With the nation currently marking the centenary of some women in the UK gaining the right to vote, this post recounts some of the themes behind Nicolas Party’s exhibition, Speakers, which acknowledges the achievements of pioneering women in the city of Oxford.
In November 2017, Stephanie Straine, Curator of Exhibitions & Projects, interviewed Nicolas Party about his artistic influences, the making of Speakers and his first visit to Oxford.
Stephanie Straine (SS): Can you talk about your time as a graffiti artist growing up in Switzerland? How did that early start affect your career as a painter?
Nicolas Party (NP): I always painted. When you’re a child, people usually do a lot of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and I guess some people never stop, and that was the case with me. Around 12 years old, I discovered spray paint. In the very early 1990s there was the third wave of street art in Europe. Graffiti had a performance aspect of doing a painting or a creative work that was very attractive. So one half was about doing the painting, and the other half was about the adventure: it was the perfect occupation to have both together.
SS: You combine a whole variety of art-historical influences, which come together to form your own visual vocabulary. Do you feel like you’re establishing a dialogue with other painters from different points in history, and how important is that to your work?
NP: I guess that this dialogue with other artists is really the discussion you have with yourself about what you like, in art terms. If you like graffiti but you also like Claude Monet, then it will be reflected in the work a little bit. There’s no limit – it’s just about your personality and the range of things that you are interested in. What is reflected in the work can’t be faked; you can’t pretend to like this type of art or theory, if you’re not really into it. If you’re not completely honest, it will not look right.
When I was younger I copied Tin Tin and other comic books, I loved the watercolours of the vineyards where I grew up by local artists … you’re a sponge taking everything in. I don’t look at a lot of street art now, but when I was doing graffiti I studied it at intensely. My work has evolved a lot since that time; it’s more technical now. The conversation between different visual elements is very natural for me. Whatever you consume will be seen in the work.
SS: Many critics have observed that your work is a response to the post-internet age, and in particular the hyper-available image culture. What is your take on this relationship between painting and the digital age in your practice?
NP: Everybody now is a post-internet individual. We are consuming everything through these new kinds of media. Sometimes artworks look clearly influenced by the Internet, but in fact artists today are more focused on the past than the future, which is quite unusual in the history of art. Now, we don’t trust the future, we’re very scared of it. Artists are now more nostalgic than futuristic. The general consensus is to think badly of the future; if you are optimistic, people assume you are simply naïve.
SS: When you first visited Oxford you were particularly interested in the carved heads at the Sheldonian Theatre. How did you take inspiration from them? Your female Speakers are a group of fictional characters whose stories are unknown, just as the ‘heads of the emperors’ are simply archetypal ‘learned men’. The lack of specificity enables the viewer to project any number of meanings, histories or life stories onto the sculptures. How important is the notion that people can bring their own ideas to the work?
NP: I’m comfortable in the things that I do when I don’t have a specific discourse with words or research. I have the greatest respect for people who communicate through writing and research, but I prefer to be more visually direct. What the viewer experiences physically and visually in my exhibition is really simple. It’s direct and straightforward: they see five heads that are big. The colours are a signal, the eye catches up quickly, and the work entertains our senses strongly and rapidly. What I’ve been trying to do is to have this first layer of very strong, direct visual cues, which makes me comfortable to add other layers of references, without naming them explicitly. I feel like I’m playing with the references, getting lost in them, but I always need to be direct with the visuals. It’s up to me, and the work, to try to keep the audience’s attention as long as possible. That’s where the layering of information comes in.
In my work, I’m trying to have a strong, direct connection: we have to remember that a portrait is one of the least original things you can possibly paint, especially in this age of the selfie. How do you create this tiny space in which you grab the attention of the viewer? It’s how the portrait turns into a character – it can go very far, but it’s not up to me to decide.
SS: Can you talk us through the construction process for the heads? It’s quite hard to tell how they were made. They could be handmade, they could be industrially fabricated: there’s an ambiguity to their origins that is quite intriguing for the viewer.
