Peter Nadin: An Odyssey of the Mark in Paintingespañol
I met Peter Nadin sometime in the early months of 1983, through a mutual friend of ours, Richard Prince. In describing him to us (Collins & Milazzo), he said Peter was one of the strangest artists he knew and that he had, as of late, taken up the painting of still lifes with very large bananas in the middle of them. This was strictly a case of the kettle calling the pot black, all the way around, as we ourselves had always pretended it was strange that we had never seen Richard with a camera in his hand or around his neck, taking a so-called ‘original’ photo. This was in the East Village, in New York, in the very early 1980s, although Nadin’s studio was on West Broadway at Chambers St.
When we got there, what we found truly strange were not the oversized bananas but the fact that Nadin had, in the most natural of ways, conflated the still life and landscape traditions, creating paintings of the most exquisite facture, some of which were dark but many of which were of a light- or Spring-green tonality. The fruit were dropped into the landscapes as perfectly natural elements — which, in a sense, they are, were they not bracketed specifically in the pictures as still life components. The energy of the works was such that it would swirl a basic set of ingredients — the sky, some trees surrounding a cottage, and some fruit, usually a banana — into the ‘bowl’ of a very concentrated hybrid landscape / still life scenario. The oversized banana was all-too-clearly a signifier for psychological disproportion, as was the conflation of ‘hearth and home’ into a still life — into something ‘natural’ but also into something that had obviously become lifeless, namely family life, for whatever reason. Also strange — and really quite beautiful — was the continuity the artist had found between the elements of nature and the subjective psyche of the individual. Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, and, in a more contemporary vein, besides Prince, the work of Ross Bleckner and Kevin Larmon came to mind.
If Nadin was going through something, some psychological crisis at the time, which he eventually told us he had been, he never let on, so discreet was he. That the paintings conveyed some primitive or subconscious quality was clear; even clearer, however, was the aesthetic ‘breakdown’ of the line dividing one genre from the other. But he never let these factors disturb the seemingly natural disposi- tion of the elements in the ‘still life’ or ‘landscape,’ depending upon how you primarily viewed the picture.
In any case, we responded immediately to the paintings, and proceeded to include not only images of the work but the related poetry he was writing at the time, from a book entitled Still Life, in several issues of a magazine we had begun to publish in 1982, Effects: Magazine for New Art Theory. We had also done the same with the photographs and writings of Prince, several of which (the texts) were eventually published in his book, Why I Go to the Movies Alone. While Prince’s writings (and images of local 42nd Street prostitutes and porn stars — Corrine, Kristy, Luanne and Carole) were alienated and coolly mediated, Nadin’s texts — no less disenfranchised — found a voice inside himself that was alternately intellectual — in the objective tradition of T.S. Eliot — and regressive. On the one hand, he wrote: “Deception was a pleasure, but lacking harmony, / Which repentance, though sweetly appeal- ing can hardly match. / The guilty always tire / And ultimately seek forgiveness.” On the other, there were the by-now infamous lines: “Who will speak to me today? / Who will call and want to play.” And if any object ever obtained the status of Eliot’s “objec- tive correlative,” it certainly was Nadin’s banana! William Blake, whom Nadin greatly admired, figured also into the perfectly calibrated metric feet, rhythms, and rhymes of his verse, as well its visionary impulse.
But there had been an artist, a writer, and even a ‘career’ — a term which I can hear Nadin sneering at even from this distance (I’m in Basel right now) — before this psychological and aestheti- cal paradigmatic shift in things took place. Perhaps it would be better to call it a dissimilar but related series of anarchistic actions or events, beginning with his collaborations with Chris D’Arcangelo in 1977-78: “When I moved to New York in 1976 I met Chris, who had similar ideas, so we began working collabora- tively. We would show what we did to support ourselves. We were doing construction work, so we turned the worksite into an installation. If we painted someone’s house, we would show it. We painted walls, so we showed them as art.” This should not come as a surprise, given that the work that had the earliest and deepest affect on Nadin was Kurt Schwitters’ only surviving Merz con- struction, the Merzbau, a quintessential, anarchistic, late Dadaist work of 1923-48. Although, as a young man, Nadin admired and remembers copying works and the details of paintings by the Fauvists, such as Vlaminck, and later, van Gogh. In any case, the exhibiting of the worksite involved a very basic but natural understanding of space and the act of painting. Like Schwitters’ ‘Merz building,’ which became, in effect, an ongoing material and conceptual edifice-in-progress — or what we might call today an ‘environment’ —, Nadin saw the worksite-as-installation as a way of having art interact directly with the real world, not only physically but perceptually, in terms of the viewer’s experience of the object as a living reality.9
Nadin was nine when he executed his first oil painting: “It was on the inside lid of my grandfather’s briefcase. He was a printer who had lost his printing factory when it was bombed during the war. Not surprisingly, the painting was of the house he had built and that we lived in. I was attracted to painting for practical reasons, principally because I had trouble talking, and painting afforded me a means of communication with the world.”10 This description of his early life is significant for several reasons: it foreshadows his interest in books as ‘constructed,’ as well as written, objects, often presented free-standing and in accordion style; his interest in prints as an artistic medium, which have often had an interactive relation to the so-called primary work; and his dedication eventually to poetry as one of his most intense forms of communication. It speaks also to the very content of his “breakdown” years later, namely to the house he valued so much as a youth and which we see depicted symbolically (as a cottage) in the Still Life paintings, and to his overwhelming desire to communicate with the world. We must also remember that this earlier ‘house’ may have had a previous transformation in the Merzbau — a kind of house of ruins in reverse — which the artist saw constantly and absorbed into his being when he was a university student at Newcastle-upon- Tyne, which is where (in the Halton Gallery) the Schwitters work was finally and permanently installed in 1965.
Like Nadin’s poetry (and his paintings), given equally to stretches of high intellection and bouts of regression, here we see its antecedents in this range of experiences, simultaneously as problem and as potential. All language is, in a sense, nothing more than a symbolic set of relations — something like a ‘house’ or shelter we set up, at least temporarily — between a sender and a receiver, interchangeable, arbitrary, and ephemeral in its disposition and values. While the templates of cognition must withstand temporal deterioration, they must also undergo a kind of ‘spatialization’ of existential residues. If memory and intuition are subject like a house of cards to sudden breakdowns, they are also capable of fluid reconstructions, seemingly without rhyme or reason, but always somehow with emotional precedence. This layering or archaeology of experiences would become typical not only of his work as an artist but of his humanity as a person, with a very certain but understated set of values, no matter how seemingly anti-authoritar- ian and even anarchistic in complexion.
In 1978, this would lead Nadin to turn his studio into a gallery in a consummate act of conceptualism: “The first show was of the space itself with nothing in it. Artists were then invited to respond to the conditions of the space. Eventually the space became an accumulation of installations. One artist would have to deal with the previous artists’ work. Daniel Buren had to address the empty space, then Sean Scully had to deal with Buren’s work and the residue he’d left of the empty space. And so layers were added, different things took place, music was played, and so on.”11 Nadin would later describe this phenomenon as a subtle, virtually unde- tectable, interplay between the absorption and emanation of experience and meaning.12 In this, too, we can see the impact the Merzbau had on him, in the ‘collaging’ or superimposing of one artist’s work over another’s.
“It lasted about eight months. Tragically, Chris committed suicide and I didn’t want to continue with the idea. We finished with a memorial exhibition, a collaboration by Chris’s friends Lawrence Weiner, Louise Lawler, Dan Graham, and myself. Then it ended. “Like a good number of people at the time, I was interested in trying to find new ways to make and show art. I thought it might be possible to create a more communal artwork, to move away from the individual toward the group.”13
This led eventually to his collaborative work with Jenny Holzer, from 1979 to 1982. He did “three bodies of work and three books”14 with her, Living, Eating Friends, and Eating Through Living. Nadin: “The collaboration [was] an attempt to push poetry through the language of advertising, and to push the visual dynamism of painting into diagram and sign. It was our way of moving art into the world and making it more accessible.
“My final experiment in conceptualism was to provide a service rather than produce an object. This was the Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince and Winters. We took an office on Broadway and advertised our consulting services.15 This was great fun, but internal disagreement quickly turned the venture into a comedy. Art had become a farce. I realized this particular avenue of inquiry had come to an end. I then pretty much dropped from sight.”16 Which is when he went to work on the Still Life paintings of 1983.
Up to this point, Nadin’s own work had begun to be shown in such notable exhibitions as the Times Square Show in 1980, in several of the well-known alternative spaces of the time, such as White Columns and Artists Space, and in such commercial but serious galleries as Brooke Alexander, Annina Nosei, and Barbara Gladstone in New York, Young Hoffman in Chicago, Lisson in London; and in such museum venues as Museen der Stadt in Cologne, Dijon Musée in France, Le Nouveau Musée in Lyon, and the Cleveland Contemporary Arts and the Walker Art Center in the U.S. He would also do one-person shows in Paris, Munich, and Berlin; at Artists Space in New York (in 1982); and exhibit the Still Life paintings in one-person shows at the alternative space, Hall- walls, in Buffalo, New York, and in the pseudo-alternative space, Spiritual America, conceived and curated (sub rosa) by Richard Prince, in New York in 1983.
Collins & Milazzo would include paintings from the Still Life series in three shows in 1984. Civilization and the Landscape of Discontent and Still Life with Transaction: Former Objects, New Moral Arrangements, and the History of Surfaces took place, more or less, simultaneously at Gallery Nature Morte and International with Monument, respectively, in March and April. If there were two artists who had served as inspiration for these shows, they were certainly Bleckner and Nadin. I think the titles also spoke to the kinds of conflations, or, in this case, inversions, that existed in Nadin’s work, given that our so-called ‘still life’ show took place at a gallery which took a landscape or cartographical term as its title — International with Monument —, and our so-called ‘landscape’ show transpired at a gallery that took a genre — namely ‘nature morte’ — for its title. These inversions were distinctly in the spirit of Nadin’s work, if not a direct homage.
