Conceptual Fine Art
September 16, 2015
Interview: Nicolas Party, who meets Giotto before his solo at Kaufmann Repetto
Stefano Pirovano

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In occasion of his solo show at Kaufmann Repetto we have met the Swiss born artist Nicolas Party at Palazzo Reale, in Milan, to talk about his painting and have visited together the extraordinary show dedicated to Giotto currently on display in the rooms of this unique Milanese aristocratic residence. Nicolas, who is currently based in Brussels and recently had an extraordinary solo exhibition at the Inverleith House Gallery in Edinburgh (which our gallery of images is referred to), has responded with curiosity and some insightful thoughts about his own approach to the frame, both real and conceptual.

How would you describe your current show at Kaufmann Repetto?

It is set in a specific place, on the right side of the gallery, and I am going to paint the entire space inspired by the idea of painting frescos in a chapel. I am painting all the walls, and so far I’ve made two big fake windows, something I’ve actually never done before. The motifs will be snails, snails’ shells, pots, bottles, sticks, and flat peaches, which are delicious.

Is it a temporary installation? How does your painting cope with this aspect of the display?

What I am going to do in the gallery now will only last for a month. However, no painting that is on the wall will actually disappear from the gallery. Someone will take it or it will be bought; the actual object of the painting will disappear, but the fresco will never disappear. You won’t see it but it will still be in the gallery. For example, the mural I painted on the wall in this same gallery six months ago is still there. You just don’t see it because it is covered. It is the opposite with the painting, which will disappear. Maybe someone will discover the frescos. When I do murals, I always come upon the one that was there before me. For example, now I am painting the walls, which before have been painted by Dianna Molzan with green and turquoise blue. As soon as I scratch it, I can see the blue and sometimes you can actually see all the painting.

Could you tell us about the presence of “time” in your painting?

Time, memory, history, in my eyes are some of the main subjects in art in general, quite often the keys in every art. That is why artists very often have represented themes that are stable over time, or that have been painted for a long, long time, like trees, plants, or flowers. Lets take a tree, for instance. It is one of the rare things that never change. If you looked at a tree 2000 years ago, it would look quite the same as now. Or, better, I would say that it did change a little bit, but not that much. When I make an artwork, the idea of what will survive after my death persists in my mind. As soon as the work is done, it will never change. Actually the work of an artist such as Giotto is changing because of the time effect. As a human you strongly feel the presence of “time”. You perfectly know that you are getting old and that you will die very soon. Things are so ephemeral…

Would you say your painting is about “forever” or about “never”?

I would say never more than forever. I prefer never as nothing stays. Even though I like the idea of doing something that is always here, that never changes. What is staying forever is here all the time, you just have to feel it, or see it. From this point of view art and God are extremely linked, still nowadays. It’s impossible for an artist to not believe. Back in the day it was God, today it may be something else.

Are you religious?

I am not, but I am. I didn’t grow up in a religious culture at all, my parents are not. I’ve been to church maybe twice in my life. Nevertheless I couldn’t spend all my life and all my hours painting trees if I were not a believer. This wouldn’t fit, you would just stop.

Is there any direct reference to the art of the past centuries in your new show?

Actually there is a strong reference to a Renaissance painting, precisely the Annunciazione by Francesco del Cossa, where a snail is pictured on the bottom of the frame. There is an amazing essay about this painting by Daniel Arasse, a French art historian specialized in Renaissance, who wrote a book about details in painting.

Do you think in terms of symbolic or metaphoric when you paint?

It’s very difficult to say, because I don’t have any specific symbol. Sometimes when I do a tree, it’s just a tree. But the tree is perhaps the most symbolized object on earth, which is why people love it so much.

If you paint a chapel decorated with snails, it’s like turning a little detail into the main topic, that is a very interesting contemporary interpretation.

Snails are blind, they live in their shell, they are very slow, and they are hermaphrodite. The shell is such a big topic in art, the surface of things is important as when you look at a person what you see is his shell, not what is inside.

