This City

by Dr.Jonathan Clarkson

Within the next year or two, a small but very significant shift will take place in the balance of the world’s population. For the first time in human history, the majority of people on this planet will live in urban rather than rural areas. The city is about to become the primary sphere of human activity, as it already is for 75% of the population In Europe and America. The city is inescapable; it is both cause and effect of the processes of industrialisation, capital accumulation and social fragmentation that go by the name of modernisation. It is the crucible within which modern society continually re-makes itself.

The economic forces that determine the growth or decline of a city are global; the buildings and spaces found there are similarly trans-national. Beyond the historic centres, modern cities are endlessly alike. Interchangeably bland office blocks with a litter of cars at their base proliferate across the globe. They are unloved, often despised and hated - with good reason, many would say - yet something like half the world’s population work or live either in these blocks or within sight of them. The city has seeped into our psyche: we possess the spaces of the city physically, but psychologically, the city possesses us.

Philip Nicol’s paintings scrutinise this anonymous terrain. His paintings are about the psychological effects of urban life as much as they are about architecture. He does not paint picturesque inner city decrepitude, although his paintings are as empty and still as any post-industrial wasteland. Neither does he paint the glamour of the high life and the skyscraper, although his images are dramatic and lit as spectacularly as a film set. The paintings are realistic in that they depict believable and recognisable spaces, but they are also fictitious insofar as they are interested in the imaginative possibilities of the locale. At times the fictitious element is so strong that the image becomes almost a caricature. At other times it buries itself in description, emerging only as a sense of artificiality in the colour, or the alignment between two planes.

The paintings are about city life yet many of them completely dispense with the human figure. The effects of human presence are everywhere, but the actors are missing, and even when they are visible, they do not command the viewer’s attention in the way that the light does; it is as if they were slightly out of focus, or to one side of the action. This is because the paintings are interested less in the particular stories of individuals, than in the forms of collective life that the city enforces through the spaces it makes available. In many cases, cars act as substitute figures. The cars are not anthropomorphic, they do not express any particular type of personality; they stand in for people because, like us, they are mobile objects that the city has to accommodate. The car contains a potential for disorder: parking bays are painted on the tarmac, but the vehicles do not stay neatly in their boxes. Their use of the city is haphazard and unpredictable, clearly shown in Blossom, where the vehicles compete chaotically for space. Cars are like us because they need the city, but they are always in conflict with it. The Big Car Park, which might at first sight look like a triumph for the car - able to travel unimpeded in any direction - actually shows how forlorn an object it is when unconstrained by the discipline of the road.

Nicol’s paintings invoke and resist narration. A car with a door open in an empty parking lot invites speculation. The car appears in several paintings; each time, as in Beam, the lighting and composition propels the viewer towards this fact as if it were an incident. A monstrous shadow seems to flow from the car up the façade of the building. The enlarged shadow is a familiar expressionist and film noir symbol of the operation of dark forces, and in this context the darkened barrier arm acquires a sinister overtone too. The open door must be the consequence of some action and/or the prelude to another, but there are no clues about the nature of either. The viewer is left unsure about whether they are being shown an arrival, a departure or an abandonment. In cinema, the camera will often linger on an unimportant detail while the action (something frightening or dangerous) takes place off-screen. The open door functions in this way, except that it is more a lure than a narrative device. The viewer does not know what, if anything, is happening ‘off-screen’. The open door does not lead the viewer through the image, instead the painting works to isolate an event in its most minimal and enigmatic form.

Other paintings contain other lures: a stray dog, a scrap of newspaper blowing in the wind, a figure at the edge of a road junction. They carry with them the idea of mere sequentiality rather than story. They interrupt the broader harmonies of colour and plane, and introduce activity into the pictures, but stop short of anecdote, which would impose a different sort of order on the canvas. Their function is to arrest the process of viewing, to introduce a sense of time, of before and after into the business of looking. They suggest how the space might be used or occupied. They sharpen up the sense of expectancy - evident in nearly all the pictures - that the space has been cleared for action, but they leave the nature of that action undetermined.