Not that we had not taken, as well, some direct impetus from the constructivist paintings that Bleckner had executed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Still Life and Leaf (1979), Gravity of Matter (1981), and From Organism to Architecture (1981). In fact, in the Still Life with Transaction exhibition, we included the latter, by now famous painting (From Organism to Architecture), which also collapsed the two genres of landscape and still life, by superimposing the image of a conch shell at the bottom of a space that was entirely covered by a grid pattern which seemed like it was vanishing or breaking down. If the deteriorating grid — both scratched into existence and seemingly worn down by time — referenced the end of Minimalism as the ‘landscape’ of art, then the intervening conch shell spoke to more subliminal or psycho- logically subterranean values.
In fact, the Still Life paintings by Nadin we chose to put in the show had black and dark maroon grounds against which were gathered clusters of bananas and other fruits in various colors — lemon yellow, apple reds, and oranges (the pun here on form and color is intended). The Prince, Nadin, and Bleckner, like so many of the other works in the exhibition — Larmon’s Still Life paint- ing, Sarah Charlesworth’s Academy of Secrets photograph, and Peter Nagy’s xerox — were either literally all black and white, or nearly so, melancholic in complexion, possessing the spirit, if not the actuality, of the still life tradition. We had included a Weather painting by Bleckner in the landscape show, but hung it next to a black and white series of photographs of JELL-O by James Welling, which also critically conflated the two genres, as did the banana painting by Nadin in the exhibition. For all of the confla- tions and inversions between the two shows, and between and within the various works, the basic parameters for the exhibitions were rather classical in nature, and spoke to the fact that we were willing to start, in our first exhibitions, with fundamental genre statements, even if they were thoroughly subverted in the end. This was pretty much the case with Nadin’s works, as well — the idea being to go back to a classical genre, the still life, but reimbu- ing it with previously unsuspected subliminal or psychological valences and nuances, at least in terms of a contemporary way of working with this genre.17 Both the formal return and the pro- jected subject matter predicated ‘primordial’ values. They were, to use the artist’s own term, kinds of ‘first marks’18 — intuitive manifestations of a primitive impulse that denied ideological and rational motivations and discourses.
Another show we did in 1984, Natural Genre,19 synthesized the ideas of the previous two exhibitions, with a view toward under- scoring the constructed nature not only of genre discourse, but of discourse in general. Besides an Op painting by Bleckner, entitled Shitting and Laughing (1982) and a Still Life painting by Nadin (1982), it included the works of Welling, Charlesworth, Nagy, Lawler, Allan McCollum, Mark Innerst, Gretchen Bender, Carroll Dunham, and David Wojnarowicz, among others.
In the following year, in 1985, such shows as Final Love, Persona Non Grata, and Cult and Decorum,20 with such artists as Bleckner, Welling, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Jeff Koons, Philip Taaffe, Haim Steinbach, and Not Vital, would not only radically decontex- tualize but complete the process of recontextualizing21 Nadin’s work in relation to a new generation of artists. The Still Life paintings seemed psychologically more compatible with a less ideologically reductive context, and a more visually replete one, wherein conceptuality itself was not viewed as diametrically opposed to more subjective and subliminal interests.
In any case, it was through Collins & Milazzo that Nadin would joined Cash/Newhouse, the same gallery to which they had brought Welling and McCollum. There he would also be joined by Annette Lemieux, helping to create — along with Nature Morte and International with Monument22 — one of the most potent contexts for the exhibition of art in recent years.
Bleckner’s painting, From Organism to Architecture, proved to be such a seminal work in his oeuvre — in terms of skewing the Minimal and Conceptual discourses toward a more open-ended relation to nature and the human psyche — that he himself used its title to organize, in February 1985, an exhibition of works by artists with related issues. The exhibition took place at the New York Studio School, and included, besides his own work and Nadin’s, Larmon, Victor Alzamora, Max Beckmann, George Condo, Pat Steir, and Cy Twombly, among others.
In the course of the next several years, Nadin’s paintings would be exhibited at the Similia/Dissimilia exhibition, curated by Rainer Crone and David Moos, at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1987, and the Aperto at the XLIII edition of the Venice Biennale in 1988. He would do a double one-person show at Cash/Newhouse and Brooke Alexander Gallery, the latter of which he would eventually join, in 1987, when the former closed; and museum shows at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, College at Westbury, Long Island, in 1987, and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (as part of the Currents program), in 1989. He would also realize exhibitions and projects at Jablonka Galerie in Cologne, in 1990, and Colin De Land’s fashion- ably avant-garde American Fine Art Gallery in New York in 1991.
After the Still Life paintings of 1983 and 1984, Nadin embarked, in the next two years, from 1985 to 1986, upon a new series of twenty- four works, entitled The Symmetry of Night and Day. Not that the reception of the Still Life paintings had been categorically positive: “I would say the response was very bad. Most people who had supported the previous work felt I’d either gone crazy or in some strange way had betrayed them. With some exceptions, people didn’t like the work. I remember one very low point. I had a visit from an art dealer who had exhibited some of my earlier work. We entered the studio and when she saw the [Still Life] paintings her demeanor, even her pallor, changed. She stared apparently in embarrassed astonishment, then after several minutes of uncomfortable silence she said, ‘You don’t realize, you can’t do this.’ I said, ‘It’s a little too late, as you see I’ve already done it.’ She said, ‘No you don’t understand, in Paris, there are people who still really paint like this.’ I said, ‘What you don’t understand is I really paint like this.’”23 But this “led to the realization that painting was the perfect medium for the representation of consciousness. Yet, in order to realize that, one had to be coherent in all aspects of painting. I wanted to find out where the truth lay for me, within abstraction, representation, portraiture, and assemblage.”24 The Symmetry paintings accomplished this, and in the most effective or transparent of ways. They were actually quite Minimal and abstract in content, but extremely sensual in the way they handled paint. I think this was done precisely to get not only to the idea of consciousness, as a repre- sentation, but to pure consciousness as a ‘mark,’ a physical, painterly reality. This is why the only true figuration we see in this series is the head — in fact, a self-portrait —, accompanied often by declensions of a stick figure, or a cruciform. Occasionally, we see also some trees, but mostly what really look like telephone poles, either at the very center of the painting, with the artist’s head crucified against the intersection of the cruciform, or distributed across a vast, and rather desolate, abstract expanse of land, or perspectively hovering somehow over ‘sand’ and ‘ocean.’ These desiccated landscapes or deserts with their various vistas feel and look like a waste land, one that would illustrate perfectly Eliot’s eponymous poem. Nadin, in fact, says, that he “first put an armature shape in the painting Two Continents Connected by Phone (1985), and the series The Symmetry of Night and Day came out of this.”25
More specifically, he explains: “The idea was that during the day the body is vertical while at night it is horizontal, so during a twenty-four hour period one makes the elements of the cross. In those paintings I wanted to clear the surface of everything that was extraneous to the central idea. Yet even as one does that, the marks and paint have associations and suggestions parallel to those of the mind. It occurred to me that those resonances were not extraneous to the idea but central to it. Hence, the use of recur- ring images, such as the head, house, etc.”26 This alignment with the mark (of paint) with a consciousness that could become utterly free (pure) to experience the resonances of itself as such would become the central idea of the present work, The First Mark paintings of 2000 to 2006, some two decades later. Or we could say rather that it was always the abiding idea throughout his work, up to the very present.
The telephone pole imagery in The Symmetry of Night and Day resonates not only with the idea of consciousness as the primary form of communication between humans but as an attempt to become connected physically. In its abstract purity, it communicates the impossibility of doing so; across its various inflections and what they suggest — figuratively, representationally, and even in terms of the artist’s self-portrait —, these ‘impure’ forms or paint marks defy the odds, proceeding by associations of “memory, idea and imagination.”27 The self-portrait in this series is tantamount to self-consciousness or to the self-reflexive nature of consciousness. Even the way the poles or ‘arms’ of the figures are inflected serves to indicate the reflexive role of consciousness as Other.
The modulated amounts of darkness and light in the picture relate not only to the natural phenomena and passage of day and night, but to the more psychical mechanisms or interactions between the subconscious and consciousness. The symmetry of the former, in Nadin’s view, is paralleled by these more subjective dimensions and states. While some of those paintings carry simple titles, like 9 A.M. or 5 A.M., others are more complicated by descriptions of psychological states, and still others, more dramatic, indeed, crisis-ridden, than others: 4 A.M. Falling, While Breathing, The Usual Silence, Thirty Summers If All Goes Well, Before I Too Descend to Hell, and The Way It Falls. Some are quite beautiful, but also speak to the delicate balance that exists between existence and consciousness, the body and the mind, darkness and light as psychological states as well as physiological conditions, that is, between the more dreadful or tormented states of psychological being and transcendence or the so-called higher ones. Here I am thinking of such works and titles as Where Light Enters the Body, The Meticulous Nature of Transcendence, and The Light That Makes the Darkness Sing. For all of the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau we might espy in these titles and in such senti- ments,there is the tautological reality of the real world also winding its way through these pictures like a scythe, hovering like a shadow. Death as the double of life, much like night and day, mirror each other in the symmetry of the existential looking glass into which we are forced to look — or which great artists compel us to look into. And often the void we see there resembles the infinite, or a form of infinity that ends like a sentence with a preposition dangling at the end of it.
For all of their Minimalist and geometrical sensibility, the way Nadin allows the paint to drip coarsely like blood over the pictorial edge of some of the structures or override the brushstrokes reflects the more brutal or grotesque states the mind experiences or is capable of. The Emanation of a Line reiterates simultaneously the fragile order that exists between being and painting. Whereas The Connection of Two Ways and According to the Equilibrium of Bridges may reflect instead the balance or highly synthetic relation that can pertain between divergent existential or ontological dimensions of being. In The Marks of the Light of Dawn, the title but the painting, too, like all of these in this series, emphasize the degree to which our images of the world, our perceptions, the very symmetry of things or of being itself, is vitally connected to our psychological constructs, or, more literally, to the material and the aesthetical constructions or marks we make (or leave behind).
