May 2015  Fine Art Connoisseur                                                          

Nigel Van Wieck
Didier Aaron Gallery
New York   

By Peter Trippi                                                                                            
                                                                       NIGEL VAN WIECK
                                        ROOTED IN THE PAST
                                         A VISION FOR TODAY

From one side, the painter Nigel Van Wieck (b. 1947) appears to be the proverbial “Englishman in New York,” having discovered Old Master aesthetics and made them his own since 1979, when he immigrated to the U.S.  But from the other side, we see the quintessentially American practitioner of contemporary realism he has become during those same three and a half decades.

Composition is Van Wieck’s primary concern because it supports his narrative: “I am a storyteller and the viewer is my audience,” he explains, “but before then, while sitting at the easel, I am the audience member who must be drawn in.”  Seemingly taken from real life, his scenes are, in fact, what John Arthur has trenchantly called “carefully edited constructions.” While composing, Van Wieck consults live models, photographs, and clippings, but usually relies upon his memory because, he believes, “reality is much better when it is imagined.”  

For some scenes, he makes pencil studies of the whole composition, but otherwise sets to work in oils directly on panel, or in oil pastels on paper or card.  At the end of every long workday, Van Wieck photographs the picture in its latest form, then sits at his computer and uses Photoshop software to solve compositional problems digitally so that he will not have to scrape down his painted surface any more than is necessary.  When facing a challenge, he visits such repositories of inspiration as the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see how Nicolas Poussin and other Old Masters might solve it, or he dips into his large library of art books.

The resulting compositions always show our eye how to move and where to settle, providing psychological insights that are, by turns, revealing or enigmatic, prosaic or allegorical: “I know what I want to paint,” Van Wieck admits, “but not what it means.” These are archetypal images for our time, and indeed the present survey of recent work addresses, head-on or obliquely, the evermore pressing issues of communications and travel.  We are all linked by technology, more so than ever before, but does that mean we are more connected, more together?  Similar concerns underlie Van Wieck’s new series of “chase” pictures; here we find ourselves at the wheel of a sports car, or tailing one.  Thus we are out on the road with other drivers, yet also separated from them by a windshield and the ability to overtake them on the left, very quickly.

If composition is Van Wieck’s primary concern, light is his most essential tool.  In the late 1960s, just as he entered London’s Hornsey College of Art, the faculty’s practitioners of figuration were dismissed, so young Van Wieck focused on kinetic sculpture—the presentation of  light, especially neon.  In the late 1970s, he shifted back to two-dimensional art, and naturally fell in love with Vermeer’s mastery of light while flipping through a book.  Inspired by that genius and others, Van Wieck has learned to harness light on a flat surface so that it provides the composition’s essential horizontal, vertical, and diagonal elements, even as it intensifies the drama and significance of the moment depicted.  Though his colors are appealing, they play a supporting role by underscoring the composition’s all-important interrelationship of lights and darks.

It’s a credit to America that Van Wieck grew knowledgeable about the Old Masters not in England, but in New York during the early 80s, when he ran with such fellow emigrés as the Italian postmodernists Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente.  This is when he fell for Poussin’s positive and negative shapes, resulting in large, colorful multi-figure scenes that somehow evoke both the Grand Manner and Thomas Hart Benton, who also looked to Italy.

From the late 1980s, Van Wieck has painted a progression of works grouped into series with such themes as Working Girls, Players, and Dancing.  Though visually diverse, all have underscored the disjuncture between modern people’s physical proximity and emotional connectivity; whatever their gender, race, class, or occupation, no matter how intimate their contact may be, these figures do not fully “get” each other.  Flowing against this thematic continuum was the large number of portrait commissions that Van Wieck undertook during the 1990s. As one would expect, he became deeply interested in his sitters, who connected closely with each other in the image, or at least with their viewers.  These are figures whom we “get,” at least to a certain extent.

The balance to be struck between these extremes of connectivity has long fascinated Van Wieck.  When he settled in New York, his first great friend was the dealer James Maroney, who handled 20th-century American artworks and introduced him to masters then unfamiliar to the young Englishman, including Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper.  Today, it is the latter’s legacy that many people immediately discern in Van Wieck’s work, and indeed he deeply admires Hopper’s mastery of both composition and light in furtherance of mood and (possible) narrative. Yet he is right to distinguish what he calls Hopper’s “grim evocation of loneliness and separation” from his own presentation of “solitude, not loneliness.” Moreover, Van Wieck adds, he often conveys the spark of sensuality or joy that Hopper studiously avoided.  

The matter of solitude is pertinent: when he was just 18 months old, Van Wieck suffered from a “soft hip,” and so was placed into a full-body cast for the next 18 months.  Though he cannot recall that ordeal, his parents naturally photographed it, and those images endowed him with an awareness of solitude.  (The boy remained in leg-irons until he was six.)

