Nick Stull cedes some control with ‘Emergent Properties’

The striking works on display at Sarah Gormley Gallery beginning today (Wednesday, April 3) balance precision with the Columbus artist’s increasing willingness to let go.
"Darien Gap" by Nick Stull
"Darien Gap" by Nick StullCourtesy the artist

There’s a push and pull existent in many of Nick Stull’s paintings. It’s a tension present in everything from his approach to the canvas, which he said involves a balance of control and letting go, to the various elements that appear in his work. One piece, for instance, incorporates a type of flower that has healing properties but that can also be deadly if not properly administered, while two others center on horses, an animal the artist lauded for both its vitality and its vulnerability.

“They’re simultaneously these powerful creatures but also sort of fragile,” Stull said in early April from Sarah Gormley Gallery, where his new exhibit, “Emergent Properties,” opens today (Wednesday, April 3). “Their legs are so... I don’t know if brittle is the right word, but they can sort of snap on a dime. And I’m interested in how these contrasting things can work together.”

Water is also a recurring element in the exhibit, with the artist drawn to both its purifying properties and the sense of danger it can introduce. The latter surges to the fore in the striking “Darien Gap,” a painting that depicts a small group of Panamanian immigrants navigating the Atrato River – an intensely dangerous crossing prone to flash floods and human threats such as drug smugglers and traffickers. 

With the source image, Stull said he was first drawn to the placement of the figures and how tight knit the five were as they traversed these deadly grounds. “It’s the way they’re connected, and the way this woman is holding the child,” he said. “Then there’s kind of this style I’ve been working on where I would do paint and then aerosol and then paint and kind of build up these layers to kind of give it a solid, almost statue-like feel. And I wanted to do that with these figures to convey this idea of solidarity.”

Part of Stull’s continued evolution as an artist can be traced to a desire to find his own voice within the form, which is part of what led him to begin to deconstruct his concept of portraiture. Some of these more recent explorations include his “vessel series,” in which the faces of hooded figures are replaced with scenes of mountainous regions and desert canyons – a way of revealing some snapshot from a person’s inner world. Other related pieces erase all of a person’s features save for the eyes, the shadowy figures that remain essentially existing in the negative, like disappeared characters from the title sequence of “The Leftovers.”

“So, you have the connection with the eyes, but everything else is more ambiguous and set back. And I don’t think it was at the forefront of my mind when I was making them, but I do think there is some connection to the pandemic,” said Stull, who created the hooded “vessel” portraits alongside his artist wife, Liz Morrison, the two first displaying the paintings in a show at Blockfort. “We collaborated on these hoods, where inside there might be a landscape scene. And it was something we started talking about before the pandemic hit in March, but then it really started to be formed by that isolation and disconnect from the outside world, where there was more of this focus on the interior of a person.”

"Dara in the Forest" by Nick Stull
"Dara in the Forest" by Nick StullCourtesy the artist

A number of the paintings on display at Sarah Gormley are also embedded with Easter eggs, such as the hummingbird in “Darien Gap” whose body is painted with a scene from the Rocky Mountains, or the river-carved landscape hidden in the bottom hoof of a resting horse in “Carousel.” “I do like having a scene look one way from far away and then having that sense of discovery when you get up close,” he said. 

Coming up, Stull said he was drawn to portraiture owing to its century-spanning tradition and a connection he felt to the human aspects of the form, and he initially focused on creating hyper-realistic figures that required him to exact a heavy degree of control. While this more precise touch is still present throughout “Emergent Properties,” Stull’s paintings are increasingly shaped by his willingness to let go, with some canvases incorporating dripping paint and other “happy accidents,” as he termed them. 

“I want to make things that look precious, but then not treat them precious, where something might drip or I might spray over it,” said Stull, who described this embrace of the imperfect as instructive within his own daily existence, allowing him to better adapt to the chaos offered up by the universe. “Some days I’m feeling rigid, or maybe I’m loose, and it’s seeing how I can mesh those together.”

This idea is further reflected in Stull’s more recent decision to take up surfing following decades lived as a skateboarder. “Skateboarding, especially for me, it’s very technical, and you have more control over it,” said Stull, who compared the form with the more linear, comparatively architectural ink and pencil drawings he created early in his artistic life.

Surfing, in contrast, is more like painting, the artist embracing a form over which he has admittedly limited control. “With surfing, it’s unpredictable," he said. “And something about that can be frustrating. But there’s also something really beautiful about it, too.”

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