Harry Schwalb

"Pittsburgh Magazine Feature"




By Harry Schwalb


Being James P. Nelson is not without peril

When William Faulkner was awarded a Nobel rise in 1949, having written several hundred million words in the two decades previous, he gave as his occupation: “Farmer.”

I don’t think James P. Nelson would exhibit the same shameful ambivalence.  He’d announce his rightful occupation to the Devil himself, “Painter.”

Nelson, 34, Boston-born (the “P” stands for Potter), but for the past 21 years – except for several years of studio life in Manhattan in the Seventies – a Pittsburgher, is a soft-spoken, courtly, grave young man.  He is also passionately, unabashedly, triumphantly a painter; to him it would be unthinkable to be anything or anyone else.

And in the past year or so, he seems to have pulled off a minor miracle.  He has established a distinctive style, virtually a signature: a virile yet sensitive, freewheeling yet controlled Landscape expressionism that brings to the American figurative tradition (Hopper, Burchfield, Arthur Dove, Marin, Benton, Bellows, O’Keefe and crew), in which Nelson is grounded, much of the fire and sweep of what we call by such names as New Image, New Wave, New Figuration, Neo-Expressionist, and Bad Painting painting.

This combination is not without its professional peril.  It makes Nelson not easily categorizable.  The part of him that is straightforward picture-making brands him as old-fashioned to curators looking for another Sandro Chia, Baselitz or Kiefer, or even another East Village wunderkind like Debby Davis and her pigs’ heads on spikes.

At the same time, Nelson’s hillscapes, highways, farms, houses, churches, and domestic interiors are too intense, too rough, too privately coded, to connect with the large permanent audience that the more genteel figurative tradition has always enjoyed.

Yet these bold, brave, wayward pictures (you can love them without ever liking them) have managed to attract a small following, in academia, among other artists, and in that segment of collectordom that almost deliberately defies trend and hype.

And now a month-long show brings a generous serving of new Nelsons to that behemoth space on South Craig Street, Pittsburgh Plan for Art.  The paintings will be on display through April 15.
In “Two Trees in the Park: Tree Number Two,” a brash city tree, a survivor, is frozen in the greenish glare of a streetlight near the Highland Park reservoirs.

Done from a drawing in the park at dusk, the painting resonates with texture: it was painted wet on wet about four or five times, with drying sessions in between.  The surfaces are glinty, toothy, tough; the background is a swirling mass of urban night, and the car headlights are pools of white as aching as a dentist’s drill.

AS in all of the mature Nelsons, there is a covert as well as an overt subject.  The Nelson the tree represents a kind of self-portrait, just as the tree in “Two Trees in the Park: Tree Number One” represents one of the women in his life.

Dominating another large painting is a bulldozer.  A portrait, in a sense, of the artist’s father – career Navy man, designer of nuclear submarines – and his attitude toward life, his manner.  Behind the tractor are trees, lyrical, mirroring the nature of the artist’s artist-mother.

All three paintings are readable even without the personal data, of course, but the material helps explain the curious power of these essentially realistic works to disturb, to remain embedded in the mind with the tenacity of symbols.

How else explain the power of the painting of a West Deer Township farmhouse (still untitled when I saw it drying against a studio wall)?  It is a portrait of the rear of a house with adjoining study and office, in which the artist’s therapist lives and practices.

The crosshatching of the trees and shadows crackles with nervous energy, the heightened psychic awareness that illuminates what happens here.  But the rectangles of yellow light, a strangely calming yellow, also suggest family pursuits beyond the windows, domesticity.  In the midst of the scratchy patchy brushstrokes, there is a feeling of haven.  Of home.

Another secret portrait is “Weller’s Knob,” but is also a breezy Ligonier landscape, a kind of van Gogh as rewritten by de Kooning, in which Nelson-the-happy-colorist steps out from behind Nelson-the murky-brooder.

And his painting of four Bloomfield houses, as seen from his high-ceilinged top-floor walk-up studio on Liberty Avenue, records the startling yellows and pinks and plums that are out there, in real life, in the midst of the Bloomfield frays.

James P. Nelson has found a universe of vehicles for meaning and feeling in this neighborhood: Bloomfield, Friendship, Garfield, Shadyside, Oakland.  From the tole-shaded floor lamp in his bare living-room, and the facades of Priscilla’s Lounge and of the First Methodist Church (subject of a monumental 48-square-foot-painting), to the flagpole across the street from Don Allen Chevrolet.

Nelson’s Flag: more Francis Bacon than Jasper Johns, it is vigorous, shrill, edgy, sinister, unforgettable.  “Was there a way,” Nelson tells me he wondered, “to voice my fears and my political position that wouldn’t be political or judgmental, but subjective?  That would reflect the tension in the air, the feeling that at this point in time we might well look like The Bad Guys to the rest of the world?”

The flag painting is Nelson’s way, his reaction to the seven-o’clock news.  But like all masterly visual metaphors, its power goes well beyond any single point in time.

For James P. Nelson there will be no pigs’ heads on spikes, no burning buildings, no people with their heads chopped off.  “I don’t share the desire of other painters to express the horror of modern society,” he said as we stared out of his north-lit studio windows.

“I’m more interested in identifying feelings closer to home.  Doing what painting has always done.  To see a flagpole, a tractor, a tree, then use what’s inside me as the fuel to make something that is beautiful, evocative, wonderful.”

Pittsburgh Magazine / April 1984