What is truly amazing in this work is that Nadin should try to give us actual or physical depictions of such states of being, interconnected or otherwise, which is what such pictures as While Breathing, The Connection of Two Ways, and According to the Equilibrium of Bridges are trying to do. What is that moment that we call 12 Noon (The Present Time); what can we show about it or how can we physically describe it? What kind of mark does the light of dawn leave behind or on us; or, rather, what kind of mark does such hopeful light inspire in us? When Nadin entitles one of these paintings, Perhaps the Ego Is a Thing of the Past, is he expressing a hope or an inkling of something he has seen or already experienced? In this painting, the head of his self-portrait looks like a balloon that has not simply transcended the horizontal and vertical coordinates of time and space; it seems to have actually become disconnected and to be floating away into the distance, perhaps becoming something like a thing of the past.
Or, of course, it could simply signal, note, or mark ‘down’ the experience of death, as if it were merely a diary entry — after all, that is, in a sense, what Nadin is doing in this series, The Symmetry of Night and Day, recording aesthetically his day to day experiences. He says: “It [the cross armature] came from a number of different but related sources. The child’s game of hangman, where at the end you are left with either the word or the image. I think it also came from Chris D’Arcangelo’s death, and my finding out that one of my forebears had been hanged in one of the last public executions in the North of England.”28 In the poem about his ancestor, he writes: “Who, lying in this cell could long for the dawn / When the dawn will break to darkness more fearful / Than night’s faint noises and uncertain shadows? / Who awaiting today would not pray to already know / Tomorrow’s emptiness or return to yesterday’s dreams / Of a changed or mistaken fate?”29 So, if we see also in the very structures that would sustain or uphold our being a scythe that would raze us to the ground like a wind imperceptibly decapitating the horizon, we would not be so terribly wrong.
With Views, a series which transpired over the course of three years, from 1986 to 1988, Nadin explains that, after The Symmetry of Night and Day paintings, he “wanted to take everything out of the paintings except their physical certainty. So I built the stretcher the same height as myself, and the width was determined by the width of my extended arms. I wanted to paint the physical mechanics of painting.”30 This, in the ironic spirit of Leonardo’s drawing of (Vitruvian) man as the measure of all things. “I divided the painting into two areas, with the paint applied verti- cally, then horizontally. On top of that I painted marks that were made by extending my arm to its maximum distance and rotation. So the painting began with everything excluded except my physical relationship with the surface. Yet as a description of the time given over to the painting it was still incomplete. I felt I had to give the mechanics of one’s sensibility equal weight as the mechanics of painting. So many elements from my memory and imagination began to accumulate on the surface that by the end of the twenty-six paintings the subject had transformed from a reductionist canvas [such as one carrying the alternative title, In Equal Assertion Lies Equal Denial] to the Tower of Babel [which were among the last in the series].”31 Perhaps in no other series, other than the very present, The First Mark paintings, does the mark as such, or in itself, prevail. In Views, we see it travel from an abstract, disembodied state, not unlike the ‘mark’ of the cruciform or ‘telephone pole’ in the Symmetry paintings, to a still abstract but overwhelming urgency that would overtake the whole horizontal/vertical axis of the space as a potential landscape image, to the mark itself being overwhelmed, literally like a Tower of Babel, by an expressive flood of visual and verbal images, that, in turn, create the apparition of an overriding mark of a psycho-social dimension.
It is as if we are watching consciousness having to come to terms with its own pure, reductive demise-by-hanging in the early paintings in the series — for a gallows is what the armature also suggests — to a steady and controlled reinstatement of the Still Life iconography (along with elements of self-portraiture) in the middle part of the series to an overwhelming apocalypse of subjective imagery that still, however, inflects consciousness as a power, even if an impure and arbitrary one. This is not unrelated to Jasper Johns’s method of using images, or parts of them, from earlier paintings (and experiences) in later ones. It is tantamount to an existential citation of one’s own history — trace, or network of traces, or, in Nadin’s case, a disconfiguration [sic] of views, that yields nothing more, in the end, than a life, lived to the point of self-destruction (or deterioration). That is what we saw recently in Johns’s Catenary paintings — the yielding of ‘tensions’ that once described a life (a ‘line’) lived rigorously (some might even argue rigidly) on the cultural edge to a field of physical and psychological, and ultimately, existential, declensions that approximate the condition of a ‘thread’ limply or still barely connecting one end of a transaction or transmission of energy to another.
In Nadin’s Views, the compression of images based on memories or traces of past work seems at first to yield to relatively new images of hand and footprints, skulls, and pages of text (poetry) that give the overall impression that the artist is leaving his last will and testament — or a conflation of views, of perspectives, of life experiences that finally collapse consciousness itself into the undifferentiated miasma of the unconscious. Not that all marks — all the traces — in the compendium of each canvas are not distinct; merely that the overall sensation has become one in which the paint has almost taken over as paint, pure and simple, no matter how impure and complex are the individual ingredients of the psyche. Still Life drawings and paintings of fruit and trees; bottles and books; abstract images of sunrises and sunsets; sleep, hysteria, and dread, become interspersed with poems rendered as transparent print media, that take on the feeling of fragments of newspaper. The banana of the early (Still Life) paintings has become the tower of Babel in the frenzied, existential lyric of the Views. We have here not so much “a tide of tongues”32 but a tidal wave of con- sciousness that carries with it all the previous vocabularies and grammars of figuration, abstraction, representation, and self- portraiture in his work.
In the Views, we get, broadly speaking, Nadin’s full realization in the objective form of painting that “in equal assertion lies equal denial,” meaning simply that repression, deception and self- deception, negation, and particularly, self-negation, seem to be inscribed in the very continuity of our being, whether it is enacted through nature, culture, or the phenomenon of existential or moral equivalence as such. I think this is why the mark or marks in these paintings — such ‘views’ in temporal progress, in effect — are communicated ultimately as overriding blurs or erasures, not merely as values undermined but as sensibility having undergone a tumultuous upheaval. When faced by all the possibilities of creativity, why do we choose to return to a form of expression that might either predicate them or subsequently override them? Are all views truly equal, or are they equal relative to an absolute form of being underlying them and which we either choose to deny or assert — deny, if we are postmodernists, assert, when we are desperate or frightened?
In the cycle of twenty-four paintings, The Studio Window, mostly executed in 1988, it is as if Nadin had finally chosen to speak to us or mediate the world categorically through the aesthetic or creative ‘view’ of consciousness, despite the various Modernist and Post- modernist crises such views may have sustained during the twenti- eth century. It is now specifically, and more than ever, if not exclusively, the Artist who is speaking to us, and it is through ‘the studio window’ that he is viewing the world. It is as though he has chosen the aesthetic vector of the mark as a way to neutralize the ideological vector of moral equivalence, leaving to consciousness as an aesthetic instrument (rather than end) as many choices as possible, including those involving the construction of our images of the so-called real world.
In a way, this is not so different than Nadin’s previous approaches to painting (and life):
“After the Views paintings I was aware that formally it was possible to use different, opposing types of paint- erly space in the same painting, and to use dissonant color relation- ships and marks, and still create a coherent painting. In The Studio Window series I wanted to extend the exploration of painterly space to include real as well as depicted space and objects, and to try to create an equilibrium between dissonant and consonant color and marks. The key to the subject came from seeing Braque’s 1938 painting Studio with Black Vase. I wanted to use red, yellow, blue, black, and white as the symbolic confines of the studio walls and floors, and try to combine flatness with traditional painterly space. Yet they were not really formal painting; each had its particular meaning and content.”33
In Still Life with Window, e.g., he “began with Pound’s three methods for the communication of meaning: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia. In the painting these correspond to the three depictions of the pear, from the represen- tational, to the real, to the abstract. These three ways of describ- ing the same thing were literally connected by a braided copper wire.34 I tried to unify the painting by connecting actuality with representation — I suppose to try to find a new way to make a viable still life painting.”35 Here, the only difference, apart from tone or a more relaxed distribution of elements, is the emphasis on “coherence” in relation to the mark — but coherence understood classically as consciousness’s ability to bring opposing or contra- dictory — or even crisis-modalities — into balance or a stable configuration. In his paintings, Nadin is always testing or placing at risk the terms of that balanced picture or ‘view’ of the world. He is always asking questions about it — if it hasn’t, in fact, fallen into disarray; if it isn’t, in fact, useful anymore; if we haven’t, in fact, found some other way?
Everything, like history, including the present, is subject to construction and reconstruction,36 much as our views of the world are influenced by psychological states and social or economic conditions. In effect, Nadin is asking if they aren’t equivalent: are what we put into our paintings, our aesthetic objects, and into our pictures of the world, equivalent? In The Studio Window series, we see all manners of image-construction, verbal as well as visual; and what seems to be the common denominator is consciousness as the instrument of realization. While the moral ends may seem indeter- minate, the aesthetic coherence of the object of perception seems if not obviously meaningful then certainly the durable outcome of a variety of means or possibilities. It is as if Nadin is telling us that the window of perception, of what we see and how we put it together, is really the outcome of consciousness. No consciousness (or ideas) but in things is subverted by no things but in conscious- ness — or, at least, there is a radical interplay between these two modes of reality or reality-construction in Nadin’s pictures, self to Other becoming in a self-reflexive and reflecting consciousness, a kind of doubling. Much as Emerson balanced Thoreau philosophi- cally in American culture, adding the cathedral to the log cabin, Stevens counterbalanced W.C. Williams in poetry, effecting the little red wheelbarrow’s complement in the Idea of things.
I think this is why Nadin turns to paint or the mark as the ultimate arbiter to negotiate the pseudo-polarity between the body and the mind or between matter or substance and idea or conscious- ness per se. What The Studio Window series depicts, in picture after picture, despite the details, the colors or the forms, is the very being of this relation, between consciousness as such and con- sciousness as the mediating substance of the world. Nadin does not differentiate between the marks of consciousness — or the ones we leave behind — that predicate our very being in the world and the consciousness of the marks that reflect upon that being as self- consciousness (at least, not until later, in this case), as art, as formal or aesthetic as well as psychological or social reality.
