"Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can't bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design."

James Salter

"A Sport and a Pastime"

In approaching Nigel Van Wieck's works several aspects must be tacitly understood. First and foremost, he is a narrative painter; but his oil pastels differ from the art of photography in that the fleeting momentary fragments he describes are hard won illusions. Rather than illustrating actual events, these carefully edited constructions are mixtures of remembered and imagined incidents. Each centers on an ardently charged and acutely revealing moment, but like Tiepolo's Venetian ceilings or Gauguin's Tahitian paradise, Van Wieck's narrative vignettes are inventions and the occasions he describes are best taken as allegorical allusions rather than mirrors of visual realities.
On the formal side, he is a consummate draftsman, deft composer and a keen editor who understands both the structural ploys and emotional nuances of color. However, these are tools of the trade for any skilled visual artist. The content of Van Wieck's images lies beyond their formal and pictorial elements. It is instead embedded in his narrative incidents. All of the elements of the earlier work coalesce in Dancing. In order to more fully understand their implications, it is important to consider Van Wieck's earlier work, particularly the Working Girls series. The label is something of a misnomer and more than a bit misleading, for it does not refer to prostitutes; all are completely believable as women with individual histories and these are tales from their private lives. While the paintings do not moralize, ultimately they are auguries. More than a hundred oil pastels and canvases based on this theme were done between 1987 and 1992.

One of the most significant introductory clues to Working Girls can be found in Van Wieck's depictions of nude and partially disrobed models in the studio, in the privacy of an interior, or his descriptions of intimate incidents seen through windows and doors. The women are young, their bodies are lithe and beautiful, and they are sexually desirable. Their attention or gestures are frequently directed toward someone unseen and unknown, or they gaze back at the viewer without embarrassment. Whether they are depicted as hired models or placed in a narrative context, his women are sensually attractive, at ease with their nudity, and always convey an air of eros. That they exhibit their sensuality and are being watched is tacitly understood. Exhibitionism and voyeurism. These codependent facets of the libido lie at the center of all erotically tinged art, from overly familiar icons such as Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Edouard Manet's unblushing Olympia, and Auguste Rodin's Kiss to Pierre Bonnard's loving, intimate depictions of a perennially young Marthe at her bath and the uninhibited, flaunting sexuality of the women drawn by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Van Wieck, with his shrewd sense of art history, is aware of the nuances and emotive power of these precedents. He is equally cognizant of the tenets of modernism and the selfindulgence of much recent art, and his insistence on the use of acutely observed and carefully constructed imagery to convey parables that are particular to our time is both carefully reasoned and deeply felt.

Rather than sharing the bracing, solitary moments of Edward Hopper's women, as depicted in the wonderful etching Evening Wind and paintings such as Eleven A.M. or Morning in the City, we are more often left with a prevailing sense of quiet desperation. Melancholia and anxiety hang like a pall over the Working Girls. There is a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Notebooks: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." Van Wieck's Working Girls are transliterations of this idea. Show me a beautiful woman and I will give you the searing pain of alienation. In twentieth century art the closest parallels to these works can be found in the silent, anxious interiors of Felix Vallotton, the tragic novels of Jean Rhys, or perhaps more appropriately, in the strained relationships and emotional treacheries explored cinematically by Ingmar Bergman.

As in the tales of Vallotton, Rhys, and Bergman, a subtle undercurrent of eroticism lies at the core of the entire narrative panoply of Working Girls. Van Wieck's quiet, edgy narratives range from the opening moments of coy flirtations to illicit late night trysts in out-of-the-way bars and culminate with women trapped in the cold, dispassionate glare of post-copulative light. Pictorially and cognitively they are finally revealed in those silent, painful incidents of alienation and emotional desolation.

