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.