Rather than viewing these realities (of consciousness and matter) as polarities, they, in effect, mirror or ‘double’ each other, in the artist’s view, and in the paintings: “In a sense, I’ve always liked the idea of the double or the shadow self. I have also tended to paint and write using opposites and inverses, and I like the literature on the double. One of my favorites is Poe’s story ‘William Wilson.’”37 We can see this play of the double in the various armatures in Nadin’s series — the cruciform in The Symmetry of Night and Day and the use of painted vertical and horizontal expanses in the Views, which functioned as grounds. In the Symmetry paintings, Nadin even subtitles one The Doppelgänger. And, in 1990, he will execute a series of nine paintings entitled The Double, with such provocative individual titles as Landscape, Snake, Frame; The Double, a Beginning, a Middle, an End; Brush, Brain Coral, and Spent Shells; Double Cross; and Double Bird.
If our tendency is to think of consciousness as inapprehensible, as nothing that can exist beyond the history or odyssey of its marks, then, perhaps, it is for this right reason that Nadin may interpret the double as nothing more than the self and the Other synthesized (as one). We see this ‘One’ — or even psychological or aesthetic ‘oneness’ — manifest itself within the Subject as self-reflection or as self-reflexive consciousness. Nadin alludes to it, interestingly, as the “shadow self.”38 But we, in fact, see it depicted literally, in The Double, a Beginning, a Middle, an End, as a black, abstract figure or vertical accumulation of brushstrokes. It is not more than the adumbration of a Francis Baconish spectre that must not only negotiate, in this painting, the negation or annulation of Nadin’s past work — there is a Still Life rendered within the larger paint- ing, but with an X running through the little cottage in it — but his own inevitable death, in the form of a skull with a white brush- stroke rushing across it like time itself.
Here, the mark, in this series, The Double, is realized as an X or an extremely brash or expressive, almost chaotic, rush of paint not only across a segment of the painting but usually within or over the painting (depicted) inside the painting — like a Shake- spearean play within a play. Nadin says that he “began to use the cross as an erasure mark to solve a formal problem. I like the progression of the painting to be as visible as possible, so I prefer to try to minimize erasure or overpainting. I was astonished when I saw a facsimile of the manuscript of The Waste Land with Pound’s crossing out of entire sentences, even entire pages. There was something wonderfully audacious about it. On a purely visual level it made sense. The excised poetry was still legible, so it enabled one to participate in the process of the writing of the poem. I found that an interesting solution when applied to paint- ing because you could erase without obliterating.”39 Here, we get a perfect articulation of the self and Other, of consciousness and self-consciousness or the self-reflexive power to reflect, of past and future work, in the mirroring form of a double as an irrevers- ible mark. Because, after all, death is irreversible. Or, let us say, the cruciform, the cross, the X mark — like the signature of someone who is ultimately illiterate, at least in relation to the larger questions of life — becomes the armature of a negation that is the precondition of all transformation. Because, after all, life, also, is irreversible. Much like one’s work, as one proceeds and sees it laid out in front of one — painting after painting, poem after poem, political or ethical decision after political or ethical decision. The obliteration or active erasure of the past returns as the specter of the known. If the known has a way of reconfiguring itself as the unknown, it follows that the unknown is often a double or mirror- reflection of the known — one of the two arms of the cruciform, cross, X, or the self-obliterating consciousness. Is it any wonder that Freud speaks of the unconscious in terms of the return of the repressed, or that Nietzsche should have become obsessed by the idea of eternal recurrence? That the mark we make or leave should be inextricably tied to the mark or marks we have already made — and that what is ‘primitive’ to any consciousness is that part which is simply self-reflexive to its own history, experience, or ever-diminishing self?
In Interior with Painting, Mark, and Storm, Nadin depicts the power that these forces of the psyche have over us — whether as willing or unwilling subjects of their discourse — in the form of a storm in which a painting is either violently annihilating or emerging from another painting. The birth and death of these abstract marks has become indistinguishable, although the act, despite its enigmatic qualities, or source, remains distinct and memorable. It is as if Nadin has combined, in the Seven Sisters, the lowly spectacle of self-abnegation in pictures as different from each other as Bacon and Edward Hopper — especially the ones (in the series) in which misery becomes an agonizing blur and the space is populated by no one or nothing but the disconsolate space itself.
Nowhere does this consciousness of the mark and the various marks of consciousness intersect more profoundly, and, in a sense, more mutely, than in the series of Seven Sisters paintings Nadin made in 1991. In these seven works, the mark attains the fullest physical embodiment of self-reflexive, aesthetic consciousness, in which the materials of painting, or the aesthetic means, become the very subject of the painting as an end in itself. Of course, we have seen rigorous traces of this dimension of things before; but, here, it becomes the dominant thrust of the work. Nadin says: “The reference [in the title] is quite specific, but not what it might seem to be. It comes from Homer’s allusion to the Pleiades in The Odyssey as ‘the doves who brought ambrosia from the West to Zeus.’ Hence the bird in the first painting [in the series]. They were intended as paintings about artistic inspiration, intention, and process. I turned the objects and materials that I used to make the paintings into the subject of the paintings.”40 This way of working will become more intensified, nearly a decade later, in The First Mark paintings. But only after the void of a hiatus, lasting roughly eight years, from 1993 to 2000, will Nadin be able to embark upon this future part of his journey.
In the Seven Sisters, we see a preponderance of physical objects attached to the canvas, as if the image of the mark is not adequate and what he wants to bring forward are the actual instruments and materials of mark-making. Thus, he gives us palette and brushes but also more abstruse objects, having to do perhaps with a prevision of the void and the journey ahead of him, the breaching of boundaries, and with ideas of flight or transcendence. Hence, the duck flying off the edge of the canvas, the empty vase dan- gling poetically from the superimposed palettes, and the ever- present copper wire sensuously, barely, tying or holding the latter two together, in Seven Sisters I. In the other members of the series, we see a delicate toddler-gate depending from part of a branch; an X dramatically effacing the image of a cottage inside a three dimensional frame attached to the surface of the canvas; and, in the seventh and last member in the series, it appears as if the canvas itself, in its entirety, has become a gruff, palette-like, rectangular expanse of paint lobbed onto the surface, with a length of crumpled metal and a piece of copper wire tied to it and to the surface, as if trying desperately to moor the image of painting — a few wild brushstrokes — to the physical structure or very being of the paint. Here, so far, the mark exists in its most robust form, but more clearly anchoring, as it were, the overriding network or storm of discourses. The latter have not, as of yet, become subsumed by the synthetic mark of pure consciousness, of the psyche, as nature’s alibi.
In the last body of work, executed between 1991 and 1993, before the hiatus, Nadin created several paintings that allude aggressively to a primitive, if not primordial, ever-elusive, mythopoeic drive, according to which the mark is rearticulated as a discursive reality. In this final look over his shoulder at the continent of conventional painting modalities from the already dominant Gauguinesque island of his imagination, with all of the exotic (and erotic) narrative possibilities attendant to it, Nadin explains that “every artist has a style if for no other reason than we all do things differently, however slightly. What I don’t think one should do is reduce the range of one’s style, but rather increase it. It seems very inhibiting to make a type of art that from the outset takes an ironic or exclusionist view of the work, or excludes aspects of life and experience. I feel one must be very careful not to sacrifice experi- ence to dogma. The idea is to articulate meaning through language, not to own the language.
“I feel all marks and gestures may and should be used. One should not be intimidated by the associations a mark or gesture has. One of the great pleasures of painting is to find other artists in the paint, through the manual process. Some you embrace, some you fight with, some you avoid, most you doff your hat to and press on with your particular journey. But to say you don’t bump into anyone means either you make a very limited art or deny the truth. Person- ally, I believe art is not real estate. An artist does not own a mark or gesture. You are not trespassing by using them. On the contrary, to use those marks ties them again into the continuum of art making, reimbues them with meaning. The obligation is to use them in an original fashion.”41 And when asked about the risks involved in such a venture, however culturally-orientated they may be, he states that he finds the risks “exhilarating. One’s life is full of uncertainty, search, and struggle. Why not one’s painting.”42 Nadin will spend the next decade taking just such a risk, and searching for answers to questions that often go unasked.
But before turning to The First Mark paintings of the new millennium, it might be interesting to see if there was anything in those last paintings of the early 1990s that precipitated this crisis and the search, and if there was even an inkling of an ‘answer’ to these seemingly unanswerable questions about art and life, even then. The most important of these questions being, of course, can they (life and art) be separated? Nadin’s response is, of course, no.
In Mike’s Tahitian Metamorphosis: Friend, Freud, Frisson, Friture, Moto, Molo, Movo (1991), we see an image of the heavy- weight champion of the world, Mike Tyson — just his head, that is — looking at us rather sheepishly out of the ‘corners’ of his eyes. His face is almost overwhelmed by an embattled blur of colorful and painterly brushstrokes, as if he were about to be subsumed by marks and gestures that would both define and devour him. He is also surrounded or framed, as if in a ring, by the various words of the title. Do these words express this rather primitive, Gauguinesque-looking figure, or do they contain him? The words themselves run the gamut, from the most sophisticated or refined to nonsense syllables. Is Nadin strangely exploiting the myth of Gauguin’s escape from civilization to the savage wilds of Tahiti, and suggesting that, like Tyson, but perhaps advertently, painting, like fighting, must return to its most fundamental being as pure gesture or mark, despite its conceptual or linguistic affectations, its civilized veneer?
