From Surrey Life Magazine

The paintings of Nicholas Down at Gallery 238, Dorking, July 2003


Down has a deep-rooted interest in the capacity of art to explore the world of the sub-conscious, and mediate the spiritual mysteries of life. Born in Uganda, he qualified with distinction in medicine in London, and has painted since he was in his teens. His scholarly studies in the history of art give him the tools to paint with conviction and skill while his study of abstract painting at Brunel University offered an approach to suit his purpose, connecting a physician’s interest in the mind with artistic expression. For many years, Down spent time in Scotland, where he discovered in the quality of light “a perfect foil for an exploration of the mystical.”


The link he forges between direct observation and abstract expression is a hallmark of his work, and his technical mastery coupled with felicitous improvisation enables him to realise a rare intensity of depth and meaning: in his own words a fusion of landscape and mindscape. In the richly sensuous blends of colour there is a present sense of vastness, of sky, of light, but always also of what cannot be expressed in words. It is as if the artist is reaching out to paint what is unseen, but almost unattainable, as Plato’s chained men sat watching the shadows on the wall of the cave.


Yet the brilliance of each manifestation connects directly with our simple response of delight and wonder at a vision which both reveals and transcends the natural world-its skies, its colour, its dimensions, its emotions- evoking what we sense must be beyond it.


In Down’s extravagant yet precise harmony of hues one instinctively reads the spiritual, a revelation of the infinite and unknown-that which, as T.S Eliot put it, has been ‘ lost, and found, and lost again and again.’ Each painting is like a window out of this world, liberating the mind through what is familiar, towards a mystical harmony that is something more than a dream.

 

Jenny De Soutter, July 2003

From an essay by the poet Gerrit Henry

former Contributing Critic for Art in America and Art News, February 2003


Nicholas Down’s oil and gesso on panels strike such a sonorous note between the cosmological and the terrestrial, between sea and land, sky and water, that it’s extremely hard to resist their seductive—well, charm, in the old, magical sense of the word, is one term for it.


Ocean, Ocean poses a conundrum: but for three streaks of white, the painting is all blue, a deeply marine shade of same – are we looking at blue-on-blue, white on white-on-white, or rotating variations of these basics?


Whatever the specificities, Down’s canvases are, in that currently popular word, awesome, especially in Night Sky Mirrored 2000. The board is stroked easily and mysteriously with purples, whites, and a shock of carmine; there is texture here, in the white gesso, especially, but not so much that the all-over numinosity of the piece is offset by any untoward grittiness.


Down’s subject matters of late have veered from the sublime to the more organically psychic, as in 2002’s The Alchemist and Nesting the Feminine from the same year. The Alchemist is a fantasia in pastels – roses, reds, aquas, and mauves, these shades gracing the curvilinear appurtenances of the alchemist’s craft. Nesting the Feminine offers an abstract reading of the nude feminine body, vulnerable, voluptuous, bespeaking the aesthetic in the erotic and vice versa. Whether dealing with the natural or human nature, Down is a master of, that word again, the awesome: temporal, or dreamed.

 

From PaintingsandPrints2 Online Gallery

“Nicholas has a talent that I find very rare, his technique seems to be unique to himself and no other artist that I have ever met, how on earth you can achieve translucency on this scale I don't know. Some of his paintings seem to trick you into thinking that you are looking through glass and the reflection of something else shines through. You really do need to see for yourself, super work.”

Editor, PaintingsandPrints2.

The Visionary Abstractions of Nicholas Down come to Soho, New York.

Gallery & Studio Magazine, February/March 2003


There is something special, something rarefied, in the peculiarly ambient light of Scotland as it emanates from the moody sky and animates the surface of the surrounding sea, that inspires some of our most profoundly gifted modern painters. In the 1950’s John Schueler was lured by that light to the degree that he left New York City when it was the nexus of the Abstract Expressionist movement, taking up residence in a small secluded town in the Western Highlands, where he produced his greatest work.


More recently, another fine abstract artist, Nicholas Down, had an exhibition at Montserrat Gallery in Soho, of paintings inspired by his spiritual kinship with Abstract Expressionism, as well as by his travels to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. These paintings, like those of his predecessor Schueler, are products as much of his engagement with art history as of his direct experience of nature. For like Schueler, Down, who was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1957, and now resides in England, is a scholar and an intellectual as well as a painter.


He has studied the writings, as well as the works, of masters like Paul Klee, De Vinci, Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin in the course of formulating his own aesthetic objectives. But perhaps his most important influence is Mark Rothko, whom he quotes in his artist’s statement as follows: “Pictures must be miraculous: the moment one is completed the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”


Down’s new paintings, differ from those of Schueler in that their overall mood is mysteriously nocturnal, rather than a transcription of daylight skies. With few exceptions—most notably “One Day a Flower of Flesh Will Grow”, with its vortex of circular strokes surrounding a glowing red orb, and “A River Sutra”, which is built on rhythmic swirls suggesting the movement of water as seen from above—Down’s compositions tend to focus on horizon lines.


