19 September, 2007

The Art of Neith Nevelson

by Jorge Reyes 

When I started writing the Reyes Report, I thought of writing mostly personal editorials about current events from my local I community, as well as write about other topics of interest, mainly in areas of literature and art. Or whatever I fancied, really. 

I've written before in other places about art, and more particularly about the art of a good friend, Neith Nevelson. I'm not much of an art connoisseur, but sufficiently savvy to know what good art ought to be, at least if it satisfies my own peculiar taste.  And isn't all art subjective and based on personal taste? 

Named after an Egyptian goddess, Neith Nevelson was born in New York City in 1946, to a family whose name will forever be associated with one of the most respected female sculptors of the twentieth century, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Neith’s grandmother.

Assuredly, simply by being related to such a well-known master of modern painting, Neith’s childhood was unique and it was a childhood that had repercussions for her as an adult, something often reflected in her art.

Of Louise Nevelson a lot has been written. Hers is a name that needs no introduction anywhere. Often, Neith Nevelson is mistaken for the elder Nevelson, an unfortunate thing. Aside from their uncanny physical appearance and DNA link, they couldn't be more different.

Louise Nevelson
As a child and even into her teenage years, Neith lived a sort of dual citizenship living between Florence, Italy and the United States with her mother, Susan Nevelson. Only after her late teenage years, did Neith settle in the states to live for the most part in her grandmother's studio in New York City.
Neith Nevelson, age 17

As I wrote, Neith's childhood was unique in many ways, for good and bad. It was a childhood that included: horse-back riding, home-taught schooling, and that overall and typical bohemian lifestyle for which many artists and painters are known for, mainly in the New York of the 1960's.

Suffice it to say that even recognizing the fact that by the time Neith was a teenager her grandmother had become an icon in the art-world, but it was a success that for the elder Nevelson had become mixed with bittersweet memories of years of struggle, discrimination and poverty. In fact, similar to Neith, her grandmother had worked so hard and for so long for some name-recognition that when it did happen, she would shun and often mock the world that had seen her rise from poverty and obscurity to the icon she is known to be today.

Neith Nevelson in 2004
Unfortunately, the immediate association to the Nevelson last name has worked against Neith’s development as an artist, something which is tragic in many ways, and unfair. It has not been the only stumbling block for Neith, but it has certainly a main one. After all, almost immediately, most people tend to associate the Nevelson last name with Louise discounting Neith’s own oeuvre as irrelevant.

In 1991, a critic for the Miami Herald went so far as to write that though well-intentioned and with “lots of heart,” Neith’s art proved, nonetheless, that “talent is not always passed down in the DNA.” What this critic failed to point out was that Louise Nevelson’s own defiance against the artistic convention of the times, would eventually become masterly achieved and uniquely priceless works of art achieved by after a long process of trying to find her own artistic vision and after being influenced by many artists of her times-- as it is obvious if one pays close attention to Louise's works pre-dating the 1960's. In fact, Louise and Neith do share something in common. They were never comfortable with the art world and they would always be outsiders.

The question, though, then becomes this: why has Neith’s merit as artist go unrecognized for so long, often being criticized in ways that are anything but professional when her art, is viewed in its entirety, its development and maturity, is impressive. The proclivity by many in the art world to shun Neith as an artist of merit is disturbing, and such discussion is timely.

NEITH’S ART: What is it?
I probably will repeat what has been written about Neith before. But so what? Neith’s art is complex, evoking sudden emotions and quick interpretations. Experimental combinations of colors, quick brush strokes, and an obsessive desire to fill every inch of the canvas, often makes her art difficult to understand. But this is hardly a problem, or a major one. Art should not be interpreted, as enjoyed in quiet contemplating. Art is a way to become an accomplice in an act of voyeurism. There is energy in Neith's paintings; landscapes filled with faces, horses and distorted female bodies. The energy is counterbalanced by a fine proportion between line and color, a proportion that makes the overall effect delicate, vulnerable almost. And the more we observe, analyze, scrutinize, the more it becomes obvious that what we are seeing is 1) a painting that may have begun as a dialogue between the artist and her inner world; 2) a dialogue that ended with the work of art itself, interpreted as good or bad based on own projections.

                                                            Courtesy of Dana Berman

Neith’s art is not art for art’s sake, and one thing is not is commercialized and therefore overpriced. Her art does represent something. It means something. What exactly these are is what’s so baffling about them. If you seek to interpret them, usually the lack of balance, solidity or proportion makes the attempt impossible. There are traces of cubism in her paintings, as has often been pointed out especially during a period of intense artistic maturity that lasted for most of the 1990s, especially 1996. But even though this period was also Neith’s most intense, she never seemed comfortable with the one-dimensionality of cubism, especially as they applied to faces which are laden with such overpowering human emotions.

At her most complex and overbearing, and at her most uncategorized, Neith takes over the canvas as if possessed by a force larger than herself; making large, monstrous creatures reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, a fact that has often been pointed out by art critics but which, again, fail to see the essential vision that makes her so different. Unlike Picasso’s large works which seem to be political critiques of his times, Neith’s larger pieces are as powerful, if not more, simply by the fact that she’s almost physically crippled as the result of a car accident which nearly killed her and that went on to aggravate an already physical deformity caused by sclirosis. Furthermore, none of these paintings seem to be about anything in particular to which a deeply dividing social issue can be compared to, again such as in Guernica, but to give the same example.

At her most minimal, smaller works done in pen-and-pencil, Neith captures a suffocating reality that disrupts our sense of limit and proportion. It is an art whose objectivity dissolves and whose ultimate effect on us remains unresolved and irreconcilable, like life itself.