In A Blistered Turbot Pulled from Cornish Waters Using Conventional Beach Tackle (1991), we see, again, a not so placid scene, this one a landscape in which a turbot is being wildly reeled in. Again: is it a metaphor for the desire to delve into the depths of nature, and the psyche, as it were, in the course of an act that would both express and contain or literally ‘catch’ at its contents? Here, we see the night sky, mountains, trees, fruit and a vase, rendered in gruff, painterly gestures; an X in red canceling the image of a man wearing a hood or robe; and the sepia-toned image of a farmhouse — perhaps meant to evoke the memory of his grandfather’s cottage — framed in a yellow box. The whole picture is additionally contained by a painted ‘frame’ or border in a passionate, fire-engine red. There is as much Howard Hodgkin’s in this picture as there is Malcolm Morley’s Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s in all of these paintings.
A Blistered Turbot seems to be as much about the present as an uncontainable reality as it does about the past as a referential threshold, boundary or block of some sort; and about the mark and gesture pulling like a fishing rod from the waters of the uncon- scious or the subconscious the uncontrollable, libidinal colors and forms that would fight against the arbitrary controls or limits we place upon them (through the use of the “conventional beach tackle” of certain art techniques and genres). Ultimately, it seems to be about the struggle between the forces of nature, including those of the human psyche, and the forces that would not only control but decimate them. In a poem, entitled Water Report, that would function as a companion to the painting, Nadin writes: “A blistered turbot pulled from Cornish waters / At night using conventional beach tackle; / Barnacled lobsters, single-clawed Nelsons / Trucked Montauk to Maine. / Trout belly up in stag- nant yellow water / Flesh pink from shrimp feed. / Eels dead on sewage-laden river bed. / Liffey, green. Hudson, gray. / Seine, Payne’s gray. / Rhine dead between Koblenz and Köln. / Bodies in Ganges lie like condoms in Mersey, / While lunatics run naked / In rainstorms on Canal Street.”43
In Hooton’s Lightning (The Child Wills the Accident to Happen So the Rescue May Begin (1992), a work that is somewhat reminis- cent of one of Morley’s disaster paintings of the 1970s — Yellow Pages (1971), Disaster (1974), Age of Catastrophe (1976), and The Day of the Locust (1977) —, Nadin turns to the wishful thinking of a child to provoke the upheaval of nature and consciousness as a synthetic reality, one that is as disaster-prone as it is desire-ridden. All sorts of figures arise from the unconscious, including childhood memories of hearth and home, refuge in a mother’s womb, and the inconvertible sanctuary that can be found in the world of masks and secret languages, and fantasies of triumph and catastrophe. This picture represents the child-like fantasy not only of being rescued — in effect, by the freedom of painting or art — but also of rescuing in kind the Other, whoever or whatever that maybe, including the images of reality that might otherwise be lost forever and which we retrieve and reorganize in whichever form we choose or that give us pleasure, or temporary respite from the pain caused by such memories, images, or experiences.
Perhaps more than Morley, Nadin explains, it is the much underappreciated British artist Stanley Spencer who is a factor, especially in matters of composition — not only in relation to Nadin’s own work but Morley, as well.44 You need only to look at a picture like The Builders by Spencer to see how much happens and how it happens, i.e., how the picture is literally ‘built,’ within a very abbreviated amount of foreground space. Apart from the compacted symbolism in the image — evocative of a deposition, in this case —, we see a compression of forms that virtually defies the three-dimensional reasonableness of the space, forcing us to read or understand the figures and their actions also in psycho- logical terms. Extreme physical exertion in Spencer usually implies actual compositional and interpretative exertion. His pictures feel sometimes like the effort that we put into running in place in a dream, as if we are trying to get somewhere or do some- thing, but we cannot because we are trapped in an endless loop. Duncan Robinson, who presented Nadin’s exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, writes that Spencer’s painting “expressed his continued preoccupation with chapels in the air, with brick and mortar as the materials which were needed to translate his dreams into reality[....] The Builders are quite literally building nests; the upper section of the canvas is filled with birds, eggs, acorns and oak leaves.”45
Of course, we cannot overlook the eccentricity of Spencer’s vision, and the way that he weaves together personal and mythic meaning in this picture and in his work, in general. In this, too, Nadin may have unconsciously absorbed something of this artist’s ethos. But, in Nadin’s case, the narrative patterns woven together become more extreme and seem to function at disparate levels, even if, in the end, a meaning (or meanings) does seem to emerge, despite the lack of any formal or psychological solace. We seem always to be at loose ends in these ‘last’ pictures by the artist, as if we are on the brink of a narrative abyss. It is as if the artist has finally relented and lost all hope in telling any one ‘story’ or constellation of stories or lost faith in the narrative possibilities which he has pushed to the extreme. (In The Apostate’s Cross , we, in fact, see a priest fleeing a domestic scene filled with women and children; he is literally walking off the edge of the painting.) By intersecting so many realities — rather than merely superimposing or juxtaposing them —, Nadin seems to be saying that reality cannot be represented, ‘linguistically’ or rationally, it must be ‘shown,’ in Wittgenstein’s sense, that is, enacted or “embodied.”46 Later, in relation to The First Mark paintings, he will say: “The body and mind are not separate but unified and seek expression. I felt my painting needed to reflect this and not perpetuate the falsehood that an image is the sole conveyor of reality. “I wanted to paint more realistically; to do that, ocular reality had to be held in equilibrium with haptic reality.”47 Surely the irony of Nadin’s line of reasoning here cannot be lost on the reader, that to paint more realistically he felt he had to paint more physically or concretely, that is, more abstractly, with an ‘eye’ toward that which can be touched but sometimes not seen or represented or organized rationally. “Culture,” he says, “is a representation of the agreed upon narrative, the one that binds individuals together; I am more drawn to the construction of the narrative that the individual builds to hold himself together.”48 Here, we almost get the feeling of Emersonian or a Thoreau-like self-sufficiency at work, or self- reliance brought to a non-objective threshold. “The objects and material emanate something that I release and is harmonized as their poetry. But this is no different than the way my or any poetry actually works. They are one and the same thing.”49
About Spencer specifically, Nadin says: “I owe a great debt to him. He was important to my thinking at this time. He used innovative compositional techniques not only to describe the scene taking place but, in a sense, its mythic overtones.”50 The paintings Nadin makes in the early 1990s “become an attempt at condensing and representing a complete thought,” a cognitive ‘landscape,’ or “a combination of what was there, what was imagined, and what was remembered and anticipated. If they owe a lot to Spencer, they also owe something to Byzantine painting, in that they would establish the central action and surround it with aspects from the associated narrative. They were also like movie posters that gave a summary of the important events of the film in one image — like Gone with the Wind,”51 which features Clark Gable and Viven Leigh, in the film and in the poster image, with the ruins of the American Civil War smouldering in the background. “There was a movie poster shop right around the corner from where I used to live, on 18th Street.”52
In The Diver (April 1993), we see a woman on a cliff about to leap into the sea from a springboard that is on fire. With her arms outstretched, she looks like the crucified Christ, and behind her, standing on the ground and sitting on a horse, are what appear to be her children observing the action calmly or perhaps about to follow her. At the bottom of the cliff are the dark mouths of several caves, and also a white ladder (Jacob’s?) that reaches all the way up to the springboard. Both the structure of the ladder and the ‘letters’ dispersed and hidden into the ‘fabric’ of the picture, as well as the intervening structures — which relate to the previous scythe-like cruciforms —, appear to be tentative in their constitu- tion, as if they are sturdy enough to expedite the ‘fall’ but can do nothing to forestall the fate of the plummeting diver. The plastic pool bed below, with someone floating nearby, merely confirms that it was possibly nothing more than a day of leisure by the sea that somehow got converted or built up in Nadin’s mind into a personal day in hell of biblical proportions.
In An Appointment in Honey: Apples Ripen Green to Red, Lo Boojum, What Each Alone Fears the Most (1992), we see the images of Prince Charles and a native or primitive of some sort, counterposed as civilized oppressor and oppressed (Third World) savage, the one staring serenely against a blue sky, the other, below, libidinally ‘buried’ in the earth beneath another domestic setting — a house and garden —, nearly overwhelmed by floral and painterly flourishes. There is also a tree and a bowl pouring drops of golden honey, like manna, from a fishing-reel-like ‘arm’ or structure (reminiscent of previous such armatures) over the landscape; and the whole is bounded by the crossbar of a window frame, making it seem perhaps inaccessible. Painted in red across the bottom of the picture are the words “Lo Boojum,” which is derived, we are told, from the “Polynesian Iles Marquises (where Melville went native in Typee), meaning any element that inspires a person’s greatest fear.”53 Or as Nadin puts it in the subtitle, “what each alone fears the most.” Perhaps it is this fear that makes the artist deface in red all of the green apples on the tree, or to acknowledge their fate as they ripen from green to crimson (effacement)? He crosses out, or uses the cross sign to negate, also the honey vessel and the manna- like mountain of honey that pours from it.
If this is an anointment in honey, in the liquid freedom of the senses or the libido, then it is a strange one — or perhaps just a very normal one — because it is simultaneously repealed by the X’s of consciousness or by the fear that knowingly underlies it or any such freedom of expression. Is it nature itself that we fear, or what we think is our own nature? Is it the very fullness or repletion of being that we have come to fear, particularly in relation to the feeling or belief that we are alone; or is it that we feel that we are only one step removed from being overwhelmed by our own psyches as a force of nature, and therefore, we must protect ourselves with every conceivable form or device of annulation, negation, and ultimately, self-annihilation? An apocalypse or whirlwind, an Armageddon — rather than “anointment in honey” —, that would annihilate the self and the Other as shadowy co- conspirators or doubles before allowing them to partake as one, as a unified entity, in being as a universal value and experience?
Surely, such an admission or acknowledgment might precipitate a crisis and an onslaught of questions that any human being, much less a sensitive one, or even an artist, might find unencompassable, at least temporarily. Except, perhaps, for the mark of lo boojum itself, as a double or inverted negation, as a cross that not only effaces but expresses, underlines, or underscores its power, not only as fearful but as fear-inspiring. Perhaps when we ‘eat,’ whether civilly or cannibalistically, or take things in perceptually, when we envision the source, as a painted image, or drink poetically at the mouth of the elements, we approach the threshold of the unknown as something sensate, intuitively knowable, and immanently rational or possible. What else could fill us with so much fear that we would close our eyes, or stop painting, or put an X through our work (behind which it may hide or find sanctuary)? Life itself can throw a scare into us, fill us with the fear of being, when we discover — over and over again, but somehow always for the first time, or at that one certain moment — that it is irreversible and indistinguishable from death.
