In Conversation With Nigel Van Wieck, Artist

From his home studio in New York, Nigel Van Wieck paints the world as he sees it – a vibrant, realist, dreamscape, bursting at the seams with stories, secrets and sensuality.

An artist taken by the ambiguous, preferring carefully chosen subtext and nuance over grander statements of any particular meaning.

Through his work, Van Wieck explores themes such as voyeurism, sexuality, and gender, all through a distinctly American lens.

An artist, whose distinct style has also been oft confused with another notable realist and artist – Edward Hopper, who I – before this particular interview – had been convinced was the sole inspiration behind Van Wieck’s work.

Just over a month ago, I was given the golden opportunity to interview Van Wieck himself, an enlightening, revealing experience –  which saw to challenge my very  preconceptions of the artist I thought I knew.

Is any of your work inspired by a particular piece of literature? I’m currently working my way through Celine’s ‘Journey To The End Of The Night’, and had felt as if your pieces had complimented that book extremely well. 

More specifically, that particular novel’s theme of urban loneliness, buried beneath superficial, surface-level happiness. Was this an intention of yours? 

“I love stories, whether they are in books, on stage or in films.  But my work is about my observations, it is possible that I will read a book or see a movie and  it will change my mind, but I don’t illustrate other people’s ideas.  I don’t paint from inspiration, inspiration is for amateurs, my painting is work and observation.  What interests me when I paint is the process, the formal problems of painting i.e. composition, line and color.  I never think about what I want to say in my paintings, that just happens, it’s an intuitive process where the aesthetic choices I make determine the tone of the work, and it works better when it is left to itself.

What is constant in my work is the solitude, it’s a theme that underlies most of my work.  So whether I’m painting the late afternoon sun hitting the side of a building or a girl alone in a subway car, there is a feeling that unites all my work which is mine.

The way my paintings develop differs, sometimes I see a room and want to paint the way the light is falling in it and then I’ll invent people to inhabit that space.  Other times a model in the studio will create a pose and I will invent the space and story around that pose, or I’m walking on a street and see something that would make a good painting.”

Some of your titles seem to suggest that your work is – at times – based off of personal experiences. For example, the piece entitled ‘What I Did When You Left’, hints at a first person perspective. 

Was this particular piece inspired by a past experience of yours, or do its origins lie elsewhere?

“Sometimes I witness a scenario that will give me an idea for a painting, but as I have already said the narrative in my work is intuitive and it’s shaped by the aesthetic choices that I’m making for the picture.

The painting titled “What I did When You Left” is a good example of this process.  Initially I intended to paint an urban landscape with a black car.  I saw it in abstract terms and produced a sketch of the side of a building with a large black window and a white and turquoise wall, in front was parked a black car. 

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‘What I Did When You Left’ – Study One

I thought that the window needed some action to make the picture interesting.  So I decided to introduce a man playing pool, and so I did a second study depicting that, and it worked.

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‘What I Did When You Left’ – Study Two

As a result, later, I did a couple of drawings to tighten the composition – and then started the painting.  As I did not have a title for the painting I decided to try an experiment, I posted the second sketch on Facebook and asked people for titles.  The one I liked the best was “What I Did When You Left” given to me by the poet Marianne Chabadi.”

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‘What I Did When You Left’ – Oil on Canvas, 24 x 36 Inches (2016)

Throughout your work – one particular facet seems to remain a constant.

While yes, certain pieces do portray scenes of very public – and seemingly genuine – happiness, all throughout your work, loneliness, and especially private loneliness, seems to be the focus.

Why?

“The consistency in my work it’s solitude not loneliness, your are confusing being alone with lonely, they aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; solitude, which is what I paint, feels peaceful .”

Your pieces have been previously described as ‘Americana’, with their general aesthetic seemingly calling back to (Edward) Hopper’s previous, which reflected the times in which he painted them, such as the 30’s, the 40’s, and the 50’s.

Noting this, I’m interested as to why you seem to choose to focus your art – almost entirely – on this particular time in American history?

“My work is American, I’m a modern American Realist, I don’t see my work as “calling back to another time”, it’s a continuation of a deep-rooted tradition that is in American Realism. To understand my work and its place in American painting you have to understand American figurative painting. There is a tradition of the single figure in American painting, whether it be the certain iconic images of the 19th century such as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull’ by Thomas Eakins, or The Gulf Stream’ and The Veteran in a New Field’ by Winslow Homer. America is a land of immigrants – we are strangers in a new land, so there is a strong tradition of painters attempting to find peace in America’s solitary landscapes.

Hopper is a continuation of that tradition, he paints the first half of the 20th century. I painted the last half of the 20th century. The comparison’s of me with Hooper are often wrong – as he paints loneliness and I paint solitude. But we both paint light; its the raison d’etre for both of our work. We both compose in a geometric way and use figures in singular way. He paints his time, I paint mine.