More exactly, their forms suggest night skies, shadowy landmasses and broad expanses of sea. Yet even while they are dramatically evocative of such natural elements, they function autonomously in purely abstract terms with their horizontal streaks of deep blue and violet, enlivened by luminous areas of red and white that play off strikingly against the darker, more sombre hues. The drama of light and darkness in Down’s paintings often makes one think of J.M.W Turner’s “tinted steam,” as well as the eerie nocturnal landscapes and seascapes of the eccentric American visionary Albert Pinkham Ryder. Woefully ignored in his lifetime but later much admired by many abstract painters, Ryder once said “I saw nature springing into life upon my dead canvas. It was better than nature, for it was vibrating with the thrill of new creation.”
Down’s work also calls to mind John Constable, the great English romantic, whose “scientific” observations of nature included sketches of cloud formations, and studies of the effect of light and atmosphere on sky, water, and land. Indeed Down’s use of white pigment against darker color masses recalls the white daubs, applied with a palette knife, that critics of his time referred to as “Constable’s snow.” Down, however, appears to proceed more intuitively in the manner of his Abstract Expressionist predecessors, creating his compositions with bold gestures intended not so much to duplicate the effects of nature as to convey a sense of its underlying forces and energies.


As a contemporary painter he is much less concerned with superficial appearances than with essences that can serve him as springboards to personal expression. And serve him they do, quite splendidly in compositions such as “The Gift at the Summit,” where massed blue forms in the lower portion of the composition could suggest rugged rock formations, the area of blue shot through with bits of white directly above them could appear to be flowing water accented by bits of foam, and the horizontal streaks of luminous red at the center of the composition evoke a sense of the last fiery moments of sunset glowing through the darkening sky.


At the same time, aside from such interpretation, the picture is just as compelling in strictly formal terms and works as total abstraction. Indeed, the temperament and subjective preferences of the individual viewer determine the degree of representation to be read into any given painting by Nicholas Down, making his work successful on several levels simultaneously.


Although the “Gift at the Summit” is an oil on gesso board, Down also works in faster drying acrylic paints, watercolors, or whatever seems to suit the subject at hand. He has been known to rub glazes of resin-oil pigment over an under–painting of tempera into which he had initially drawn and scraped with various implements. In other works, he experiments accidental effects achieved by combining charcoal, water, and/or acrylics on paper, panels, and other surfaces primed with gesso. At the same time, he is also proficient in the more traditional medium of oil on linen, as seen in “Remembered Intimacy,” where he also departs from his horizontally-base landscape composition to create a work where figuratively suggestive calligraphic forms are set against sinuous streaks of blue, violet and white. (Here, the figurative feeling in the essentially abstract forms whets one’s appetite for a series in progress, reportedly based on the New Testament theme, “The Stations of the Cross.”)


Encountering the work of this painter for the first time in his recent solo show at Montserrat Gallery, one was aware of having made an important discovery. One can only anticipate future exhibitions by Nicholas Down with pleasure.


Maurice Taplinger.
GALLERY & STUDIO, FEBRUARY/MARCH 2003

 

From Surrey Advertiser, May 2008

Nicholas Down explores moments of intense stillness in his richly coloured and carefully structured abstract paintings. Painted Desert 1 is a journey through an exotic interior landscape of light and shade composed of touches of contrasting colour.

From an essay by William Zimmer

Art critic, New York Times December 2002

All of Nicholas Down's paintings are a commingling of nature and the emotions, yet each is a fresh statement. These are modest-size paintings; something that is disarming when one first sees them in person. They seem much larger because of the vast embrace of their themes.
Almost every painting boasts a different combination of media. There are combinations of media on different supports: oil, acrylic, watercolor, gesso, or alkyd on canvas, wood or paper. Since nuance is all-important to Down he takes pains to get exactly the right calibration of paint and surface. We would suspect a scientific- minded person at work and Down is also a doctor. He practices family medicine, a calling that parallels the wide-ranging and diverse nature of what he paints. He says that he first considered being a psychiatrist, that impulse was evidently channelled into painting of an emotional yet disciplined nature. Uganda, where he was born and spent his early life remains his heart of darkness. At different times he chooses a different end of the spectrum for his colors and lately his work is blue, purple and crimson. But this dark palette is animated by contours and streaks of pure white light.


Scotland, in its rugged way is as exotic as Africa. Down devoted some time to observing the morning light there and getting it right. This is clearly an artist who charts his own direction according to inner need. Yet everything Down produces connects up with our common emotional experience no matter how distant the inspiration.


In his literature he quotes Rothko's observation that the painting is an unexpected revelation to the artist. Rothko created fields of light and Down uncannily brings in light with an engraver's precision. But the two artists share an ability to reveal a sense of transcendence.

 

Robert Mahoney

Critic and contributor to Time Out New York, ArtNow.com and d’Art International


Down’s paintings are marked by a sense of touch learned from the tradition of landscape painting transfixed by abstract form in nature, but transcend tradition by exploiting the expressive potential of various techniques and paints, to create an art elevated to the eternal.


Down’s paintings translate nature into a metaphor for the unconscious mind, each one moving higher into a spiritual realm. The latest work features further explorations by Down of archetypal imagery from the unconscious, distantly related to references in the natural world. More emotional and inward turning than formal and descriptive, in these works Down’s mind-hand continuum spirals through dreamy, floating forms, over diaphanous seas of soft color.


Down simultaneously explores various new methods of applying paint to paper, linen or board surfaces and each and every series or individual painting is grounded in the artist’s fascination with the expressive potential inherent in paint.


For his first solo exhibition, Down infused his work with serene understatement derived from Sufi mysticism and classical Chinese painting. Increasingly in his work, Down seeks to create painterly fields which appears to shift and change under the gaze of the viewer’s mind’s eye. Dark blues and purples evoke a mood somber and hopeful in a challenging time.


Down’s work often creates a synaesthetic metaphor for the imagination itself, offering the viewer release from a troubled world into the archetypal regions of the mind.