It is then that we begin to look closely at our lowliest acts, much less our highest or most transcendental, such as painting and poetry, and begin to wonder if we have, indeed, actually envisioned or drunk from the source; if we have, indeed, partaken of the apples that ripen green to red — have lived our lives and made our art, like love, with passion —; if we have dared to look in the face at the thing we fear the most, in ourselves or others, the boojum, perhaps, of our very being; and if we have allowed ourselves to be anointed in honey, i.e., allowed ourselves, despite the odds, the pleasure of our own being, regardless of its form or forms or its limitations?
I believe that Nadin asked himself these questions, or related ones, or ones that had no answers because they could not be put into the form of a question, and that he asked these not in isola- tion, in relation to his art alone, but in relation to his art and his life as a distinctly intertwined experience. And if he stopped writing and making work, it was because these questions (or non- questions), the experience of our being — within the world, within ourselves, and within both combined, not so much like a chain but like a braid — takes time. The marks we scrawl or articulate across the fabric of our being are not synonymous with our gestures; they are the outcome of periods of gestation. They become articulate as gestures to the degree that they have actually been generated by the source of their being. Any deflection away from that source becomes telling in the story of that art and of that life. Especially later, when we look at it, and at ourselves and the lives we have led, in retrospect.
In the last painting Nadin executed before the hiatus, which he entitled Thread (1993), we see a boy on horseback in the rain. As the horse drinks from a river, the boy turns to look over his shoulder. Is it the artist himself, as a youth, looking at the horizon, or, as it were, at the future? Lurking above and behind him is a bridge or aqueduct of some kind with a dark, ominous portal. The brick structure has cracked, letting the water fall into the river from above. There are trees everywhere, although the deep blue looks like a fissure of some kind or part of a larger fabric that has been torn and has been stitched back together again. In fact, there are stitches everywhere, and a stick figure floating above the boy and somehow over the building, one arm of which literally becomes a thread winding its way through the picture. It is attached to a sewing needle. The shallow stick figure, thread, and needle describe a single continuous figure that strangely projects a shadow as it runs toward the fabric of the river, rocks, trees and tree branches that are stitched together into a kind of puzzle or mosaic. The puzzle pieces include the semblance of a man in a toga. The question or questions the painting seems to be asking is what is the thread holding it all together? What is the narrative line that can make sense of all of these elements? How do the (these) individual pieces fit together?
Even while the stitches may allude to an extremely serious motorcycle accident the artist had as a younger man, we get the sense that there is another, more serious crisis afoot, and that the artist is perhaps telling us, or showing us, that he can barely keep the fragments of his picture and his life together. Or that there is, perhaps, no single narrative thread that can tie it all together — at least not in terms of representational images or images that can represent what this thing called ‘life’ is. Especially if we see this ‘thing’ like Nadin does, as a strange amalgam of the past and the future, of hopes and dreams, and of the inevitable disillusionments and accidents that they incur along the way.
Effectively, Nadin saw the all-important present moment, or the present itself, as something he could not catch or do justice to. This, especially if you see this moment or the present not as a static continuum, but as he does, as an indiscriminate network of dynamic parts, comprised of psychological (or even neural) as well social event-horizons54 that transpire over time and space as a unified or connected phenomenon that yield no exact or tangible whole, even where we may taste and smell (as Proust did his madeleine) these so-called individual parts. Memories and history, self and world, substance and shadow have a way of becoming one or collasping into temporary wholes that we can hardly grasp even at the very moment when we are experiencing them or they are transpiring, much less as a coherent, apprehensible, aesthetic whole, even when perceived or re-perceived calmly in retrospect. Wordsworth’s emotion recollected (and rendered) in tranquility still has about it the odor, or fragrance, if you like, of the arbitrary.
And that is the very point: there can be nothing absolute about the rendering of this moment, especially if it is closer to something relative by (physical) nature, and if all we can bring to its reality are mere representations (Plato saw them as shadows cast against the wall of a cave) or the representational conventions of art. Because this moment, this space of time, is fugitive, seemingly elapsed, it does not mean it occurred or that it was ever propositionally a fixed event. Inscribed in its very being is its becoming; the living moment is synonymous with its dying moment. To disintertwine [sic] them becomes, at least for Nadin, an act of bad faith. So, the question becomes how do you represent or show the intersectional nature of this moment, the present reality of life, characterized, as it is, by so much paradox? Or a constellation of such moments. Nocturne (1993), for example, represents, or tries to represent, the “interwo- ven dreams of sleepers in a house.”55 Which is the ultimate reality? Perhaps none, because there is none. About Thread, Nadin recently explained: “Thread was the last painting I did that summarized what I had done and where I was. I realized I had gone as far as I could with representing conscious- ness as objectified experience through images. What I wanted to do was not merely represent its sense but embody it. In order to do that I had to abandon the ideas I had about methods of representa- tion. That was what I had to unlearn and it took eight years to do.
“Thread represented a summation of the knowledge I had accumulated about painting and life. What is the world and is the thread that holds it together? Well, obviously, it is narrative, the sequencing of one moment after another to construct meaning — that is the thread that holds it all together. But to properly convey that sense it is not enough to represent it. I felt I had to embody it, become one with the sense of it, and express that sense both subjec- tively and objectively. I had to stitch together disparate events into a narrative to establish order and sense.”56 Of course, on the heels of such observations, it becomes logical to ask what is the ‘thread’ that binds not only a body or a lifetime of work but a life lived as a human being? It is natural to question not only the meaning of one’s art but the meaning of one’s life.
In the period from 1993 to 2000, before he would embark again upon the journey of making art, Nadin, along with his wife, would parent a child; he would also renovate his house on Sheridan Square, in New York City’s Greenwich Village; teach several courses on cognitive science at the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and Art, in N.Y.C.; and continue to cultivate a farm he had bought in Greene County in upstate New York in 1988. In other words, he would lead a full life while still cogitating about his art. Like Duchamp before him, who worked in secret for twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, on Etant Donne´s, Nadin would rethink his art, from its very intention to the very limits of its vision, in order that he might, to use his own term, “unlearn how to make it (art).”57 After all, he did maintain a studio during these years, as well, and paintings related to The First Mark works were being made or worked on, if only for his personal satisfaction, and even if he did not consider them to be ‘paintings’ per se. Marvelous things, really, if one was privy to see them. During those years, he proceeded by conversations with his friends and family, small (and even larger) experimentations, observations about the world — but mostly, through solitary cogitation about the very predicates of being and the art that might emerge from it. As for the rest, Wittgen- stein’s words become appropriate: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
In 1999, still during the hiatus, Nadin writes an essay for Frank Schroder’s Collection of Drawings at the Drawing Center,58 in which Schroder exhibited part of his “collective” — pictures made by others, which were either “ignored,” “anonymous,” or considered “dubious,”59 and which the artist had salvaged by collecting and was showing as ‘his work.’ “Recent developments in the field of cognitive science,” Nadin wrote, “have us almost convinced that the higher functions of the mind are largely self-built and self-wired. They suggest that the mind develops through a combination of inherited traits, predispositions, and learned abilities. These abilities then increase or atrophy through a selection process based upon the fluidity, accessibility, and complexity of neuronal pathways, and synaptic firings. Each brain is physically unique and each mind has a distinct and original sensibility. “We all share similar inherited codification systems, and it is these systems that translate our experience of the world into the single unified language of the brain. Both structure and language vary only slightly. Unsurprisingly, we therefore share a similar range of responses to a similar set of stimuli. Central to those systems is the sequencing or ordering of neuronal activity. This forms the arrangement of thoughts, ideas, imaginings, memories, etc., into a narrative, which in turn creates a believable and livable picture of the world. The creation of narrative — the forming of a story — becomes essential to our experience. But the question arises, who gets to tell their story? [...] “In the usual story of twentieth-century art, a linear narrative of stylistic change is the thread that binds the tale together. Schroder proposes an unusual and different story by rethinking the relation- ship of subject to style and also the relationship of style to self. He suggests we allow for the full breadth and freedom of mark- and image-making. “A consideration of the mechanics of painting and drawing throws some light on the development of style. The oldest known examples of painting and drawing are in the Chauvet Cave in southeastern France. These were made some thirty thousand years ago and would tend to give credence to the speculations of our colleagues in the field of cognitive science that the neuronal systems and motor skills of our not-so-recent ancestors are remarkably similar to our own. We may be said to be still walking the same neurological path, with some recent modifications. The drawings within the cave manifest similar hand, wrist, and arm movements — in fact identical movements to those that would be used in a drawing produced today. The artist stood, as we do, at half-arm’s length from the surface he intended to paint. Marks are made from the vertical motion of the arm through the rotation of the wrist, through the subtle oscillation of the fingers, and so on. In some cases, the marks form representations of animals, in o on improving hunting technique, and some purely read as marks whose meaning is conveyed through gestural power rather than through the creation of an image. Their hands exhibit the delicacy of the surgeon with the brutality of a butcher.”60
In these excerpts, we can see the emphasis Nadin placthers evocations of the hunt; others still serve perhaps as demonstrationses on the mark, as the outcome of both shared cognitive and physical experience, of a human sort but also predicated upon nature and our needs in relation to it. It is as if the body and the mind were themselves the outgrowth of a unified experience, no matter how diverse this experience is in its details. The signs, the gestures, the very marks of art, our symbolic life, are grounded in the very fundament of being, whether in its subtlest or most brutal of forms.
