Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nina Nielsen: True Grit

Nina Nielsen and Stone(2013-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Perhaps Nina Nielsen came to painting late, but it seems silly to say that. Still somehow in this world it is apparently relevant. I am not sure why. Apparently there are rules; in fact, maybe she was one of the rule makers. Maybe she broke everyone's rules, including her own, when she finally took painting seriously in her later years.

Nina Nielsen turned 74 a few days before the reception for her new show of paintings on November 8, 2014, at the Bow Street Gallery. Now Nina and I both grew up in an age when it wasn't considered polite to talk about a woman's age. I am not exactly sure if there was an exact moment when Nina took up painting, maybe fifteen or so years ago, but I t would have been rude to ask. I also believe that while she may not have always painted, it was always happening, always in her. The paintings are proof of that. They do not lie.

Janus(2012-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Most people act surprised to find out that she paints. I would have found it surprising if she didn't. After spending over 40 years running her gallery on Newbury Street in Boston that championed painting like nowhere in this part of the country, in 2007 she retired. There isn't a painter dead or alive that crossed the threshold of the Nielsen Gallery, of what was nothing short of an art world Mecca, that didn't feel like this was the one place where painting mattered. Because painting mattered to Nina Nielsen.

When I was in my early 20s my then mentor Richard Tuttle cautioned me that if a painter didn't make it by the age of 27, then they might as well throw in the towel. I didn't know if he thought that this was right or not. It seemed as though he did, but that was just my impression. As though what difference does it make if something is right or wrong as long as it is true; as though we aren't just all making this up as we go along, as though it was carved in stone. Still, I couldn't help but be a little relieved that I had managed to have a solo show at (MoMA) PS1 by the time I was 27, and that he was at the opening.

I also knew that such ideas were ridiculous, which was maybe why giving Nina a show at Bow Street was worth doing, even at considerable cost to myself. It reflected not only my belief in her and her work, but also my core belief about art, that anyone can paint, at anytime.

The art world is torn between the marketplace on the right, as in galleries and dealers, and academic institutions like universities and museums on the left. Pick your poison. Artists are forced to eat both of course if they hope to survive and flourish. There are few if any alternatives. Bow Street was founded to be such a place.

Balance(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 18"

I have a lot of questions, like if Nina Nielsen loved painting as much as she clearly did, how could she not paint? Why wouldn't she? What was to stop her? Not having a degree? It is not like she was trying to fly commercial airlines or perform brain surgery, she wasn't in danger of hurting anyone.

Also, why is a young person out of art school better equipped to be an artist than someone who spent a lifetime in the company of art, eating and breathing it day in and day out? Is training what is important? Does anyone really believe that it is training that makes an artist? If they do then they are drinking some mighty strong cool aid.

I taught art, if you can call it that, for over twenty years, but I did it as a service, to be a shepherd, to protect young people from the cool aid drinkers. One of the stories I liked to tell was about when I was a young teen getting his driver's license, when I got one question wrong on the written test. It was "what makes a good driver?" The oversized Virginia State Trooper who administered the test in a big dumb hat told me what was what in no uncertain terms when I tried to argue the question.

He told me that it wasn't skill, or experience, or knowledge that made a good driver, that it was desire. "Desiiiiiiiiiiiiiire!" I was dumbfounded.

Dumbfounded that I would discover the secret of life in a little DMV in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1968, when I could already speak half a dozen languages and had travelled the world and the seven seas and met some of its truly amazing people. I walked away shaking my head and never forgot it. Richard Tuttle didn't have a chance.

Caliph, 2011-2014, oil & sand on canvas,28 x 22"

When someone says that they trust their gut about something, it is just a colorful way of saying that they trust themselves. I trust my gut about things in general, and I recommend it to everyone that will listen. I used to say something really banal like that if you listen to your heart you can never go wrong. I still believe that, but life can be too harsh to survive with only your heart as your guide. Unfortunately I tend to rely on my gut as much or more these days. Life takes heart and guts.

Nina Nielsen trusted me to hang her work. That was pretty gutsy of her. I even made a little play on words in the catalog essay for the show that Nina Nielsen had sand because she put it in her paintings. Sand. Grit. True grit!*

I even saw what other people saw right away in her paintings, her artists, but not in the same way. Where they saw the influence of all those artists whose work she had had the courage and honor and pleasure of showing, I saw the company she chose and kept.

Influence is what happens when we have an agenda. If we are buying a car, our choice can be influenced, but much less so if we are just looking. Nina is just looking. She is painting because she feels it, no other reason. As she likes to say about Porfirio DiDonna, her most prized painter, it is not a career choice.

So yes, someone might look at one of her paintings and see one of her artists, DiDonna, or Bill Jensen, or Harvey Quaytman, or Forrest Bess, or Colin McCahon, or Joan Snyder, or John Walker. They might show themselves in one of her paintings, but it is more a presence or homage or challenge, more like a portrait. She is not using them or even imitating them, but letting them pass that way, stop for a breather, take a load off their feet. No, my gut tells me that these paintings are authentic, and if you spend a little time with them, I trust that you will agree.

Elegy(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, November 20, 2014

*See also: Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wish I could have seen the show. I really miss her gallery - couldn't agree more with your characterization of its importance. It's wonderful that she's painting now.