Louise Nevelson’s legacy rests on monumental, solid structures made mostly from steel sheets, metal and dark wood. These sculptures seem to be representative of life as a process of transference, not opposition. Non-representational—with only colors adding to their distinctive strangeness-- these sculptures are unsettling, but more complete, compact. The elder Nevelson wants to remind us that life can be lived to its full potential. How can it not? How did we ever miss such ancient maxim? In many ways, this is art in the service of an ideal, a Platonic belief which gives life its conceptual and moral worth, not its rudimentary, divided, and raw primitiveness.

The question remains, though, what is it? What is Neith’s art all about? What are its basic principles, symbolisms, and philosophy? What is she trying to convey to us, the viewer? Why does it seem to attract every person who comes into contact with one of her pieces, even if we don't necessarily like it at first?

These are, unquestionably, difficult questions for which there aren't any simple answers. These are, I think, what makes anything worth talking about and what makes any artistic endeavor good, not simply average.

"Eternal Recurrence"

Neith's art is dark  and disruptive to our sense of propriety. It is Nietszchean in nature, and hence brutal, yet beautiful. Invariably, Neith seems to see life as harsh, a form of rape almost. 

The pained simulation of colors, becomes part of a physical and psychical dissociation between, say, the individual who suffers, who questions, who spends a lifetime trying to make sense of who he or she is, and a world bereft of meaning, at worse indifferent. While the conflict becomes enlarged such as in her larger paintings, so does the gap of any reconciliation between society as a medium of nurture and nature as a force of destruction; ironically, it is this same nature, this resplendent landscape she gives birth to with such colors, that seems to hold the key to our own salvation. Seek within and you shall find, perhaps. Seek without and become another mass produced clone of civilization. Surprisingly, the person herself says very little. She plays with your mind by staying silently in the background. What you see if your projection— if that means that what you will see is fear let it be; if you see joy, an exuberance of colors, then, why not? Either way the choice is yours.

"Sea Urchin"

Throughout a long and prolific career, Neith has narrowed her artistic interests to three main categories: naked women, faces and horses. In turn, each of these categories captures the essence of a common denominator: from chaos freedom, from freedom rebirth, from rebirth death.

Neith’s horses, which are also her most perfect renderings as far as forms and shapes, are often only swirls of lines over a large stretched canvas. With horses, there are no embellishments or experimentations with colors, just simplicity for simplicity’s sake. Again, though at times these horses are paired in groups, the effect is always one of serenity, union. Her naked females are almost all amorphous, with weird curvilinear shapes that seem to be refractions from under water, and their effect, nonetheless, is nothing less than astounding.

Her faces, like the naked women, have a rudimentary and unfinished lack of proportion, though unlike both the horses and the female, these faces seem trapped, disturbed (mentally, physically, or spiritually). The youthfulness of these male faces makes the overall effect striking, even odd, sad, and violent all at once. At first, they seem threatening, hostile and accusatory. On closer look, there’s an almost delicacy that further compounds our sense of imbalance. Neith has called these male faces her ‘nebulas’, perhaps referring to unresolved emotional problems, or perhaps emphasizing the sad legacy of slavery and its continued effect on the psyche of our society.

Neith Nevelson and Jorge Reyes
In a world where there are no perfect blueprints for living are given and where our future in itself is an undisclosed territory of surprises, the only mechanism for survival that a human being is given is the gift of the imagination, perhaps also the only assurance that divinity does exist somewhere. This gift, talent, or whatever  you call it, is of course no guarantee of greatness or even a guarantee of anything innately special unless it is harnessed and turned into something palpably beautiful, gratifying, often strange and surreal—art, like life, is always symbolic, archetypal; hence mysterious, and universal. Personally I believe that's the intriguing aspect of Neith's art, her endurance as a favorite underground artist in South Florida similar to that of Purvis Young.  And that is exactly what I venture to add will also be her legacy.

Most of Neith's paintings are untitled.  I have tried to title those that are known to me.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe that anyone can compare Neith to Louise. It's like comparing apples and oranges. The only thing they have in common is their physical appearance.

Anonymous said...

They both live to do art. They both have suffered greatly for their art. Don't you think that Louise was also an "Outsider" artist until she was finally recognized?

Anonymous said...

Querida Neith, soy un pintor del fin del mundo- Chile me encanta tu obra y e l tesón artistico, acá es muy dificil sobrevivir del arte, soy de provicia y estudiante de arte cuan feliz sería tan solo de tener una contestacion tuya...solo eso me bastaria para sber de que de no eres inaxicible...exito...

jeffmoon69 said...

I hope and pray that Neith Nevelson gets the loving care she needs and deserves. She is very talented and a beautiful human being.

Anonymous said...

I find Louise' & Neith's art to be the inverse of each other. I can see the family resemblance in the work. Absence of color - smashing gobs of color; 3 dimensional - flat surface. I can see the relationship but have difficulty putting words to what I see.

Anonymous said...

I am blessed to say that I have had the great fortune of meeting Ms. Nevelson and she shared with me truly amazing stories of her past and the development of her talent. As an aspiring artist it meant so much to hear her advice. She was a patient of my fathers and he knew that I would enjoy meeting her and he was right! God bless you always Neith. You are truly an inspiration!

Beastly said...

Neith's tremendous output of work is amazing. I own some pieces that are unique and beautiful. I will always remember the time I spent with her. Neith inspired me to start painting. Cheers Neith

Karen Salem said...

I have quite a few magnificent works of art by Neith Nevelson. She painted a few for me in her Coconut Grove home as I sat and watched. She was brilliant. It took her all but twenty minutes to paint a completed painting using only her fingers. They've been a strong source of inspiration in my life and are of my most prized possessions. Every visitor
who enters my home comments about the vibrant paintings in a very favorable manner.