It was around 1992 that he began to study the “biological under- pinnings of consciousness and the neurological components of artistic practice to better understand how to paint conscious experience. It was this investigation that led to the course I now teach at Cooper Union. “What I wanted to do was not only represent the feeling of consciousness but also embody it. To do that I had to leave behind the methods of representation. I knew I had to unlearn what I knew about making art — not forgetting it so much as losing my self-consciousness of it. That process took about eight years. “The language I was using felt too restrictive for the experience I was trying to describe. I couldn’t go further without radically refining my use of the language of paint.”61 A year and a half later, after writing the text on Schroder’s work, Nadin begins painting again, in September 2000, but not in any conventional way. The First Mark works are born of a very unique, but also out of a remarkably common, experience. “I stopped painting in 1992,”62 he recounts. “The language I had used was exhausted. Instead, I found great beauty in the unintentional marks left by the processes of the farm, that is, the marks on the side of the beehive made by working in the hive. I attempted to use and codify those marks into art. “I saw the random marks made from honey and wax on the side of the hive, and the footprints made from the stain of the black walnut. There was something magnificent about these marks and I wanted to somehow use them in my painting. I realized that the first marks used in art-making were the universal ones made from the movement of hand and body and that they had to be common to all human cultures. In effect, they constituted the originating DNA of art. “All the paintings were made on Old Field Farm, in Greene County, New York. And they were all made between September 15 and November 15 of each year, from 2000 to 2006.”63 The months are so specific because it is “during this time of the year that materials become available.”64
Even after he bought the farm, in 1988, he was still using “a mental landscape as the setting”65 for his paintings. It was only later, in the early to mid-1990s, that he wanted to “use this specific landscape — that of Greene County, New York”66 — to work from. “This was,” he reminds us, “coincidentally the landscape Thomas Cole painted. It’s a very powerful landscape, from which something very deep emanates.”67 That is what he tried to paint — the emanation itself. “But to really paint it you have to address the experience of looking at what happens as you look and paint. The canvas isn’t blank and neither is the mind.”68 It was this ‘looking’ that became transformative, as he literally looked around at the farm, the nature surrounding it, the process of working it (the farm), and the nature that was a living part of everything he did and touched. It was this experience that he wanted to absorb and somehow find a way to transfer into his paintings, into his art.
Nadin explains further that the materials in The First Mark paintings, the honey and wax, are derived “from the six hives currently on the farm.”69 The black in the paintings is taken from the walnut of the black walnut tree and the white is “lead carbon- ate made from sheets of lead.”70 The red, however, is cochineal, derived from the insect in Mexico, and the indigo from the Mexican plant. The cashmere is from the Cashmere goats and the eggs from the chickens on the farm. “These materials,” he elabo- rates, “are used because they are right for the subject of the paintings. They in no way define the meaning of the works; they, being the thing itself, are used both as metaphor and metonym.”71 The support is Polish linen, and the frames, made of maple, were designed as early as 1995. The artist considers them to be a vital or “integral part of the painting,” in that they form its “skeleton or architecture.”72
The expressive or visceral nature of these materials and the gestures or the trajectory of the marks the artist has made with them can hardly be said to be curtailed by the frames. Rather, the frames become an inherent part of their structure, understood not as a boundary in the conventional sense but as material, as wood, almost as tree, which rather than limiting the threshold of the work extends it.
For the paintings of The First Mark series do not want to relate a story so much or convey a feeling; they want to encompass the experience of their making as an immediate reality or actual process or event, subject only to the constraints of time and place. Rather than abstract space, they want to embody the threshold of their specific environment. If they look like abstract painting, it is only because we, or our perceptual mechanisms and habits, have distanced us, our eyes, from our environment, from nature, from the experience of its materials and processes. It is not the paintings that are abstract but our experience — of nature and the world and life — that has become abstract.
Nadin observes: “Curiously, it is only when I lose the intention to make art that I then make the art I intend to make. Every year I begin the painting process with a set of ideas and intentions and unfailingly the results are failures for the first twenty or so paint- ings that year. They are then destroyed. Only when I have reached the point of distraction does the painting find itself.”73 One might say that whereas before these negations or destructions — the armatures of the cruciforms, ‘telephone poles,’ crosses, and ‘fishing rods’ as sublimations of these X’s — occurred within the painting, even amid the rivers of paint that flowed like honey through the works, now they are discarded before they can become part of the painting, or if they exist, as the death of all things does, then they become ultimately synonymous with the mark as a pre- or post- conscious reality. In effect, what Nadin has tried to do is find the point where the unintentional residue of activity (of thinking, as well as making) becomes the meaningful reality of art.
Nadin maintains that the paintings of The First Mark are “tied directly to experience and continue what my work has always been about, which is giving form to experience. Where these have progressed is that now they represent consciousness itself, a form of pure consciousness that moves beyond the conscious self as represented in memories, thoughts, ideas, etc.”74 Given to us by nature, the instrument of consciousness, like a branch crackling in the wind, can encompass this purity only in the form or forms of nature as such. It should surprise no one that in this quest for pure consciousness — to describe, to present, to experience it —, the artist has turned to the world of nature, to the elements, to the materials and processes that produce such things as honey, wax, walnuts, cashmere, and eggs, and such substances as lead carbonate, indigo, and cochineal that help to comprise the very physique of color or the spice of perception. But by “pure con- sciousness” surely the artist must also mean a mark that is no larger internally subject to or marked by self-consciousness, whether as a painterly manifestation or as a psychical state of being per se. And, as such, all the representational and symbolic apparatuses, all of the X’s and Francis Baconish smudged or blurred figures, are gone, much as are all the language elements, from the paintings.
If Joseph Beuys had been alive to see these works by Nadin, I’m sure he would have liked them. They are, with their regal reds, crimsons, and violets, their streaks of indigo, like falling or ascending stars, and their bursts of black walnut, and intervening splashes of lead carbonate (white) and honey (yellow), something like the dawn or the sunset, the cosmos exploding, but inside us. Spirals and starbursts of black energy that speak in cosmological whispers of the human psyche — ever-vanishing and ever-coming into being, like an idea, an impulse, desire, or consciousness itself, spreading slowly or suddenly across the body, and then disappear- ing into itself, into pure being. Where the forms in the paintings do not blush with color, they stride across the Polish linen with the viscera — the syncopated clumps of cashmere, wax, honey, and walnut — of a primordial creature in a desert intent upon wreaking havoc among the rocks or planets of our small but seem- ingly infinite universe.
Are we making our way through the jungles of the Yucatan or are we journeying beneath (or somehow through) the night sky over the southern plains of Corsica (that’s where I literally am right now, on the Cauria plateau, a barren place, tracking down the prehistoric menhirs), exuberantly lost somewhere between intent and destination, physical reality and the ominousness of a dream? Is it any wonder that the artist also makes ‘paintings’ (sculpture?) flat to the ground with the same materials he uses for those on the wall? Are we hurling through the extreme limits, the debris, of Robert Smithson’s entropic universe, or are we being made to relive the prenatal memories of conception — that very moment when sperm and egg, or, in this case, insect and plant — cochineal and indigo —, conjoin forces to reinvent the world? Or are we witness- ing a cosmic splurge of energy that only reconfirms our unique and solitary existence in the universe? Or is Nadin giving us an intuitive, indeed, almost accidental, image of pure consciousness in the midst of a synaptic transmission of energy?
Or is it the blood of the cochineal saturating the desert floor and sky and flowing through the rivers and veins of creatures crawling through the brush inconspicuously or pulsing with passion in the deserts of the world? Or are those infusions of gold the yellow of honey and wax pouring from bodies dancing in space or flirting with the petals of a flower, like the light with its shadows, the sun with the moon? Vast expanses and arcs of nature’s blood and sperm hurling like planets or cells through the body and mind of the universe as pure consciousness, pure form, pure energy? An odyssey of the mark in painting as pure art, stripped of all cultural affectations and preconceptions (“conventional beach tackle”) vis-à- vis history, beauty, and meaning?
An interesting point to note here is that the final transformation of Schwitters’ Merzbau was to take place in a barn. “After leaving London, Schwitters moved to Little Langdale, near Ambleside in Cumbria, North East England. As a result of a portrait commis- sion, Schwitters met local framer, Harry Pierce, who agreed to allow Schwitters the use of an old barn on his land. This would be the location of his final Merzbau. Working on the raw stone walls of the barn, he used wood, stones, string, guttering, the rose from a watering can, and various other pieces found on country walks, embedding them in plaster applied directly to the stone. His health failing, Schwitters made Pierce promise to preserve the work. After his death in 1948, Pierce made every effort to fulfill that promise; however, poor weather in Cumbria, combined with the Merzbarn’s existing state of dilapidation, forced Schwitters’ friend to make a decision: the Merzbarn would be offered as a gift to anyone able to remove and preserve it. In 1965, under the instruc- tion of Richard Hamilton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne University undertook the mammoth task of removing, restoring and preserv- ing Schwitters’ Merzbarn[....] “On 1st October, Schwitters’ work arrived in Newcastle. It had to be stored, still in a horizontal position, in a frost proof environ- ment, until 21st January 1966, when it made its final journey to the gallery. After being lifted vertical, the wall was carefully lowered through a slot which had been cut into the roof of the Hatton Gallery, where it remains today.”75 And this is precisely where Nadin first saw it during his student days in the 1970s. But what is most interesting is the fact that Nadin, too, would wind up working in the context of a farm. And with that — along with his early ‘work,’ when he exhibited his worksite as art and turned his studio into an exhibition space —, he seems to have come full circle. A ‘circle’ that is not only in the spirit of Schwitters’ Merzbau (or Merzbarn) but extends its very essence.
That he absorbed the Merzbau, there can be no doubt. That Nadin went on to create works that emanate their own energy, character, and spirit, there can also be no doubt. But, in each case, the artists felt that they had to go back to some basic instinct of making or constructing that speaks not only to creativity but to mortality — not only to the mortality of materials but to the mortality of place. As if what was, and always is, at stake, is the existential contours of the spirit, its physique or physical presence as something inappre- hensible and yet utterly tangible. The work we leave behind is the mark we make in fire, air, water, and in the earth.
