The Small and Very Large Paintings of Chris Nau

  • A Brave Peek into the Binnacle, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 18in x 24in

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The Brooklyn, NY-based painter, Chris Nau creates monolithic imagery while using mid-scale canvases. With consistent clarity, Nau can render structural forms while implementing non-structural and almost accidental color patterns. These canvases grab the viewer with a strong sculptural presence and at the same time provide a fluid treatment of color and pattern. This dichotomy is refreshing…it reflects artistic freedom and the benefit of accident all supported by pictorial intelligence.

The result is an alarmingly original and modern environment for the viewer. Nau’s work is an excellent example of why compositional and structural acumen is necessary. An attribute missing from too much of contemporary painting.

Nau’s paintings evolve from small graphite-on-paper sketches—erased and redrawn so often that the paper itself barely holds—that are transferred to canvas. Nau uses what he calls “a rough and clumsy approach” utilizing all manner of brushes, implements, and tools to create loosely controlled marks. The ambiguous relationship between the figures and the background furthers the goal of the artist who strives to create a “dynamic, hybrid form that suggests the beauty and power as well as the complicated problems and destructive tendencies of human beings.”

The artist agreed to an interview with Visual-Language. The complete interview is below.


How would you describe your artistic style and approach to abstract pictorial composition?
I’ve always struggled to name my artistic style because my mission for this body of work is to make something that’s never been seen before. Yet I rely on source material that everyone has seen before to construct these paintings. I would label these paintings as archaeological portraits. There! I’ve never said that before. My approach to composition, specifically, is not that complex. My paintings have clear figures in them (not human-based figures), they are dead-center in the canvas-often with a clear boundary between figure and ground. I am totally enthralled with a portrait space or the layout of a religious icon. I’m not interested in narrative or making a viewer’s eye meander around the canvas. I want the focused punch of a power center and the intensity of mystery that results in that focus being an unknown.

Can you walk us through your creative process when starting a painting?
Each of these paintings started with a small, simple graphite sketch, but each sketch itself is an outpouring and amalgamation of thousands of figures and fragments I have seen, studied and saved throughout the arc of my life as an artist. I spend more time in the archaeological and anthropological exhibits in a museum than looking at Fine Art. The mystery, the incomplete story, the struggle to explain, and the mythological and spiritual aspects of an object are deeply meaningful to me. I study these objects not from a removed or analytical perspective, but I try to crawl inside of them emotionally so that I might communicate with the dead. I bring all this emotion, my love of mystery, and my desire to reference and make something timeless into my process. I start a painting by copying one of my sketches onto the canvas. My painting process is erratic and spontaneous. I build up the figure with an infinite combination of techniques with the clear goal in mind that I want the end product to reflect that emotional connection I just mentioned. I make aesthetic decisions, of course, but many of my decisions are with the aim of adding history, mystery, and an acknowledgement of spirit, chaos, and death.

What role does intuition play in your artistic decision-making progress?
Intuition plays a huge role, and causes just as much trouble. I am very aware of how difficult it is to both make abstract work that is good, and also to make good abstract work that actually engages people. On the one hand I believe that artists must courageously trust the work and be brutally honest with themselves, but on the other hand who cares? Who cares that you turn yourself inside out when you paint if they don’t see anything they like or know or understand inside your work? So what do I do with this conundrum? I fall back on my preferred understanding of intuition, which is the Greek idea that Carl Jung furthered- that there is a daemon or spirit that guides each of us. This daemon may throw ideas your way that no one understands, not even you, but the ideas aren’t really yours. For me, the notion that there is a daemon guiding me melds well with communicating with the dead. What I’m saying here is this: I function better if I can believe that there is some other entity out there feeding me clues, or trying to facilitate communication or even just leaving a dot that I can connect, rather than it coming from inside me because this allows me to paint without my own ego getting in the way. I believe in getting out of the way, observing, not being blinded by what I want.

What roles do formal aspects of picture-making play in your approach?
Texture plays a huge part – I physically apply the paint in a way that I only partially control, but I can get some really great results. And texture also plays a huge part in how line and form is manifested. The original studies are graphite line drawings, but in the paintings the lines become the edges of forms and those are often defined by interruptions in the grain or movement of the texture. And finally, I create an imaginary light source. These forms are inventions and don’t come from a real space, but I want them to look like they could be real so I apply a light source later in the process.

How do you create a sense of balance and harmony in your abstract compositions?
Since my compositions are dead-center, this is one element of balance. But I believe that every mark is composition, so I take that very seriously and I use all kinds of edge, mark, color, contrast etc. to keep your eye bouncing around the canvas.

Are there any specific techniques or tools you use to achieve certain effects in your
abstract paintings?

For these paintings I used masking film / frisket as well as a fair amount of tape to isolate areas that I would then drag and smear paint across with a spackle knife or other flat tool. I do this so that the shimmer and blur of the smear is cut off abruptly by the edge of the masked area, giving the illusion of solid, physical structure.

How do you know when a painting is complete…or are paintings just abandoned?
Some paintings make it clear to me when they are done, others do not. To come full circle here, I really want to make something that has never been seen before, or something that surprises me. The painting has to look like it is a portrait of something significant but also transient and dynamic. As for the feeling I search for in order to feel complete and ready to stop painting on a work: I need to feel like I took a tough journey, and I learned and/or experienced something major.

How do you navigate the fine line between chaos and structure in abstract art?
I seek to make a form that holds the chaos inside it like a ticking time bomb. But honestly, negotiating the fine line is the hardest thing to do. I think there needs to be enough familiarity (something recognizable, or suggestive) or an appreciation of order for abstraction to function and not plummet into total entropy.

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