“Once I saw that contemporary artists were dealing with ideas, everything changed for me and I was hooked”
David Nelson is a contemporary artist based in Dublin, New Hampshire. His interest in art began as a child when he discovered comics. Later, at the university, David studied and admired the great artists, but ended up revealing the real value of contemporary art. His work, both abstract and figurative, capture his style and innovation with striking colors and disruptive ideas.
Nelson defines on his website one of his main interests in art, the idea of agency: “For something to come into being by letting other forces be the agent doing it.” This concept makes more sense when we see one of the paintings of his “Incarnation” collection; a bunch of dots in cyan, magenta, yellow, and key —properly placed—that create beautiful shapes of human bodies when seen from the right perspective.
In this Q&A artist David Nelson shares with PoseSpace how he developed his techniques, how he discovered CMYK dots, what contemporary art means to him and a few details about his experience at the Governors Island Art Fair:
When did you first know you wanted to become an artist?
When I was in my teens, I was an avid comic book collector, and took a comic art class with a local artist. I loved it. I decided to study fine art at University of Maine, where the department head surprised me by taking my not-very-traditional portfolio seriously and was very open and encouraging. I was also happy the university setting would give me the opportunity to study literature, my other big interest.
One of your main interests is the idea of agency and you use only primary colors. What inspired you to come up with this concept?
I began my studies absolutely hating contemporary art, thinking it was the biggest cultural hoax in history. Until my senior year, that is, when I was forced to study it. In spite of myself, I became fascinated. Art was about ideas. Art was a visual means to explore complex questions about life—the same philosophical and theoretical questions I was discussing in English Lit and science classes. What’s the relation between order and chaos, emotion and intellect, objectivity and subjectivity, pattern and disruption? Once I saw that contemporary artists were dealing with ideas, everything changed for me and I was hooked.
Which artist or painter has influenced you?
When I had to do a paper on a living artist for the Contemporary Art class, I told the professor I didn’t know any— my heroes had been Degas, Vermeer and Tiepolo. He said, “OK, do Jean Dubuffet.” I never heard of him, so when I saw his paintings looked like the scrawls of a child or tar poured on a canvas, I was horrified. That is, until I read his thinking behind it. He was trying to capture something universal and atavistic, something deeper than intellect or observation. He was grappling with those same dynamic balances I was: organic/mechanical, emotional/intellectual, abstraction/representation.
How has your style changed over the years?
In college I made abstract works with a tight linear pattern, but using paint that would creep and craze on its own. I created strict grids that were made up of scribbles, mechanical patterns made up of organic leaf shapes, splatters that were random, but precisely placed by a friend’s personal computer.
Later, experience in graphic design and art direction introduced me to CMYK process color. This got me thinking, what if I spattered the dot pattern with paint? What if I controlled the paint by using random numbers or scattered objects? I’d be making an image by relinquishing control rather than taking hold of it. Colors would layer and mix “on their own.” I spent about ten years exploring this dynamic in non-objective process paintings.
I was tempted to use the CMYK dot idea to form more concrete images, but that was crazy — introduce subject matter? Things!? Actual things are so freighted with meaning—or plagued with cliché. Then I remembered Dubuffet: kids and cavemen all wanted to draw the same thing— the simple human form.
So I took straightforward, full-body photos of my family, color-separated them, blew them up to life-size, and executed the coarse dot pattern with clear CMYK acrylic from a ketchup squirter. No pose, just standing there—a record of “this is me.” I liked how the vagueness of the painted dots fought with the photographic “realness” of a particular individual. I’ve explored this idea in a range of scales—applying paint with industrial syringes at postage-stamp-size, to finger-painting 20’ x 16’ figures on billboard vinyl.
To learn as much as I could about the figure, I decided to try sculpture. It worked for Degas, after all! I was pleasantly surprised to find I had a pretty good working knowledge of anatomy. Drawing those muscular superheroes in my comic art days wasn’t wasted.
How did you discover www.posespace.com?
It became pretty clear that If I was investigating the body in this iconic way, it was inevitable for me to consider the nude. It was great to find quality reference at Posespace. I’ve been especially glad to see models with “normal” body types and straightforward poses. The 360-degree views are tremendously helpful for sculpture.
Can you tell us about your experience at the Governors Island Art Fair?
Governors Island is a former military base 800 yards off Manhattan’s southern tip. For five weekends each September, over 100 artists from around the world transform spaces in the historic buildings with their art. I showed paintings from my “Incarnation” series in 2017 and 2018. It was terrific to talk with hundreds of visitors every weekend. My artist’s statement prompted a lot of great conversations: “The human experience means bringing our unseen into where it can be received some way by other bodies. And something is always lost in translation. So life is always a beautiful, frustrating challenge of giving and receiving partial messages, garbled transmissions, incomplete sentences.”
David Nelson’s website: www.davidnelsonart.com