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Stanley Nichols: Lost Highway O’Born Contemporary, Toronto

An afterglow of Stanley Nichols’s Lost Highway, the mid-winter exhibit at O’Born Contemporary, remains in my mind, months after the show has closed. Comprising five paintings, one photograph and a series of portraits from photos, the artist exacts a refreshingly unique way of seeing experience, memory and the self in global space. Encountering each work results in a collision between viewer and depicted environment that is consuming. Due to the immediacy of the experience, the challenge is resisting the uncanny feeling of adopting the artist’s portrayed memory as your own.

The invitation to commingle with the work begins with the discovery of a double-exposed image of billboard scaffolding at the gallery’s entrance. Chase Manhattan (2010) has the cinematic quality of a crane shot, betraying Nichols’s working process of photographing his subject matter prior to painting it, thereby crystallizing memory in a photo-negative. The double-exposure aesthetic in this over-sized work, as in all five exhibited paintings, is accounted for by the superimposition of two separate but identical images on drafting vellum. This materiality is further magnified in Crash (2008), a 5 foot by 6.5 foot image that sits just 4 inches above the gallery’s concrete floor. Hung at an unusual height (the top is even with my shoulder), the image portrays a forested roadside where numerous automobile crashes have occurred. The car remnants have all been left at the site, gradually becoming enfolded by the indigenous foliage. Offset to the extent that the central tree trunk is nearly doubled in size, the two overlaid images in Crash confuse the scale of the objects therein, making the car lying side-long appear toy-like. The muted tones and calligraphic brushwork speak directly to the ink-on-silk aesthetics of Far Eastern Art. Nichols’s pet portraits announce his perspective on the multitude of places (Japan, Manhattan, Boston, Williamsburg) he portrays in his work. He generates a lucid representation of each of these locales for the viewer by transforming his remembered experiences within specific cultural climates into accessible imagery.

Times Square, March 6, 2008 (2008) captures the site and date of a bombing in front of the United States Armed Forces Recruiting Station. The open composition and vaguely delineated subject matter arouse the idea of a specific collective memory of Manhattan and the fact that mythologizing a traumatic event is tantamount to memory shifting over time. Jean Baudrillard’s exposition of successive orders of simulacra, depending on how far removed from reality a memory or depiction is, informs this work. Tiny black satellites–sunspots produced by light refraction in the original photograph from which Nichols painted–are here transformed into silent, floating witnesses of an urban atmosphere that has drastically and continually changed since September iith, 2 0 0 1. Does the history of terrorism belong to New York and its citizens? Certainly not. Is the essence of a collective, mythologi7xd memory of the city of Manhattan imbued in Times Square? Nichols presents a convincing gesture towards this notion for his viewers.

The only chromatic image in the gallery is Untitled (100 photographs of#6i Jewel Street) (2010), an out-of-focus, rose-hued photograph of Nichols’s current bedroom. The palpable loneliness and gravitational pull of the image immediately recalls Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 untitled memorial to his AIDS-afflicted lover, Ross. Both photographs present the modest yet powerful unmade bed as a platform from which to explore personal space, the itinerant quality of life and the unknowable mechanics of time. Having had between 10 and 12 separate bedrooms over a short span of adulthood, Nichols attempts to materialize his mobility through creative process. Untitled is a recombinant photograph of 100 distinct shots taken over the span of 45 minutes. Each print was reduced to virtual invisibility such that only by layering the entire suite did the image reconstitute itself. If each photo-negative is considered a space for potentiality and operates as a container for information, the composite image behaves as a palimpsest of extremely intimate spaces that adjoin multiple past and present realities. Absence here is as veritable as presence, allowing Nichols’s former and current selves to occupy a single place. Finally, the distilled cross formed by the armature of the window frame lends a sacred air to the room that gestures towards the sanctuary that a bed chamber often is.

Exiting the gallery, viewers pass a wall covered in a grid of 44 graphic drawings on handmade paper from an original series of 54. Each piece bears a word or phrase in a different typeface and one image stands out as colluding with the other works in the show. “Being & Event,” drawn in the lower left-hand corner of the blank page, recalls grade school introductions to the verbal description of time, also known as grammatical tense. “Being,” a continual state, is represented by the imperfect verb tense, whereas “Event,” a rupture in time’s continuum, is described using the simple past. The traditional didactic approach to describing past events is equally as applicable when considering memory, history and how we visually capture moments in time. In the greater constellation of 54 unique Graphite Drawings on Handmade Paper (2010), “Being & Event” highlights a breakdown in human’s ability to disentangle socio-historical events and the cultural climate that they precipitated at the time from our current collective memory of the past–which continues in perpetuity. Nichols, therefore, uses the urban palimpsests of loaded sites such as Times Square and simple typography to catalyze a reexamination of how we look at images as records of our lives.

The intellectual density that is the foundation of Lost Highway does render the work somewhat opaque, necessitating clarification from the artist himself. Conversations with Nichols reveal mainly contingent starting points for his exhibition concept, including the theories of cultural historian Walter Benjamin, the personal politics of living a nomadic lifestyle, and simulacrum as a masked or perverted reflection on an image or memory that once represented basic reality. Though this basis sets the legibility of the work at a higher standard, the exercise Nichols asks us to perform is prudent in today’s state of global affairs. His art not only teaches us to examine how we inherit ideas of other cultures and their pasts, but also what scholar Susan Buck-Morss calls anschauenunterricht, or a lesson in observation. Nichols demands a more acute mode of observation in our daily life and his art demands a great respect and consideration of the enigma that is memory.

Rachel Anne Farquharson is a Toronto-based essayist and curator who recently completed a Master’s thesis on the phenomenological effects of two-dimensional, paper based art.

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