The Power of Line
The artwork of Nicolas.c. Grey resides in a kind of exquisite purgatory between beauty and blight. This English artist manages to make the most discomforting of imagery into masterful and epic works that celebrate the immense power of simple black lines laid down on stark white paper. After using graphite under-drawing and black ink for over 30 years, along with some forays into colorful mediums as well, he has managed to find his own language within the time-honored practice of making images with only ink and paper.
Grey is a reclusive and inward looking person who eschews the active social life in lieu of the productivity and introspection that isolation affords. This strategy serves him well. Because his imagery is so dense and detailed, it’s nothing short of miraculous that he manages to create a tall pile of ink on paper drawings every year. Still ,this artist is hardly an outsider or naïve; his work has a high degree of sophistication and articulation.
He is far from verbose in person and rarely addresses the theoretical basis for his image’s content. Yet, here he explains, ’’ Strangely my style hasn’t changed much from my early childhood. For various reasons, I was always attracted to the slightly sinister and perhaps the darker side of life. In fact, from 10 years old onward I was already making drawings of strip clubs and hoboes.’’
Asia has been the source of inspiration for many years now, specifically India, china and more recently Cambodia. His images range widely from sedate and sweet portraits of large Indian families to intensely macabre narratives, littered with numerous dismembered torsos, that are full of shock and awe. Grey’s images can also be variously believable and plausible and then swing over to portraying fantastically orchestrated dramas.
For instance, in ‘The Beauty of the Human Animal’ he sets up a tableau where one can see the following; the artist employs this faux Hindu script, that he obviously invented when examined closer, which is encased inside a flowing banner at the base of the composition; a willowy and emaciated Oriental waif-like women is standing gazing directly at the viewer as if in a stupor or opium induced haze surrounded by all the exotic paraphernalia from a Chinese-inspired den of inequity; she is surrounded by 5 legless and armless male torsos who could be either her bevy of eunuchs or simply household pets. It is a disturbing and bizarre scene that you cannot turn away from – a visual train wreck with lovingly rendered carnage and generous dollops of smoky mystery.
This is contracted with the artwork ‘This Fading World’, a diptych where he has tenderly illustrated a large family gathering complete with wiry monkeys, complex oriental carpets, colonial wooden shuttered windows, a large hand fan, ceramic urns and a tiny incense table. Everyone looks calm, if not a bit grave, and it closely resembles one of
those stiff formal photography studio sittings that were so popular around the 19th century. When viewing this work one is transported back in time to a place and period where people clearly knew their place in society; master-slave, elder-youth, rich-poor.
So how did Nic Grey get to the space where he could tackle the misery found in the deep bowels of the human condition while at the same time celebrate the majesty and elegance of the wise old rajas of yore? He describes here, “I left school, and home, at 16, and started working various jobs. I have worked as a cinema usher, day laborer ,gardener and many other menial jobs. I lived in a fairly rough part of London, and was homeless for a while and was incarcerated for a period of time. I would also sell the ‘Big Issue’ ,a magazine sold by the homeless, and on occasion they would buy and publish my drawings”.
This exposure led, unlikely, to being picked up by, arguably, the hottest venue in London during the early 90’s- Britart. This gallery helped launch the meteoric careers of contemporary art icons fresh out of the blazing art cauldron known as Slade Art School (i.e. Sarah Lucas , Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst). Britart represented Grey briefly, but the insecure and unstable nature of his existence conspired to cause him to completely lose touch with the exploding art scene of the capital city. He had no address, no phone number and no real interest in pursuing any opportunities, but various curators would track him down occasionally and include him in a few notable group shows. Still, his close brush with fabled fame and fortune was brief, fleeting and just the way he wanted it. Grey wanted to preserve his artistic independence, at any cost, and the possibility of becoming a high profile art star held no attraction for him, at the time.
This artist has always had a strong interest in the underground comic scene. In fact, he was involved in a successful, and now legendary underground comic called Watermelon. Grey’s oeuvre can be cleanly cleaved between direct referencing the alterative cartoon god Robert Crumb’s grungy and messy style and his more refined and realistic Asian- colonial inspired style of making highly detailed pen and ink drawings. The tension that hovers betwixt these 2 styles informs his work strongly and makes it much less predictable and repetitive.
