The Taming of Peter Nadin

Peter Nadin
Forming Words Before Speech, 2002
wax, honey, black walnut, cashmere wool on linen
81 3/4 x 55 x 1 3/4 inches


“Tomorrow I have the first truck arriving-paintings plus 6,000 lbs of honey; and Thursday, I have sculpture plus 60 hemlock trees,” wrote artist-poet Peter Nadin in an email to A.i.A. last Tuesday, describing his installation at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. As promised, crates of paintings and sculptures and two dozen, sealed drums of “horse honey” arrived at the gallery the following day. Over the next week, the artist would pour this 6,000 pounds of honey into a 24-foot-square vat (a vessel made from hickory wood) and add sculptures (houses resembling bird feeders) to the top. No doubt even before the doors to this show open tonight, the work (titled Raft) will attract new objects (and creatures) to its pleasurable surface.

That Nadin is testing the seductive and sociable character of art might seem paradoxical for an artist who has not shown in the United States since 1992 when he decided to “unlearn how to make art”—the subtitle of his 2006 book, The First Mark: Notes on unlearning how to make art (Edgewise Press). Nadin’s early conceptual art involved collaborations and staged events. He worked with Chris D’Arcangelo from 1977–78 on a series of anarchistic events, including setting up their shared studio as a gallery and showing the space itself as an untitled work. From 1979–82, he and Jenny Holzer produced numerous text works together as well as three books: Living, Eating Friends, and Eating Through Living. His paintings at this time varied wildly-from still lifes with real bananas stuck in the middle of them to minimalist interpretations of desiccated landscapes-reflecting his interest in signature style.

Over the last 15 years, the 58-year-old British artist has used his 150-acre farm in the Catskill Mountains as a studio, intimately exploring the relationship between the human psyche and nature. The farm comprises a forest, wild bee pasture, grazing land for livestock, and vegetable and fruit gardens. It supplies many of the materials for Nadin’s paintings and sculptures. The artist taps these rough means for metaphors, likening honey to the thickly webbed glia in the human brain, commonly known as the glue of the nervous system.

The exhibition is an expanded version of a 2007 show at the Wifredo Lam Center in Havana, Cuba, which traveled around Cuba and then to Ecuador. The paintings, all roughly the size of a human body, appear in four “chromatic resonances,” as the artist calls them—indigo, black walnut, downy cream-colored cashmere and paint, and propolis, the resin-like material bees forage from buds to reinforce their hives. Each is an accumulation of gestures on the canvas, explosions and fades of a single colorful material. They are framed with wood veneer, which Nadin uses to create contrast between organic, untamed and artificial materials.

Applying material to support, Nadin uses physical, passionate and sometimes violent gestures. He will, for instance, unfurl a roll of raw linen along his land to exaggerate his circumnavigation and create a narrative. “It’s a record of movement through the landscape,” says Nadin, stressing the “non-ocular” character of his paintings and the “experience of the landscape.”

Naden’s work is often complemented by his own poetry. For this show he offers a free publication, The Bugle, addressing the relationship between culture and agriculture. It includes texts by artists, writers, poets and scientists like Glenn O’Brien, R.L. Beyfuss, Christine Muhlke, April Bloomfield and Andrew McCarron. One article describes the ingestion of holy icons in the 6th century, whereby worshipers literally ate figurines in pursuit of religious clarity. Products from Nadin’s farm (sold as food, not art) will also be on sale during the run of the exhibition.