Gerald Nichols

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The paintings in this exhibition mark a clear shift from Gerald Nichols’ constructed pieces and installations of the last ten years. In the late ’60s and ’70s, Nichols’ paintings relied on a formalist vocabulary, exploring a controlled range of ideas; content was defined by the accumulation of subtle gestures and the relationships they established within a rigid format. In the constructed pieces of the ’80s, relieflike wooden cutout structures were informed by the narrative as well as the formal content of such artists as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer.

In this exhibition of new paintings, Nichols presents an idea of text as a primary visual element and, in certain pieces, calls on his earlier involvement with formal structures. The text is always spare, using or referring to the titles, and is, in most cases, hidden in the overall layout of each painting. In King (all works, 1989), the four letters of the title are stacked vertically in black and white figure/ground variations. Smaller green letters appear somewhat randomly, spelling “KONG,” “FISH,” “PINS,” “SIZE,” and “LEAR”—a list of possible kings. Initially appearing scrambled, the text reveals itself slowly. The vertical format has the proper upright posture for the work’s title, while the list of particulars provides an ironic punch. This links the culturally distant images and adds an invisible text: the associated image that surrounds each word. In Now or Never, the hidden block-letter format incorporates the word “NUMBSKULL.” Its hard, admonishing tone raises a flag of social and ecological consequence—the other end of Nichols’ formal concerns. Keep on Breeding and Use Your Head operate similarly. In the latter the format is somewhat opened up, as the title letters float on their own and mingle with the head of an owl and a woodpecker—two examples of good head-users. Nichols’ attachment to the lessons of nature has been apparent in much of his work; even his images borrowed from other artists were signs of nature’s significance. In these paintings, the text provides an immediate, almost urgent voice for these concerns. The irony and a possible meaning for this work lies in the text’s oblique presentation, the lengths to which the artist has gone in order not to be directly heard.

Abracadabra provides another layer of insight. It is the only constructed piece here. The word itself is defined as both a magical incantation and as nonsense. Nichols has built an hourglass structure of birch bark blocks with the letters of the title word painted on them. In the center is a single A; line by line, in inverse pyramids, the word completes itself. Here the content and the form are one: the power of the chant lies in the way of nonsense that one must go to experience the chant’s magical effects. Beyond its own symbolic presence, this piece also seems to represent what the other paintings are striving to achieve.

Eileen Neff