NECHITA: PORTRAIT OF THE NEO-MODERNIST AS A VERY YOUNG WOMAN
Written by Peter Frank, art critic and curator at the Riverside Museum of Art;
Published in November 2000
Alexandra Nechita is coming of age in a post-modern universe. As she passes into her teen years, and her precocity becomes less and less a provocative issue, we can - we must - see her more and more for her accomplishments as an artist per se. But in this day and age, those accomplishments themselves can provoke unusual discussion, on several levels. Alexandra Nechita and her art remain, literally as well as figuratively, remarkable.
No longer should, or can, we regard Nechita's artwork - painting, drawing, prints, and more recently, sculpture - as a phenomenon apart from historical or contemporary artistic discourse. Like the performances of young concert soloists or pre-teen actors, Nechita's work, beyond its youthful source, demands to be considered in light of its time, place, and precursors. As such, we can see that Nechita works in a distinctly modernist mode, conflating aspects of cubism, expressionism, and (to a lesser extent) surrealism. She has thereby determined for herself a style not dissimilar to that of the postwar northern-European movement COBRA, in which the playfulness, even buoyancy, of quasi-natural (including humanoid) forms veils a darker, almost existential spirit.
COBRA itself took its cues form the art of outsiders - untrained artists, children, even the insane. Nechita's art has from the beginning sought a more sophisticated voice than that (commencing her career as a child, after all, she has had no need to emulate children's art), and in the conscious, even willful formal articulation she brings to her images Nechita does take a few steps away from the raw, if complex, passions invested in their art by COBRA painters such as Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, and Pierre Alechinsky. Reacting against their academy training, they idealized the concept of pure spontaneity. Having recognized herself as an artist while still young enough to manifest such spontaneity without forethought, Nechita has moved in the opposite direction, acquiring knowledge and technique through observation and training - but not to the point where the impulse of her vision has become indentured to current or recent stylistic prescriptions.
In that, Nechita still follows her own muse, even to the point of contradicting contemporary mainstream practices. By recapitulating, fusing, and ultimately personalizing practices that were mainstream a half-century to a century earlier, Nechita declares herself modernist to the core, and seems to resist post-modern artistic doctrine. Or does she? At its most expansive, post-modernism has promulgated a non-progressive, a-telelogical understanding of artistic practice (Western or otherwise). Art, as John Perreault (among other post-modern commentators) has observed, does not necessarily progress; it simply proceeds. By that dint, artists are at liberty to re-explore modes and methods whose time has supposedly passed - not just antique styles revived for modern times, but modern and pre-modern styles supposedly consigned to history, no matter how recently. In this interpretation of post-modernism - which we see in the late buildings of Phillip Johnson, hear in the jazz-licked music of William Bolcom and John Harbison, and witness in the old- and modern-master-quoting canvases of George Deem, Richard Pettibone, and Mike Bidlo - any and all aspects of art history are up for grabs.
The difference is that, while dyed-in-the-wool post-modernists appropriate their historical references as citations, excerpts or approximations - that is, with conceptual quotation marks around them - Nechita delves into now-historic styles for the sheer energy and pleasure they afford practitioner and viewer alike. She is inspired by the rough facets of Picasso's Cubism and the sprightly abstraction of Kandinsky, by the passionate figuration of expressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Rouault, by Dali's and Miro's impossible distortions of the human form. Nechita is not a "modernist," she is a Modernist. She believes in modernism for its own sake. That is, she believes in modernist practice for its own sake (not least because she discovered it in herself long before she saw the work of other modernists); the ideology of modernism does not inspire her, at least at present. (Indeed, as she grows in sophistication and addresses herself more to artistic theory, she may have emendations of her own to make to modernist ideology.) You can call Nechita a neo-modernist of a sort, growing not out of modernist (and, for that matter post-modernist) theory but towards it.
Nechita's allegiance to (neo-) modernist practice serves her well, as it requires of her a facility with paint in place of a non- (even anti-) modernist facility with rendering (or, for that matter, a post-modernist facility with words and/or the camera). As supple as is her line, as fluid as is her brush, as modulated as her palette might be (even in paintings whose colors seem to have issued right from the tube), Nechita does not display the ability, much less the desire, to paint or draw a picture that mirrors reality. She may in fact command such ability innately, but she does not need, or want, to. (When sent to a traditional art academy she lasted all of three weeks.)
What Nechita commands instead is a far more idiosyncratic grasp of what to modern (and neo-modern) eyes constitutes pictorial cohesion, and commands as well the optical and manual ability to realize this cohesion.
