Rooted in the Past, A Vision for Today By Peter Trippi

From one side, the painter Nigel Van Wieck (b. 1947) appears to be the proverbial “Englishman in New York,” having discovered Old Master aesthetics and made them his own since 1979, when he immigrated to the U.S.  But from the other side, we see the quintessentially American practitioner of contemporary realism he has become during those same three and a half decades.

Composition is Van Wieck’s primary concern because it supports his narrative: “I am a storyteller and the viewer is my audience,” he explains, “but before then, while sitting at the easel, I am the audience member who must be drawn in.”  Seemingly taken from real life, his scenes are, in fact, what John Arthur has trenchantly called “carefully edited constructions.” While composing, Van Wieck consults live models, photographs, and clippings, but usually relies upon his memory because, he believes, “reality is much better when it is imagined.” 

For some scenes, he makes pencil studies of the whole composition, but otherwise sets to work in oils directly on panel, or in oil pastels on paper or card.  At the end of every long workday, Van Wieck photographs the picture in its latest form, then sits at his computer and uses Photoshop software to solve compositional problems digitally so that he will not have to scrape down his painted surface any more than is necessary.  When facing a challenge, he visits such repositories of inspiration as the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see how Nicolas Poussin and other Old Masters might solve it, or he dips into his large library of art books.

The resulting compositions always show our eye how to move and where to settle, providing psychological insights that are, by turns, revealing or enigmatic, prosaic or allegorical: “I know what I want to paint,” Van Wieck admits, “but not what it means.” These are archetypal images for our time, and indeed the present survey of recent work addresses, head-on or obliquely, the evermore pressing issues of communications and travel.  We are all linked by technology, more so than ever before, but does that mean we are more connected, more together?  Similar concerns underlie Van Wieck’s new series of “chase” pictures; here we find ourselves at the wheel of a sports car, or tailing one.  Thus we are out on the road with other drivers, yet also separated from them by a windshield and the ability to overtake them on the left, very quickly.

If composition is Van Wieck’s primary concern, light is his most essential tool.  In the late 1960s, just as he entered London’s Hornsey College of Art, the faculty’s practitioners of figuration were dismissed, so young Van Wieck focused on kinetic sculpture—the presentation of  light, especially neon.  In the late 1970s, he shifted back to two-dimensional art, and naturally fell in love with Vermeer’s mastery of light while flipping through a book.  Inspired by that genius and others, Van Wieck has learned to harness light on a flat surface so that it provides the composition’s essential horizontal, vertical, and diagonal elements, even as it intensifies the drama and significance of the moment depicted.  Though his colors are appealing, they play a supporting role by underscoring the composition’s all-important interrelationship of lights and darks.

It’s a credit to America that Van Wieck grew knowledgeable about the Old Masters not in England, but in New York during the early 80s, when he ran with such fellow emigrés as the Italian postmodernists Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente.  This is when he fell for Poussin’s positive and negative shapes, resulting in large, colorful multi-figure scenes that somehow evoke both the Grand Manner and Thomas Hart Benton, who also looked to Italy.

From the late 1980s, Van Wieck has painted a progression of works grouped into series with such themes as Working Girls, Players, and Dancing.  Though visually diverse, all have underscored the disjuncture between modern people’s physical proximity and emotional connectivity; whatever their gender, race, class, or occupation, no matter how intimate their contact may be, these figures do not fully “get” each other.  Flowing against this thematic continuum was the large number of portrait commissions that Van Wieck undertook during the 1990s. As one would expect, he became deeply interested in his sitters, who connected closely with each other in the image, or at least with their viewers.  These are figures whom we “get,” at least to a certain extent.

The balance to be struck between these extremes of connectivity has long fascinated Van Wieck.  When he settled in New York, his first great friend was the dealer James Maroney, who handled 20th-century American artworks and introduced him to masters then unfamiliar to the young Englishman, including Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper.  Today, it is the latter’s legacy that many people immediately discern in Van Wieck’s work, and indeed he deeply admires Hopper’s mastery of both composition and light in furtherance of mood and (possible) narrative. Yet he is right to distinguish what he calls Hopper’s “grim evocation of loneliness and separation” from his own presentation of “solitude, not loneliness.” Moreover, Van Wieck adds, he often conveys the spark of sensuality or joy that Hopper studiously avoided. 