For example, in the small square format polychromatic ink washed piece, “Mad Girl” , Grey has managed to marry style and substance effectively. He presents us with a decidedly unhappy teenage girl chock-o-block full of rage and ennui sitting in her disheveled room with a torn Hawaiian travel poster, high tech gizmos and copious organic decay. It is a funny scene, but we laugh uneasily as the brutal reality of her worldview is acutely depressing and spiritually bankrupt-announced by another poster in her room stating “God is Nothing” ,the text surrounding a plump red heart.
His influences can be traced to artists like William Blake, Francisco de Goya, Edward Gorey and especially the contemporary artist, Joel Peter-Witkin, who choreographs elaborate large-format photographs of extremely fetishistic scenes with disfigured people, body parts and putrid organic material. It is uncanny how perfectly matched Witchin’s and Grey’s aesthetic are- its almost as if Grey draws directly from existing Witkin photographs, yet the English artist claims to not know of Witkin’s body of work. Jeol Peter-Witkin The widely respected artist Raymond Pettibon, though fundamentally different than Grey in his drawing style and intent,has flourished in the contemporary art world with just black ink (some color,but rarely) and white paper. This demonstrates that with the simplest of materials, the right artist at the right time can make stunning and meaningful art without having to resort to making large scale work or employing seductive materials. Another impressive example of this is Kara Walker,with her simple but enormously
powerful black paper cut out profile shapes that deal with racial and gender issues.
Not content to continue producing black ink drawings on white paper, he has recently been exploring mixed media wall sculptures. Basically taking his flat visual approach to the third dimension using a massively diverse array of unlikely store-brought materials ,found objects, salvaged trash, discarded photographs and bits and bobs from India, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Grey is a inveterate collector, who obsessively keeps every article that naturally enters his daily life and then eventually is now being utilized as “art objects”. He uses things such as baby snakes preserved in moonshine, convit mug shots from the 40’s, herbal medicines in tiny bottles, discarded keys, rusted tin cans, wee Buddha statues, kid’s broken toys, dirty and torn playing cards, his own hair and teeth- all skillfully used to construct his spriritually-infused intimate voodoo.
Happening upon some old printing house’s wooden teys, as he wandered the streets of Phnom Penh, where he now lives and works, he has recently made a small series of cubbyhole wall pieces. In the artwork, “Everything in its Place”, he has orchestrated an operatic enviroment where all these different materials co-exist warily, a little unsettled and this is what provides the needed tension. A hallmark of his process is to always attempt to make the work a little askew, a little unresolved, a little ‘of’-in order to leave the evidence of the human hand, in this case, his own considerably talented hand.
Also, Grey’s keen and restless eye has resulted in a large portfolio of photographs that he is now incorporating into the mixed media series. He blens and juxtaposes these dreamy etheral shots of people and dimly lit gritty interiors with his pen and ink drawings- they are having this private conversation between themselves, the photos and the drawings. His attention to detail extends to taking methodical and exacting care in choosing found vintage or handmade frames for his mixed media collaged flat work on paper. Berfore the artist hangs anything on the wall, every aspect and nuance of the work is considered and manipulated.
Inasmuch as Grey is reluctant to verbalize his thoughts and feelings on his artwork. I feel that the following quote from the artist best summarizes and expresses what his mission is all about, “ A while ago I was in Sikkim, in the foothills of the Himalayas, at a monastery in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. In one of the rooms there was a huge sculpture, as big as the room itself, depicting hell, heaven, the earth, ect. It must have taken many years to complete and was breathtaking in its detail. I experienced a strange moment of connection. Presumably a monk had toiled away for years, in obscurity and relative isolation, to produce this masterpiece. Although his motivation may have seemed religious, I liked the idea of someone being subservient to their own art, forthis is how I feel in relation to my own work. I find it hard to talk intelligently about my artwork, as I feel that I am just the worker and the ideas come from some other place, outside of myself. In this way I really have no idea what my pictures mean to me personally, or even what I am trying to say.”
Nic Grey is the archetypical cipher- the walking and, in this case, not talking, enigma. He is on a sojourn without a destination, laden with a never-ending curiosity and adaptability that enables him to live and produce anywhere on the planet. Asia is bleesed to have the opportuinity to host this incredible artist. He is the penultimate white-skinned everyman, the person hunkering down deep in the shadows and skulking down the dank alleyways that we all walk past everyday. Grey is recording our ever movement and let us thank the gods for that.
Bradford Edwards March 2009 Phnom Penh