Narrative time is brought up against ‘photographic’ time within the paintings. The contrast is between time experienced as duration on the one hand, and time as an isolated and static moment on the other. Narrative is alluded to without any particular story being told. Similarly, photographic traits are incorporated into the paintings, although actual photographs play almost no role in the production of these pictures. The most obvious photographic feature is the way the edge of the canvas cuts through objects. This has become so ubiquitous in photography, that it requires something as deliberate as painting to remind us that it is still a convention. Other photographic features include the blurring of foreground objects, and the sense given through composition, of a passing glance, or a mobile spectator.

Narrative and photographic time undercut one another and enable the paintings to articulate, within the contemporary context, a traditional painterly concept of time as stillness. Rather than a frozen moment, the sense of time given in these paintings is of a suspension in the normal course of events. Looking at a blown sheet of newspaper, it is obvious that it is in motion, and also that it is static. It is the flimsiest of objects, blowing like tumbleweed across the prairie of a car park, but at the same time it is an incredibly strong and tough shape, that could be made of painted steel. It is like an abstract relief fastened to a wall of air. The corner of the sheet that almost touches the edge of the canvas brings all these aspects into focus; it indicates transience, by showing how close the paper is to being beyond the frame. At the same time the juncture of newspaper and edge, of depicted and real space formalises and stabilises the position of the paper and provides a counterforce to the sense of motion.

The sense of narrative or anticipation is also an effect of the way the scenes are staged. In the immediate foreground of many of the paintings, especially the nocturnes, there is a wedge of shadow, beyond which the ground is brightly lit. This performs several functions: guiding the viewer into the depicted space, giving a visual weight to the bottom of the canvas and so on. But it also marks the brightly coloured ground as the edge of a stage. It prepares the viewer for what is about to take place by first of all setting that space at a slight distance. This distance is not large, and is sometimes breached by a bollard or a post. These are dumb objects, but there is a sense in which they are also surrogate viewers; they are like the top hats often visible along the bottom edge of Impressionist drawings of the theatre. This sense of the theatrical is amplified through the lighting which is normally strong and may come from more than one source, throwing shadows in opposing directions. These theatrical conventions underpin the viewer’s feeling that something is being enacted in these images, and this feeling survives the inability to find a suitably dramatic incident on the canvas.

The paintings also make explicit parallels with the cinema. Walls and buildings are used to frame a view where the relations of depth are different from the rest of the painting. The most extreme example of this can be found in the Shift series, where the further car park rears up like a giant cinema screen. But it is also evident in smaller, low key works such as North where the junction between the concrete and the hill is so neat and regular that the view could conceivably be a painting of a mural on another building.

The embedded view is like a painting within a painting and it is a recurrent feature of Nicol’s pictures. They are often the vehicle through which the conflict between surface and depth is expressed. They also form part of the formal armature of the paintings. In nearly all of them, there is a clear commitment to a set of abstract formal principles. Surfaces and spaces are handled mostly as planes, parallel to the picture plane, and fitted as snugly together as a piece of carpentry.

The paintings initiate a dialogue with abstract painting through an exploration of the grid. Throughout the Twentieth Century, from Picasso to Peter Halley, the grid has been the locus for the most extreme painting that has attempted to do away with all reference to the phenomenal world. The grid also has a part in an older tradition, where it functions as the foundation for the perspective constructions of the Renaissance. Artists in the Twentieth Century embraced the grid to abolish appearance, every bit as eagerly as their predecessors in the Sixteenth Century had taken it up as a means of capturing and fixing appearance. Nicol’s grids maintain a critical distance from both poles. The grid is used self-consciously as one way of exposing the fiction of the painted spaces, and in turn the realism of the paintings is used to question the self-sufficiency of the grid.

