Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

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

Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

If art is the search for the secret of life, as the great and controversial English art critic, John Ruskin, once wrote,  then Nina Nielsen is its one true champion. 

In her textured dream-like paintings Nina Nielsen shows us something. She gives us something. A peek at something. A vision of sorts. But that is only part of it. The part that we get. The other part is that she has to find that something, and that is no easy task. Some artists paint the same subject over and over. Nina Nielsen finds new ones every day.

Ultimately these are, “Ah, there it is,” and “there you have it” paintings, but they come from a long hard climb. They are notes kept from her daunting adventures. They are treasures discovered tightroping the razor’s edge, trophies from her wild safaris, sacred hearts gathered on her quest for the secret of life. Art is nothing if not the sacred quest, and Nina Nielsen knows this better than anyone. 

They say a good baseball manager treats every out like gold. Each one of these paintings is indeed gold, an awesome revelation, a wonderful epiphany along her path. This is the hand on her rudder. This is the gift in each of her paintings.

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

Nina Nielsen has sand. She takes it from her summers on Nantucket and puts it in her paintings. It grounds her. It grounds her work.

Sand, ground, are what these paintings have in common. As works of art, however, they are individuals, individuals that are in full and complete possession of themselves. They stand on their own two feet, with a heartbeat and a soul and a brain, waving at us! They have that sense of themselves; that completeness; that command of their own ship; their own destiny; their own sphere of influence. Each one does not prepare you for the next. Each one is different, each one is a surprise. Each one is a flame from her fire.

Nina Nielsen at Bow Street

These are modestly sized canvases, rarely bigger than a bread box, with what appears to be no more than a few colors, but they surprise with a great deal of color and they play remarkably large, larger than life. 

These paintings make sound, even music. By themselves, and together. You can hear the wind blow or the night howl or a rose petal fall. One of her older paintings just seems to make a clicking sound. Another one rustles in the breeze. One more still makes the sound of the morning sun. They have that kind of mystery; that kind of poetry; that kind of power. They can lean in and whisper in your ear, or host a choir of angels.

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

Suffice it to say that there is an of-ness and is-ness thing going on in all of painting all of the time. It can be a very fine line. Painters tend to lean one way or the other. Nothing wrong with that. Nielsen, and an artist like Forrest Bess* that she loves and admires, share this same ground, or same sand of is.  Being there. A painting that is something more than of something. Now just what the is is, is what these paintings are all about. What that is is, is what inhabits the space of the painting. What dwells there. And finally what reaches out well beyond the frame.

Nina Nielsen at Bow Street

That these paintings tend toward abstraction isn't really relevant. They do not ally themselves to one trend, one art historical philosophy or construct or movement.  They don’t restrict themselves. They go where they go. They are free. 

You might think that because they are something more than about something, that we are left in the dark with secrets that we can never fully understand. Perhaps, but don’t panic. Let them come to you. You’ll be surprised. One minute you might not get one at all, and then the next it will flood your kitchen with light. They work that way; they unfold, sometimes slowly, sometimes like a fan, or sometimes they come upon you like a squall. 

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

Nina Nielsen's paintings make a “light out of darkness” impression because what we get is something that seems to just appear in the painting, something that we have never seen before, and will never see again, like that strange and wondrous flower in the deepest jungle that only blooms every one thousand years, when the planets are just so. Yes, and they are still about something too. But don't try to touch it or catch it or keep it. Don’t even try to understand it. Be happy for its presence. Be happy for the moment.

The artist works so hard to capture that thing that can't be captured, for themselves, for us. Nina Nielsen gently freezes that moment,  stills something as elusive or impossible as a dream for us to marvel at, to see, to know. To believe in. These paintings represent a gathering. Each one is the culmination of that gathering which she seeks and experiences for herself. Each painting is a coming together in that way.

Left: Caliph, 2011-14, oil & sand on canvas, 28 x 22";
Right: Medallion, 2011-14, Oil and sand on canvas, 30 x 24"

For this reason the paintings are not compositions per se. Pictures as compositions. They are not meant to be; they don't need to be. They are not about composition by definition. There is no time for that. There is only time for something else. Something much more important.  And even though they are centered, they are not quite centered. Maybe this is about tension, or maybe she is just lucky to get her subjects in the frame at all. This is painting on the fly; we will never be here again. And this raises an interesting question, does she find her subjects, or do they find her?

If there is one message to be had, it is that life is for the living. Anyone who knows Nina Nielsen knows this to be true. Places to go, places to see, places to be, places to be still.

Proscenium, 2014, oil & sand on canvas, 20 x 16”

The texture is part of the magic of these paintings. The sand in the paint acts as a frame to keep the is of the painting in place. Each grain of sand acts as a place holder of sorts. A nod to what is accident and what is random and what is chaos, and maybe, to what is some larger order. It is a loose net to keep the is still for a split second, long enough to allow that moment to, in effect, last forever.  There is no getting around what sand does and doesn't bring to the work. Sand is a ground, but a ground that shifts and blows in the wind. And it evokes time and timelessness. Pyramids were built on the sand and blasted into bits and buried by it.

Another aspect of this work is the figure/ground. They act almost as portraits. More Frans Hals than Rembrandt in that they are more the moment and less the held pose. Although who knows, maybe they are also the latter. Maybe feelings and thoughts and dreams like unicorns pose for Nielsen in her garden. Maybe epiphanies like butterflies only take breaks to stretch their wings. 

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

So many of these paintings look back at us. They wonder about us. Like a deer that pauses in the forest and takes us in. Curious and curiouser. We are honored by this attention paid to us, the viewer. Of course such is the nature of art, and we are honored by it just as we are honored by all things, by nature, by love, and by the smallest insect. We just have to never forget this, and these paintings are something of a stark reminder. They hold our chin in their hands and ask us to stop, be still, focus, let go, pay attention, make time, make time for life, yes, to stop and smell the roses.

Indeed, there is something a little bit stark about these paintings. Like that spit of land out in the ocean where their sand hails from. Nantucket. Yankee. Tough, resolute, self-reliant.  Maybe just a little bit more Thoreau than Emerson. Fierce in their solitude. Radiant. Gone their own way, and tenacious, even almost defiant, when they hold their ground.

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

Again the paradox. Not for quitters. Ephemeral and fleeting and yet solid as a rock. These paintings are all of that. A metaphor for painting itself. Nothing if not conviction. Made of not much more than belief, and belief can not just move mountains, but be mountains. Nina Nielsen is that ancient alchemist. She makes powerful magic of a little pigment, binder, and sand. 

These paintings are haunting, but strangely benign, like some ancient culture staring back at us through time. They are spirit guides. They talk to us. Life takes sand. Nina Nielsen's got it.

Bow Street Gallery
Lincoln, Ma

Left: Caliph, 2011-14, oil & sand on canvas, 28 x 22";
Right: Medallion, 2011-14, Oil and sand on canvas, 30 x 24"

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