New York

Peter Nadin, The Raft, 2011, honey, terra-cotta, wood, twine, bank run, wax, and ham, 24' x 24' x 9 1/2".

Peter Nadin, The Raft, 2011, honey, terra-cotta, wood, twine, bank run, wax, and ham, 24' x 24' x 9 1/2".

Peter Nadin

Gavin Brown's enterprise | 620 Greenwich Street

Peter Nadin, The Raft, 2011, honey, terra-cotta, wood, twine, bank run, wax, and ham, 24' x 24' x 9 1/2".

Before he stopped exhibiting in 1992, Peter Nadin was associated with many of the leading protagonists in the New York art world of the time. He ran a studio/exhibition space whose first show was with Christopher D’Arcangelo, collaborated with Jenny Holzer, and showed at Richard Prince’s short-lived gallery Spiritual America. But then he spent more than a decade “unlearn[ing] how to make art,” during which time he worked as a farmer in upstate New York, and also taught a course at Cooper Union about biological theories of consciousness and their relationship to art-making.

Nadin’s recent exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, his first commercial show in almost twenty years, sought to bring together these apparently diverse preoccupations. It featured a pop-up farm store selling “honey, maple syrup, tisane, coffee, pâté, rillettes, and eggs.” It hosted evening events such as a “young farmer panel” and a discussion about hydro-fracking. Copies of a stylish old-fashioned newspaper, The Bugle, were available for the taking, with articles about farming, food, and art. But there was also an imposing, more traditional exhibition, made up of paintings, sculptures, and an installation. Several of the materials in these works are also derived from Nadin’s farm, however. Beeswax, honey, walnut paint, and cashmere give life to the accretions, splashes, and blotches in his vigorous abstract paintings; rough-hewn hemlock trunks serve as tall, totem-pole-like pillars supporting arrangements of boxes and free form terra cotta shapes in the room-filling assemblage The Bo’sun’s Chair, 2011; six thousand pounds of low-grade honey serve as the base of the installation The Raft, 2011, which also includes a ham.

No Farms, No Food. You Are What You Eat. The slow, sustainable, organic, local food movements attract in part because they are premised on going back to basics. In analogous but more mystical terms, Nadin has said that he “moved on from representing consciousness to trying to embody it. To paint the experience, not the objects, of the underlying process of consciousness itself.” But The Raft, the pièce de résistance of the exhibition, works quite differently. The viscous contents of the twenty-square-foot vat, made from hickory wood, smell rich and deep throughout the space. In spite of Nadin’s turn away from figuration—the bananas, crosses, and human figures that populate his earlier canvases—The Raft has a back-to-the-land poetry that suggests its own kind of literalism. (It is interesting to note that the artist cites Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole as an influence.) In atmosphere and arrangement the work evokes the shallows of a bend in a Catskills river, even with the constructions of flotsam and jetsam—small, birdhouselike shelters, damaged terra-cotta pots, and a little raft of sticks tied together with twine supporting the ham. One might, moreover, see the almost-black pool itself as a kind of riposte to the engine oil that makes up the dystopic sublime of Richard Wilson’s 20:50, 1987. This is realer, scrappier, more organic.

The half-dozen eggs I bought from the farm stand for three bucks, meanwhile, were packaged in a carton on which handwriting proclaimed DIVERSIFIED FLOCK. BRIGHT YELLOW YOLK. They tasted good, and looked extraordinary, in shades of brown, white, and blue. While Nadin insists that “a carrot is not a work of art,” the surprise of seeing farm produce for sale in a gallery pointed to the strangeness of the various frames and discourses being brought together here. And while it’s not unfair to suggest that the gallery-going audience may also be interested in the problems of groundwater pollution resulting from natural-gas exploration, it was difficult not to feel that art, agriculture, food, and the nature of consciousness are cakes that are hard to have and to eat in a single sitting—especially in a white cube. For all the desires of which it spoke, this exhibition shied away from exploring the fissures their divergence creates.

Alexander Scrimgeour