The matter of solitude is pertinent: when he was just 18 months old, Van Wieck suffered from a “soft hip,” and so was placed into a full-body cast for the next 18 months.  Though he cannot recall that ordeal, his parents naturally photographed it, and those images endowed him with an awareness of solitude.  (The boy remained in leg-irons until he was six.)

More broadly, we detect in many of Van Wieck’s scenes the melancholy—a form of emotional disconnection—for which Hopper is revered.  The Englishman argues, however, that melancholy is present in all American painting, something a foreigner perceives more readily than we locals might.  He goes on to cite, just for example, Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, Thomas Eakins’s Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.  Whether they realize it or not, all Americans, Van Wieck believes, are immigrants like himself, strangers in a new land who cannot help but pine for some place, some thing, they may not even know or understand. 
It is no accident that, before he found fame as a fine artist, Hopper was a successful player in the Golden Age of American Illustration.  During that phase (1905-25), he was commissioned to compose scenes that conveyed specific narratives, instantly and compellingly.  It’s no accident that cinema came of age at the same moment, and naturally numerous books have been written on the interconnection of Hopper’s imagery and Hollywood set design.  As the visual inheritors of both Hopper and Hollywood, we respond instinctively to such evocative mises-en-scènes, and now we can see Van Wieck as one of the leading chroniclers of our own era, deploying similarly deft compositional strategies in order to visualize his unique imaginings.  Great artists usually stand on the shoulders of their forerunners, and Van Wieck is particularly articulate about his historical inspirations.  Yet his vision is his own, entirely of our time, and well suited to hold viewers’ attention long after the paint has dried and we are all gone.

Peter Trippi has been the editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine since 2006. He was previously the director of New York City’s Dahesh Museum of Art, which is devoted to 19th-century European academic art.

"Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can't bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design."

James Salter

"A Sport and a Pastime"

In approaching Nigel Van Wieck's works several aspects must be tacitly understood. First and foremost, he is a narrative painter; but his oil pastels differ from the art of photography in that the fleeting momentary fragments he describes are hard won illusions. Rather than illustrating actual events, these carefully edited constructions are mixtures of remembered and imagined incidents. Each centers on an ardently charged and acutely revealing moment, but like Tiepolo's Venetian ceilings or Gauguin's Tahitian paradise, Van Wieck's narrative vignettes are inventions and the occasions he describes are best taken as allegorical allusions rather than mirrors of visual realities.
On the formal side, he is a consummate draftsman, deft composer and a keen editor who understands both the structural ploys and emotional nuances of color. However, these are tools of the trade for any skilled visual artist. The content of Van Wieck's images lies beyond their formal and pictorial elements. It is instead embedded in his narrative incidents. All of the elements of the earlier work coalesce in Dancing. In order to more fully understand their implications, it is important to consider Van Wieck's earlier work, particularly the Working Girls series. The label is something of a misnomer and more than a bit misleading, for it does not refer to prostitutes; all are completely believable as women with individual histories and these are tales from their private lives. While the paintings do not moralize, ultimately they are auguries. More than a hundred oil pastels and canvases based on this theme were done between 1987 and 1992.

One of the most significant introductory clues to Working Girls can be found in Van Wieck's depictions of nude and partially disrobed models in the studio, in the privacy of an interior, or his descriptions of intimate incidents seen through windows and doors. The women are young, their bodies are lithe and beautiful, and they are sexually desirable. Their attention or gestures are frequently directed toward someone unseen and unknown, or they gaze back at the viewer without embarrassment. Whether they are depicted as hired models or placed in a narrative context, his women are sensually attractive, at ease with their nudity, and always convey an air of eros. That they exhibit their sensuality and are being watched is tacitly understood. Exhibitionism and voyeurism. These codependent facets of the libido lie at the center of all erotically tinged art, from overly familiar icons such as Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Edouard Manet's unblushing Olympia, and Auguste Rodin's Kiss to Pierre Bonnard's loving, intimate depictions of a perennially young Marthe at her bath and the uninhibited, flaunting sexuality of the women drawn by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Van Wieck, with his shrewd sense of art history, is aware of the nuances and emotive power of these precedents. He is equally cognizant of the tenets of modernism and the selfindulgence of much recent art, and his insistence on the use of acutely observed and carefully constructed imagery to convey parables that are particular to our time is both carefully reasoned and deeply felt.

