Studio Visit: Nick Brown, Being in the Present Tense
“…something that he has never felt before urgently demands to be expressed: the destruction of the veil of Maya, one-ness as the genius of humankind, indeed of nature itself. The essence of nature is bent on expressing itself; a new world of symbols is required…”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy
“Loneliness: seeping into the rocks, the cicada’s voice”
Matsuo Basho, Narrow Road
By Gary Brewer
The thick, visceral, physicality of paint built up into dense plains; the canvas un-stretched, distressed, cuts into the surfaces opening holes, into another realm, They hang on the walls like a skein holding a collection of memory fragments. It is a palimpsest of impressions captured in poetic representations of the temporal aspect of existence, the mortal coil, birth, death and regeneration against the backdrop of the void, or of another dimension. This veil of reality that we perceive is an appearance that our minds construct so that we can survive, build our dwellings and grow our food, while forces and systems beyond our comprehension unfurl in infinite space and time. Our perceptions are fragments of a ‘whole’ whose contours are beyond our reason. Nick Brown creates memory fragments of his physical engagements with nature. He hikes and camps in the mountains above this vast metropolis and captures the fleeting traces of his journeys. The physical pleasures and difficulties of being out in the wild; camping, cooking and hearing the sounds of creatures in the night, these experiences inform his paintings. He is seeking to capture a poetic image from the photographs he takes to record the fleeting moments, the memory impressions of his journeys. It is a way to build a visual haiku, to carefully select images and construct a systematic approach to building the painting. The visual designs that he meticulously works out become an armature upon which he can let go, and enter an expressive AbEx approach to painting but within the strict confines of the system he has designed.
Haiku is a strict poetic form in which syllables are organized to 5-7-5. Within these strict definitions epiphanies blossom. The elegant compression of a handful of images coalesce into a broad impression of a time and place; fragments creating a vast whole. Nick Brown seeks in nature elements that let him express a multitude of ideas; temporality, the fragments of memory that we collage together to create narrative wholes, the different tenses of time, from present tense to memory and different layers of reality; from our convenient understandings out of the necessity to stay alive, to spiritual and scientific planes of understanding. These different universes peek through the openings in the canvases or are reflected in the mirrored surfaces that he puts behind them, reflecting the viewer and representing different planes of being and different aspects of time.
He spoke of one new painting in his studio, “The Seed and the Source”. “This painting is based on a well spring I came upon in the mountains. It is a small cliff about twelve feet high just off of the trail. From its face a spring was flowing into a small creek. Above it was this small evergreen tree centered above the face of the cliff and the source of the spring. I created the painting to convey the cycle of life, death and renewal. The creek runs to the bottom of the painting, which meets the floor, from there the physical collection of seashells and broken mirrors suggest the ocean and the sky. The water flows from the mountains to the sea and the evaporation collects the water into clouds that bring rain and snow to the mountains completing the cycle. It is the cycle of birth, death and regeneration.” This painting is on a torn and distressed canvas, like shards of memory reflected in broken glass. There are image areas, the trunk of the tree and the water flowing from the spring, that have been cut out revealing negative space where Nick has backed them with reflective metallic paper. The reflections suggest a different plane of understanding, spiritual ideas of the void or of another realm; they also suggest scientific theories of multiple universes, event horizons and notions of a holographic universe. We are creatures whose senses were designed to keep us alive, the limits of our knowledge are defined by this anthropocentric fact. However our minds, imagination and intellect can touch upon these vast imperceptible realities that are not available to our senses and begin to theorize and search for the ineffable.
These are rich metaphoric wellsprings from which Nick draws inspiration for his work. He spoke about the format of his work, hung un-stretched on the walls, distressed, torn and vulnerable. “This series of paintings is based on the ruins of a local high mountain community from the turn of the century. It was destroyed through fire, floods and natural decay, this deconstruction leaving just the stone chimneys in the forest acting as tombstones or markers for this human endeavor. I wanted to reflect that in my paintings, so I took them off of the stretcher bars; it was a first step in deconstruction of the traditional painting format. Next I considered the surface, as the fire destroyed the homes I thought to open holes into the surfaces, pushing the paintings further as metaphors of the dialectic between man made structures and the natural forces that continually work to bring them down. The holes then became opportunities to back them with reflective materials creating yet another metaphor. Next I pushed it further losing the rectilinear structure of the canvas to tear out an irregular shape, pushing the paintings into a sculptural/installation fusion. The paintings that hang and have the canvas spreading forward onto the floor I call ‘walk in’ paintings, it becomes an entrance, a portal through which to enter the painting. The torn, shaped canvases are ‘fragments’ like the fragment of a memory.”
Each consideration in these paintings is carefully constructed to maximize the metaphoric layers of content informing the expressive gestalt. The paint moves from blank canvas to thin washes and stains, then to areas fully painted in, and finally to the incredibly thick impasto surfaces. The thickest paint is in ‘present tense’ and each step back to the canvas surface is a different layer of time, each one a different tense from present to past and finally the holes filled with reflective material a metaphor for memory or the presence of a different realm of existence.
It is a rich historical vein that Nick is following from Caspar David Friedrich to Courbet, Pollock and Anselm Kiefer, indeed the collection of paint drips, splatters and blobs on the canvas at the foot/floor of his ‘walk-in’ paintings brings Pollock’s studio floor to mind; it is a record of psychic and physical events in the realization of the work.
Nick Brown seeks to touch on the myriad tiers of reality that exist, in densely layered and physically impactful paintings that captivate and intoxicate in their Dionysian release. It is the multi-tiered levels of content structured in carefully considered drawings that gives Nick the freedom to let his hands go, to lay paint on in a deeply felt expressive form, but where every brushstroke and painterly approach has been carefully considered. To reveal the fragmentary and imperfect nature of memory, the limits of knowledge and to acknowledge the possible worlds and systems that lie just beyond our comprehension. These are profound aspirations realized in ambitious paintings that are exploring the poetics and contours of painting, knowledge and consciousness.