All of her work goes into the production of something more than an image: what is produced is an image issuing from both the mind of the artist and a physical encounter with the media employed, whether those media are as rigid as lithography, as obdurate as steel, or as responsive - yet tricky, even treacherous - as oil on canvas. Like any true modernist, Nechita paints (or draws, sculpts, or prints) her world for our delectation; she does not mirror ours back at us. And like any good modernist, Nechita paints her world with her evident skills modified to the task, so that her world, no matter how peculiar or daunting it may seem, asks us in.
In this respect, Nechita is anything but a modernist ideologue. While the strategies of modernism include challenging its viewers and shocking otherwise complacent society, Nechita maintains a basically benign relationship with her audience. Significantly, she is not eager to please; her bumptious, often riotously distorted imagery makes its way into pictorial (and, more recently, sculptural) form without heed as to whom it may puzzle, put off, or even offend. Like any good modernist, she gives concrete form to subjective impulse, giving credence only to what she sees and feels within. But at the same time Nechita is readily forthcoming with explanation of her intentions, methods, and aspirations. In her many encounters with the public she patiently recapitulates her stories and her aims, and does so while maintaining an almost preternatural poise and articulateness - which qualities themselves distance her from the common construct of the artist (modernist and even post-modernist) as a diffident, almost mute (or, conversely, incoherently garrulous) Bohemian. And she is as unaffected in her narrative now as she was when she first came to public attention six or so years ago.
Nechita's art has been compared here to that of the artists in the COBRA group. More upbeat and even more eclectic than the work produced around 1950 (and to varying
degrees since) by the surrealism- and expressionism-influenced "angry young men" of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, Nechita's art prompts even closer stylistic, and spiritual, comparison with two other notable artists of the 20th century - one predating COBRA, one following it, obliquely but knowingly.
Jean Cocteau was one of the great polymaths of the modernist era, working in nearly every discipline, by himself or in collaboration with others, from literature to music to dance. The art form that seems to spring the most freely from Cocteau's mind and hand, thus lying closest to Cocteau's soul, however, is pictorial: conjuring figures and other images out of so many darting and meandering lines, the apparitions Cocteau painted, sculpted, and above all drew have a genial spontaneity to them, an unfettered immediacy that transcends, even as it enlivens, the narratives, or even the illustrative tasks, they bear. In this, and in their pan-modernist stylization (which takes in symbolism, fauvism, cubism, futurism, and surrealism), Cocteau's visual artwork prefigures Nechita's.
So does that of a less likely predecessor, the "angry young man" of New York's mean streets: Jean Michel Basquiat. A gifted near-autodidact like Nechita, Basquiat's line-driven neo-expressionist imagery did not emerge from an unsophisticated world, or even art-world, view. But he did allow himself an approach that was almost diaristic, and certainly stream-of-consciousness and quasi-surrealist in its emulation of "automatic writing". From Basquiat's hands images and words flowed with equal abandon - and, as it happened, with equal formal rigor - onto canvas and paper. Nechita's imagery may (at least at this point) be less urbane, elaborate, and foreboding than Basquiat's, but it maintains the same volubility and what you might call stylized impulse. That is, in both Basquiat's case and Nechita's the urge to give form to a thought or a feeling takes shape in a manner deliberately, if effortlessly, consistent with the artist's style. You can tell a Basquiat from a mile away; by such a yardstick, Nechita's can be told from, oh, about a thousand feet. This year.
In one aspect, however, Nechita is very, very different than Cocteau or Basquiat. She is not a writer. Cocteau, best known for his writing, infused even the simplest of his drawings with a literary aura, not to mention a telling melancholy; and it is not hard to tell in the decorous trails his pen or pencil left on paper that his is the contemplative line of the storyteller, as well as the elegant line of the calligrapher. The calligraphic gesture also informs Basquiat's work, and the written word recurs insistently therein, to the point where his works on paper, and even paintings, can start to seem like notebook or diary entries. Nechita may exercise a sure and lively line, but it is the line of a picturemaker, not that of a writer. She may have a calligrapher's touch, and she certainly loves line for its own sake, not just as an armature for color and composition; but Nechita's images are not notations, they are apparitions.
Nechita has been consistent in her style from the outset of her career. Like all artists, she experiments; like all good artists, she takes her experiments seriously; like all serious artists, she carefully considers the outcome of each experiment and evaluates it in terms of its applicability to her vision. Even more than her style, Nechita's vision has remained consistent from the beginning. Ironically, however, it could ultimately be her vision rather than her style that mutates the most dramatically - or seems to.
