Ask Morgana 152: Nigel van Wieck

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Just when I think I’ve had enough of enigmatic artists, along comes another one. I know next to nothing about Nigel van Wieck, except that he is described as an ‘American realist’. But to me that description doesn’t work – it doesn’t say enough. Just click on the thumbnail to the left and have a look at the study in light. I would say that this work is post-modern, and if it is ‘realist’ at all then it also borrows heavily from the techniques of Impressionism. The realist element is, if you like, the ‘what you see is what you get’ element, inasmuch as this is a naked woman, sitting relaxed on one end of a sofa, lit from the side. But it is a scene to be taken in at a glance.

I look at van Wieck’s pool halls, highways, diners, and apartment windows, and I think, rather tartly, that Jack Vettriano ought to be this good a painter, but isn’t. Van Wieck portrays moments, and when he does there is often an element of menace, or of exploitation, or of voyeurism. His naked women are often the subject of someone else’s gaze – sometimes markedly ours. His subjects are frequently ‘working girls’. His paintings and pastels give us patches of light, bright colours, and impenetrable shadows.

1

1

In (1) above, a young woman, bored, alone, is riding a late-night train. The seat covers could be mockeries of a Mark Rothko canvas, or simply an attempt by the train company to brighten up its stark utilitarian furniture. However, the viewer of the painting is placed in the position of a stalker or a voyeur, looking up the young woman’s skirt. The painting and expresses generates unease. By being made to look, we understand how being the subject of erotic, predatory voyeurism must feel.

2

2 (detail)

in (2) a working girl (perhaps) has done her work, and is now reclining on a chaise, frankly and fully on display to her customer (perhaps). The woman is fairly sharply in focus, but other detail, such as the dark woodwork of the chaise, is vague. Are those two pictures on the wall, or two casements? One suggests the organic shape of trees outside, the other the angles of urban architecture, giving a kind of Yin and Yang. What is the significance of the carelessly-opened book on the floor. The symbolism is vague, as is the unfocussed detail, and our eyes – the eyes of a voyeur – are drawn back to the naked woman with her laconic expression.

3 (detail)

3 (detail)

The working girl in (3) is casually on display to a couple of prospective clients, whilst in (4) below, the observer is the model herself. The title of (4) is Between Dreams.

4

4

5

5

The composition of (5), Odalisque, is almost classical, but again the subject is observed, having just become aware that we are looking at her.

6

6

(6) contains, right in the centre of the picture, a piece of enigmatic symbolism. Two women, one lying on her side wearing a ‘little black dress’, the other naked and perched awkwardly on a chair, are together in a scene of total ennui. But what is the significance of the pear?

7 (detail)

7 (detail)

The girl in (7) is also under a gaze. Is this before or after a sexual transaction? Is this her first time? She is naked and vulnerable. She is looking down, neither meeting our gaze nor that of the other participant. Her shoulders are almost hunched, and she has her hand on her lap to cover her womanhood. She has a tumbler of whiskey in her hand, either as a relaxant (before) or an analgesic (after).

8

8

Here in (8), entitled Watch, we have a simple scene in which there is so much meaning, so much going on. Is the title a statement or an imperative? Two apartment windows are at right-angles to each other, in the corner of a building. Two women are facing each other. There is a kind of balance or contrast – both are naked, but one is facing towards us and the other away, one in a lit room and one in an unlit, both have one shoulder hunched higher than the other, each has, apparently, one had reaching down to her sex. The woman in the lit room appears to be caught in a moment of shocked realisation. Attempting to cover her womanhood and her breasts, she instinctively covers her mouth instead as she gasps. But why, if she does not want to be seen, is she naked in a lit room, overlooked by other windows? The woman nearer to us is an enigma. We can’t see her face, so we do not know what her expression may be. There is a tension in her body – look at the sharpness of her left shoulder-blade, the muscles in her back, and especially the way her fingers are digging into her arm. The position of her legs suggests that she is stroking herself intimately as she watches her neighbour. On the table in the unlit room is a spray of white flowers, a symbol of purity, of maidenhood, of awakening sexuality, but it seems at odds with the nearer woman’s self indulgence…

Nigel van Wieck has caught my imagination, so much so that I admit to looking, and looking, and looking at his work. He is so much more than a realist. I have already cited impressionism and symbolism in describing his work, but the most important element, to me, is the way that his pictures are much more than the sum of their parts. That, I would suggest, harks back to Romanticism. Perhaps post-modern art can’t help but reference many features of established artistic movements – perhaps that referencing and re-exploration defines post-modernism.

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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