothing in my work that I don't like on some level.
AFH
Are most of your collectors more interested in secondary market works, or are there people who buy your art and also work by trendier or non-representational artists?
DN
My biggest collectors have very big collections indeed, and they buy all kinds of objects. I know one who collects everything from koi fish and cars, to chandeliers, musical instruments, furniture, sculpture; fuck, even buildings - you name it. And they buy objects from all kinds of periods. Some others I know have giant contemporary collections. I mean huge. They seem to have a little of everything. So trendy and non-representational become trivial categories in such vast collections. I know others who have smaller collections that seem to focus on very current work, or very particular styles. Collectors seem as diverse as anyone else. No one type of collector seems to acquire my work. They all seem quite individual in their tastes.
AFH
Do you have ideal collector in mind?
DN
Before I had any real collectors I'm sure I had a vision of who I wanted to own my art. But since I've encountered a few of them, that has changed. The first major collector I met absolutely exceeded my expectations. So that's a great feeling. Now I'm just curious about them, and hope to find as much variety in their personalities as possible. To know that you're reaching all kinds of people who collect for all kinds of reasons, that seems like the healthiest support.
AFH
Are you concerned about how the context of collections might effect the long-term reputation of your work?
DN
Sure. Everyone is. I mean, unless they're really bitter or something. I remember when I first started participating in group shows, artists and critics I knew would comment right away on the other artists in the show and remark on whether or not I was in good company. The same logic applies - even more so - to collections. Who supports you says a lot about how you will be perceived. That seems uncontroversial.
AFH
Are you interested in your work's long-term legacy or are you more focused on just the production of individual paintings?
DN
Both at the same time. But of course, you can't really control either. What the individual paintings accumulate to say about my work is something I must discover too. They'll read each other, and me, in ways I can't foresee. Legacy you can't predict. I'd hope, like anyone else, that some painter in the future would admire my work enough to redeem it.
by Ana Finel Honigman
Photography by Maxime Ballesteros
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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) |