More broadly, we detect in many of Van Wieck’s scenes the melancholy—a form of emotional disconnection—for which Hopper is revered.  The Englishman argues, however, that melancholy is present in all American painting, something a foreigner perceives more readily than we locals might.  He goes on to cite, just for example, Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, Thomas Eakins’s Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.  Whether they realize it or not, all Americans, Van Wieck believes, are immigrants like himself, strangers in a new land who cannot help but pine for some place, some thing, they may not even know or understand.  
It is no accident that, before he found fame as a fine artist, Hopper was a successful player in the Golden Age of American Illustration.  During that phase (1905-25), he was commissioned to compose scenes that conveyed specific narratives, instantly and compellingly.  It’s no accident that cinema came of age at the same moment, and naturally numerous books have been written on the interconnection of Hopper’s imagery and Hollywood set design.  As the visual inheritors of both Hopper and Hollywood, we respond instinctively to such evocative mises-en-scènes, and now we can see Van Wieck as one of the leading chroniclers of our own era, deploying similarly deft compositional strategies in order to visualize his unique imaginings.  Great artists usually stand on the shoulders of their forerunners, and Van Wieck is particularly articulate about his historical inspirations.  Yet his vision is his own, entirely of our time, and well suited to hold viewers’ attention long after the paint has dried and we are all gone.

Peter Trippi has been the editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine since 2006. He was previously the director of New York City’s Dahesh Museum of Art, which is devoted to 19th-century European academic art.


FEBRUARY 2011  ARTnews                                                            

Nigel Van Wieck
Galerie Elisabeth Michitsch
For nearly two decades, Nigel Van Wieck has been evolving a distinctive idiom firmly rooted in the tradition of American realism. His small-format oils offer glimpses of classic Americana: racetracks and baseball fields, toy sailboats skimming over a pond, tourists relaxing on sun-drenched beaches. Typically his are solitary figures, often recalling the loners once celebrated by Edward Hopper, and though there is no Hopperesque gloom here, at moments there emerges a vague sense of the ominous. In Dog Days, Van Wieck consciously plays on the classic Hopper scenario of a corner shop with one side in luminous light, the other in deep shadow—the whole underscored by a solitary figure caught between the two realms.

In Escape, which lent its title to this presentation of 23 works (all 2010), Van Wieck offers a variation on the light-dark theme, with a skateboarder about to plunge from a field of glowing pastel tones into inky blackness. In such semi-allegorical compositions, Van Wieck moves beyond nostalgia to explore painterly issues of light and shade, of framing, and of color itself as a vibrant, independent force. The scenes recorded here are frequently captured in uncommon perspectives. Enjoying the in Between presents the lions flanking the staircase to the New York Public Library, seen at an oblique angle from the rear.

For all their reportorial air, the works have become increasingly reduced and abstracted, while the thin, washlike use of oils suggests a delicacy and fragility often associated with watercolor. Their intimate formats seem to vibrate with an inner life, lending additional resonance to that poetry of the commonplace that is Van Wieck's specialty.

—David Galloway

The Daily News
2001 Beadleston Gallery
New York

Nigel van Wieck spent much of the 1990s painting portraits, and it shows. Not in the sense that his works in "Dancers," at the Beadleston Gallery, are actual likenesses. The scenes are invented and seem to take place anywhere from the Roaring Twenties to only last night. Their concentrated abandon and hilarity populate a nightlife of clubs, ballrooms, exotic dives, torchlit townhouses the artist conjures by fusing different places and times, styles of art and fashion.

But a decade of pinning high-society subjects with psychological precision means that Van Wieck, an Englishman living in New York, can cut to the heart of atmosphere.

In "Winter's Dance," which outlines a glamorous couple in this case, African-American against a window, the tropical mood is the opposite of the title. That suggests a chilly decorum, while the pair, as in many of Van Wieck's paintings, is locked in a steamy sashay blending romance and violence.

Lots of his pictures are of revelers wearing masks, not disguising their emotions so much as illustrating a need to hide. In "Liar," a headdress sprouts black wings like a bird of prey's. There's just enough tension in the lighthearted air to imply that Van Wieck's frequent mix of races, genders, classes and sexual proclivities happens only with the aid of costuming and after dark.

And who wouldn't want to go there? Van Wieck choreographs two art forms painting and dance so they dip and twirl, caress and carouse, as one

- Celia McGee

Art Forum
Tatischeff Gallery
New York

In seeking to make feeling the basis of a new contemporary narrative art, Nigel van Wieck has developed a highly suggestive mode of image-making, one of patently seductive appeal. Working in a forthright, descriptive realist vein, the artist presents discreet glimpses of the private side of human relationships in this group of recent pastels. A keen observer of life, he bases the compositions partly on his own experiences. Yet van Wieck uses models, so his compositions also have a somewhat staged quality. Most of his work focuses on the themes of sex and romance.

