Nathan Walsh: A Painter in the Modern World

This exhibition of paintings is the culmination of over two years of work in the studio. It is an astonishing achievement and an astonishing exhibition right at the heart of New York’s contemporary art scene in Chelsea.

Perhaps you will be amazed by the intricate detail in these paintings, their authoritative realism that seems to represent familiar views of New York with such vivacity. Here is a spectacle that, on the surface, needs no qualification from me, or lengthy written account and the temptation will be to skip to the illustrations in this catalogue. Surely we know what these paintings are about? We might even speculate on how they have been made.

But what the viewer makes of these paintings is inevitably influenced by the viewer’s previous experiences and knowledge. Beyond the comparison between Nathan’s record of the scene and their own knowledge of the cities precincts, the method of these paintings may well recall photorealism or other modes of hyperreal painting. That then instigates a critical evaluation, measured against what is known about and valued in such art. The chatter in the gallery may well be centred on this cultural assimilation based as much on what the viewer brings into the gallery, as to what Nathan has laboured upon for over two years.

Such is the nature of art? A dialogue between artist and audience, a fluid and open-ended exchange in which the artist presents an assemblage of signifiers for the viewer to complete in accordance with their own preferences and experiences. The viewer arbitrates on whether they like or dislike the work; the pervading cultural dynamics of any era, as to whether this art is important or not.

Not that art which is deemed as culturally important is necessarily art of exquisite quality. Nathan makes extraordinarily fine paintings and demands that they are handled with care, both physically and in the manner that they are classified. He asks that we resist the temptation of labelling his work as photorealist, or, I would suggest, even as realist. Of course, Nathan cannot tell the viewer what to think. He cannot intervene in that instinctive process that turns a painting in front of any of us from an object of independent significance to something of significance to us. And although Nathan is infinitely better qualified to interpret his own work than most of us, in casting himself in the role of viewer, he will turn his own paintings into articles of self-interrogation.

Why does any of this matter? The tenet of contemporary art education is founded on this fundamental dialogue between artist and viewer; the role of the artist, to paraphrase Michael Craig-Martin, one of its leading proponents, is for the artist to choose the most expedient means to say what needs to be said, which is, in turn, interpreted by the viewer. These choices and interpreted readings are from a common cultural lexicon which we are given. To be a painter in the modern world is to be a painter who will be evaluated in accordance with this truism.

But Nathan`s education and his beliefs as a painter are at odds with this. On this I am in a unique position to comment as I first met Nathan over twenty years ago to arrange his post-graduate studies in painting. At the time I was head of Fine Art at a remote university college in the north of England. Nathan sought my department out because, unlike the more fashionable art colleges, I believed in considering other theoretical strategies alongside those more commonly accepted, though I am sure Nathan was initially attracted to one of the more obvious manifestations of this, remarkable contemporary representational painting.

To understand Nathan`s work we are much better served by considering the particulars of his history rather than speculating about the canvases hanging on the wall in front of us. At their core, although these paintings can surely function to elicit a dialogue with the viewer, Nathan`s work is not conceived to facilitate this ends. It aspires to a much higher purpose.

So let`s go back to my first encounter with Nathan. He was trained as an illustrator and was already an accomplished painter with a deep knowledge of art history. More significant is the purposefulness in which Nathan sought me and my colleagues out, and his subsequent history of pursuing a pathway that is fraught with extraordinary difficulties. That history is marked at times with the mastery of techniques; to master, if you like, those techniques that have been established through the history of art practice but only in the knowledge that they must be built upon and ultimately rejected to find a unique way forward.

Nathan’s history and the work that he is now making should not be confused with the recent fashion for academic training and reviving the aesthetics of Salon-styled painting. That higher purpose which Nathan strives toward is not, in his mind, characterised by certain moments in art history, or put more simply, denoted by a set of stylistic attributes. That would be a knee-jerk response to those characteristics of contemporary art which are evidently wanton, and would fail to address the underlying ideological challenge. No, what characterises Nathan’s history is a commitment to great art, irrespective of style as always being extraordinary, baffling in its quality and the outcome of a remarkable individual’s determination to create astonishing things. Great art is always resistant to the techniques of cultural deconstruction; it is always mysterious.

In discussing such works of art, Nathan tends to avoid qualifying why he admires them. He recognises that they are great and he is personally enriched simply by bearing witness to their reality. Inevitably then, Nathan is not just interested in art from one period. Artist’s libraries can offer us a useful insight and Nathan’s vast collection of books is proof that he finds joy in art from all centuries. And this joy extends to his obvious delight in the objects dotted around his home, from his collections of Brangwyn etchings, Whitefriars glass, Georgian furniture, to the building itself, which is a former Methodist Church complete with stained-glass windows.

