“I do feel that it’s actually more logical to approach complexity through a simple subject. How many masterful pieces are made of the simplest of subjects?”—Nicolas Party
Five pears resting on a surface; the simplest of subjects, and yet in Nicolas Party’s hands a masterful investigation of color, material, and art history. The classically-trained artist is known for tackling traditional genres of painting—portraiture, landscape, and still life—and invigorating them with a contemporary neo-Surrealist touch. In Still-Life, the pear is the perfect subject for Party with its art historical connotations, symbolizing immortality to the Chinese, abundance to the Greeks and Romans, and Christ’s love in Renaissance religious paintings. The humble fruit also appeared frequently in Flemish flower and fruit paintings from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and was much pondered by modern still-life masters such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Georgia O’Keefe.
Party’s Still Life is anything but still—instead the vibrantly-colored pears pulsate with energy and movement, imbued with playful vivaciousness. While still-life paintings are typically modest in size, Party enlarges his picture to imposing dimensions. On this expansive canvas, the pears are magnified and take on a monumental scale, more akin to figures. Indeed, Party portrays them as characters, full of life and individual personality. Rendered in fantastical jewel-tones of green, red, purple, yellow and blue, the five stylized pears are unabashedly provocative in their postures. The figures’ shaded presence lends a volumetric appeal, further exaggerating their sensuous curves.
Yet despite this illusion of weight and volume, there is also a sense of flatness and a graphic quality to the work, perhaps informed by Party’s experience as a 3D animator. The artist also situates his painting in a typically enigmatic milieu—the pears sit on a subdued yellow surface against a deep blue background, entirely flat, devoid of any context, depth, or perspective. Party’s paintings are often pared down and stripped of superfluous details, drawing the viewer in to focus on shape, color, and composition. The viewer is invited to contemplate this ambiguity, and perhaps conjure an imaginary space—undulating hills cascading across a mountain range, sunbathers sprawled on the beach against a blue sky, or actors staging a tableau vivant on a stage. “I want to grab the audience directly and “lock” them in the work as long as possible. When the viewer is inside the painting, my hope is that its complexity can be revealed. You stay inside it because you feel that there is still something there that you don’t see.” (N Party, quoted in J. Lee, “Nicolas Party”, BOMB, issue 152. Available from https://bombmagazine.org/articles/nicolas-party/ [accessed 11/13/2020]).
Like Edgar Degas, who favored pastel for its spontaneity, Party employs pastel as a painter rather than as a draughtsman. Applied by hand and easily smudgeable, pastel is a notoriously volatile and challenging medium, and Party’s virtuosic use is formidable, especially on works of such an ambitious scale. Party is drawn to the exceptional degree of intensity, immediacy, and urgency in pastel’s powdery pigment, possibly as a nod to the thrilling process and performance of graffiti, which he dabbled in during his teenage years.
Party’s work is simultaneously light-hearted yet intense, recognizable yet utterly unreal—despite connecting with a palpable lineage, Still-Life feels vividly contemporary. These contradictions seduce the viewer into Party’s beguiling world, where the simplest of subjects become a window into the metaphysical.