The most explicit grids are box junctions and they maintain a link with projective geometry. They promise to rationalise the space within the painting and stabilise the position of objects within the field of view, but these grids remain empty. The space that they regulate is theirs alone, and they begin to look like ‘found’ abstract paintings. They are used to highlight other anomalies: the man who stands at the edge of the junction in Bend is like one of those diagrammatic spectators for whom a scene is plotted in perspective. He is faintly reminiscent of a stroller in a Florentine plaza, but again, he is significantly just outside the grid. His Italian counterpart would have been contained within the grid, and this would have symbolised the security of his position, whether high or low, within the city. Nicol’s figure has undergone an historical evolution since then. His solitary condition derives from the Nineteenth Century flaneur, who would walk through the city and consume it as a spectacle. But this solitariness is raised to an existential pitch, by reference to the detective novel and film. He keeps alive the notion of the continuity of urban experience, but only just. Outside of the grid, urban space begins to warp and twist in an unpredictable way. The weird scale of this portion of a city suggests a measure that is not man and the projection of an order that is not rational.

The grid is not left unchallenged; at times it is rendered comically as in the Big Car Park where it is clearly no match for the enormity of that space and becomes paradoxically, an emblem of randomness. The little boxed sections are scattered over the endless plain as carelessly as fallen leaves. Frequently the grid, as a sign of abstract order is brought up against an untidy object, like a tree, which is not disordered, but embodies a notion of order that this opposed to geometry. Sometimes the tree dominates the scene, blotting out the neat row of houses behind; at other times it is absorbed into the planners’ rationalising vision, as in Row No. 3, a parody of woodland, where the saplings are almost indistinguishable from fenceposts. There are even examples of an unexpected harmony between the man-made and the natural: Rise shows cars, clouds, trees and tower blocks mimicking and responding to one another. The relation between the grid as emblem of human rationality and organic nature is complex and worked out over the paintings as a whole.

The most elemental of these confrontations takes place in a series of paintings of a roadworks in front of a tree. The roadworks – a hole in the ground – are surrounded by a safety barrier consisting of vertical posts and red and white striped horizontal bars. The barrier has a practical function – to prevent people falling into the pit – and it fulfils this function by advertising its abstract nature. Immediately behind this barrier stands a tree or a clump of trees. Even within this stark iconography, a range of relationships between the two elements is possible. In some, the scene is set at night, the pit is lit from within and the same light catches the underside of the tree. The barrier is fragile in comparison to the tree, but it extends far enough to hold the tree visually in place. The light, coming from the pit, turns the tree into an attendant, and suggests an ominous significance to their encounter. In the daytime versions, the situation is reversed. There we find not one but several trees whose visual presence far exceeds the diminutive barriers at their base. These trees present themselves as a complex solid. The breeze that shakes their boughs arranges them horizontally in tiers and diagonally in ribbons of foliage, so that they form a single blunt spiral. This may look at first, to be a celebration of natural freedom (the leaves blowing in the wind) over abstract rationality, but along the bottom of the painting is another red and white banded barrier. These bands relate directly to the painting as a physical object and to the depicted space. In the former case, they remind us that painting may be pursued as a rational activity. In the latter case, they remind us that our position as viewers is not neutral, but from within the rationality of the grid. Within the city, nothing is completely natural any longer.

Many of the paintings have a pastoral quality to them, which links them to older traditions of landscape painting. There are no equivalents for the nymphs and shepherds that peopled classical pastorals, nevertheless, wherever the dramatic element recedes, it becomes possible to detect a slowness and quietness that is simultaneously the ground of the drama and its opposite. Within the urban environment, the pastoral survives as a state of mind that fastens onto little pockets of the city that chance transforms into emblems of a different kind of life. A roundabout with a clutch of spindly trees, seen at night over a large puddle, almost becomes the palm-fringed desert island of which the city-dwellers dream, shut up in their darkened tower blocks. Within the painting this transformation goes unwitnessed, but the painting itself stands witness and reminds viewers that the city is not a fait accompli, but its spaces can be transformed materially as well as pictorially.