Critics’ Picks

Walking in Tall Grass, Ethan, 2005, oil on linen, 36 1/4 x 26 3/4".

Walking in Tall Grass, Ethan, 2005, oil on linen, 36 1/4 x 26 3/4".


Jan Nelson

Anna Schwartz Gallery
185 Flinders Lane
November 1–November 24, 2007

Jan Nelson paints portraits of adolescent boys and girls. She pays as much attention to each kid’s carefully calibrated gear—the fur hats, bike helmets, faux-hippie T-shirts, sunglasses, and painstakingly chosen stickers and logos—as to individual physiognomy. Not one of these teenagers looks the viewer straight in the eye, and none is easy to read; all are turned partly away from the viewer, are hidden behind dark glasses, or look carefully down. The only concession they make to the communication of character, beyond a not completely hostile self-absorption, is via the semiotics of customized style and, more cryptically, the flowers that some of them rather gingerly brandish, like the pensive girl holding a daisy and wearing a bright Ganesh T-shirt in Walking in Tall Grass, Rose, 2007. The painted surfaces are glossy and the colors saturated, acidic, almost psychedelic. Nelson’s technique is immaculate, clean photorealism, the kind of thoroughly self-aware spin on realist painting on view in the Hayward Gallery’s current “Painting of Modern Life” exhibition. As with that of the artists whose work is included there, Nelson’s subtle use of photography has nothing to do with photo-envy. Rather, for the past eight years, she has been assembling an extensive painted atlas of a generation of young people, working through the same formal constraints in a rigorous simulation of fashion photography, recalling Conceptualist Douglas Huebler’s desire to document everybody alive. Nelson’s project is as expansive as each painting is consummately humble.