I'm really happy to share the work of Grand Rapids, MI-based artist Nicholas Szymanski, whose beautiful, minimal paintings are like meditations on the passage of time, and the experience of here and now. While they present a challenge to share online, and should be best appreciated in person (so get thee to Grand Rapids!) I'm pleased to share some of his recent work, and some thoughts on art-making in this wonderful interview!
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YS: What first interested you in painting?
NS: I was primarily interested in the material itself, the nature of it, how it communicates with light and the various ways it moves and attaches to a surface. It is a mineral, archaic substance and practice. The idea of participating in some sort of traditional conversation excited me. For me painting is starting, it is an intuitive activity, something felt. I fell into it and have felt compelled to keep working ever since.
You pursue a very minimalist sensibility when it comes to painting. Can you tell me a bit more about your practice? Is there an aspect of it that you're particularly interested in or drawn to?
I agree that my work is typically very reductive. I’d say my practice is very meditative, going to the studio and painting is a great way for me to turn off, it is tremendously meaningful to me, being there, moving paint and observing results. I like to investigate scale, color, application, surface and light. Something I observe in my work is that it is all between shores; it exists in and endless state of becoming and has a kind of self-evident authority. I like to describe it as purposelessness; there is an absence of necessity for me in the work. Painting is rather an instance of freedom and fundamental delight.
I find the quietness of working this way captivating; the most understated work can resonate in an incredibly commanding manner. It is challenging, being there with this thing and asking myself what it needs, what is enough? What I am most drawn to is going to the studio and focusing, it is a safe place to be, I can forget about everything for a while. I am alone and there is little else to consider besides what is in front of me. I am constantly reminded that portions of life are meant to be witnessed/experienced and not thought to death. The works are meditations on the passage of time and process, a celebration of suchness. So the minimal sensibility I believe is the result of years of editing and garnering a respect of limitations.
I think that for a long time in the back of my mind I wanted to avoid narrative and pay special mind to visual character and play around with the idea of being-in-itself in regards to painting. It feels natural to me, making laconic paintings like this in order to communicate the values and qualities I admire.
You mention the artistic community, especially online -- why do you feel that this is important?
I like to have conversations. It is exciting to me to be able to talk to artists around the globe and have an exchange about what we think and how we feel in regards to what we are doing. I have been fortunate to talk to numerous people, both artists and non-artists about these things and in turn have multiple points of reference. I benefit from this in that I have a better understanding of where and how I am situated. I am a proponent of interpretation, so to hear from someone else who I may not be able to sit and have coffee or beer with, how they see and feel about my work is a stimulating experience. It is great to have a sense of community that reaches beyond the confines of my state and country.
Do you have any particularly significant influences, or mentors/teachers, who have impacted your work?
My most significant influences are very commonplace. I find that the various attitudes and forms that I bump into through things like conversations with a friend, reading and sheer observance of day-to-day phenomenon guide me. While I am walking somewhere or maybe taking a drive I like to observe what’s around me, recognize the qualities of these environments and what inhabits them, how things relate. So in saying that, Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the Flâneur is something I have taken to heart. I read "The Painter of Modern Life" quite a few times when I was in school; it altered my understanding of what it means to be a spectator. The exceedingly ordinary, the commonplace can be a source of immense significance, and in order to be a witness to that quality one has to experience the difference between looking and seeing. I’d say seeing and listening in their most sincere forms are acts of disappearance. Seeing and listening are ultimately a form of giving ourselves over to some experience, we become played by what we perceive. So for me this conception of sight and experience is an important motivator. I suppose I make paintings to suggest that the commonplace, purposeless and void are highly resonant forms of existence.
What is your process like? How do you get started on a new piece?
Lately I’ve been working in two ways. I either lay out a tarp on the floor and place raw canvas on it, or work with stretched paintings on an easel or sawhorses. I spend a lot of time mixing colors. Initially I sort of dig around and pick colors I feel may be interesting or that are related to something I found pleasing to look at recently. From there it’s all really process and touch. It’s exciting to start; I have very little in mind when I do begin. I may have some little scrap of paper or junk laying around that I find interesting, or I may have been thinking about some other work of art, be it one of mine or someone else’s. So these things act a sort of initial push, a motivator. They always get covered up though. After starting a work the paintings become very self-referential, the initial reference is scarcely apparent in a finished piece. I apply paint with different tools until I feel there is some interesting harmony or dissonance that I enjoy. It’s a strange feeling though, knowing when to stop. It’s definitely a skill cultivated over time, after a lot of trial and error. I often sand layers down and rework them or entirely go over them. Sometimes the paintings are incredibly layered, other times they don’t require as much decision making or redaction and have the feeling of raw stained canvas. It’s all a very haptic experience; painting is very much related to touch. I go in and physically manipulate these things, understand them through touch, sight and experimentation over a duration of time.
What is your studio space like?
It’s a nice space! The building it is in used to be a furniture factory. (Grand Rapids is referred to sometimes as Furniture City). It has North and Northeast facing windows; the windowed walls are all painted white brick. The light in the space, given the right weather, can be incredible. I installed barn lights in the center of the room and track lights along one wall, which is nice since as soon as winter hits we lose daylight around 5pm. It’s easy to find large workspaces here, so I am fortunate to be able to spread out and move around while working. One of my favorite things in the space is this old rocking chair I have in front of my documentation wall, I’ve had it for nearly my entire life. I also put up a dartboard to play with when I don’t want to paint.
What is the biggest overall lesson you've learned so far as an artist?
It’s important to be patient and intentional, to care more about contributing than receiving anything. Good work is the result of taking risks, failing, ceaselessly editing and trying new things. Being an artist takes a certain amount of willingness to fall down; one has to welcome uncertainty, to see not knowing and difficulty as an integral part of the experience of development as both an artist and person.
What is the most rewarding or exciting aspect of doing what you do?
I’d say the most challenging aspect of my practice is that I end up asking myself if what I am doing is serious. It seems that a fundamental supposition of Western culture is that one must be serious. What are my paintings for? Are they serious? Maybe painting has more to do with sincerity?
The most rewarding aspect of what I do is the act of painting in itself. I have the ability to use my eyes and hands to give the qualities and states of mind that I cherish a place to exist. When I am done I move out of the way and allow someone else to have their own exchange with the work. I’m happy to be contributing something.
What is your go-to to get out of a creative rut?
It is good to step out of the room entirely. So I like to do something that has nothing to do with painting. Reading fiction is a good way of getting out of that headspace. I usually feel better after leaving for a while.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently developing?
I’ve been applying to a lot of shows lately in various places around the United States and in Europe. It’s all tentative though as I am not sure if I have been accepted. A project I am currently a part of is called Fiction (With Only Daylight Between Us) v2. It’s a large group exhibition containing photographs submitted by numerous artists arranged into a grid informed by the room it occupies. So far the exhibit has been in Corridor Projects (Ohio), Boecker Contemporary (Heidelberg Germany), and Angelika Studio (Buckinghamshire, England)
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for your interest in my work and providing me with the opportunity to participate in your project.
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