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.
GALLERY & STUDIO, FEBRUARY/MARCH 2003