It seems apt that Nathan’s studio is the altar space of this church. In this space, we talk in front of “Pier 17” and “Ed Koch”. Nathan is quick to point out that he is not trying to say anything, there is no message to be read, nor does he feel any real attachment to the subject matter. Rather he emphasises that he is trying to make, and painting for him is an act of creation, wringing the potential of each project until it will yield no more. I am reminded of Van Eyck’s commitment to making under the scrutiny of God and his intensive activity both in the method and surface of his paintings which goes way beyond any pragmatic need just to describe the scene. In fact, Nathan describes his painting activity as only really beginning to work when he ceases to be over reliant on the techniques and reference materials necessary for realist painting. It is as if it is only when he ceases to be a realist that he is at one with being an artist. This is defining an artist as an individual in pursuit of an ideal.

It may well suit the art establishment’s marketing apparatus to label artists as possessing an unfathomable genius, but for the most part, this is not only insincere and irrelevant, but counter to the pervading climate for art as little more than social or political comment in which the viewer, curator and collector are empowered to the detriment of the artist. It has been a steady transition over the past 50 years, more than Nathan’s life-span, to displace a belief in the purity of art and the unique creativity of the artist for a notion of art that is embedded within the normal frameworks of social communication. The sticking point for the cultural mainstream is that this vintage notion of “art for art’s sake” is founded on belief. The fashion has been to dismiss such fanciful thinking as a bourgeois myth. It’s a sticking point too in my conversations with Nathan because, although he is guided by a determination to be a better painter in pursuit of some elusive goal, he neither has the words nor the spiritual certainty to articulate this or convince those doubters. But in our conversation he is preaching to the preacher.

There is more tangible evidence of his motivation. He tells me that in this new body of work he can confidently lay the accusations of being a photorealist to rest. This, he admits, was not always true as he recalls some of his earlier paintings. I sense a degree of shame.

This needs further investigation. Although not only tolerant but interested and supportive of those who are more closely aligned to the methods of photorealist painting, Nathan has set himself a different standard. If pushed, he admits it is a higher standard. Although photorealism can refer to the work of many different painters, with different formal and conceptual aims, at its most base level, it best describes paintings that imitate photographs to achieve a highly realistic effect. The results are often indistinguishable from the source photographs, and the methods used, from tracing a photograph to painting over the top of a printed image tie the painter to the mechanical patterns that lead to a photographic appearance. Whatever arguments are employed to justify such activity, to the artist who beliefs in the sanctity of art, this is passing off the pre-given normality of the machine-made image as a false manifestation of remarkable realist painting. It would be more accurate to regard such practice as an act of post-modern appropriation where the artist accepts that it is only possible to choose from within an existing cultural framework. Many photorealists now choose photographs that imitate the paintings of the first generation of photorealists, quickening the implosion of art into a readily identifiable cultural brand.

Escaping photorealism has its pitfalls. Imitating the mechanical system which makes up the surface of a photograph makes it far easier to achieve an authoritative and convincing image. There are other systems available which are more difficult to master, such as Brunelleschi’s system of Western perspective. But, although Nathan has studied perspective, relying on its mathematical rules to make realist paintings would be to replace one system with another, albeit more rarefied. The only true pathway is to strike out independently, playing perhaps with all that has been learnt but ultimately finding a means to build a new reality that is unique to the artist. You’d be right to think this sounds difficult, almost impossible. Nathan has achieved it in these paintings and that is why they are astonishing.

For Nathan’s “perspective” is distinctly unlike Brunelleschi’s system. Orthogonal lines curve to the extent that they can no longer be described as orthogonals; vanishing points have become, to use my own term, “vanishing zones”, but of course a zone has no nodal certainty. The space is illogical beyond the remit of each painting. Such perspectival constructions have their origins in Nathan’s drawings, and he is grounded in a profound notion of drawing that is defined beyond the concerns just for documenting what we see in front of us or arbitrary mark-making. This is a notion of drawing as realising a blue-print for a new reality. Drawing is a fundamental act of human creation. There are aspects of Nathan’s work which are undoubtedly realistic but at their core, these are not realist paintings.

Such invention is also evident in the manipulation of paint, best recognised by inversing the common assumption that a realist painting comes together when seen from afar, but up close is just a lot of apparently random marks. Nathan’s paintings reveal their invention when scrutinised up close. After all, Nathan has made them sitting in close proximity to the canvas. He doesn’t stride to and fro in front of his paintings. His bristle brushes with extra-long handles are just a ruse to entertain visitors to the studio. For the most part Nathan uses small, soft brushes. But then there are these abrupt changes of surface where the paint is applied thickly, at times with a palette knife. This is where Nathan reveals his true colours.

Look, for example, at the passage of water painted in “Pier 17”. (suggest close up photo as discussed) This is Nathan really cranking up the intensity of the painting activity. It’s rich and animated and quite unlike the water that it nominally describes. The thread that takes us back to the water that Nathan photographed in his explorations alongside the East River is as fine as the lines that he has painted above which happen to demarcate the super-structure of Brooklyn Bridge. This is extreme painting. Without the horizon line and the surrounding references, we would not know that this is water. Cutting Nathan’s paintings up into small sections reveals how unlike the world they truly are, how precariously (but tenaciously), they hold onto their subject.