Rather than sharing the bracing, solitary moments of Edward Hopper's women, as depicted in the wonderful etching Evening Wind and paintings such as Eleven A.M. or Morning in the City, we are more often left with a prevailing sense of quiet desperation. Melancholia and anxiety hang like a pall over the Working Girls. There is a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Notebooks: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." Van Wieck's Working Girls are transliterations of this idea. Show me a beautiful woman and I will give you the searing pain of alienation. In twentieth century art the closest parallels to these works can be found in the silent, anxious interiors of Felix Vallotton, the tragic novels of Jean Rhys, or perhaps more appropriately, in the strained relationships and emotional treacheries explored cinematically by Ingmar Bergman.

As in the tales of Vallotton, Rhys, and Bergman, a subtle undercurrent of eroticism lies at the core of the entire narrative panoply of Working Girls. Van Wieck's quiet, edgy narratives range from the opening moments of coy flirtations to illicit late night trysts in out-of-the-way bars and culminate with women trapped in the cold, dispassionate glare of post-copulative light. Pictorially and cognitively they are finally revealed in those silent, painful incidents of alienation and emotional desolation.

"In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The Crack-up"

Dancing, his most recent cycle of paintings, is in part an outgrowth of Van Wieck's parallel career in portraiture, a delicate and often treacherous arena where he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to coax out a sympathetic physical resemblance and a keenly observed psychological countenance. The portraits stand in sharp contrast to Working Girls and have evolved concurrently with a series of more than sixty works centering on the leisurely activities and nightlife of Miami.
Van Wieck, like so many of the contemporary realists and figurative painters of his generation here and abroad, arrived circuitously at narrative and allegorical painting. His first year at London's Hornsey College was dedicated to working from the model and it was with those drawing and paintings that he was accepted into their degree program. However, given the political and aesthetic winds of the late sixties, his interest shifted from figurative to kinetic art. After graduating from Hornsey he spent more than half a decade working with neon before returning to painting in 1978. He had visited the United States several times before moving from London to New York in 1979. Like David Hockney's pithy views of Los Angeles swimming pools, his Working Girls, Miami, and Dancing are explorations of quintessential American themes.

In regard to his esthetic evolution on these shores, two facets are of particular importance. First, as has been mentioned earlier, Van Wieck has spent much time in museums and galleries here and abroad. Not only does he have a firm, insightful grasp of the art of the past; he is equally familiar with the formal and expressive diversity of contemporary art. Secondly, he is a great admirer of American painting, particularly the realism of Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Reginald Marsh, and he understands their use of genre subjects and narrative content. Their distinctly American paintings, watercolours, and prints, coupled with his admiration for contemporary European neo-expressionist painters such Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia and his own inclinations led him first into allegorical imagery, then toward figure painting, genre subjects, and ultimately culminated in narrative realism based on direct observation.

The undercurrent of sensuality and eroticism that runs through Van Wieck's figure studies and narrative pictures has become more emphatic and animated in Dancing. In an essay on his script for Last Year in Marienbad Alain Robbe-Grillet remarked that in a movie all action unfolds in the present tense. The same is true of painting, and it is a particularly appropriate concept in regard to these works.

In sharp contrast to the brooding, restrained quietude and desolation that lie just below the surface of Working Girls, the metaphorical Dancing centers on sensual, stylized movement, a heightened sense of ebullience and theatricality, and emphatic points of emotional and physical contact. Literally and figuratively they focus totally on the joy and euphoria of the evening. The incidents that charge the paintings are derived from his recollections of Manhattan's private clubs and nightlife, but the preparatory studies for them are constructed from an assortment of drawings, snapshots, perhaps a flickering moment on television, and usable snippets from magazines. Importantly, his familiarity with a broad spectrum of contemporary music informs and underscores the particular temper and timbre of these pieces. While all of the working sketches contain the kernel of the final composition, they are used primarily to establish the ambience and visual character of the painting. The paths from the studies to the finished works are littered with many revisions, subtle adjustments, and unanticipated changes. In Van Wieck words, "reality is much better when it is imagined. When I get past the study, I start to work on the formal problems. I know the feeling I want and I keep working on it until it's right. When it feels right I leave it."

