Purple Magazine
— The Love Issue #34

nicolas party

ART

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait and studio photos by ALEX MOORE
artwork by NICOLAS PARTY 

there’s a vibrating, cosmetic aspect to the swiss-born artist nicolas party’s enigmatic portraits and landscapes in bright, saturated pastels. but, like love, there’s also a dark side, inspired by sottobosco, the flemish tradition of capturing the forest ground, where light doesn’t hit. all sorts of creatures emerge.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Nicolas, do painting and your artistic practice change the way you see our crazy planet?
NICOLAS PARTY — I think an art practice often has a slower rhythm than the cadence of the world. My paintings are not a direct reaction to current events. It’s often the opposite, in a way — what I’m looking for when I paint is to escape from the constant sound of the world around me. What I’m expecting of the experience of an artwork is very different from what I expect when I read an article about a pressing issue in the newspaper. I also like the idea of looking at the world through the lens of an artwork. There are so many different lenses.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. And it’s the eternal question: do we see the Montagne Sainte-Victoire through Cézanne’s painting, or do we love Cézanne’s paintings because we love Provence?
NICOLAS PARTY — Yeah, and it isn’t a very exciting mountain. Sometimes, when a subject is too picturesque, you don’t really want to paint it. The Matterhorn in Switzerland is a stunning mountain to look at, but I don’t think I know any good paintings of it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You paint nature — trees, caves, the sea — people, and a few objects like bottles and flowers. Do you pick your subjects because you love them and they intrigue you, or do you pick them because they’re part of art history?
NICOLAS PARTY — It’s not really a programmatic choice, more an intuition. I’m often attracted to subjects that have been painted multiple times throughout history. There is a sort of comfort in knowing that the subject you painted has been tested so many times before. I paint trees quite often. There’s nothing groundbreaking about painting a tree. Knowing that so many trees have been painted in the past makes me approach this particular subject with a sort of calmness. I’d love to wander through a forest filled with all the trees ever painted. How many would that be? The latest subject I started to paint is caves — another charged subject that brings so many ideas to our imagination. We like the idea that everything started in a cave.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Totally. The cave as the first canvas.
NICOLAS PARTY — Exactly! I like it when subjects have so many layers of meaning attached to them. When you paint it, you carry all of it with you, for better or for worse!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that you’re painting, not something, but rather a symbol? There’s a lot of symbolism in your paintings.
NICOLAS PARTY — I really like a lot of historically classified “Symbolist painters.” When I moved to Belgium, I discovered Léon Spilliaert and William Degouve de Nuncques, two painters who have influenced me a lot over the past five years. The motif of the cave is actually taken from a painting by William Degouve de Nuncques, and I took a lot from Léon Spilliaert in my trees… I like what motifs bring in terms of metaphors. I’m not really trying to control all of it, but I don’t reject any metaphors that come with some of the motifs that I paint. I embrace all of them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We live in a forest of language. We’re already in the language, whether we’re a painter, a poet, or a baby. Would you say that your symbolic paint­ings use all these symbols as a metaphor for love?
NICOLAS PARTY — Well, that’s a pretty big statement! I don’t think a painting has a precise agenda, but you need love in everything  you do — and to paint, you certainly need love. It’s a crucial ingredient. We probably do almost everything through the idea of “love.” It’s a word that can define so much. You can say, “I love my children,” just like you can say, “I love pasta.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or “these mushrooms.” You love mushrooms! There are mushrooms in so many of your paintings.
NICOLAS PARTY — Maybe the main idea is attraction, the feeling of being pulled toward something. There is a lot of it in the universe. I can imagine that we feel what the moon is feeling for the Earth: she constantly moves around us, in love with us, in a constant balance between falling toward and escaping us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right. Because — and this isn’t a criticism — you stay on the surface of the painting. There’s nothing behind it, right? You said something very interesting — that you use soft pastel as make-up. What do you mean by that?
NICOLAS PARTY — Pastel was very popular with rococo French society in the 18th century. During that time, make-up for men and women was used in a tremendous way. People would wear these big wigs and cover their faces with white powder and rouge on the cheeks. Pastel was literally made with the same pigments that were used for the make-up — you could buy pastel and make-up in the same shop. During that period, painting a portrait was to paint an already painted face. Not painting the skin itself, but the make-up that covered the skin to modify its texture and color. And by using pastel to do so, you were painting using actual make-up. That idea could then be transferred to a more contemporary way of using make-up — the photo filter on the different apps that we use. I look at that surface layer when I paint a portrait.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I really appreciate this cosmetic aspect of your work, which creates an immediate connection with the viewer. Because your colors are not only very bright, playful, surprising, but also, I would say, even musical — the way you compose and address color creates beautiful music. It’s like you’re immediately connected: there’s a vibration.
