Essay by Ariella Budick
52 Weeks II: An Installation by Roy Nicholson
The Anthony Giordano Gallery, Dowling College, Oakdale, NY
October 31 – December 12, 2010
Roy Nicholson’s eternal subject is the passage of time, but he approaches it obliquely through the garden — the yard of his Sag Harbor home, to be precise — homing in on the ephemeral moment when the Brown-Eyed Susans have shed their golden manes, but still coil their scrawny stems through the snow. Or the afternoon when the lavender, in riotous summer bloom, scatters its scent along with tiny purple seeds that fall into the border. “Everything in the garden is always growing and dying, up and down,” he says. Nothing speaks more loudly of death than summer’s riot of brilliant life. And rumors of resurrection rest in the twiggy denuded branches Nicholson etches against an indigo sky.
The border itself absorbs Nicholson, with its picturesque meeting of cultivation and wilderness, fact and mystery. The edge of the forest – delicate, cultivated plants to one side, savage, sobering woods on the other — is the space where his garden and his paintings both define themselves. If wilderness and culture come together in his tended soil, the canvas is where intentionality meets unbridled imagination. Each is a metaphor for the other.
More than a decade ago, Nicholson imposed on himself the discipline of painting a picture a week for a full year, and called it “52 Weeks.” Sentient to the oscillations of his thoughts and feelings, he recorded the gradual transformation of the planted world outside his studio. It was an experiment with theme and variations, an investigation into how different times of day and states of mind inflect both perception and production.
For “52 Weeks II,” Nicholson returned to that regular rhythm, and the result is once again a mural-sized mass of 24-inch square canvases laid out in a grid. Variations no longer interest him, though. Now, he wants each canvas, and each individual flower it depicts, to function as a microcosm of the whole. Together, the separate pieces of the mosaic merge into a sort of meta-garden, a meditation on the subject of tamed disorder. If his previous inspirations were Monet and minimalism, he’s now moved closer to George Inness, whose surfaces became couriers of sensibility.
Not that Nicholson has given himself over to abstraction. His latest effort cavorts happily on the border — his ideal habitat — between realism and invention. Naturalistic renderings of milkweed and daffodils play off against tangled skeins of foxglove that look almost Pollock-ian and prickly pears that recall the amoeboid forms of Sam Francis. The series approach allows Nicholson to embed himself in various levels of abstraction and representation, degrees of spatial illusion, and color harmonies, all within a single work. “I’ve always worked in series,” he explains, and, characteristically reaching for a botanical simile, continues: “I like the way one idea leads to another idea, and that leads to another, like the branches of a tree.”
The grid format also reinforces the importance of time. Reading from left to right, viewers trace the gradual passage of weeks. From top to bottom, a month elapses in a millisecond. Depending on how you look, the garden shifts gently or rapidly. Nicholson has said that he paid little regard to the seasons, interjecting a vernal bloom into a day in January when it pleased him to do so. But we still sense the passage of the year, as summer’s luminosity gives way to autumn’s burnished oranges, and those in turn succumb to winter’s bleached glare.
The large scale also forces viewers to adjust their physical position, a progression through space that registers in time. As we move, a single canvas penetrates our consciousness and then recedes as our eyes hitch on another. Motion alters perception.
The paradox is that Nicholson’s garden is both a retreat from the world’s hectic change, and at the same time, the very essence of it. “Et in Arcadia Ego” (“I am even in Arcadia”) reads the Latin phrase warning that every pastoral idyll is haunted by death. “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they really are attacks,” says Nicholson, quoting the poet, artist and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay.
The garden inflicts itself on wilderness, which is always fighting back. It is an enclave for contemplation, but also, by its very existence, an acknowledgement of the chaos outside. Paradise itself contained within it the seeds of human and vegetal mortality. “Everything,” as Nicholson observed, “is always growing and dying, up and down.”
Nicholson used to wallow more in that somber thought. The first “52 Weeks” featured a recurring motif: a leafy trellis that implied a quasi-portal to the beyond. For years, Nicholson has been mostly interested in twilight, or, as he calls it, “gloaming” — that threshold between day and night, life and death. Yet here, in “52 Weeks II,” the dusk has dissipated, and we see the sunlit flower, in all its clarified beauty.
“It is said that the swan sings more sweetly when death approaches,” wrote Poussin, who late in life, returned to the Garden of Eden in his own quartet of the seasons. Poussin banished death from his Garden – the serpent is nowhere to be seen. Nicholson, too, concentrating on the clear light of day, holds mortality at bay. At least for a while.