The Dancing pictures also differ drastically from Working Girls and Miami in their formal structure. It is a given that these subjects provide limitless opportunities for theatrical license and artifice, and Van Wieck's drawing is noticeably more emphatic, more abstract, and more tilted toward expressive ends.

Van Wieck has repeatedly asserted that color is essential, and in Dancing his chromatic scale departs quite noticeably from the specifics of local hues. It is heightened, keyed to the complementaries, and coupled with abstract patterns of light and dark. His use of oil pastel, which more closely parallels the character of oil paint than that of the dry, powdery pastel medium, began after moving to New York.

The radical shift of timbre from the racking, angst-ridden moments of Working Girls to the exhilarating romanticism of Dancing is abundantly clear in Tango Lesson and Winter Dance. Tango Lesson is one of the first Dancing paintings, and stylistically it is closer to the naturalism and probity of the earlier narrative pictures and the portraits. The tonality, crisp patterns of black and white, and accents of pure color employed with a heightened sense of verisimilitude recall Hopper's theatre paintings such as Two on the Isle and First Row Orchestra. The dancers are in the center of their world and their brusque, stylized movements reverberate with a haughty sensuality. Unlike the hedonistic exhibitionism of Working Girls, here the dancers proudly flaunt their liquid grace and artfulness. Winter Dance is one of the most magical and seductive images in the new series. In this work the prevailing sense of loneliness and emotional desolation that permeates the most potent images in the Working Girls paintings have been replaced by a couple so totally engaged and sensually connected that they seem oblivious to their surroundings. The dark, mysterious man presses against the lithe swooning woman as they move in taut unison to the wistful, sultry tones of the bandoneón and hypnotic rhythm of castanets. Perhaps they are in a downtown bar or cafe. The silhouette of a potted palm provides a wan pun on the equatorial heat of the moment. Their Latin passion and tropical colors stand in longitudinal contrast to the gray, empty stillness of the snowbound night.

The numerous adjustments made from the half-sized studies, which always contain the complete formal and narrative kernel of the final work, are a matter of editing and refining an image to heighten its narrative aspects. Such changes can be readily traced by comparing some of the sketches to the finished pieces.

For example, the highly animated foreground is crowded with a montage of gestures, but focuses with the frozen glare of a snapshot on the cropped central figure in the study for Dancing with Dancers. She is rendered with portrait-like specificity. To the extreme right the snapping fingers and protruding arms read like shadow puppets. A waitress with a tray of fruit winds her way through the hedonistic crowd and on the elevated stage two tuxedoed musicians are flanked by swaying backup singers. The viewer is placed in the thick of this agitated crowd. In the finished piece, the overlapping figures are rendered in dark, blue-violet tones, placing the emphasis on their silhouettes. The dark tuxedoes of the saxophonist and guitar player have been replaced with a flatly rendered violet and they have been joined by a trumpet player in orange. Chromatically, the composition has been keyed to blue, orange, yellow, and violet: two pairs of opposites. They now stand in sharp contrast to the dancers, prismatically and tonally, and rather than reading as a vertical band, the musicians now form a compositional pyramid. The layers of space are even more compressed, as though seen through a telephoto lens.

This same division of foreground dancers and musicians by the use of chiaroscuro, silhouette, and color - a device perhaps borrowed from Toulouse Lautrec's prints and posters - can be seen in Live Music with the same emphatic shifts between the study and final composition. In addition, there are subtle alterations, such as lowering the dark edge of the bandstand to emphasize the rhythmic movements of the dancers and moving the saxophone forward to enhance the profile of the woman in the foreground. The punctuating reds - lips, tie, and headscarf - of the high-stepping, white-suited singer and swaying saxophonist - are a device used repeatedly by Thomas Eakins.