NICOLAS PARTY — Color is very much like music. The tiniest adjustment on the piano chords makes an immense difference. A drop of yellow on that blue, and the whole melody changes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why when we enter your exhibition — for example, your show at Hauser & Wirth in LA — it’s not only a painting, but a whole installation. We’re immediately in contact with you, with your symbols. We enter a world. This is what I meant by your staying on the surface: the surface creates an immediate volume.
NICOLAS PARTY — I always like to paint the usually white wall of the gallery. The idea of the neutrality of the white wall is problematic. It disturbingly echoes this idea of whiteness as a neutral and universal value in Western society. White is a color like any other — it’s not a neutral idea. Choosing the color white to paint gallery walls is a decision similar to painting it in any other color, so why always white? Another aspect of white as a color to display artworks is that it’s very often disadvantageous for the artworks that are shown. The color white is often difficult for other colors. It reflects too much light, so it basically eats up the colors next to it. Back to comparing music notes and colors, if you have one note, you always need other notes to create a melody, and then each note starts to have its own personality emerging much more. Same with humans — you need other people to make you exist. You are invisible if you are the only one in the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, exactly. I think your paintings create an immediate connection between the visitor and your work, and between the visitor and yourself. Because it’s you. And I see your work as a very psychological experience. Your landscapes, your trees, your caves, your flowers, but also your people — are they all actually people?
NICOLAS PARTY — One of the reasons that there’s this effect or this feeling is that I never base my work on anything that directly exists in the world. None of my trees come from a specific tree that exists in nature. I see all my motifs as independent characters, and I approach them by applying a personality to them. Each of my trees has a different temperament. I love it when animals or different objects incarnate human passions. When I paint three trees, it’s quite similar to a fable — three protagonists involved in a little story. We often alter what we see in front of us to fill it with our personal vision. Seeing an elephant in that cloud, or looking at Mont Sainte-Victoire and seeing a painting instead of the mountain.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We are looking for a better world or a world that resembles us.
NICOLAS PARTY — Human society seems to always need to create culture in order to deal with reality — a reality in which we are just another species of mammal on this little planet. It seems that, unlike many other mammals that accepted that condition, we think that we are much more than that. So, humans always struggle with those two conditions: being a mammal and the feeling of being more than that. Culture is a bridge between those two conditions over which we can cross back and forth. Without that bridge, we will no longer have access to both conditions. Every cultural object is a little bridge. Maybe being on that bridge, being able to see both conditions, being attracted by both sides — that could be the feeling of love.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very interesting idea. Artists like you extend the original source of love — which is protection, motherhood, the need for security — into something much more diverse, complex, sophisticated, and intriguing. And sometimes it’s dark. Because there’s also a dark side to your paintings, I believe. Hence the title of your last show, Sottobosco. Tell us about this beautiful Flemish and Dutch tradition.
NICOLAS PARTY — Yeah, sottobosco was a genre of painting created by the painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck. “Sottobosco” means the forest ground, where light doesn’t hit. It’s an interesting idea for a painter to be interested in an environment where light is almost absent. Light is what makes our world visible. Where there is almost no light in the forest, all sorts of creatures emerge. They are the characters of his painting: mushrooms, frogs and bugs, moss and moths, snakes and dragonflies. Otto Marseus van Schrieck was a 17th-century Dutch painter. During that time, many scientific discoveries were being made, including the microscope. Many artists were passionate about this scientific research and discovery, and in van Schrieck’s painting, the scientific element is very important. He lived in the outskirts of Amsterdam with a menagerie of frogs, snakes, and butterflies that he used as models for his paintings. He was even said to be able to make his snakes pose for him. It’s an aspect that I really love in his painting. All those different bugs and mushrooms seem alive, like characters in a surreal play.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, they’re almost dancing.
NICOLAS PARTY — Exactly. It reminds me of the early Disney cartoons with the dancing trees and flowers. So, that’s an aspect of love. Another aspect is the idea of darkness and what comes with that concept. Where there is no light, there is no life. It was interesting to explore the idea of darkness in Los Angeles, a city that is so bright.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, to come back to your paintings, which use this tradition: through painting mushrooms and the undergrowth, is that also a way of referring to the dark side of relationships or to the more problematic sides of love?
NICOLAS PARTY — This darkness is more related to our inner side, what we tend to hide. We all have those dark feelings that are inside us. Often, we keep those feelings down there in the dark, in our forest floor, our sottobosco. It’s a bizarre world of feelings that lives in the darkness of our self. And like the paintings of Otto Marseus van Schrieck, there is a lot of beauty there, too.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s a way, in relationships, of keeping a little freedom. And also, once the love story ends, maybe this hidden side can be the source of another kind of love, right?
NICOLAS PARTY — Yes, that’s true. It’s always there, and it’s going to come out.

