Classically trained, Swiss-born artist Nicolas Party is best known for revitalizing the traditional genres of portraiture, still-life and landscape. In his work, Party strips his subjects of superfluous details to question what makes an image recognizable. Less concerned with accurate portrayals, he plays with shape, colour, materials and composition to create works that transport viewers to a dreamy world of surreal figuration. Extensively informed by art history, Party explores the boundless possibilities of various media including painting, sculpture, pastel and installation. In the process, he turns his sitters, objects, and landscapes into emotive and seductive symbols that redefine the notion of representation. Since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2009, Party has been the subject of major solo exhibitions at institutions worldwide, including M WOODS, Beijing (2018); the Magritte Museum, Brussels (2018); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2017); and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016).
Rocks (2016) is an enigmatic pastel landscape, distinguished by Party’s signature vibrant palette and flat, graphic imagery. Set against a muted grey-blue background, layers of ambiguously shaped rocks alternate loosely between a mix of soft and bold hues. Perhaps owing to his background in 3D animation and graffiti art, Party creates an illusion of weight and volume without compromising the flatness of his composition. Smaller, rounder forms lie innocuously at the bottom of the canvas, while towering hills emerge from behind like grossly distorted, inverted funnels. Despite its seemingly grandiose subject matter, the work exudes a lightness and humor redolent of artists such as David Hockney and René Magritte.
Deeply attuned to the lessons of art history, Party translates the tradition of landscape painting into contemporary terms. When asked about his practice, Party remarks, “I’m trying to work with subjects that are not original. Subjects that have been, and still are, painted all the time” (N. Party, quoted in F. Tattoli, "Talking with the Swiss painter Nicolas Party", Fruit of the Forest, December 2016). Rocks, as a subject, have long been central to the history of art – particularly Chinese landscape painting – and in their form and function have remained virtually unchanged. Although referencing the past, the mountainous forms in Rocks are divorced from period and place, caught in a state of limbo between past and future. It is precisely this timeless quality that fascinates the artist: wrestling with the limitations of his medium and the weight of history, Party creates a work that feels simultaneously familiar and new.
In keeping with the rest of his practice, Party does not create his landscapes from life. Instead, he draws upon a wide but selective vocabulary of figurative elements derived from his imagination. Like the late nineteenth-century painter Henri Rousseau, who often depicted ahistorical landscapes of rich foliage populated with animals, he transports his viewers to a fantastical universe. Other key art historical influences include Pablo Picasso, Félix Valloton, Ferdinand Hodler and Giorgio Morandi. The latter’s celebrated still-lifes have been particularly inspirational for Party in terms of their quietly focused compositions. This lineage is palpable in the present work, which exudes a sense of deep mystery from its seemingly simple execution.