I once painted a painting called ‘Q Train’. It’s of a girl sitting alone in a subway carriage and she’s deep in thought. It has gone viral on the internet, and on many occasions I see it posted as painted by Edward Hopper – which is flattering – but anybody that has really looked at Hopper would see that it’s not by him. Firstly, it is in a modern subway car, one designed 40 years after he died, and secondly, the girl is dressed in an modern style  – and third perhaps and most important of all – is that the image is sexy.

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 Q-Train’ – Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches (2012)

Eroticism is important in my work, my work is sensual, whatever sexuality there is in Hopper’s work is repressed and like his loneliness it is painful.”

Your paintings, capture – at least, on the surface – the essence of the ‘golden age’ of America, a time wherein its industry, enterprise, and invention ruled the world, despite the growing threat of recession and financial depression.

If this is the case, then why do you seem to contrast such scenes of success and thematic over-indulgence against more concentrated scenes of smaller, more private misery?

One can only paint the time one lives in. I was lucky to live in New York in the second half of the 20th century: the American century, a time and place I still find visually satisfying, but I think that I might be painting the end of the empire. When I paint I do not concern myself with that, nor do I concern myself with making conscious contrasts between ‘success and private misery’. If people make those conclusions so be it. David Galloway wrote in a review of me in ArtNews. “Their intimate formats seem to vibrate with an inner life, lending additional resonance to that poetry of the commonplace that is Van Wieck’s specialty”. He’s right, I am a poet of the common place, I see beauty everywhere.

When I look at most contemporary painting it bores me. It’s usually a single idea painted badly with bravado. The art that interests me is art that is complex in that it is not just making a statement, it is all about mastering the craft and speaking in more than one syllable. My paintings have meaning, but I’m concerned with composition and colour, making the picture work pictorially and then I want to paint the light and show its beauty. If I do not achieve all three of these elements in a work, I consider it a failure. As I have said I don’t focus on meaning in my paintings, I trust that to my intuition. But there have been times when I’m more conscious of what I’m saying, the Working Girl period is an example. They were a series of narrative pastels made in the late 80’s.

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‘Dead End’ – Pastel on Paper, 30 x 22 inches  (1987)        

Many of them were dark and dealt with the relationships between the sexes, and with power, who has it and who does not. They conveyed that the language of sex was no language at all. So what was important was the space between the people. Not just emotional but the physical space between the figures. The paintings reflect the lack of connection today between the sexes. Looking back at these pictures I see that they also have an allegorical meaning: the women in the series represent beauty and art, and the lack of appreciation they have in the world today. This is something that has been constant in my work.”

As an extension of this question, why do you choose to focus on the quieter, more nuanced ‘mundanity’ of every-day life, rather than on certain ‘larger than life’ scenarios?

“Grand gestures get in the way of telling stories, it is easier to relate when one keeps it simple. The larger than life scenarios tend to be noisy and could mask the meaning of what I’m saying; it’s easy to dismiss an idea if one thinks it doesn’t apply to them. I want to have a conversation with people so that they can connect with my paintings, so I see it the connection as talking rather than shouting.

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‘The Sweeper’ – Oil on panel, 14 x 20 inches (2004)

Beside I’m interested in painting light, it’s the glue that is in all my pictures and light is everywhere. I don’t see life as mundane and I pity those who see it that way, I’m never tired of seeing a sunset and I wish I’d seen more sunrises. I love walking to work and enjoy cleaning my studio. I’m hungry for life and if you’re hungry then a piece of bread tastes as good as a piece of pie.”

Your paintings are also, at times, extremely lavish, placing the maximalism – and excess – of the so-called ‘American Dream’ as their focus.

Is this your aim, or am I simply misinterpreting?

“My paintings do not hold extreme views, on the contrary I’m interested in ambiguity. The American Dream is the subject, I investigate it and propose questions. I want my paintings to have many interpretations. A critic once told to me that he had heard three different explanations for one of my paintings and asked which one was correct. I said that the three of them were correct.”

Would you say that – in a certain way – you are a Journalist? After all, you do document otherwise unspoken events, stories, and secrets – some, perhaps, even inspired by reality.

Your work is also essentially voyeuristic in nature, as we, the audience, are being granted a privileged look into the private lives of those of which we would normally otherwise would not be allowed.

While a stretch, I admit, I was interested – based upon my own interest in Journalism – whether or not this was an aspect that you would consider, upon reflection.

“I’m not a journalist, I’m a painter. True – my work is voyeuristic, and I tell stories, but the point of news is to inform and the journalist tells a story to do that. With me, telling a story is a reason to start a painting, the satisfaction is painting the painting, and a painting is judged on its aesthetics, the narration is secondary.