These same formal strategies are at work in the highly animated triad of dancers of Stepping Out, the two couples in Cut a Rug, and the beautiful swaying woman in Déesse du Soir. In the first, the two central figures are cast as silhouettes and the third is seen in a sharp, crisp light. In the large version they are circled by spectators and the solitary dancer is dressed in the chromatic compliments of red hat and suspenders, green pants, yellow hatband and tie, and violet wingtips and socks. The dark, arched edge of the table closes up the lower space of Cut a Rug, and the addition of the crowd across the room emphasizes that the dance floor has emptied for the lively and highly accomplished moves of the jitter-buggers. A beautiful lithe woman, perhaps a dancer or fashion model, is flanked by the dark shapes of the figures to her right and left in the Déesse du Soir sketch. A hint of architectural detail indicates that the social event is set in a large, Impressive Interior. Other participants of the elegant gala are seen seated and standing in the background, but in the final version all are at tables beyond the dancers and have been given individual identities. While the dancing woman on the left remains dark, enough detail added to indicate that she is gesturing toward the man at the extreme right.

Call It a Day begins with the profile of a man, architectural background, and an exotic dancer. However, in the large version the dancer and his partner are converted to a dark wavy-edged mass and the columns are replaced by two musicians. More important is the introduction of a half-nude dancer in a towering feather headdress feather headdress, for this touch of outlandish exhibitionism and hint of fantasy becomes another leitmotif in Dancing. Such a figure dominates the composition of Swing, with its colorful, gyrating thicket of dancers filling the floor. A scantily clad woman with a tall, colorful crown of feathers moves with the music on a crowded floor, but the focal point of Jack of Hearts is the elegant, formally attired dancers at the center. Shrewdly observed gestures such a rakish hand on the hip, the jaunty tilt of the head, or a teasing flip of a skirt animates their character and fixes the attitude of these works.

One of the most elegant and romantic images is Masked Ball. The waltzing couple at the heart of the composition are invented. In a conversation about this group of paintings Van Wieck made the pity observation, "People with their identities hidden are more interesting." From the spare study to the lavishly detailed composition of a cavernous, glittering Beaux Arts ballroom, the painting has been filled with formally attired, masked participants. Several small changes in the large version greatly enhance the personae of the dancers. Here the woman's mask has been converted to a metallic gold, the exposure of her feet illuminates the lightness of her movement, and the final, crystallizing alteration was the addition of the man's red mask.

As in Masked Ball, a man surreptitiously fondles a beautiful, statuesque woman in the shadow of a column in Odile Odette. Beyond them and oblivious to their covert embrace, a courtly couple moves gracefully across an empty dance floor. Although she has been given a Praxitelian twist, yellow gown and matching Venetian mask, the sly reference to John Singer Sargent's Madame X - the pose, the whiteness of the woman's skin, and the slipped shoulder strap that so scandalized the French - is inevitable in the finished version. The magic and theatricality of the scene is enhanced by an infinity of Busby Berkeley stairs.

The compositional devise of a column and perhaps another classical pun reoccurs in Love the Night. A shapely, scantily costumed dancer with a tall, ostrich feather headdress takes on the form and apparent role of one of the Ionic caryatids on the porch of the Delphi Treasury. Here the extended hand holds a glass of champagne. She stands silently, her appraising gaze and closed eye - either from the smoke or perhaps a suggestive wink - carries a multitude of implications and promises. Beyond her is a crowded, cacophonic swirl of revelers and dancers.

This recondite and frequently witty use of costumes and masks is carried into other pieces, such as Halloween and Fancy Dress. A beautiful blonde with an exotic feathered mask sways teasingly before a vampire. To her right in the study a furry rabbit boogies with an M&M. In the large version a shift of the woman's gloved arm alters her movement and the hare, now pale blue, dances with a white-faced woman. The addition of an ornamented beam encloses the revelers. Fancy Dress began as a horizontal composition with a Latin band in the background. In the second study the focus on a woman clad in a red sari and the exuberant dancer with paper streamers are retained, but shifted to a vertical format. Beyond them a man in a fez spins his partner. These figures are carried into the finished piece, but the enigmatic, gesturing Indian woman is fixed more firmly in the interior, the animation of the dancers is intensified, and the receding, columnar space has been more clearly articulated.

