Sunday, December 5, 2021

Art I’m Looking At: "Sentido: New Paintings by Bob Nugent" at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara

Dominio da agua negra, Na Clareira (The Black Water
Domain, into the Clearing), 2021
I recently made the trip to the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara to see “Sentido: New Paintings by Bob Nugent.” Let me say at the outset that I think this is both a beautiful and an important show, but I found a few aspects of the presentation confusing.  From the publicity materials, it is a bit hard to understand whether it is formally part of “Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss,” described as a “multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art intervention which seeks to provoke societal change by exposing and interrogating the negative social and environmental consequences of industrialized natural resource extraction” (from the website), and, contradictorily, the website describes this show of “new paintings” as a “35-year retrospective.” The majority of the work has been completed in the past few years (mostly since around 2015), with a few pieces older and many newer than that, including several dating from 2021*. Perhaps these things don’t matter. New or old, formally part of Extraction or not, there is a great deal of art here that deserves to be widely seen. It was well worth the two-hour drive from Santa Rosa. I may even go back for a second viewing. 

Nugent has been visiting the Amazon almost yearly since 1984. Since that time, his experiences in the Amazon Basin of Brazil have been the wellspring of his art and it’s hard to avoid the fact that Nugent’s Amazon-inspired art is heavy with message. It’s a now-familiar message and it comes in two parts: 1) the Amazon is a fabulously fertile, complex, and important part of the Earth’s environment, unique and worth preserving; and 2) we are failing at the task of protecting the Amazon, which is disappearing. Baldly stated this way, the message is easily condensed into just another desperate slogan—“Save the Amazon”—already banal. The rise of Amazon, the retailer, has degraded the word “Amazon” itself.

Mostly, I find art with a political edge trite, self-indulgent, or simply boring. Too often, it is crudely presented and attempting to carry weighty ideas—desperate slogans—on art with legs too spindly to provide the necessary support. We are simply slapped in the face with an outraged cry that seems incongruously delivered in paint—a message that would have been more effective elaborated in writing (some of the work of Ed Ruscha comes to mind). Yet, I am strongly drawn to Nugent’s work, and I have to ask myself, why? How does this work escape being trite?

Jardim Inhotim 42
(Inhotim Garden 42), 2019
Nugent’s art is weighty with message, but the message is integral—and that is key. I am reminded of the music of Bela Bartók. Bartók was deeply interested in the folk music of his native Hungary. He sought out peasant musicians, had them perform for him and he wrote down their music to preserve it. He is known not only for his own compositions but also for the research he did as a musicologist. Initially he focused on Hungarian music but his interest extended to the folk music of Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, and even to the music of Turkey and some of the Arabic-speaking countries. Bartók’s own music very rarely quotes any of this music, however. He seems to have absorbed it—to have completely internalized it. His music is entirely original, yet infused with the essence of the music he studied. Folk traditions were integral to his music, never set out on a shelf for display with a label pinned on. And I get that feeling from looking at Bob Nugent’s painting. The Amazon is in his bones. He has become infused with its essence and the paintings express his familiarity with the Amazon in a way that seems analogous to me with Bartók’s familiarity with Eastern European musical traditions as expressed in his compositions. The Portuguese word "sentido" in the show title is appropriate here: It means "to experience fully, with all one's senses."

Sometimes Nugent’s paintings seem alive with complexity; there is life force here. It’s not hard to imagine some of these canvases as virtual terraria. At times, the surfaces seem in motion. I look at some pieces and get the feeling I’m looking down at the rain forest floor, alive with insects, worms, perhaps unnamed, yet-undiscovered terrestrial invertebrates consuming and processing detritus under foot, or that I am peering through tangled vines or lush stands of broad-leafed vegetation under a canopy of overhead foliage. Brightly colored flowers bloom. This is Nugent giving us back in abstracted form the Amazon he has absorbed over the years. 

Occasionally, there are literal quotes—a sketch of a seed pod, a leaf, a tangled stem—often in works on unprimed linen and with grids or implied grids showing through, pieces that look unfinished**, but the bulk of the new paintings in the Triton show are not these but unabashedly painterly abstracts that draw on internalized experience rather than literal representation. When I spoke with him recently, he mentioned, doing 10, 20, sometimes 50 to 100 sketches of a detail observed in the forest that later emerges subconsciously in abstracted form. From my own experience, drawing architecturally arresting houses in the Victorian Village section of Columbus, Ohio in my college days, I would say that drawing is perhaps the best way to know an object or scene intimately. Drawing forces observation, attention to the details, and to relationships between formal elements. Drawing enhances internalization and cements memory. Again, Nugent, seems to have the Amazon in his bones and he gives it back to us concentrated, subtly distilled. 

Tawadi (Night Hawk), 2017
Other paintings are darker, more overtly reflective of the destruction going on in the wild places of Brazil. Sometimes it’s the use of heavy, ragged patches of black laid over brighter colors evocative of vegetation that hints at the taint of human activity. These black layers can have the effect of making the jungle seem jailed, set apart, and beyond our reach, lost to us—yet there. Some paintings suggest destroyed rain forest landscapes burned and laid bare. 

Yet another group of paintings references mining in Brazil. These are often grid-like. While abstract, they evoke strip-mined landscapes, or cut-away views of soil strata, and, through the use of contrasting colors or a variation in the size or shape of the “cells” in the grid, in many cases they are disturbed vertically by patterns suggestive of human intrusions into the Earth—suggestive of mine shafts.

Dominio da agua negra, Maura
(Black water domain, Maura), 2021

 So, I’m arguing that the message in Nugent’s painting is so expertly integrated with their visual content that we are not left feeling preached at, and in none of these works is the message making up for anything lacking in the art itself. However, no knowledge of Nugent’s history with Brazil is required to appreciate them. They command attention purely as abstract paintings. 

They are painterly paintings. You can see the brushwork. Sometimes it is thick and dark, vaguely reminiscent of work by Clyfford Still or Pierre Soulages. In other places you can see where thinner splashes of paint have been applied and dripped. In some pieces semi-transparent washes of brightly colored paint are laid over sections of the canvas. These washes put me in mind of some of Rauschenberg’s large collage work, but Nugent’s painterly effects never become an end in themselves, and by seeing these affinities I in no way mean to suggest imitation. This is strong, starkly original, and, yes, meaningful work. Highly recommended. The show is accompanied by a musical score composed by Richard Derwingson and orchestrated by Scot Derwingson-Peacock inspired by Nugent's paintings. 

The show will run through January 2, 2022 at the Triton Museum of Art, at 1505 Warburton Avenue, Santa Clara, CA 95050. Phone: (408) 247-3754. Admission and parking free. 

*A few days after seeing the show, I ran into Bob and spoke with him a little about the background. He said emphatically that the show is not a retrospective in the sense of being a survey of an artist’s entire career. He suggested the curator may have been trying to say the show is in some ways a summation of Nugent’s work so far that has been inspired by his experience in the Amazon. While the Amazon-inspired work may have become the most substantial phase of Nugent’s work, it is only one phase in a long, varied, and ongoing career. 

**Here is a link to an interesting video about the show. In it the narrator suggests that some of these unfinished pieces can be interpreted as expressive of the voids that habitat destruction in the Amazon has created. I suppose that is fairly obvious once pointed out, but it hadn't occurred to me.

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