Nechita's outlook is a humanist one. It is one that, typical to modernism, conflates the personal and the universal, valorizing the individual point of view but sharing it with the world. She has a sense of mission, but her sense of the world is hopeful. Her vision follows suit, tempering a risible - you might say, in the best sense of the word, grotesque - regard for the figure with wit, affection and verve. As she evolves Nechita is unlikely to lose her humanist bent; and her sense of mission and of hope, clearly not fragile, is not going to be easily compromised. How she manifests these basic sentiments, however - how she continues to measure humanity against her aspirations for it, and how she regards the fate of this peculiar planet - will evolve in response to exterior as well as interior events. In otherwords, clouds can come between Nechita and her sun - that is, between her sunny nature and her comprehension of life and art. She may have reason at some point in her career to modify her vision, so that the grotesque may overtake the affection (although the wit and verve are unlikely to diminish).
But any artistic temperament reserves for itself such changes in weather, or (less likely, but not impossible), a change in climate. And the temperament of a child, and especially that of an adolescent, hangs likewise in the balance. But, then, the astounding maturity Nechita displays, in the execution of both her art and her public role as artist - a maturity that should be the envy of artists (and many others) twice, three times her age - gives reassuring indication that her interior artistic climate is stable and durable.
Does this mean that Nechita, in her contentment, will simply be churning out "Nechitas" for the rest of her life? Not likely. As an important part of her evident maturity, Nechita evinces a groundedness, a lack of defensiveness, and a quick and hungry intellect, all necessary ingredients for meaningful artistic growth. As part of her love for the world, she remains open to its multifarious influence - and remains similarly open to the many models afforded by art. Nechita's style, and the vision that drives it, will perforce evolve. And equally, it will always be her style. It will always show traces of her current manner, the totemic, figure-centered cubo-expressionism that has seemed to come so effortlessly from her mind and hand but which she has actually worked hard to perfect. (She is famous for spending long hours in her studio.
She may love every minute spent there, but what she loves about her studio time is the ongoing struggle she must engage in to match vision to material, to master her media while riding her vision.)
If Nechita's style can be described as "totemic" and "figure-centered", note should be made of its compositional complexity, a complexity that has increased in recent works (notably the lithographic series). This complexity, evolving naturally out of Nechita's ongoing reconsideration of cubism, brings about a fusion, or at least elision, of the figure with (or into) its surroundings. One of the revolutionary achievements of cubism in pictorial terms was the dissolution it effected of boundaries between figure and ground; as object (figure or still life) and space (landscape) were now all rendered with the same interplay of facets, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish one play of facets from another. The resulting visual and subjective ambiguity has been one of the most challenging aspects of cubism from its inception. The vivacity of Nechita's images can divert us from this aspect of her work, but sooner or later we note, with some unease and with deepening engagement, her conflation of figure and ground.
This aspect of Picasso's cubism seems to be one of the few Nechita is carrying over into her newest work. Instead, the playful anxiousness of Miro's abstract surrealism and the anxious playfulness of COBRA are coming more and more to undergird Nechita's vision. She is marrying cubist formal ambiguity to the others' ambiguity of spirit. The ambiguous nature of her pictures thus redoubles - but does not overwhelm the insouciance that is still at the core of her vision. Even in its burgeoning ambiguity, the increasingly worldly uncertainty that betrays Nechita's entrance into adolescence, the work remains exuberant. It is actually getting funnier; a mark of her maturity is the increasing command Nechita is taking of her own wit. The figural distortions seem more and more pointed, their facial grotesqueries more mask-like and comical, their bodily attenuations less childlike and more slapstick. Gradually purging her work of childhood's crude stylizations, Nechita would seem to be turning instead to the more various, and certainly more controlled, visual universe of the comic strip and cartoon.
It is not hard to imagine Nechita's people - or, if you would, peoploids - dancing onscreen, in movie theaters, on television sets, or even on computer monitors. Their strong but not overemphasized linear armatures and their equally powerful intimations of motion set them up for kinetic reinterpretation. But they would be awfully unorthodox cartoon characters, as they seem to spend a lot more time changing appearances and identities than in doing anything - anything, that is, on which animated film could impose its inevitable demand for a story. Maybe it will be enough that Nechita's spry, jocular quasi-humans simply dance before our eyes much as they seem to now; maybe animated film will broaden and mature in its possibilities so that popular animation will no longer have to have a story line - or, for that matter, a beginning, a middle, or an end. In that way, animation will return to its roots, will accept and incorporate digital descendants such as screen savers, and, finally, embrace visual art as a sister discipline and a dynamic presence of equal force and allure. Certainly, Alexandra Nechita's visual art commands such force, and exercises such allure over an audience that overlaps, or should. You might call Nechita's work the thinking girl's Fantasia. It is definitely the thinking girl's neo-modernism.