Other works center on a furtive gesture, such as the whispered remark and stolen kiss in the sultry Liar, or In the Blink of an Eye, a sideways glance at the dark dancer and his laughing partner, and pensive gaze of a solitary, stylish woman of Look the Look. The tuxedoed figure of the black man in Blink of an Eye is cribbed for Belle of the Ball. However, in this piece Van Wieck's use of emphatic, abstract shapes set against a solid, richly colored void yields his most Japanese composition.

Lights Out is the final painting of this tightly interwoven group. It depicts an elegant woman in an evening gown as she pauses briefly to wave goodbye. She is caught in a warm, glowing light and casts a long shadow. The theatrical and unabashedly romantic mood of this image sets an appropriately poetic tone for the close of Dancing, for the sweet, chimerical promises held in its moment are golden.

Like the Coney Island and 42nd Street crowds rendered by Reginald Marsh and the backlit flappers on the evening streets of Manhattan depicted in the etchings of the transplanted Australian Martin Lewis, this eloquent cluster of vignettes - boisterously brimming with festivity and occasionally alluding to euphoric secrets - catches the pulse of an aspect of modern urban culture that is indigenously American and distinctly of our time.

Nigel Van Wieck has shed the naturalism and emphatic verisimilitude employed in the earlier works in favor of more distilled and crystalline imagery His pictures are now stripped to their most emphatic and exhilarating essentials. It is an authoritative culmination of more than two decades of painting. Only the sensuality and mystery of the earlier paintings remain. Supplanting the emptiness and alienation of Working Girls, the rapture of Dancing celebrates passionate attentiveness and emotional convergence. The cumulative effect of this buoyant, effervescent novella of images serves as a reminder of the multifaceted ramifications of E.M. Forster's resonating words on the first page of Howard's End, for they apply equally to the best of our creative endeavors and the extravagant possibilities that lie at the emotional center of our lives.

Only connect.

John Arthur, 2001



 "Time is Movement in Space"
"Time is to place, what eternity is to time"

Joseph Joubert
(French moralist and essayist)

Classical physics tells us that a distance of one meter in space is always one meter. In quantum physics one meter is also one meter, but the elimination of distance, or the approximation or acceptance of something, changes that object or at least contains a wider spectrum of interpretative possibilities, so that the comparative of focused concretization is a well facetted ambiguity in the sense of quantum physics.

Nigel Van Wieck's works function in a similar manner. On first glance we seem to see just what we see. The realistic pictures reveal for us a view of people on a beach, or at work, or involved in recreational activities, or in their domestic surroundings, or in public places. However, as we approach them they lose their unequivocal nature and one begins to ask oneself what is it that we see, or much more if this is everything we see?

Van Wieck has been living and working in New York, USA, since 1979. The fact that the artist is actually English is not apparent, in the least not in his works. They recall too much the works of American Realist artists, with whom he came in contact with after moving to America. At first it was the American Realist paintings of the late 19th century that impressed Van Wieck, such as those of Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer. But even stronger was his fascination with the work of Edward Hopper, whose art he thought was exemplary and in whom he perceived a kindred spirit. The comparison between the oeuvre of Hopper and Van Wieck has understandably often been drawn. In fact there are numerous parallels between Hopper's often isolated and introverted figures who are caught in an urban tristesse and the equally singular figures in Van Wieck's work. Moreover, the artists are united in their frequent depiction of empty places, in their clear compositional structure and in a fascination with sharp light and shadow effects. But Van Wieck's pictures seem more optimistic, his protagonists are, in spite of their isolation, less melancholy than Hopper's protagonists. Although figures such as the young woman who looks dreamily out to sea in Van Wieck's Here Comes Tomorrow are characterized by a strange melancholy, her momentary loneliness is voluntary and not ordained by society, nor indeed caused by herself. Characteristically, the figures in his works do not seem to be so inextricably caught up in their situation as in Hopper's, but are merely caught at a specific moment in time. Thus, the central objective of his art is not to dissect American society, but to create subtle snapshots of the "American way of Life", whose sense of distance and lack of movement make them seem all the more penetrating. What is exciting about the pictures is the indefiniteness of the narrative context, the puzzle as to what came before and after each painted moment. This lack of articulation in the holding up of time gives the works a cinematographic quality and makes their nearness to cinema more than clear. In this respect Sunday Evening is one of the most exciting pictures, as it draws our attention above all because of its viewer's perspective: the steep viewing angle through a tripartite window into a couple's apartment could almost be a "film still" from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.[1]

