Nicolas Party at Modern Art Oxford
"Now, we don’t trust the future; we’re very scared of it. Artists are now more nostalgic than futuristic. The general consensus is to think badly of the future; if you are optimistic, people assume you are simply naïve."
Currently exhibiting at Modern Art Oxford in Pembroke Street, Swiss artist Nicolas Party re-energises traditional genres such as still life, portraiture and mural painting.
Both a classically trained painter and former graffiti artist, he has developed a signature aesthetic of saturated colour and flat, graphic style which is instantly recognisable. Party’s solo exhibitions have been displayed in New York, Florence, Washington and Los Angeles.
His exhibition here in Oxford is entitled ‘Speakers’ and features large (two meters high) sculptures of female heads, specifically created to challenge “the heavily masculine energy of Oxford’s architecture and academic histories”. Here, Party discusses his style and the inspirations behind it.
Can you talk about your time as a graffiti artist growing up in Switzerland? How did that early start affect your career as a painter?
I always painted. When you’re a child, people usually do a lot of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and I guess some people never stop, and that was the case with me. Around 12 years old, I discovered spray paint. In the very early 1990s there was the third wave of street art in Europe. Graffiti had a performance aspect of doing a painting or a creative work that was very attractive.
So one half was about doing the painting, and the other half was about the adventure – doing things that are illegal, which as a kid is very fun: escaping at night from your parents’ house, organising everything, deciding the colours beforehand. I did this for maybe ten years, and then I also started to get commissions – decorating bars and car parks, which gave me spray paints for the other graffiti works. The scale and speed of graffiti means that you can’t be afraid to cover a large surface in a short amount of time. There is also the transience of the graffiti, which sometimes would not even last a day: this all had an effect. Being comfortable with something disappearing fed into the graffiti feeling like a kind of performance. It’s about the action of what you’re doing in the moment. When I stopped, it was very difficult to find something that gave an equivalent adrenaline rush. Graffiti is always a collaborative practice; you’re never by yourself.
Many critics have observed that your work is a response to the post-internet age, and in particular the hyper-available image culture. What is your take on this relationship between painting and the digital age in your practice?
Everybody now is a post-internet individual. We are consuming everything through these new kinds of media. Sometimes artworks look clearly influenced by the internet, but in fact artists today are more focused on the past than the future, which is quite unusual in the history of art. Now, we don’t trust the future; we’re very scared of it. Artists are now more nostalgic than futuristic. The general consensus is to think badly of the future; if you are optimistic, people assume you are simply naïve.
Following on from this, can you talk us through the construction process for the heads? It’s quite hard to tell how they were made. They could be handmade, they could be industrially fabricated: there’s an ambiguity to their origins that is quite intriguing for the viewer.
I wanted to start with a simple head shape – something between a doll, and an antique carved head, or a millinery dummy, which are all really quite beautiful – and then paint one of my portraits onto this three-dimensional surface. I took a very generic head shape. We made a 3D model on the computer, which was then 3D printed as an actual model to see what it would look like, and then from this 3D model the fabricators made this metal structure or framework inside the head. Finally, the structure was plastered by hand then painted over. So it’s really a mix between something very high-tech, and something very handmade. I like that there are these two aspects to the work.
Your colour palette is highly distinctive and instantly recognisable even when you work in different media (wall murals, pastel, sculptures). Can you explain your colour choices for this installation?
I don’t have much interest in what could be labelled as ‘reality’. I’m more interested in the signs, symbols and codes we’ve created for reality. I was never interested in how you might render a so-called ‘realistic’ flesh tone. First of all, real skin changes colour and tone constantly, so it’s an almost useless endeavour to try and ‘match’ it. When I started to do portraits I was using a recognisable ‘flesh’ colour, a sort of peachy-apricot, that would be seen roughly as equivalent to a skin tone… the white, Western skin as it’s been depicted throughout the European painting tradition. But we need to remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries many people (both men and women) from the ruling class would wear significant amounts of white makeup (to denote their wealth), so the paintings don’t really depict the reality of their skin. They are far too white – a kind of chalky, pastel white that is really the makeup on display. So lately (only this summer) I have begun to use colours that are definitely not the colour of the skin – red, blue, and green – to see how it affects the perception and mood of the portrait. The colours of Speakers give a different mood to each of the heads, playing with the symbolic power of colour.
Your female Speakers are a group of fictional characters whose stories are unknown, enabling the viewer to project any number of meanings, histories or life stories onto the sculptures. How important is the notion that people can bring their own ideas to the work?
In my work, I’m trying to have a strong, direct connection: we have to remember that a portrait is one of the least original things you can possibly paint, especially in this age of the selfie. How do you create this tiny space in which you grab the attention of the viewer? It’s how the portrait turns into a character – it can go very far, but it’s not up to me to decide.
Nicolas Party: Speakers is open at Modern Art Oxford until Sunday 18th February
Images – Speakers, (2017). Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Tony Webster Ltd, Glasgow. Photos by Ben Westoby
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