"In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The Crack-up"

Dancing, his most recent cycle of paintings, is in part an outgrowth of Van Wieck's parallel career in portraiture, a delicate and often treacherous arena where he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to coax out a sympathetic physical resemblance and a keenly observed psychological countenance. The portraits stand in sharp contrast to Working Girls and have evolved concurrently with a series of more than sixty works centering on the leisurely activities and nightlife of Miami.
Van Wieck, like so many of the contemporary realists and figurative painters of his generation here and abroad, arrived circuitously at narrative and allegorical painting. His first year at London's Hornsey College was dedicated to working from the model and it was with those drawing and paintings that he was accepted into their degree program. However, given the political and aesthetic winds of the late sixties, his interest shifted from figurative to kinetic art. After graduating from Hornsey he spent more than half a decade working with neon before returning to painting in 1978. He had visited the United States several times before moving from London to New York in 1979. Like David Hockney's pithy views of Los Angeles swimming pools, his Working Girls, Miami, and Dancing are explorations of quintessential American themes.

In regard to his esthetic evolution on these shores, two facets are of particular importance. First, as has been mentioned earlier, Van Wieck has spent much time in museums and galleries here and abroad. Not only does he have a firm, insightful grasp of the art of the past; he is equally familiar with the formal and expressive diversity of contemporary art. Secondly, he is a great admirer of American painting, particularly the realism of Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Reginald Marsh, and he understands their use of genre subjects and narrative content. Their distinctly American paintings, watercolours, and prints, coupled with his admiration for contemporary European neo-expressionist painters such Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia and his own inclinations led him first into allegorical imagery, then toward figure painting, genre subjects, and ultimately culminated in narrative realism based on direct observation.

The undercurrent of sensuality and eroticism that runs through Van Wieck's figure studies and narrative pictures has become more emphatic and animated in Dancing. In an essay on his script for Last Year in Marienbad Alain Robbe-Grillet remarked that in a movie all action unfolds in the present tense. The same is true of painting, and it is a particularly appropriate concept in regard to these works.

In sharp contrast to the brooding, restrained quietude and desolation that lie just below the surface of Working Girls, the metaphorical Dancing centers on sensual, stylized movement, a heightened sense of ebullience and theatricality, and emphatic points of emotional and physical contact. Literally and figuratively they focus totally on the joy and euphoria of the evening. The incidents that charge the paintings are derived from his recollections of Manhattan's private clubs and nightlife, but the preparatory studies for them are constructed from an assortment of drawings, snapshots, perhaps a flickering moment on television, and usable snippets from magazines. Importantly, his familiarity with a broad spectrum of contemporary music informs and underscores the particular temper and timbre of these pieces. While all of the working sketches contain the kernel of the final composition, they are used primarily to establish the ambience and visual character of the painting. The paths from the studies to the finished works are littered with many revisions, subtle adjustments, and unanticipated changes. In Van Wieck words, "reality is much better when it is imagined. When I get past the study, I start to work on the formal problems. I know the feeling I want and I keep working on it until it's right. When it feels right I leave it."

The Dancing pictures also differ drastically from Working Girls and Miami in their formal structure. It is a given that these subjects provide limitless opportunities for theatrical license and artifice, and Van Wieck's drawing is noticeably more emphatic, more abstract, and more tilted toward expressive ends.

Van Wieck has repeatedly asserted that color is essential, and in Dancing his chromatic scale departs quite noticeably from the specifics of local hues. It is heightened, keyed to the complementaries, and coupled with abstract patterns of light and dark. His use of oil pastel, which more closely parallels the character of oil paint than that of the dry, powdery pastel medium, began after moving to New York.

The radical shift of timbre from the racking, angst-ridden moments of Working Girls to the exhilarating romanticism of Dancing is abundantly clear in Tango Lesson and Winter Dance. Tango Lesson is one of the first Dancing paintings, and stylistically it is closer to the naturalism and probity of the earlier narrative pictures and the portraits. The tonality, crisp patterns of black and white, and accents of pure color employed with a heightened sense of verisimilitude recall Hopper's theatre paintings such as Two on the Isle and First Row Orchestra. The dancers are in the center of their world and their brusque, stylized movements reverberate with a haughty sensuality. Unlike the hedonistic exhibitionism of Working Girls, here the dancers proudly flaunt their liquid grace and artfulness. Winter Dance is one of the most magical and seductive images in the new series. In this work the prevailing sense of loneliness and emotional desolation that permeates the most potent images in the Working Girls paintings have been replaced by a couple so totally engaged and sensually connected that they seem oblivious to their surroundings. The dark, mysterious man presses against the lithe swooning woman as they move in taut unison to the wistful, sultry tones of the bandoneón and hypnotic rhythm of castanets. Perhaps they are in a downtown bar or cafe. The silhouette of a potted palm provides a wan pun on the equatorial heat of the moment. Their Latin passion and tropical colors stand in longitudinal contrast to the gray, empty stillness of the snowbound night.

