Peter Nadin’s “First Mark” opened at Gavin Brown’s enterprise on June 29th. It’s the first time the artist has exhibited his work in this country since 1992. Nadin was, for a time, an extremely well known painter (his work is owned by the Met, among other museums.) While he gathered fame as a painter, he was also known for a series of conceptual collaborations with other artists. In 1983 he joined a collective—The Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince and Winters—aimed at providing “aesthetic services” rather than objects. He also collaborated on several projects and books with Jenny Holzer and turned his studio into a gallery, showing artists Sean Scully, Daniel Buren and Dan Graham, among others. Regardless of his early success, Nadin eventually elected to stop making or showing art and spent most of the 1990s and 2000s at work on his farm in the Catskills.
There has been massive coverage of Nadin’s “comeback.” Paddy Johnson pinpoints how Gavin Brown has a knack for media-grabbing shows of this sort. (Last year’s Rob Pruitt show was another prime example.) There is a sense that the show itself is grabbing headlines simply because of Nadin’s backstory and the list of boldfaced names he hung out with in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, the appeal of a story about an enigmatic artist turned farmer is unavoidable. There is a self-mythologizing traction to the course of Nadin’s recent history. Certainly the story of an in-crowd painter surrounded by artists like Richard Prince and Jenny Holzer going rogue and abandoning the spotlight makes a compelling narrative. But you have to wonder if the artist’s new work has the legs to support.
That Nadin left the New York art world to pursue a solitary life of farming and manual labor is only partially true: let’s not forget that Nadin teaches at Cooper Union and has owned a house in the West Village for the last 30 years. He has provided for himself and his family with the fruits of his own labor, but also sold pigs to the Breslin. I point out these facts not to denigrate his story, but merely to disrupt any notion of the artist as returned mountain man strolling down from the mist-covered hills. Though Nadin has made changes to the way he thinks about and approaches art, his underlying core of beliefs is the same. There is the same tension between man and nature, between the system and the individual that is visible in his early works.
When I walked into Gavin Brown to check out the show the first thing I noticed was the smell. My mother used to give me beeswax to play with as a child, and here again was that cloyingly familiar scent. In fact it permeated everything, tying together three rooms of gruff, roughly hewn artwork. The first gallery offers up four of Nadin’s recent paintings, composed of splashy abstract washes of wax, honey, charcoal, indigo and walnut paste. Nadin’s canvasses are beautiful in a way that seems almost effortless. In the third gallery was a massive square pond full of honey, dusty brown soil and ceramic, suggesting a miniature landscape complete with the texture and smell of Nadin’s farm.
In the second gallery approximately 50 blocks of splintery hemlock form an obvious analogy to the forest. Each square rod is populated with many of Nadin’s clay, wood and wax sculptures. The effect was arresting. Caught between the trees, one couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by the slapdash nature of much of the sculpture.
Like Nadin’s writing, the exhibit serves like a wormhole into the artists head, giving an idea of his life and values. Above all else it is a momentary respite from the city, a homemade spiritual remedy for tarmac ailments. Nadin often states that he is interested in capturing experience and consciousness instead of being concerned with the “ocular” properties of art. What seems strange to me about this is how carefully his paintings seem to have been framed, how baroquely dramatic the dark and light contrasts truly are. Next to the paintings the rest of the work seems slightly unfinished; one wonders what might come to fruit were the artist’s focus a little less broad, were he a bit more concerned with how things look.
Peter Nadin’s “First Mark” is on view at Gavin Brown’s enterprise until July 30th.