New York

Peter Nadin

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Over the last several years, Peter Nadin has gradually developed a large repertoire of diverse imagery and techniques. His new paintings pack all of it and then some into every canvas, including crude still-life drawings, simple houses, lollipop trees, a schematic self-portrait, a snapshot of a longtime friend, a drawing of a human skull, land- and skyscapes, hand-and footprints, and short poems. Loaded, chromatic brushstrokes and solid blocks of color punctuate this imagistic mélange. Each pictorial element stems from a specific technical procedure, first arrived at through trial and error. The canvases are physically built up with oil, acrylic, and enamel paints, applied not only with brushes, but also with rollers, trowels, drywall knives, and silkscreen. First and foremost, they are aggregations.

But it is the newest addition to this collection that has become the most telling: the Tower of Babel. Appearing as the dominant emblem in three out of the five paintings, it indexes the full range of material Nadin amasses. Curiously enough, the artist offers not a canonical image of the tower (a broad, spiraling ramp), but instead an impenetrably dark, multitiered obelisk. This serves as an axis, a spine of sorts, around which the dense patchwork of subject matter might revolve. Formally, its unusual facets invoke a vortex of surrounding planes as if the tower alone could engender a hybrid cubism—a concatenation of space and time in which a welter of the artist’s recollections, images, and styles can resurface simultaneously. Nadin uses the tower to suggest how all of these fragments must necessarily qualify each other, not through their serial commensurability but through a fundamental resistance to it.

The allegory of the tower, like so many other parables, raises more questions than it answers. Often what appears to be obvious proves to be ineluctable; as Nietzsche has pointed out, the motives and affects of punishment, which we take for granted mostly, are seldom clear but rather complex and ambiguous. The fate of the tower’s yearning aspirants, the plight of those inexorably condemned to mutual unintelligibility, exerts an enduring fascination. Any attempt to reduce this story to a single explanation or cause would cancel its allegorical power. Thus, in Nadin’s paintings the tower works as a device that resists an instrumentalist view of language—and art. Coupled with the artist’s autobiographical mementos, it suggests how the unconscious frustrates any supposed totality of self-knowledge. More broadly, within the Tower of Babel narrative, God’s omnipotent fury, i.e., the rage of the primal father, registers the indelible guilt of the oedipal moment—which, according to structuralist analyses, coincides with accession to language.

What starts out as a personal investigation for any artist, in time hardens into an irrecuperable thing. As an object, the canvas stands in mute testimony to the mounting hours that the painter has spent on it; each brushstroke indexes the moment and the gesture in which his or her physical body has been given over. But just as the ongoing objectification of the artwork excludes its author, so Nadin strives against all odds to re-create his past as an ensemble of terms that defy the possibility of translation; the ghostly author is condemned to haunt the site of his permanent exile. To relive the epiphanal: this paradox might serve as Nadin’s meditation on Proust’s model for lost time.

John Miller