By Cole Tracy
Milton, MA- George Nick, one of the pre-eminent American realist painters, has been doing the same work, painstakingly, since the abstract-expressionists were reigning in the 1960s; a collection of his self-portraits is on view at the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy through December 13.
Behind the work, there is an intense ideology of painting from reality. His images are definitive of this: the brushstrokes are swift and visible in most of the paintings; his name and date are etched into a corner of the image, added while the paint was still wet.
It is clear each of the paintings was made in one sitting. Nick’s face changes little but the light quality as well as his perception led him to create many varying images of his own face. By painting from reality, he forces himself to focus on his perceived reality with intensive ardor. There are several excerpts of writing pieces, which discuss different aspects of Nick’s personality, teaching style and painting.
There are over 100 images in the exhibition, nearly all of them are painted, but there are a few drawings and sketches as well. While the perspective and angle seem closely followed for accuracy, it was not only his face that was depicted over the 40 years in which he painted himself over and over again. To see the development of the painting style and how he chooses to aestheticize each canvas is truly fascinating.
In some, he fades into the background, the barrier between him and the blurred background blending into one. In others, he uses extremely broad brushstrokes, having no desire to depict important details within his face. For a realist, Nick is very dedicated to painting his own perception of reality.
In several portraits, he takes generous artistic license with colors, painting himself in greens, purples and other psychedelic colors. Throughout his career, it seems the importance of surface has never fallen out of focus; in each he makes sure each stroke, which makes up these paintings is visible. Another consistent factor of these paintings is the slightly ajar black opening between his mouth. He does not feel extreme precision brings us any closer to reality, but he is also devoid of embellishment, when painting oneself it is easy to produce something which lacks objectivity.
Nick abstains from this and paints each detail he sees as necessary: his focused, slightly ajar mouth, the mussed-up hair, and the continually drooping wrinkles on either side of his mouth. He paints himself, it seems, because it was the only subject matter available at the time, the focus seems equally divided in each image, between the quality of light and the shape of his face, the dedication to his reality is formidable. He paints himself as objectively as any other subject matter he has prolifically dedicated himself to: with honesty to both paint and perception.
There are different perspectives and distances, but the majority of the images are quite a close crop of his head and a small area of indefinable background blur on a vertically placed rectangle. Although the subject matter is constant, it seems that with each image Nick makes, he is doing more than just discussing the depicted. By being completely present, and producing the painting in one sitting, he is meditatively depicting his perceived reality of these moments through paint. The production is the true art form, and Nick is a master at mindfulness painting — this is why he is such a prolific artist. The activity is more pertinent to him than the outcome, one would suspect.
The show’s gallery statement informs the viewer that John Stomberg, deputy director of the Williams College Museum of Art, created the term “Existential Realism” to describe Nick’s specific approach, conceptually and visually, to painting. This seems oddly fitting, for he is simultaneously willing to take large artistic license with what he is seeing. In several paintings, the colors become nearly psychedelic; he is unafraid to experiment to the point of going slightly beyond what is in front of him. This is the beauty of Nick’s career — he is always pushing himself to see what can and can’t be done; there is no formula to the production of these images.
These paintings are more than just self-portraits, for in this age of narcissism where everyone is taking cellphone pictures to post on social networks it may be easy to tag Nick with having similar qualities, erroneously. These images depict a man’s perception of his reality as it gradually changed over time, and his dedication to his medium.
(“George Nick: A Lifetime of Self Portraits” continues through December 13 at the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy, 170 Centre Street, Milton, Mass.; the gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. For more information, call (617) 898-1798.)