Vicky A. Clark

Transformed Landscapes


It is not always easy to find words to describe one's experiences of works of art. Whether paintings, films, symphonies, or modern dance performances, most art reaches beyond the literal to a place in each of us that we recognize but have difficulty expressing or articulating. James P. Nelson's landscape paintings extend beyond the literal transcription of a particular scene by evoking intangible feelings in much the same way that music or poetry does. Although his landscapes are realistic, the moods they evoke are subjective.

Nelson's combination of realism and emotion - which has much in common with such early American modernists as Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and others - developed in his work during the last twenty years. While a student at Carnegie-Mellon University, he took a class with artist Robert Lepper that introduced two ways to think about art. "Oakland Project" forced students to identify, in an archeological sense, the salient features of their external environment and to use these as the starting point for their artmaking. "Retrospective," on the other hand, encouraged them to look inward, returning to their childhood experiences. (Nelson feels that Lepper's influence can be seen in the work of many other students including Andy Warhol. He recently saw a gouache that Warhol painted of his parents' living room that even included the stains on the wall and recognized it as a superb example of a painted childhood memory.) For Nelson, the retrospective project "detonated loud and clear." He began to associate the act of painting and drawing with the process of thinking and remembering to such an extent that making art became "another way of thinking." He eventually joined the two sides of Lepper's approach, choosing salient features - in his case, places - to use as vehicles for expressing his feelings and experiences.

While living in New York, Nelson increasingly turned to more recent experiences for the content and "creative fuel" of his work. He tried to identify a physical place, one "that seemed most connected to an experience" to serve as the subject of his painting. As a result, Nelson's landscapes resonate with emotions. While it is not necessary to know the exact incident or feeling that inspired a painting, viewers are generally aware of its emotional content.

That emotional content, however, is transformed in the process of painting. Like Picasso, who turned to non-Western art for a more immediate method of communicating intangible qualities in his own work, or Frida Kahlo, who transcended the mere recording of facial features in her self-portraits, or Mark Rothko, who hinted at a spirituality in his lusciously painted floating rectangles of color, Nelson has chosen the landscape format to express his innermost feelings. For all of these artists, it is a "juggling act" to balance the subject and the paint with the amorphous feelings that evade definition either visually or verbally.

Two paintings by Nelson of the First Methodist Church on the corner of South Aiken and Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, both from 1990, provide insight into his method. Both works were done from the same vantage point and at the same time of night. (It is usually at night that Nelson finds the places that will become the conduit for his emotional feelings; accordingly, many of his paintings are night scenes.) But the two paintings differ dramatically in the quality of light and in the cropping of the image. Church is less tightly cropped, and the coloration, a narrow range of mauves, moves from the mauve-grey of the sky to the yellow-mauve of the stonework. A light, the traditional symbol for God, above a non-descript door at the left illuminates an ordinary entranceway rather than the church itself, which is traditionally associated with God and spirituality. This light also distinguishes Church from Trapped, a darker painting in which an orange-red tone dominates. Here close cropping makes the church loom over us, emphasizing its somber appearance. These two paintings are an attempt to probe what Nelson perceives as the distinction between organized religion and his own personal spirituality.

Nelson believes that in the process of exploring feelings or thoughts in painting, emotions are transformed: "My best paintings start in one place and go to another, hopefully to a more universal ground. It's a transformation guided by intuition." As Nelson explains, "The process of painting tells me what to do. I am just as much painted by the painting as the painting is painted by me." In many ways, Nelson's painting technique is closely related to that of the Abstract Expressionists - he especially admires Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Diebenkorn - in that he too is absorbed by the act of painting, the act of making marks on the canvas.

Like the Abstract Expressionists - and many others he likes including Paul Cezanne, Chaim Soutine, Charles Burchfield, and the early American modernists - Nelson moves between abstraction and realism in the process of working on a painting. For example, Neck Road (1990), a scene in New England, went through various stages before he found the balance between the spatial realism of the road receding into space and the abstracted trees surrounding the void where the road disappears. In fact, foliage does appear in "abstracted" masses at night, especially when illuminated from the light of a single street lamp as in this work. In a series of interlocking jigsaw puzzle-like shapes, the final solution balances the two-dimensional surface with the depth created by the road. The tactile, textural quality of the paint reinforces the denseness of the night. This solution, as in the case of most of his works, is guided by a notion Nelson has of how the painting will look: "I usually do have a picture in my mind while I paint. When I get that right, the painting is done."

Nelson's inner image is also affected by the preliminary drawings that he makes for most of his paintings. These pencil, pen and ink, or watercolor pictures vary from suggestive sketches to blueprints to finely detailed finished drawings. The bravura of paint on canvas is matched by delicate and fragile marks in the drawings, revealing the artist's love of the medium and his ability to master his craft. The immediacy of his drawings capture a moment in time as it reflects his inner thoughts and feelings.

Often at night and often unexpectedly, Nelson will happen upon a scene that seems to fit with a particular feeling or memory. One evening while walking his dog, he walked past the church in his neighborhood which became the subject for Church; he spent an hour recording the scene with pen and added notes on the colors. This drawing became a set of instructions for the painting that followed. In the process, little changed other than the scale and the medium. For Nelson, the drawing had a magical quality that remained strong and potent during the six months it took to "orchestrate" the painting.

Nelson's drawings are more spontaneous, delicate, and fragile than his paintings. For him, the process of drawing is connected to the subconscious feminine principle of conception. Once conceived, translating the drawing to a painting is a procedure that Nelson feels reflects his masculine energy. He carefully constructs his stretchers, computes the mathematics for the enlargement, and works out the color relationships, the composition, and the texture in an effort to realize his initial image in paint. In the process of reworking, he hopes to match his original vision with the emotions incapsulated in that particular place.

Nelson sees connections between his paintings and music or poetry. In Church, for example, he felt that the building with its variety of windows, stonework, and roofs, which he compared to different voices, was similar to a fugue. On the other hand, he believes that painting a landscape is like writing a sonnet, a carefully prescribed form of poetry; with certain decisions predetermined, Nelson finds it easier to become even more personal in his content. Because landscapes are recognizable and easy to understand, especially when compared to much current art, they appear deceptively simple; this allows Nelson to invest them with extremely personal feelings in a particularly safe way. The mystery or moodiness he creates communicates on a visceral as well as a visual level.

This kind of communication is similar to poetry in yet another way. Poetry suggests associations and feelings through written pictures that are evocative and open-ended. As in music, the reader is allowed to bring more of himself to the understanding and appreciation of poetry. Although one might not know the exact source of the emotions projected in Nelson's landscapes (or in musical compositions or poems) a sensitive viewer is aware of the feelings there and can identify with them because of their own experiences or memories.

Nelson's paintings and drawings hover between the objective and subjective worlds - somewhere between Arthur Dove and Edward Hopper - eliciting personal reactions, experiences, and memories. For any artist this can be a difficult but significant endeavor. As Nelson says, an artist should be concerned with "finding that place within them where the creative force exists, getting in touch with it, trusting it, and utilizing it to try to make an art that matters." To Nelson what matters are the personal feelings that people have in common. It is these shared feelings that he tries to reach through the manifestation of his own emotions in his exquisitely painted and highly evocative landscapes.


- Vicky A. Clark


All quotations are taken from interviews with James Nelson on October 3 and 5, 1990.