The same formal strategy of directing the view from a point on high is exploited by Van Wieck in Mulberry Street and Bellevue Avenue. While we observe a boy in the former who is about to climb the wall of a cemetery in bright sunlight, in the latter there is a night scene illuminated by a street lamp where a women with a dog on a leash enters the beam of light. As if we were located in one of the surrounding houses, we gaze down at the street scene and become secret observers of the event. But it is not as if we actually saw something we were not supposed to see - this is not a voyeuristic view of something forbidden, disreputable or perverse. On the contrary, it is ordinariness that we gaze on as viewers in Van Wieck's works: a couple sharing an evening together, a boy playing or just a woman walking her dog

However, although Van Wieck makes the seemingly arbitrary the pictorial motif of his pictures, they are nevertheless filled with a strange tension. This stems on the one hand from a lack of narrative attributes already noted, which allows space for interpretation, and on the other from the formal compositional design. With the help of interesting angles of view, their seemingly spontaneous selection and the overlapping of motifs - all of which are reminiscent of the French Impressionists - the artist introduces his subjects into the scene. As a result, what are in part central motifs are pushed aside, whilst other seemingly less significant objects are given a - in the literal sense of the word - dominant presence. In Catch the day the probably in reality rather prosaic architecture becomes a massive, monumental architectural object that launches itself with its wooden planks into the picture like a ship's bow. The strolling couple to the left of the picture - actually the picture's main subject - serves almost entirely only to make the dimensions clear, like a dimensional study, whereby the bright red dress of the woman also introduces a coloristic accent. It is in a work like this that the artist's coloristic virtuosity becomes apparent, which he employs with a multitude of iridescent color nuances to conjure up a sunny sky, bright sunlit strands or cool architecture before our eyes.

Nigel Van Wieck, who was born in the Unitied Kingdom in Bexley, Kent, in 1949 and received his training at the Hornsey College of Art in London, which alongside the Royal Academy of Arts is one of the most reputable institutes of art in the English capital and which served as a spring board for numerous other successful artists such as Richard Wentworth or Anish
Kapoor. After initial artistic works, which were in the area of figurative art, the artist soon turned to the Kinetic Art. Eventually, enlarging the mechanical movement by an aspect, he began to experiment with light, particularly neon light, which he exploited as an artistic medium. Turning from light art (in the sense of light as an artistic medium) meant, however, by no means a turning away from his intensive study of this phenomenon of light. Rather, Van Wieck began to study the compositional use of light in the works of the Old Masters and to gather inspiration for his own paintings. The artist cites the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer in particular as one of his great role models. No wonder then that Vermeer's painting not only stands out for its attention to detail but also because of its subtle use of lighting which accentuates important compositional elements and hence helps enunciate the narrative and guide interpretation.

Influenced by these past masters, the contrasting play of light and shade plays a leading role in many of Van Wieck's pictures. Here it does not matter whether its is a night piece like Bellevue Avenue or Summer Song, or where the scenes depicted on the basis of back light allow for strong chiaroscuro contrasts such as in the case of The Leaf Blower or Sunday Call. Light is used as a gleaming carpet especially often - as in Places - that spreads over the entire picture. A fine example of this can be found in Escape, South Beach, and the already mentioned Catch the Day or A Hot Day.

The shining bright sunlight in the works contributes to our positive and pleasant impression of the pictures. Nevertheless, because of this at first glance so undetermined atmosphere it also leaves an indefinite feeling of restlessness and evokes perplexity particularly through the representation of a seemingly perfect world. This ambivalence is what gives these pictures their added tension and lifts them above their trivial ordinariness.

