With Nicole Duennebier's second solo exhibition at 13FOREST Gallery, View into the Fertile Country, soon coming to a close, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some thoughts about her work and how it can be understood through View into the Fertile Country and another exhibition currently featuring Duennebier, Pushing Painting at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University.
Gallery Director, 13FOREST Gallery
Nicole Duennebier’s first solo show at 13FOREST Gallery, The Great Season, celebrated a particularly prolific time in the young artist’s career. The show was populated with paintings that at first glance appear to be seventeenth century Dutch still lifes. However closer inspection rewards the viewer with simultaneous pleasure and revulsion at discovering Duennebier’s imaginative subject matter: biologic forms that glimmer and ooze in an alluringly repulsive manner.
Duennebier has become known for her signature style of painting that renders surreal and at times grotesque subjects with the attention and rigor of an Old Master. 13FOREST Gallery owner Jim Kiely previously interviewed Duennebier to gain insight into the process behind this highly recognizable work.
With her latest solo exhibition View into the Fertile Country, Duennebier continues to mine historical influences, but expands the scope of her painted subject matter to introduce new vistas that define the broader universe her work occupies. Duennebier has also expanded the type of work that she is presenting as her finished product, making her delicate and highly detailed drawings a significant component of the show. With this new imagery and medium, Duennebier challenges herself artistically and invites her viewers deeper into her imagined worlds.
Duennebier’s work as a painter is characterized by a voracious approach to historical influences. Visually her paintings evoke a keen understanding of Dutch still lifes and the Old Masters, and conversations with the artist reveal a deep breadth of knowledge that informs her work in ways both subtle and overt. A primary influence on the body of work on display in View into the Fertile Country was an article about the effects of the disease scurvy on sailors traveling to previously undiscovered lands. The article, “Scurvy and the Terra Incognita” by Jonathan Lamb, discusses the phenomenon of the “scorbutic eye,” a condition brought on by scurvy that heightens the viewer’s sense of vision to the point of surreality. To sailors affected by the scorbutic eye, the world around them took on a highly decorative quality such that the visual world became completely overwhelming, sometimes causing the sailors to lose consciousness.
In her artist talk for View into the Fertile Country, Duennebier revealed that she sees herself as possessing a scorbutic eye when it comes to her painting; she seeks out the decorative aspects of her subject matter and heightens those details until they become almost too much to take in. Duennebier further characterized her work as having the engorged quality of someone being fed too much. Duennebier’s awareness of engaging the senses in this manner is apparent in the highly sensual nature of her work, which brims with details, textures, and environments that give the viewer plenty to feast upon.
With this new work, Duennebier pushed herself to explore landscapes as a new subject matter for her paintings. The decision to pursue landscapes came from her desire to challenge herself to work with a lighter color palette in a major departure from the darkness that her previous still lifes were usually situated within. Paintings like Landscape with Pink Folds and Folded Landscape at Dusk evoke Rococo-esque grottoes with their pastel tones and intricate scenery, while Still Life with Nasturtium and Brush Fire uses landscape sparingly in the background, grounding the painting in a more familiar reality while also contrasting the fantastic scenery in the foreground.
Duennebier also addresses landscape with her immaculately detailed drawings, work that she is displaying in a gallery context for the first time at 13FOREST. In her artist talk, she discussed her decision to pursue drawing more seriously for this exhibition. While she had always used drawing as a preparatory process for her paintings, she admitted that she had never before found them to be significant enough to present as a finished product.
Drawing offered a completely different kind of experience than painting for Duennebier. She described the process of drawing as feeling very frail and vulnerable, like walking a tightrope. Although her method of painting allows her to go back and repaint sections that she has trouble with, with drawing every mark is final and therefore must be careful and deliberate. Duennebier’s highly studied approach to her artistic process is evident in her drawings as much as the paintings. In her talk, she explained that “I felt as though with the drawings I had to do a lot of looking at other drawings and learn those marks…if I had an angle that I was trying to understand I feel like I had to go through a lot of different source material to kind of figure out how other artists worked it out.”
With the titles of the drawings, Duennebier’s multi-layered historical references become even more obvious. Most of the drawings are referred to as cartouches, which are decorative elements with the appearance of a scroll or an oval that were incorporated into tablets or drawings; they also bore inscriptions or highlighted important names in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The concept of a cartouche appealed to Duennebier as it conveyed the idea of an element that was meant to be filled in and become part of a decoration. She explained that a cartouche could also mean a cartridge that is filled with ink; to her mind it represents a space that is filled with possibility.
For Duennebier calling her drawings cartouches invoked the intriguing idea of using an absence as decoration, and yet she also saw it as a way of downplaying the drawings; she explained that the titles were “in a silly sort of way like trying to say this is a quaint little decoration.” With the decision to name her drawings cartouches, Duennebier reveals her highly intellectualized creative process, showcasing the multiple approaches she takes to understanding her work.