American Landscape, 1989, has both a cool veneer and a heavy smoldering air of exception about it. It is a night scene or a young man and woman alone on a platform waiting for a train, which is visible some distance away. Placed in the foreground, the couple - he, leaning against a pole, nonchalant in his dark glasses, and she, bending over to adjust her stockings, legs bared, black garters showing - piques curiosity. The medium of pastel serves as an ideal vehicle for communicating the intimate qualities of the artists vision. Van Wieck's use of deep blues and blacks, as well as smooth curves and regular rhythms, give the work an intense sensuality.

In Two Manhattans, 1989, the focus is on -two fashionably dressed young women seated behind a small table, presumably at a nightclub. Their overall appearance hints at the kind of sexually charged ennui that can accompany the nightlife scene. Again, interest in these figures is aroused not only by their pose, gesture, and accoutrements, but by formal considerations, such as the energetic application of pastel and the flooding of surfaces with a moody light.

In Late Night Call, 1989, two young women are seen through a window, nude; one is in bed looking at herself in a mirror and the other is standing as she talks on the telephone. In this and the other composi-tions, Van Wieck is hardly one to shy away from the sexual implications of nude figures, especially the particular charge that those in domestic urban settings carry. Like Edward Hopper, Van Wieck uses nudity as an expressive element, as a way of confronting viewers with the frank sensuality of life.

 Ronnie Cohen
Art Forum, 1990

Although Nigel Van Wieck is English by birth, in the years since he has considered himself a New Yorker he has somehow managed to pierce the veil of the American dream. With the acuity only an outsider's eye possesses, Van Wieck, in his series of oil pastel drawings, manages to convey the dissatisfaction and decadence of life in the United States at the century's end.

With his scenes of bedrooms, bars and nightspots, Van Wieck assumes the throne vacated by Edward Hopper but updates his material. Van Wieck's nocturnal scenes continue in the tradition of Hopper's Nighthawks, and the train tracks that slice across American Landscape are indebted to Hopper, but the characters in that scene have a Rebel With a Cause feeling. With his sunglasses and slouch, the male figure epitomizes a stereotype circulated by the media.

The pastels do have a cinematic quality. Van Wieck uses a virtual repertory company of friends as models, repeatedly staging enigmatic tableaux which, when hung together suggest a storyline. The frank eroticism of his content recalls Eric Fischl, but Van Wieck's technicolor palette and posed figures are at odds with Fischl's more 'documentary' approach, giving Van Wieck's work on paper a larger-than-life quality.

KK, 1989

1991 Tatistcheff  & Compant Inc
New York

In the late 20th century art world of noise and clamor, Nigel Van Wieck is a quiet and powerful presence. Raised in England, Van Wieck has lived in New York for the last 15 years. In that very demanding city, he succeeds in sharpening his clear personal vision.

Van Wieck's new series of pictures of Miami are among his finest works. Many of the pictures are of South Beach, a unique part of Miami, which signifies a style as much as a place. On the surface there is the expected sun, sand and surf enjoyed by quite an unexpected mix of people - stunning, tall high fashion models, both male and female, jet set and middle class tourists, retirees who are rapidly being pushed further away from the seaside, resident Latin and 'Anglo' families and restless young people, some with hope, others with none.

At night these groups gather on Ocean Drive, 16 pastel blocks paralleling the deep Atlantic Ocean beach. Tightly lined with restored Art Deco hotels, cafes and restaurants, the drive becomes a carnival of fashion and style ranging from the most elegant Armani to serious grunge.

It takes an artist of Van Wieck's talent and intellect to bestow clarity on this place and at the same time to describe an underlying reality of unconnectedness.

Van Wieck's reality is not a new one in American painting. His work, like that of other American painters, documents man's attempts to find peace in America's untamed solitary landscapes. In the 19th century Winslow Homer's sea portraits eloquently captured this struggle. Likewise, Edward Hopper's solitary figures of the first half of the 20th century reconcile the tension inevitable in the American scene.

Van Wieck's South Beach is extraordinary for its light, its sense of space and its romanticism. There is light in his brush: he bathes his figures in it adding optimism to an unmistakable feeling of melancholy. His cast of players - the blade skaters, bikers, bathers, couples, children, young women - could exist in any number of beach resorts around the world; they are not portraits but neither are they stereotypes nor metaphors. The viewer's interest is not merely formal; each picture portrays characters oblivious to their own solitude, thus inviting the viewer to investigate, through the psychological content of the work, the artist's vision of solitude.