The numerous adjustments made from the half-sized studies, which always contain the complete formal and narrative kernel of the final work, are a matter of editing and refining an image to heighten its narrative aspects. Such changes can be readily traced by comparing some of the sketches to the finished pieces.

For example, the highly animated foreground is crowded with a montage of gestures, but focuses with the frozen glare of a snapshot on the cropped central figure in the study for Dancing with Dancers. She is rendered with portrait-like specificity. To the extreme right the snapping fingers and protruding arms read like shadow puppets. A waitress with a tray of fruit winds her way through the hedonistic crowd and on the elevated stage two tuxedoed musicians are flanked by swaying backup singers. The viewer is placed in the thick of this agitated crowd. In the finished piece, the overlapping figures are rendered in dark, blue-violet tones, placing the emphasis on their silhouettes. The dark tuxedoes of the saxophonist and guitar player have been replaced with a flatly rendered violet and they have been joined by a trumpet player in orange. Chromatically, the composition has been keyed to blue, orange, yellow, and violet: two pairs of opposites. They now stand in sharp contrast to the dancers, prismatically and tonally, and rather than reading as a vertical band, the musicians now form a compositional pyramid. The layers of space are even more compressed, as though seen through a telephoto lens.

This same division of foreground dancers and musicians by the use of chiaroscuro, silhouette, and color - a device perhaps borrowed from Toulouse Lautrec's prints and posters - can be seen in Live Music with the same emphatic shifts between the study and final composition. In addition, there are subtle alterations, such as lowering the dark edge of the bandstand to emphasize the rhythmic movements of the dancers and moving the saxophone forward to enhance the profile of the woman in the foreground. The punctuating reds - lips, tie, and headscarf - of the high-stepping, white-suited singer and swaying saxophonist - are a device used repeatedly by Thomas Eakins.

These same formal strategies are at work in the highly animated triad of dancers of Stepping Out, the two couples in Cut a Rug, and the beautiful swaying woman in Déesse du Soir. In the first, the two central figures are cast as silhouettes and the third is seen in a sharp, crisp light. In the large version they are circled by spectators and the solitary dancer is dressed in the chromatic compliments of red hat and suspenders, green pants, yellow hatband and tie, and violet wingtips and socks. The dark, arched edge of the table closes up the lower space of Cut a Rug, and the addition of the crowd across the room emphasizes that the dance floor has emptied for the lively and highly accomplished moves of the jitter-buggers. A beautiful lithe woman, perhaps a dancer or fashion model, is flanked by the dark shapes of the figures to her right and left in the Déesse du Soir sketch. A hint of architectural detail indicates that the social event is set in a large, Impressive Interior. Other participants of the elegant gala are seen seated and standing in the background, but in the final version all are at tables beyond the dancers and have been given individual identities. While the dancing woman on the left remains dark, enough detail added to indicate that she is gesturing toward the man at the extreme right.

Call It a Day begins with the profile of a man, architectural background, and an exotic dancer. However, in the large version the dancer and his partner are converted to a dark wavy-edged mass and the columns are replaced by two musicians. More important is the introduction of a half-nude dancer in a towering feather headdress feather headdress, for this touch of outlandish exhibitionism and hint of fantasy becomes another leitmotif in Dancing. Such a figure dominates the composition of Swing, with its colorful, gyrating thicket of dancers filling the floor. A scantily clad woman with a tall, colorful crown of feathers moves with the music on a crowded floor, but the focal point of Jack of Hearts is the elegant, formally attired dancers at the center. Shrewdly observed gestures such a rakish hand on the hip, the jaunty tilt of the head, or a teasing flip of a skirt animates their character and fixes the attitude of these works.

