The Imaginary Traveler Nicolas Party
“I look at art more than reality,” says Swiss artist Nicolas Party in his studio in Brussels. Party, who would rather go to a museum than on a hike, says that he is most often inspired by looking at images in books and in museums. He imagines, for instance, how great it would be to gather all the painted trees, including the ones of his own he is standing next to, into a single forest and be able to walk through it. Such a forest would reveal deeper meanings and inner truths. “Trees open so much with their simplicity.”
With his working clothes on, he moves from his tall trees to contemplating a few final touches on a different composition inspired by a genre in classical Chinese painting called Flowers and Birds. He approaches his pastel cases where all the colors are arranged in a spectrum and picks a dark green. He starts coloring the leaves and then carefully blends the color with his fingertips. Although the canvas has been treated “with a mix of wooden dust, water and a little bit of gesso that gives it a grip,” some of that pastel powder falls on the floor, but the effect is still dense and texturally engaging. Satisfied with the outcome, he reaches out to a tray on a mobile stainless steel workstation and drops the pastel in there. He then loosely taps the painting at the back to allow more dust to come off and contentedly says, “Now, this is ready to be framed.”
Nearby are the boxes that he uses when a work is taken to the framer. “All pastels need to be framed under glass or Plexiglass. They can get smudged otherwise.” Amidst the canvas rolls and wooden frames to stretch the canvas on are stacks of wooden circle cut outs. “These are table tops for a café in Edinburgh.” For this project, he has asked Sarah Margnetti, an artist friend and graduate of Ecole Van Der Kelen-Logelain, to paint a faux green marble surface. Party’s paintings of faces will then come to complement this optical illusion. The sample faces are precise and austere in their lines, but the fruits give a more playful tone to the overall composition subtly evoking Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s surrealist portraits of human heads made up of fruit. “Apart from the tables, Party is also creating a mural for the cafe, a landscape with shrubs, bushes, and columnar trees on a pink backdrop.
Complimented on the energy of another mural already on the studio wall, he demurs thinking that the mural alone is inadequate. To explain, he brings a pastel and loosely places it against the mural. “When you have one character, it is not interesting. By adding another layer, you start a conversation and all those questions come up…” The same concept was realized at his exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art (2016). He transformed a long corridor into an aquatic dreamscape, an enchanted land of contemplation and reveries, and made its leading character a pastel of two androgynous figures, Two Men with Hats. “There is this mystery that floats over the artwork and you wonder, who are they? are they men? are they brothers? and so on.”
For his June 2017 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, he is planning a different kind of mural. There won’t be a juxtaposition of a mural and a separate canvas, but rather two murals superimposed. Party will give the curved walls of the gallery a solid color (probably a dark purple), and on that background, he will paint twenty oil paintings of sunsets and sunrises inspired by Swiss painter Felix Vallotton (1865 – 1925). He has eighteen days to complete the paintings and to create the long circular walk of sunsets and sunrises. This poetic theme was prompted by the recent US elections and Barack Obama’s statement that “there is one thing we know for sure, the sun will rise tomorrow.” What will happen to the paintings when the show is over? “It’s like the sunset. It disappears. The funny thing with a mural is that you don’t see it anymore, but it’s here. They will just cover it. It’s like when the sun is on the other side of the planet. You don’t see it, but it’s here.”
One floor up in his drawing studio, there is a big skylight that illuminates the room and even a small terrace. Party takes a quick look at a yearly calendar on the wall and sits in his study area, which has a computer and a slender library filled with books and sketchbooks. The high-keyed colors and pictorial flatness of a pastel depicting a pile of peaches suggest he may indeed paint from real life.“No. What I do, is I work in stages. First comes a sketch. Then I do work on the computer that helps me refine my drawing. The final step is to do the outline of the drawing on transparent paper, so that I can project it.”
A pastel of two vessels in subtler earth tones but each tweaked in scale, shading, and perspective has a mild surrealist charm. Party wants to draw them again. “I bought a 3d printer which took two days to print those vessels. My plan is to observe these guys,” he says following the outline of the vessels near the edge of his work table with his earnest gaze. Inspired by Giorgio Morandi’s (1890-1964) visual literacy, he attempts to walk in his shoes. “I started to imagine what Morandi was trying to do. He knew that all the atoms of the object are in movement. The object is changing and decaying in an extremely slow process. It’s something alive. Almost like a plant. Maybe that’s why the lines in his paintings are not straight.”
“I like playing with the idea of gender. It’s my way of traveling different territories through the artwork, like Rousseau or Hergé who did Tintin.”
A pastel of an apple in fresh and joyous tonalities that delight the soul suggests a little narrative. Next to it are cut outs of Adam and Eve from Van Eyck’s 15th century polyptych the Ghent Altarpiece and from Hans Memling’s Adam and Eve painting, which inspired Party to create his own enigmatic version of a nude. “It would be simple to say that I am trying to mix male and female features, but I am definitely trying to create this confusion.” Party has stripped the figure of everything that makes it recognizable and bathed it in poetry and mystery. “I like playing with the idea of gender. It’s my way of traveling different territories through the artwork, like Rousseau or Hergé who did Tintin. Hergé never travelled, but Tintin was traveling all the time.” He suggests his nude responds to a “movement that is always dividing. Black and white, man woman, right or wrong etc. The truth is always in the middle. It’s a naïve way of yin and yang.”
Amongst the drawings on his desk are ones of mountains with snow on them. Apparently, he has been looking at different artists and the way they have painted mountains before. Opening a book, he searches for a moment before saying with conviction, “This is a Canadian painter called Lauren Harris. If I do it, I will do exactly like that,” and shows a painting in the book. A few moments later, after having studied the painting again, he says, “Maybe I would do the cloud differently.” He sits down to sketch, and suddenly the mountain he has in mind appears to soar dominantly into the sky.
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