Duennebier’s extreme commitment to her influences and subject matter is further evident in her use of models when creating her paintings. During her artist talk Duennebier explained that since she often paints scenes that exist solely in her imagination, she finds it useful to create clay models to refer to while she is working. She originally began making the models as a way to counteract a certain flatness she was observing in her work. Creating a three dimensional model allowed her to actually physically navigate the scenes she was imagining. Duennebier is a true technician in her approach to painting. She used oil on the models to emulate the sticky, shiny, and repellent textures that she sought to create, using the model as a basis to render the most accurate representation of the shadows, points of reflection, and unique textures that she was trying to convey.
When asked about the seventeenth century and Old Master influences that are so present in her work, Duennebier admitted that “consistently looking back as far as I do, I don’t know if I have a good excuse for it other than I think I learn the most from Old Master paintings…there will be something there that I don’t know how to do and I’m always learning from that.” Her self-described “obsessive love” with that historic work allows her to experiment with the ideas of great artists and reinterpret them through her own lens. While Duennebier might not believe she has a good excuse for bringing clear historical references into her work, curator Ian Alden Russell found that quality to be a particular strength of her practice.
Concurrent with View into the Fertile Country, Duennebier is featured alongside painters Elise Ansel and Duane Slick in the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in an exhibition titled Pushing Painting. The exhibition, curated by Russell, serves to bring Duennebier’s work into context with other painters who filter art historical touchstones through a contemporary vantage point.
In her review of the exhibition, Boston Globe art critic Cate McQuaid offers a deft summary of the work of Ansel and Slick. Ansel takes on titans of art history such as Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, using the same color palette but rendering the painting’s familiar forms with energetic swaths of paint. Ansel’s abstracted brushstrokes, according to McQuaid, “don’t flatten masterworks into formal notions, but caress and celebrate their forms, as a lover might, so they blossom anew.” Duane Slick, professor of painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and member of the Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk Nations, “seeds the modernist grid with Native American spirits.” His approach to the stark geometry of Modern painting imbues it with fresh meaning as he layers in Native American imagery, bringing western art into conversation with cultures rarely recognized by the art historical canon.
Duennebier’s work in the show is an excellent example of her Dutch still-life inspired work, including the six paneled series Hydnellum Myriorama, pieces of which belong to different collectors and have not been exhibited together since their debut in The Great Season in 2014. McQuaid writes that “Like her Dutch predecessors, Duennebier’s glistening realism captures bounty and menace, allure and mortification. Unlike them, she offers no moral instruction – just astonishment at paint’s possibilities.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Russell about the motivation behind his latest exhibition and his interest in Duennebier's work. With Pushing Painting, Russell began with the idea of organizing an exhibition of regional painters. He explained that New England has a remarkably long history of painting and several notable painting schools such as the Hudson River School, making the region akin to parts of Europe or England in terms of the breadth of historical influence to draw upon. It was his observation that with New England’s rich history of painting techniques, it is incredible that artists in this area are still finding ways to innovate with the medium and keep it feeling contemporary and relevant. He particularly honed in on painters who found ways to pay homage to the history of image making while still working from a fresh or different perspective that made their paintings feel as contemporary as other avant-garde types of images.
With Duennebier’s work, Russell was initially drawn to the rigor and commitment he saw in her technique. Her dedication to fidelity and acutely representing textures and light is remarkable, and for Russell, was a sign that Duennebier was someone to pay attention to. Her mastery of acrylic paint was also particularly noteworthy. While her paintings fool many people into believing they are painted with oil, a medium often associated with more detail and depth, Duennebier is actually working exclusively with acrylic paint. Her expert application of acrylic paint and varnish allows her to convey a broad range of textures, from shimmering pearls and airy gauze to oozing and disintegrating molds, with the weight and seriousness of an Old Master working in oil. According to Russell, viewers mistaking these paintings as seventeenth century oils gives the paintings an aura of history while also leading the viewer to think differently about contemporary mediums.
For Russell, the three artists in Pushing Painting are united by the way they open up historical images for continued discussion and reinterpretation. Within the canon of art history the meaning of art movements and interpretation of an artist’s oeuvre can feel established or determined in a way that can be restrictive. However through the work of Ansel, Duennebier, and Slick, Russell demonstrates his view that “the history of the painted image is something that is constantly becoming and is renegotiated.” These artists are “intervening to try to collapse and simultaneously open and expand” the distance between contemporary viewers and historical influences, making room for history to live again in our contemporary consciousness. Regarding Duennebier’s work specifically, Russell stated that her work reminds him that when encountering any creative work, no matter the time period in which it originated, “there is a contemporary opportunity and a contemporary moment to be open to what that [artwork] might mean, what that image is saying…how might that [artwork] catalyze conversations with others around you.” While Duennebier seems to think primarily in terms of what she has to learn from Old Masters, Russell points out that there is much to learn about art history from Duennebier: “[she] helps me think differently about seventeenth century Dutch still life painting.”
With Pushing Painting and View into the Fertile Country on view simultaneously, followers of Duennebier’s work are afforded a unique opportunity to consider her already impressive career. Her dedication to history provides ample inspiration for her imaginative paintings, while giving viewers the opportunity to engage with moments from art history that might feel outdated to contemporary audiences. Duennebier’s masterful rendering of texture provides an opportunity to experience the visceral pleasure of looking, as viewers take in the delightful and repulsive details that give her work its signature vibrancy and liveliness.