One of the most elegant and romantic images is Masked Ball. The waltzing couple at the heart of the composition are invented. In a conversation about this group of paintings Van Wieck made the pity observation, "People with their identities hidden are more interesting." From the spare study to the lavishly detailed composition of a cavernous, glittering Beaux Arts ballroom, the painting has been filled with formally attired, masked participants. Several small changes in the large version greatly enhance the personae of the dancers. Here the woman's mask has been converted to a metallic gold, the exposure of her feet illuminates the lightness of her movement, and the final, crystallizing alteration was the addition of the man's red mask.

As in Masked Ball, a man surreptitiously fondles a beautiful, statuesque woman in the shadow of a column in Odile Odette. Beyond them and oblivious to their covert embrace, a courtly couple moves gracefully across an empty dance floor. Although she has been given a Praxitelian twist, yellow gown and matching Venetian mask, the sly reference to John Singer Sargent's Madame X - the pose, the whiteness of the woman's skin, and the slipped shoulder strap that so scandalized the French - is inevitable in the finished version. The magic and theatricality of the scene is enhanced by an infinity of Busby Berkeley stairs.

The compositional devise of a column and perhaps another classical pun reoccurs in Love the Night. A shapely, scantily costumed dancer with a tall, ostrich feather headdress takes on the form and apparent role of one of the Ionic caryatids on the porch of the Delphi Treasury. Here the extended hand holds a glass of champagne. She stands silently, her appraising gaze and closed eye - either from the smoke or perhaps a suggestive wink - carries a multitude of implications and promises. Beyond her is a crowded, cacophonic swirl of revelers and dancers.

This recondite and frequently witty use of costumes and masks is carried into other pieces, such as Halloween and Fancy Dress. A beautiful blonde with an exotic feathered mask sways teasingly before a vampire. To her right in the study a furry rabbit boogies with an M&M. In the large version a shift of the woman's gloved arm alters her movement and the hare, now pale blue, dances with a white-faced woman. The addition of an ornamented beam encloses the revelers. Fancy Dress began as a horizontal composition with a Latin band in the background. In the second study the focus on a woman clad in a red sari and the exuberant dancer with paper streamers are retained, but shifted to a vertical format. Beyond them a man in a fez spins his partner. These figures are carried into the finished piece, but the enigmatic, gesturing Indian woman is fixed more firmly in the interior, the animation of the dancers is intensified, and the receding, columnar space has been more clearly articulated.

Other works center on a furtive gesture, such as the whispered remark and stolen kiss in the sultry Liar, or In the Blink of an Eye, a sideways glance at the dark dancer and his laughing partner, and pensive gaze of a solitary, stylish woman of Look the Look. The tuxedoed figure of the black man in Blink of an Eye is cribbed for Belle of the Ball. However, in this piece Van Wieck's use of emphatic, abstract shapes set against a solid, richly colored void yields his most Japanese composition.

Lights Out is the final painting of this tightly interwoven group. It depicts an elegant woman in an evening gown as she pauses briefly to wave goodbye. She is caught in a warm, glowing light and casts a long shadow. The theatrical and unabashedly romantic mood of this image sets an appropriately poetic tone for the close of Dancing, for the sweet, chimerical promises held in its moment are golden.

Like the Coney Island and 42nd Street crowds rendered by Reginald Marsh and the backlit flappers on the evening streets of Manhattan depicted in the etchings of the transplanted Australian Martin Lewis, this eloquent cluster of vignettes - boisterously brimming with festivity and occasionally alluding to euphoric secrets - catches the pulse of an aspect of modern urban culture that is indigenously American and distinctly of our time.

Nigel Van Wieck has shed the naturalism and emphatic verisimilitude employed in the earlier works in favor of more distilled and crystalline imagery His pictures are now stripped to their most emphatic and exhilarating essentials. It is an authoritative culmination of more than two decades of painting. Only the sensuality and mystery of the earlier paintings remain. Supplanting the emptiness and alienation of Working Girls, the rapture of Dancing celebrates passionate attentiveness and emotional convergence. The cumulative effect of this buoyant, effervescent novella of images serves as a reminder of the multifaceted ramifications of E.M. Forster's resonating words on the first page of Howard's End, for they apply equally to the best of our creative endeavors and the extravagant possibilities that lie at the emotional center of our lives.

Only connect.

John Arthur, 2001