NP: For a while I’ve wanted to paint heads. Almost all of the sculptures from antiquity were painted (although that original colouration has now been lost), and there is something interesting about paint being applied to a sculptural surface. There is something not quite right about it, in a way. Particularly in modern art, volume is just a volume. If you paint it, it diminishes the skill of the sculptor: if you paint a shadow onto a surface that is already three- dimensional, you contradict the light. If I paint shadows on the heads, I need to do them where they shouldn’t be (in real life), or else it contradicts the volume.
I wanted to start with a simple head shape – something between a doll, and an antique carved head, or a millinery dummy, which are all really quite beautiful – and then paint one of my portraits onto this three-dimensional surface. The volume is not that worked up… I took a very generic head shape. We made a 3D model on the computer, which was then 3D printed as an actual model to see what it would look like, and then from this 3D model the fabricators made this metal structure or framework inside the head. Finally, the structure was plastered by hand then painted over. So it’s really a mix between something very high-tech, and something very handmade. I like that there are these two aspects to the work. The heads all have exactly the same proportions; their shape does appear to be 3D computer- generated, but then they have this plaster finish which is entirely done by hand, and not completely uniform. Finally, the manner of painting is quite cold and mechanical; there is not a great deal of expression in the way the paint is applied to the heads.
SS: Your colour palette is highly distinctive, and instantly recognisable even when you work in different media (wall murals, pastel, sculptures). Can you explain your colour choices for this installation?
NP: I don’t have much interest in what could be labelled as ‘reality’. I’m more interested in the signs, symbols and codes we’ve created for reality. I was never interested in how you might render a so-called ‘realistic’ flesh tone. First all, real skin changes colour and tone constantly, so it’s an almost useless endeavour to try and ‘match’ it. When I started to do portraits I was using a recognisable ‘flesh’ colour, a sort of peachy-apricot, that would be seen roughly as equivalent to a skin tone … the white, Western skin as it’s been depicted throughout the European painting tradition. But we need to remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries many people (both men and women) from the ruling class would wear significant amounts of white make-up (to denote their wealth), so the paintings don’t really depict the reality of their skin. They are far too white – a kind of chalky, pastel white that is really the make-up on display. So lately (only this summer) I have begun to use colours that are definitely not the colour of the skin, reds, blue, green, to see how it affected the perception and mood of the portrait. The colours of Speakers give a different mood to each of the heads, playing with the symbolic power of colour.
SS: The soundscape component of Speakers (a different audio track emanating from each of the five heads) has been produced during the installation in response to the paintings of the heads. Why did you want to include audio in this particular work?
NP: I’ve worked with sound a few times throughout my career. I was in an artist’s group after art college, and did a lot of set designs. I was doing all the music and sound installations, as well as some films. I’m a huge fan of music, and I like this idea of creating a space of theatre and performance. It means that the visitor’s experience of the exhibition becomes a little more physical and involving than the simple interaction of looking at a painting.
When we decided to do the heads, there was this desire to create a form of storytelling through sound and music that would allude to the various contexts of the histories of women in Oxford; the history of the museum itself, and the Sheldonian heads of the emperors that I first saw on visiting the city.
For me it was very important to have the soundscape to make Speakers more alive and complex for the viewer experience. It’s really an experiment and I think it’s going to totally change the viewing the heads. If you put music in any show it changes it dramatically. Music has such a powerful emotional affect, which can sometime be way too powerful. In this particular context, I felt it was important to add this emotional layer to bring the painted sculptures together. There is audio sourced from Modern Art Oxford’s archive which alludes to previous exhibitions and events held at the gallery, and there are components sourced from sound banks and from scored compositions. I like this idea of hearing a ‘soup of sounds’ … and getting a bit lost in it. The connections are not always possible to guess, but I like this creation of a ‘soup’ experience, and seeing what happens!
Visit Nicolas Party’s exhibition Speakers before it ends on Sunday 18 February 2018.