It is tempting to call Tucker Nichols’ work the product of an artful dodger, but there is nothing about his exhibition of drawings, paintings, collages and sculpture that dodges anything, even though a few of the 50 untitled works seem intended to look “dodgy” insofar as their material construction is concerned. It is much better to say that his method (or better yet, his process) is squarely post-Kippenbergian, even though such a description sounds a bit crazy. For better or worse, the late Martin Kippenberger is the artist who has gained indisputable recognition for making a wide variety of seemingly unrelated kinds of work in an equally unrelated variety of styles, and that project seems to have put contemporary painting on its heels by calling the supposed need for a signature style into question. Now painters are as free as conceptual artists to execute works as parts of self-defined “projects,” and Nichols’ elaborate series of painterly projects sit squarely in this seemingly new mode of painterly operation. His particular version of this kind of practice revolves around the making of forms that are simultaneously elegant, awkwardly humorous and deceptively simple. I’ll go even further and say that his work epitomizes the deceptively simple by slyly reinventing the very poetics of visual understatement in a moment when shrill and abundant plenitude characterize the burgeoning field of the visual arts.
At first pass, many of Nichols’ works appear to be unfinished attempts at making innocent renderings of everyday objects. Look closer and you will see something else at play. It is almost as if Nichols adopts one personality to start a given piece of work and then purposefully abandons both the personality and the work created by it so that a very different alter ego can come to the fore. That second personality is able to encounter the seemingly unfinished image as a found object, to which slight additions and or adjustments can be made to highlight a kind of absurd improbability. Oftentimes, these adjustments take the forms of hand written words that seem related to everyday signage, as in a stretched banner that takes its title from Helevetica typography that spells out Standards of Excellence/ Kitchens of Style, or a smaller work on panel sporting the simply drawn phrase Roughly the Size of New Jersey.
Other works are enlivened by the deft albeit understated use of spay paint in either metallic of florescent variation, sometimes applied to the sides rather than the faces of the panels that they use as supports. And did I mention that most of the works are quite small? Indeed, the vast majority of the works included in this exhibition are intimately scaled works on paper encased in modest frames that often times seem to have been recovered from thrift shops. Others seem more stylish, but either way, they contribute to the works’ subtlety, which is to say that Nichols always manages to find a slightly off-center way of placing one of his slightly off-center drawings into a frame to create the tenuous and improbable balance that exerts so much subtle charm.
One of Nichols’ favorite forms is a kind of gridded mesh that looks a bit like an empty fishnet that could have been drawn by Philip Guston. These are usually executed as a set of intersecting black lines of ink, paint or charcoal, but they also seem quite casual, rather like half-conscious doodles that the artist discovers to be elegant calligraphy by a kind of happy accident. A good example is Untitled mp1109, executed on a fairly large sheet of clean white paper as if it were a schematic map of a cluster of suburban streets. But look again and you will also see a study of proportional relationships worthy of Mondrian. This visual double entendre is particularly evident in Untitled (mp1110) in which the artist uses spray paint and fluorescent color on a plywood panel to create a charming tension between common materials and sophisticated formal arrangements.
It is worth noting that several of the works in this exhibition are sculpture, usually made of stacks of improbable objects, such as a stone set atop a roll of florescent masking tape upon a small table.
These add an additional dimension to the overall exhibition, but I can’t help but see them as being a bit too close the work of David Ireland, another artist who specialized in making uncanny arrangements of simple objects. And there is one large piece, which is a kind of mural made from digital enlargements of a small ink and watercolor work. It bespeaks a whole other way of working for Nichols, and although it asks him to sacrifice his elegant touch with water-based media on paper, it gives him a way of insinuating his work into public viewing spaces that might otherwise be indifferent to seductive visual intimacy.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
Tucker Nichols: “New Work” @ Gallery 16 through June 30, 2011.
About the Author
Mark Van Proyen is Chair of the Painting Department of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.