Apparently there is a strong trend nowadays in setting links between old masters and contemporary art. What is your sight on it?

Since the ‘90s, there has been this idea of going back into time instead of looking forward, and also rewriting the history of art in the 20th century; in music it is the same, and in food too. I don’t know if nostalgic is the right word but this trend is here and I am totally part of it. I’m getting inspired the most by late 19th and early 20th century, when figuration is very simplified and quite naïf in different ways. That is what I look at the most. Artists have all different periods in their mind. Some artists only look at contemporary art, but it’s almost never the case. Once again, art is never about creating something new.

What is your favourite subject matter?

I am trying to find subject matters which are obvious. I don’t want to have original ideas.

So it’s about painting in itself, more than its content.

No, in fact it’s about content. That will never change. Tree is a good example, everybody will paint trees, forever, and this will never change. Monet is another good example. For instance, a cathedral is a sign of something extremely stable, everything around it is changing, but the cathedral stays there. Monet is obsessed with time. Similarly, there were a lot of essays stating that Pierre Bonnard’s only subject was the painting itself. But I don’t agree. The subjects of his painting are extremely important: his wife, the bath, the water. It’s not just about the colour of the painting, that is however the way to get into the real concept of the painting.

Who is the old master you would like to have dinner with?

I was about to say Monet, but he would just talk about the weather a lot. Van Gogh would be too intense, while Bonnard would just talk about his wife. Picasso would be actually very fun. Morandi would be too quiet, eating his pasta. I would probably have a barbecue with the cave people. It does seem we have a lot of questions to ask them.

I was impressed by your use of pastel. Do you paint with your fingers?

It depends on how you use the pastels, but generally yes, you do paint with your hands. Most of the time you just do a surface that is quite rough and after you almost do like a massage with your fingers, this is how you create the shadings for instance. I love working with my hands, you establish a real relationship with your work. Pastel is a fantastic technique. In very late 17th century, and beginning of 18th century it was a huge thing, but the possibility with pastels is quite reduced, it’s not a very flexible technique. Women started to do a lot of pastels to paint and since then men started to disregard it. Perhaps pastel is still suffering from this.

Do you draw before using colours?

Everything starts with writing, and then drawing. Actually, I’m not sure what comes first. To begin with you need to have the idea, and probably you have to write it down, or draw it. When you are a kid, you have a white piece of paper, you do a yellow circle, even if it’s not a perfect Giotto’s one, and the entire sheet becomes a sky, a huge space is opening up. I don’t show my drawings but I have tons of them.

Did you start as a street artist?

From the age of 12 to 21, I was doing graffiti.

Is this your beginning as an artist?

It is not the beginning but a very crucial moment as I experienced the space and the making big things as well as the idea of creating without asking and without public. In fact when you do graffiti people tend to hate you. They want you to go to jail and pay a fortune to erase it. When you are an artist, you want to please a very specific part, you want to please these amazing curators, your audience, your collectors, great museums. While when you do graffiti, you just want to piss off everybody. You want people to not like what you are doing and that is why you write stupid things like “Fuck the police”, even if my work today doesn’t seem very anti-audience.

Are the people you paint real ones?

No, they are not. Everything has started with a Picasso’s pastel of Marie Therese, after the cubist period going into the classics. He is looking at classic sculpture, and I do find very interesting that men and women in Greek sculpture are similar. It’s just an idealized face, a perfect face. Picasso was fascinated by women in reality, but as an artist he was totally interested in men, male creations, thinking that God was a man. When he paints women, he paints them as men. However, my characters are not ideal.

What will you remember about Giotto’ show we have visited together?

When you are an artist you always look at things that are related to what you are doing at the moment. So I was looking at the bits of architecture that put characters in the contexts, as ceilings and columns. And I guess the concept of decay is a very interesting topic. All these ideas of keeping artworks as they are, what does it mean at the end of the day? It’s very recent that we keep everything. If there was any problem in Europe, those things will disappear. It’s possible that in two centuries all these things will be destroyed.