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 ‘New Model’ –  Oil on panel, 10 x 20 inches (1993)

My subject matter is often personal or intimate but the point of my work is not to pull back a curtain to allow the spectator to see, rather it is to share intimate moments that are universal, I want the viewer to be empathetic not voyeuristic. My pictures are personal and although it’s a cliche, the truth is ‘I paint for myself’. So my choices on what and why I paint are made to please me, this would never be true of the journalist. “

What are you currently working on?

“The easy answer is my next painting, which is true. But I work on many pictures at the same time, some I have been working on for years. Painting pictures is about solving problems, sometimes the process is fast and sometimes it’s not. So when people ask me “how long does it take to paint a picture”? I answer – “How long is a piece of string”?”

As I’ve – and numerous others, no doubt, have already noted – your particular style takes its cues, and is obviously very inspired, by the work of Edward Hopper.

Why the influence? And if not Hopper, then who?

“I have answered this in some depth earlier in the interview. It’s an observation that is made by people who either don’t really look or don’t know. I think Hopper is a great painter and there are obvious similarities in our work, but if I were to ask you what Hopper paints you would say loneliness, which is in his paintings, but he would answer “I paint light” – as he often did.

I went to college as a painter, and left as a kinetic artist working in light. Ten years later when I wanted to paint again, I sat in front of a blank canvas and scratched my head. A few weeks into this behaviour I open an art book and it opened on a double page spread of the ‘Allegory of a Painter’ by Vermeer. I saw immediately that he was painting light. I understood light as I had been working with neon light for ten years, so I began to paint again and I painted light.

As a very young child, I spent 2 years in a hospital and a lot of it on my own. I am content with solitude and that feeling is in all of my work. When I started painting again I was living in London and unaware of Edward Hopper’s work. From my first painting I have painted light and solitude. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I saw Edward Hopper’s paintings and recognised in him a kindred spirit because I saw he painted light. If those people knew anything about Hopper they would know that his marriage was unhappy, and his life too. He did not start selling pictures until he was 40 and although he had success he was soon eclipsed by Abstract Expressionism and was a forgotten man. His wife Jo kept a diary for the last 40 years of her life and in it she references her resentment of Hopper’s cruelties to her, from his refusal to allow her to drive, to his physical attacks on her, all of which reinforced a bitterness toward him; it was a miserable marriage. This was Hopper’s world and it flavours his paintings.

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‘Morning Sun’, by Edward Hopper – Oil on Canvas, 28 x 40 inches (1952)

To further visualise the difference between Van Wieck’s work and Hopper’s, note how the painting featured above – one of Hopper’s most famous, features a lone woman, front and centre – widely reported as being modelled after his wife, Josephine, in a drab, prison-like room.

It is also important to note the contrast between the focus of the painting – the cell-like apartment, and the exterior location, which is New York, a bustling Urban Metropolis. 

The Woman, the focus, is alone, despite living in one of the most populated cities on the planet.

Urban Loneliness, and Urban Misery – these were the tools of Edward Hopper. 


This was Hopper’s New York, and as Van Wieck describes, this very painting only goes to further demonstrate his particular view of the world, and the relationships between the sexes within it. 

My paintings are very different. I like my life –  and I’m painting about solitude, which I like. Desire also permeates my work. Unlike Hopper, the women in my work are varied, warm, desirable and sensuous. There is a sameness with Hopper’s images of women – Jo was his only female model – and they seem unhappy, motionless, indifferent and sexually cold.
The real similarities in our work are the formal ones: the obsession with light, the geometric composition, the use of singular figures and of course having New York as one’s stage. So my work is not inspired by Hopper but we are kindred spirits at least in painting.”

Finally, who are your favourite musical artists? And do they happen to have an influence on your work?

“I have an eclectic taste in music, I listen to everything and believe in Duke Ellington’s maxim – “If it sounds good then it is good”.  But music is for listening and enjoying, it does not influence or create meaning in my work.

I do like to listen to music when I work and sometimes I use it as a tool. If I’m organising a picture and working out the composition then I’ll listen to something that’s precise and clean like the Ella Fitzgerald ’Song Book’, or a Mozart opera.

If I’m painting a nocturnal picture then it could be Stan Getz,or the Pet Shop Boys, but the music I listen to is for mood – rather than for inspiration.

My favourite musical artists tend to change.

At the moment I like The War on Drugs, but amongst the music I would want on a desert Island would be the complete works of Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Branvan 3000 and JJ. Cale.”

Van Wieck’s vast selection of work can also be viewed, in further detail, on his website – which can be accessed here. 

He can also be reached via his email address – vwieck@earthlink.net .

The art featured in the cover of this article is entitled ‘Another world’, and is a Oil on Canvas, at 18 x 36 inches. 

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