OLIVIER ZAHM — On a more personal level, is love important to you?
NICOLAS PARTY — The word “love” is such a beautiful and charged word that means different things: the love that I have for my life partner, Sarah; the love that I have for my friends; also the love that I have for myself — and how, when I work, I can call all those feelings “love.” Love is the idea of being attracted to something and of always trying to get closer inside that idea, that person. And there are probably similarities between the love you have for an idea, the love you have for a person, and the love you have for an object. This feeling of attraction is accelerating and can be very addictive. Sometimes, it takes you over, and that can be destructive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We call that toxic. [Laughs]
NICOLAS PARTY — Exactly.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Just to finish, there’s a book by Henry Miller called To Paint Is to Love Again. I was always intrigued by this title. What does it mean to you?
NICOLAS PARTY — I’m a painter, so I will have to connect it with the actual act of painting. There is a great force of attraction in place when you paint. In the studio, your body is constantly going back and forth from the canvas. You walk away from it, look at it, and walk toward it. This little dance between me and the painting lasts all day long in the studio. This perpetual pull is what makes love so exciting.

END

PORTRAIT BY ALEX MOORE STUDIO PHOTOS BY ALEX MOORE NICOLAS PARTY, PORTRAIT WITH MUSHROOMS, 2019, SOFT PASTEL ON PANEL WRAPPED WITH LINEN, 59 X 50 X 1 INCHES, COURTESY OF NICOLAS PARTY PHOTO ADAM REICH
NICOLAS PARTY, INSTALLATION VIEW OF “SOTTOBOSCO” AT HAUSER & WIRTH, LOS ANGELES, 2020 OTTO MARSEUS VAN SCHRIECK, FOREST FLOOR STILL LIFE WITH THREE SNAKES, LIZARD, AND TOAD, 1663, OIL ON CANVAS, RELINED, 24 X 20 INCHES, COURTESY OF NICOLAS PARTY PHOTO JOSHUA WHITE NICOLAS PARTY, GROTTO, 2019, SOFT PASTEL ON LINEN, 40 X 50 1/16 X 1 INCHES, COURTESY OF NICOLAS PARTY PHOTO ADAM REICH INSTALLATION VIEW OF “NICOLAS PARTY: PASTEL” AT THE FLAG ART FOUNDATION, 2019-20 ROSALBA CARRIERA, PORTRAIT OF A LADY AT THREE-QUARTER LENGTH, N.D., PASTEL ON PAPER, 22 X 17 1⁄4 INCHES, COLLECTION OF NICOLAS PARTY (IN FRAME) NICOLAS PARTY, FROM JEAN HONORÉ FRAGONARD, THE PROGRESS OF LOVE, 1773, 2019, SOFT PASTEL ON WALL, 918 X 134 INCHES (MURAL), PHOTO STEVEN PROBERT

 

[Table of contents]

The Love Issue #34

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