In The First Mark paintings, the mark as the non-referential reality of consciousness in itself and of painting itself has, in fact, finally taken over. Nadin, like the artist and main character Stint Arno in his book, The First Mark: Unlearning How to Make Art,76 has undergone a series of transformations over the years that have led him to this place in his life and in his work — a place in his being that is not so much absolute as it is driven by the primacy of experience and being as such. In the book, the cycle of transformations and evolution are speeded up, taking the form of crises and hallucinations that cause Arno to have several imagi- nary conversations and encounters. One such confrontation happens with the satyr in Titian’s painting, The Flaying of Marsyas (1575-76) — who, as you may recall, loses a musical contest to Pan, the god of music, and, as a result, is flayed. For all intents and purposes, the satyr goes on to ‘flay’ Stint for the non- primacy of his life as an artist. He says: “Why did you look at me if you were afraid to see me”77 and “Compacting the mark or image [in the act of touching] shouldn’t be compressed in the service of the false narrative. The true narrative is not truth but contradiction. The marks of art contain the compressed meaning of our experience here. Our genes and chromosomes whisper like the dead and whispers haunt the day. A tribe of five hundred expelled from Eden. Echoes haunt the day in the whisper of our genes. What do you mean? Times got tough and you ate your brother and sister. No fancy talk on that one. Let’s try again, though this time with greater insistence. We ate the forbidden fruit, human flesh, and were expelled. We left Africa and this echo haunts the day. We know nature is indifferent to our joys and slaughters. Our tribes were affectionate and cannibalism like lights went off and on and off and on and off. When no one’s looking we stole what we could. Did what we must. We came to believe one day followed another and for convenience called this the present. The Neanderthal never got it. Now the Neanderthal is gone. We turned white and returned in starched white shirts with personalities and perspectives and preservatives. We robbed objects of meaning and took to decoration and set to embalming the corpses of our dead. We bloated ceremonies with lively music and colorful feathered costumes but that’s all convention. The first mark forms before any habit of seeing begins as child’s play and continues as a subject to paint. The king bee told the queen. Don’t trouble be yourself it’s not possible. We turned white ironed our shirts and white pants came back but they’d forgot we’d gone and we’d forgot we left and it was kind of a misunderstanding and in Africa we got it wrong we enslaved our fathers and mothers.”78 In behalf of the primacy of the “first mark” and the “true narrative,” Nadin does not spare his character or us the ‘history’ and reality of that experience.
After the conversation with the goatman, he has one with a caveman that pops into life from a diorama, and one with Jack Kerouac in a dream, both of whom apprise him of his loss of “direct experience”79 and how out of touch the artist (Stint Arno) has become in relation to the American landscape — indeed, all landscape, which is to say nature as the fundament of experience and the way we actively experience our being. Which fact moti- vates him to visit the Oxykintok Cave in the Yucatan, where he is confronted by a stone monkey. But even before being assaulted by this creature from his own subconscious, he hallucinates a vision in the back of the taxi taking him to the cave, in which he ‘sees’ clearly the reality of nature before it becomes culturally differen- tiated as desiccated mind. Which is hardly to argue that nature is, in itself, undifferentiated — nature being the very source of matter differentiating itself (or becoming itself) relentlessly. The disembodied voice in his head proclaims simply that “a true representation of sensory experience is a single breath producing the single mark.”80 But the stone monkey he hallucinates is far more severe: “Consciousness,” he claims, full of rage, “is a mirage; the real temple is being.”81 And then the monkey proceeds to brutally rake him over the coals, confronting him with the fact that consumption is basically a sublimated form of cannibalism, which isn’t so sublimated. And then, finally, Stint, in an agonized act of self-deprecation, confides to the narrator that “people thought that popular culture would somehow evolve into nature itself and this would form the bedrock of a new American identity. They misrepresented my work and made me the prophet of what I most loathed. It seemed to work in the short term, but the dream collapsed just like the Italian Futurists once dreamt the machine would replace nature. The notion that popular culture could replace nature is nonsensical. The problem is that the old marketplace governs the new culture — and will never be nature. And so we now find ourselves in a situation in which the economy is the culture. The dream of Pop culture is dead. Pop culture is run by corporate and financial interests, which create and recreate national identities in their own pugnacious images. At the heart of it all is the imperative to keep us consum- ing. It’s bullshit. Open your eyes! There’s nothing there. “Stint grabbed me by both arms and shook me, ‘Open your eyes! It’s a pile of crap, steaming crap! This Pop-corporate culture dominates our sense of national and cultural identity. The little culture it does create is rapacious, soulless, and infantile. You murder your own sensibility and being once you immerse yourself in this crap. You can proclaim to the world, ‘Look, I’m dead! Look, I’m dead! Nothing’s new! Nothing’s new! Well, fuck you!’”82
If the mark in art, and in life, for that matter, flies in the face of anything, then it is the duplicitous visage of Pop Art and, more recently, its new kitsch and super-kitsch features or modalities. ‘Duplicitous,’ in the sense that it would pass itself off as the latest offspring of the avant-garde, but has become, in fact, not merely complicit but synonymous with the corporate frontier of con- sumption — namely globalism. Art has become the logo for corporate greed parading as defender of the democratic rights of the individual to crush all that gets in the way of its only goal: profit-at-all-costs. It is the double as the act of creation that consumes or devours itself. The mark in honey and wax, in black walnut and cashmere, in cochineal, indigo and lead carbonate, seems to have little chance against the super-flat consciousness of aesthetic and economic fundamentalism (or categorical material- ism) reflected in the new (but not really so terribly new) corporate Pop Art and culture.
But even against these odds, the narrator, whom we find in a café at the end of the book, eating what is the equivalent of a ham sandwich, argues, somewhat dialectically, that this very act of consumption will somehow turn against itself, and, as it were, devour itself. That the negative dialectics implicit in self-consump- tion will produce if not something like critical consciousness then a threshold of being necessary to the survival of the mark. “The dryness of my mouth made it hard for me to swallow at first, but soon I began to devour the savory dish. As I began to digest the meat I felt the presence of Jack, the satyr, Stint, and the monkey within my own body. They were unquestionably present, but I soon suspected that I had not only swallowed them but had swallowed the entire history of consciousness, which gave rise to a new thought. I had absorbed it all in one bite and I could paint it all in one mark. I could turn consciousness to paint and make the first mark.”83 If Arno is the double that is created and consumed, then the narrator is his double inverted as a creative act of absorption and emanation.
Nadin, however, does not see his literary or artistic ‘marks’ as solitary gestures, but in the context of very specific and concrete precedents. Besides Schwitter’s Merzbau at Newcastle, he sees what Harold Bloom called “aesthetic dignity”84 in such things as the quilts of Gee’s Bend or in the ancient principles of Chinese painting as articulated by George Rowley.85 For the improvisa- tional or skewed, geometric forms of the latter, Nadin turns to the women who live in the isolated, African-American hamlet of Gee’s Bend in Alabama.86 “Most of the approximately 750 people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Isolated geographi- cally, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.”87 For the ‘principles,’ he turns to Rowley’s book,88 and to the Yangtze River, where they were first developed in the 10th century. They speak of the “relationship between Taoist thought and landscape painting,”89 resonance of the spirit and of “spirit voids.” “Far from being a void, a typical sky in a Dutch landscape painting is a painting of tangible cloud forms, defining a definite space. The clouds in Chinese painting belong to the mountains and most of the skies are empty voids, yet these voids may be the most important parts of the design[....] In the T’ang and Northern Sung periods [in China], the empty places [in paint- ing] began to represent space, which became the vehicle of seasonal and atmospheric moods; ‘Mountains without mist and clouds are like spring without flowers and grass.’ But as long as the T’ang and Northern Sung artists depended upon the solids of the mountains to establish their space, the voids served chiefly to increase the scale of the solids or to suggest depth. It was only when the solids began to be obliterated in Southern Sung times that the voids reached their final significance. The vastness of nature was no longer conveyed by a multiplicity of solids but by the quality of the void — a void which was never mere atmo- sphere but the vehicle of the ch’i spirit[....] The emptiness must be alive. Ch’i may reside in an ink wash as well as in a brush stroke, in white paper or in silk, and it sets up forces of movement and tension which must be resolved in a dynamic equilibrium of solids and voids.”90 Here, one might also speak in terms of pure absorption and emanation.
Whatever they — these voids or empty spaces and the solids, and the tensions and movements of the marks — may represent in Nadin’s First Mark paintings, they are, according to the artist, “also just smudges on cloth, random and unintentional, as much as selected and controlled. It was only when I accepted that they might be entirely meaningless did meaning begin to emanate. The process of making them, in fact, involved unlearning the conven- tions of representation.”91 These paintings continue a strand of American art all but abandoned with the rise of consumerist art in the 1960s. From the founding of the country through the transcendentalists, from Thomas Cole to Jackson Pollock, there has been an attempt to establish a relationship between the consciousness of the individual and nature or the American landscape, and, out of that, to form an American identity. The First Mark paintings are part of that tradition. While consumer- ist art has by now been absorbed within the consumerist culture and given the culture nothing but more extreme consumers, these other, more enduring forms have attempted to re-establish a relationship with the landscape;”92 this, as a way of understand- ing American consciousness and identity, and that this alternative is also entirely viable.
Nadin’s paintings do not fight or argue with any of their possible definitions. They may be viewed as “species of abstract painting, assemblage, arte povera, etc. But, in the end, they absorb all of these stories and add something to them; what they add is content and that content is the overwhelming sensation of consciousness itself”93 as emanation. It is this sensation of consciousness itself that The First Mark paintings transport to us, but from nature as the very source of being to us as its mere instrument. We, each of us, our physical geometries skewed, like a quilt from Gee’s Bend, our consciousness not much more, but not much less, than a resonant void in an ancient Chinese paint- ing, are configured, in Nadin’s paintings, as sensation conveyed through nature’s seemingly eternal but always unique first mark. A mark whose odyssey or journey — the end point of its being — is, in some ways, inevitable, but, in others, utterly without precedent or object.
Basel - Ajaccio, Corsica - New York City, June - August 2006