Yet they are paintings of New York? Well, they are not not paintings of New York, but given Nathan’s belief in art as being the creation of an independent reality, it would be difficult to satisfactorily define them as being precisely of anything. True painting doesn’t work that way. It’s easy to see why, given this progressive understanding, so many artists ultimately abandoned figuration altogether in the final heyday of modern painting back in the 1950s. But Nathan belongs to a new generation of painters, including myself, who are resistant at least to the dogmas of abstraction whilst being all too aware of the difference between painting and illustration. Nathan talks about the creative necessity to explore through pushing the paint around but the subject of his work is obviously far more than the materiality of paint.

Nathan lives on the outskirts of the Welsh town of Wrexham, though he is English by birth. But these paintings are all from New York, and increasingly, very specific locations within New York. There are two paintings of the 59th Street Bridge, and Nathan has painted this area in earlier works. Although he describes a degree of happenstance in finding his subjects as he wanders with the camera, this is coupled to a very deliberate decision to paint these locations. Living in Wrexham, you don’t happen to find yourself on 59th Street in Manhattan very often. When Nathan heads off with his digital cameras he is not a passer-by, an urban flaneur or a tourist. He is an artist and the creative process has begun before he even boards the plane.

Clearly there is a formal interest in these locations. New York is attractive to artists because of its visual richness and intense North Atlantic light, but it is not just because of a common attraction that Nathan is drawn to places that have been previously depicted by so many artists. His painting “59 st. Bridge” reminded me of Richard Estes “Sunday on 2nd Avenue” 2003. They both have the structures of the river crossings as a central feature. As Nathan returns to Brooklyn Bridge to paint “Pier 17” we are all too aware of the art history that this stirs, from Joseph Stella’s iconic painting to Walker Evan’s photographs. “Catching Fire” is from Times Square, a subject equally redolent of imagery from high and popular culture. What has put Nathan’s feet firmly on the ground in these places, and that should not be confused with the station point of his paintings (they operate in their own temporal and spatial framework), is a complex history of influences and aspirations.

I would describe these subjects as unusually dense in terms of aesthetic history, to the extent that they are much better known for their aestheticized renditions than their concrete actuality. In striding headlong into such subjects Nathan might be accused of blatant post-modern appropriation, reiterating the subjects of art history. He talks about “sampling” which only adds to this direction of thought. But we would be wrong to think this. For the appropriationist repeats knowingly because there is no space for original creation, and the outcomes are invariably joyless and unambitious. Ambition after all belongs to the now defunct progress of Modernism. But it is precisely this ambition, and this determination to create that has engendered Nathan’s confrontation with these subjects.

Nathan admits to the absurdity of his ambition. Like Turner revisiting Claude, Nathan is taking on that which has come before in order to see if he can go further. Estes and Hopper have painted the 59th Street Bridge. We are left in no doubt, through the sheer effort and brilliance of Nathan’s paintings of this subject that he has taken it on because he knows this history and wants to add to it. Of course the choice of subject bears no relation to the quality of the work and Nathan acknowledges that he could just as easily paint a different city, but he wants to pitch himself directly within, and against, a history of art that he profoundly respects.

Absurd because he is setting himself up to fail, but only through over-reaching might he achieve some success. It is in Nathan’s nature to be competitive, and to set goals that seem unrealistic. After all, who would have thought as a school boy Nathan would come to represent his country in the sport of tennis? Why not attempt to transcend these glorious histories of painting to find a new pathway? Why else bother to dedicate your life to painting?

To paraphrase Frank Auerbach, there is no point in pretending that artists are ordinary people, and I could add, there is no point in pretending that great art works are just cultural objects to be understood and consumed like everything else. This is where all those structuralist theories break down. They fail to take account of the very distinctiveness that characterises artists and what they do. Though Nathan shudders at the thought of coming across as arrogant in discussing his ambitions, this is not arrogance on his part, but a necessary existential realisation. It’s what must be done, and that also requires extraordinary humility in the face of art history. In any case, it will be the work that finally carries any innovation, not the artist, who must shy away from speaking out so that the paintings can become their own independent subjects.

And so they stand. Autonomous but also betraying something of Nathan’s history. The painterly surfaces remind us of Nathan’s interest in Post-Impressionism, and he often mentions Vuillard. The structure might be reminiscent of Al Held’s drifting geometries. And that crystal-sharp light, which he shares not only with the American Luminist tradition, those wonderful painters of the Hudson River School, but the altogether more mysterious and troubling European traditions of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Italian Divisionists. Who would have thought this young painter who turned up at my office over twenty years ago would now be making paintings of such sophistication and beauty. The exciting reality is that there is more to come.

Clive Head 2018

nathan walsh