As in his earlier works, Van Wieck also swings in Places between a merely hinted at representation of people, in which the features and body form of his figures are summarily indicated, and concrete physiognomic description. However, neither are Van Wieck's figures conceived as portraits, nor are they interchangeable stereotypes. The protagonists who are not clearly indicated in their physiognomic presence rather offer a surface of identification for the viewers themselves. Two pictures shall be named as examples of a strong portrait-like approach: Between Dreams and Eyes Open. In both works a direct look at the naked female body is offered, whereby anonymity and indefiniteness of the physiognomic description have now given way to an individual identity. While in Eyes Open a young woman presents her body to the viewer in a casual pose on a sofa and even invites direct eye contact, the woman in Between Dreams is more reserved. She is sitting naked in front of a large mirror, her legs stretched out, supporting her torso with her arms and turning towards the mirror standing on the ground. Those parts of her body that are hidden from the viewer by her posture are revealed by her reflection in the mirror. And also the room in which she finds herself is hinted at least rudimentarily in the reflections in the mirror. The woman stares thoughtfully at her reflection. What is she thinking? Why is she sitting there? Is she posing for a painter and has she used a lull period to allow her thoughts to wander? Is she thinking about her situation, her dreams perhaps as the title suggests? As always with Van Wieck there are no answers, but as is well known, it is the questions that count and not the answers.

A direct interaction with the viewer such as in Eyes Open remains an exception in Van Wieck's oeuvre. One of the leitmotifs in the pictures of Places is far more a cocooning, an introversion, withdrawal, in an inner sense of being. The artist turns not to the overpopulated beaches or the busy districts of the city, but to motifs and places where one has the opportunity to be alone. These are "resting places" were people tend to linger, where they have time to themselves and to enjoy, in part oblivious of the presence of others. The pictorial titles evoke again and again a confrontation with oneself or seem in part like a positive self-affirmation (Catch the Day, There is Only Now, Here Comes Tomorrow).

For the works of his series Places, moreover, the artist has moved outside to find his pictorial motifs, just as he did in his most recent works that were shown under the title Labor Day [2]. Photographs or rapidly drawn sketches of certain places serve him here as aids for the compositions he later completed. The title Places - in other words locations, spots, localities - recurs, however, not just in the actual tangible spatial situations. Places also refer, seen from a lexicographical-geographical point of view, to a collection of points that are characterized by specific geometrical attributes and whose positions relative to one another are determined by a system of reference set in context, whereby the system of coordinates serves as an established means to present location in pictorial form. Van Wieck's works are almost painterly systems of reference, however with the difference that they not only allow for a spatial dimension, but also a temporal as well as a metaphorical one. As if in a system of coordinates, Van Wieck determines his protagonists in spatially verifiable urban locations, but also binds them into of temporal reference system that captures a specific moment, that predetermines a chronological location of the individual. In the third instance he lays a system of coordinates over the individual itself, by mapping out its interior in a metaphorical sense: the inner places of the human soul, the heights and depths, the mountains and valleys, its plains as well as its abysses. In this sense the exhibition title Places undoubtedly refers to the spatial realities but it also signifies those psychological locations that we find ourselves in, which we enter and leave once more.

Nigel van Wieck's pictures are, in spite of - or indeed because of - their realistic form of representation, an unending source of fantasy. Animating stimuli also call for us to discover formal design principles, to create narrative links, to play through different possibilities and at the same time to always to shift our perspectives "Reality is much better when it is imagined", the artist opined on his artistic intentions. But it is only through the elimination of distance, and opening oneself to the works that this new reality is unveiled and begins its delightful play of ambiguities and multiples meanings. For this reason: step a little closer!

Sylvia Mraz

[1] Here the links to Hopper are at their strongest, because Hopper's work also manifests a "filmic" quality that in turn was of great influence on many in the film industry. It is know that reputable directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento or Wim Wenders gathered inspiration for their films from Edward Hopper's oeuvre.

[2] Labor Day - Exhibition in Galerie Elisabeth Michitsch from 10 September to 14 October 2004.