Nigel Van Wieck is a painter whose portrayals of America feel as though they’re from another time, even if the content is modern. From an era of romanticism and dreaminess, almost free of time if not for the trappings of culture that carry specific definition. His interview is refreshingly self-aware and his discussion of what his art is, and what art is to him, is one that forces one to pause to contemplate their own framing. Read on, comrades:
How long have you been painting?
I remember the day I wanted to be a painter, I was 10, at school in a painting class. The teacher demonstrated how to paint a sky by wetting a piece of paper and then running a brush loaded with blue paint across the top of the paper; as the blue paint ran down the paper, it diluted eventually becoming white thus creating a realistic sky. I then painted my own sky, and put a man in the foreground, it was magic and I was hooked.
Have you experimented with other media?
In 1968 I was accepted at Hornsey College of Art as a painter. It was the time of the student revolution and Hornsey was at the forefront. By the time I enrolled in the autumn, the school had radically changed and it was chaotic. The most charismatic teachers still teaching were a group that were kinetic artists, I was drawn to them and graduated from college as a kinetic artist working in neon. I continued working with neon for 10 years before returning to painting.
What appeals to you about paint?
Paint is a medium to express oneself. I realized while being a kinetic artist that my interests were in two-dimensional art and not three-dimensional. But as a kinetic artist, I did learn about light and its power. It has become the key to my work. Paint is color and there is no color without light,
Is your work Americana? Do you feel that is a label that you’d rather not be forced into? How would you describe the feeling of your work?
I’m a realist painter living in New York, so my work can be considered Americana if one uses Merriam – Websters definition “concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture” but the subjects that I paint are universal. Monet was a French Impressionist but his ideas in painting went far beyond Paris.
I see my paintings as posing questions rather than just telling a story, I like ambiguity. Is the girl you see through a window with the man, undressing or dressing? Is it his wife or not? The more interpretations to the narration, the more layers there are to the painting
I always want to capture a “moment in time”, it makes my paintings real and timeless. I achieve this by painting the light; whether painting daylight or the lights of the night, light is familiar to us; it’s like music, it evokes a memory or an emotion, and crystallizes the moment. Vermeer was extremely successful at this; even though he was painting a 17th century scene, the way he paints light allows today’s viewer to connect to that moment thus making the painting both modern and timeless.
What are you trying to say with your art? What does New York mean to you? What about Florida? How was the subject matter in each affected by your perception of each of those places? What is your connection to each place?
For painting to be “Art” it must say something about its time and I want my painting to reflect my time. There are two elements to painting, first the personal and second the formal. The first, the personal, I leave to my intuition. An idea becomes forced and false when it’s manipulated, the intuitive part of me reveals itself better when left alone. What is important is that I create an illusion of a reality; it makes an idea powerful. So my paintings are carefully constructed to make the viewer believe that what they are seeing is real but it’s not. Reality is much better when it is imagined.
The second, the formal, is what interests me and the composition is my primary interest; whether I’m working in a rectangle, square or tondo, making the composition work in the picture is essential; line, color and light are the servants.
Painting for me is organic it’s just something I do. New York is magical and it is home, I enjoy painting it. But I paint light and that’s always different in other places. So I travel and I paint what catches my eye. I love tropical nights and Florida has many.
How do you choose the content for your work? What inspired you to do the series Dancers? Do you dance? The movement in your pieces is natural and vibrant, are the pieces done from memory, from photos? What do you do to depict people in motion? How do you approach painting that?
Exploring new compositional ideas is one way I choose a subject. The “Dancers” are a good example. When I started painting portraits in the 90’s, my composition changed. Gone were the straight lines, hard edges, harsh lighting and gaping negative spaces of the “Working Girls” pictures, and instead it was the curve, the soft line and the warm light. My sitters touched, held hands and connected. I wanted to implement the techniques and ideas that I had discovered from the portraits and use them in my other work. Dance appealed to me as it had some of the elements of the portraits, like connecting, and at the same time I could still paint the eroticism and narration that interested me. And also I was painting something new: dance itself.
The Dancers images were pure imagination, as I said earlier, reality is better when it is imagined. I spent a lot of time in dance halls watching, drawing and photographing dancers but the pictures were constructed in my head and painted in the studio. Firstly as small pastels studies before creating the final images.
Dance is joyous anyone who has the ability to dance is insured of some happiness in their life. That is what I paint, the sheer pleasure of dance, its hedonistic influence. And I want to place the viewer on the dance floor or very close to it, to feel the music and smell the bodies. In the Dancers pictures I used the silhouette, to achieve this. The dark figures in the foreground of the paintings draw the eye to the lit action behind and it brings the viewer onto the dance floor where the action has been carefully composed with fluid lines and complimentary colors to make it alive.
What artists inspire you? Who have you learned from? Where do you go for inspiration, whether artistically or otherwise?
I’m inspired by any good painter, and love to look at good painting. Artists that use light have been of a particular interest to me such as Caravaggio, Vermeer, Homer, Hopper, the Impressionists, the Hudson School, and Turrell.
In the early 80’s I experimented with the ideas of Post-Modernism; I was attracted to the work of the Italian Post-Modernist painters and saw that they were using images from art history. I did the same and started looking at Poussin and drawing his paintings; my time in college had been spent studying kinetics and my instruction in painting was non-existent, i.e. composition and design. With Poussin, I began to understand composition and the importance of positive and negative shapes, ideas that I first used in the “Working Girls” series.
I don’t believe in inspiration, painting is work and I paint what pleases or interests me; if it has a common denominator it would be the light and its effects.
Where are you sitting right now?
I’m sitting at my desk checking Instagram @NigelVanWieck – I like the feedback from social media, it gives me an insight into my work. Before social media the only time I could see my work from a different perspective was when it was exhibited in a gallery, which was about every two years. Now it’s a new universe, I see my work on people’s blogs all the time and sometimes I’m surprised by the selections they’ve made. Also being a storyteller, it’s nice to know when one connects, so to know the number of “likes” certain pictures get on Instagram and Facebook is sometimes useful. Figurative art and the Internet are a good fit, which is not true of abstract art. I think that is because the human brain is wired for a story.
Where do you do most of your preparation before you begin a piece?
I think about making pictures all the time so preparation happens everywhere. The process involves imagination and observation coupled with memory. One night I was in a bar and a couple walked in and sat at a table. They ate, drunk, and then began to argue, the woman became so drunk she passed out at the table, the man got up and left without paying. It was a strong image, a beautiful woman left alone and collapsed on a white tablecloth. Ten years later I painted that memory using a model, who posed in the studio. Other times I am sitting somewhere with a sketchbook making observations and planning a picture. Painting is an act of memory one looks at the apple on the table then turns one’s head to the canvas and paints the memory of that apple.
When I’m working in the studio at the end of the day I scan the picture into my computer and use Photoshop to solve compositional problems digitally. The next day I make the corrections and I continue with this process until the picture is finished.
What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?
I have just finished painting for an exhibition that was at the Didier Aaron Gallery in New York, it was a large show consisting of 36 paintings and it was a lot of work. So I took time off after the show and just looked. I’ve started working again. At the moment I’m doing lots of drawing and pastel sketches and although the subjects are varied the interest is the light.