Despite their stillness, Van Wieck's pictures have a powerful cinematic quality: time is stopped captured-rendering the moment ambiguous in narrative terms. In New Model, it is unclear whether the young woman with tousled dark hair is dressing or undressing. Is it denouement or is it yet to come? The white sofa offers a resting place but it also pulls her in two directions. Van Wieck layers the tension of time and space to create a tight vitality. He portrays Mozart's observation that in music the rests are as important as the notes.

In Far Away the curved line of the pool embraces a man relaxing on his giraffe raft; leaning over the rail a woman stares out to sea. Have they quarrelled? Do they even know each other? Or are they guests at a mutual friend's Florida house? Maybe there is no tension between them at all. Van Wieck smiles at the viewer's confusion because these questions also occur to him.

Children's Pleasure is one of Van Wieck's most joyful paintings. In the sun, a young skater dressed in bright red and orange with the sea ahead of him opens his arms. The defining lines of his space suggest the wealth of directions open to him. In the foreground a young woman prepares to join him.

As an 'outsider', an Englishman, Van Wieck sees Miami more clearly than most Americans. He observes and interprets, but he makes no judgements.

Anne Horton, 1993

1988 Alex Reid & Lefevre

Nigel van Wieck's narrative pastels are set in Manhattan's nightclubs, bars and bedrooms. Their naked vulnerable women and clothed predatory men tell us a lot about power in that city; who has it and more importantly, who does not.

The women in the paintings often appear trapped in the spotlight. Pinned butterflies, they writhe in the harsh glare of the artificial light. The men, half hidden in the shadows, reflect despair, anger, impotence or indifference.

It seems the unspoken language between the sexes is no language at all. Exploitation is all that remains, but who is exploiting and who exploited is often ambiguous.

At times Van Wieck seems to draw an ironic comparison between his disillusioned working girls and the pampered darlings of Ingres and Manet. These women are exposed rather than revealed; naked not nude. The complicity between adorer and adored is replaced in this world by shame, commerce and broken promises.

In the bars the women have waited so long they have forgotten what they are waiting for. Yet still they wait until well after closing time, just in case.

Beauty, like art, in the 20th Century is easily bought but rarely valued. The viewer or 'voyeur' in these paintings may get what he pays for but never comes close to getting what he wants.

And so the space between the naked women and their clothed companions remains unbridgeable. Neither side has either the will or the energy to close the gap.

Yet the artist tells us that these women are beautiful; it is certainly not their fault if they are not appreciated. It is not that beauty has vanished from the world, only the ability to perceive it.

Even when on display, Van Wieck's women, exhausted it seems by their inability to communicate, either ignore their companions/customers or are ignored by them.

There is no doubt in the viewers mind that the women plucking the white flower in 'Wishing' has not pinned her hopes on the shadowy transitory figure perched on the trunk beside her bed. Either he or she will leave the scene as soon as our back is turned.

In Van Wieck's world romance and reality are incompatible. No one wins on this battlefield of lost illusions. Yet the women continue to wait and hope. And the men, preoccupied, remain indifferent to their pain and blind to their beauty.

One senses a deeper allegory here than simply the dashed hopes and unrealized dreams of Van Wieck's protagonists. On the tightrope he walks between beautiful image and harsh reality he seems also to be saying something about the Artist's dilemma, in trying to hold onto an ideal concept of beauty in a cold and often uncaring world.

C. A. Zolokovitch, 1988

Art Reviews
1982 Alex Reid & Lefevre
Light is the keynote of this exhibition. It floods over the picture, here picking out a detail, there bathing the subject in sunlight. It is pertinent, I think, that the artist was ten years working with neon lights and fluorescent tubes when, as he says, his love affair with paint, which he had not used since his student days at Hornsey, took over. It also took him away from England to America, where nearly all the present work was executed, largely in California and Florida, although New York, and in Central Park, proved equally inspiring.

Human beings are the principle subject matter, female nudes especially, who have light pouring over them from a window or else they are lying in sybaritic lethargy by the side of a pool. It is a hedonistic world, a world of leisure, of tennis courts and swimming pools. In Central Park too it is leisure activities which are portrayed, sailing boats and roller-skating, more plebeian perhaps, but still a world of enjoyment.

One of the finest paintings in the exhibition is The Skirt, 1979. It is the back view of a woman, naked to the waist, a cat at her feet, in an interior. The architecture of the narrow hallway in which she stands is very carefully worked out, and the mirrors in which she's reflected make the space ambiguous. It reminded me of Edward Hopper's urban scenes, as did also the half-length portrait of a man glimpsed through a train window. Another impressive work is Autumn Sonata, 1980, which depicts a matriarchal old lady seated bolt upright beside a contemplative bikini-clad girl, suggesting a memento mori.

As well as oils, there are pastels, water-colors and drawings, the subtlest of which is a sensitive self-portrait, Altogether a delightful exhibition which will appeal to the escapist in all of us.

Mary Rose Beaumont, 1982