Sunlight shines off the subjects’ bodies, highlighting each and every muscle. The subjects stand still in the drama of recreation at the one place Southern California is most famous for — the beach.
Paintings and drawings depicting beach life, multilayered with bright colors as well as emotion, currently grace the walls of Pepperdine’s Frederick R. Weisman Museum. Artist Graham Nickson’s show “Dual Natures” takes viewers into a world where there is more to beach life than fun and relaxation.
Nickson, a famous New York artist, captures the soap operas rampant at the beach as he attempts “to reveal truth.”
“Drama happens on the beach — love, hate, birth, death,” Nickson said in an interview during the exhibit’s opening Jan. 12. “I want to reveal the many layers of meaning.”
For 20 years he has focused on the classic familiar theme of bathers at the beach. Figures strike mid-action poses as they stretch to remove clothing or dry themselves with towels.
This tradition of capturing human form movement began in the Renaissance and continued through familiar painters such as Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. Combining drawing techniques of the ancient masters with radiant modern art color gives Graham’s paintings a unique, visually appealing product.
His completed paintings are incredibly large, some measuring up to 16 feet long. For the first time in its history, the museum received paintings too large to fit through the doors.
“We had to unbolt windows just to fit one panel of a painting into the Museum,” director Dr. Michael Zakian said.
Immense and vivid, these paintings use unusual, vibrant colors to recreate “the beach as a stage and bathers as its actors,” Nickson said.
One striking mural, “Sanctuary II,” displays a lit sky of bright yellow and orange above cool, blue waters. Bathers on the sand are throwing seed to the seagulls above, and though they are all acting together, each seems to be in their own, independent world.
The seagulls seem almost menacing while the bathers look hot, sticky and serious. This new face of the typical sunny beach is unexpected and eye catching, as are other works where Nickson captures viewers with visual paradoxes.
“My paintings go through enormous changes and are worked on a very long time,” he said. “I paint layer upon layer of meaning and often alter colors. What once began as red may end up to be purple.”
Paintings capturing only one profound subject are also common for Nickson. “Evening Bather,” painted between 1983-96, displays a woman standing on orange sand against the background of a dark sea and red sunlit sky. She is fit and stands with her hands above her head in an attempt to remove her shirt.
Rather than looking at the viewer, she looks down at her feet and she seems almost saddened. Perhaps the beach wasn’t all that she expected, or she is waiting for that beach boy knight to come sweep her off her feet. Whatever the case, her pose truly is “layered with meaning.”
Nickson started drawing at age four. He studied at The Royal College of Art in London and in 1972-74 won the prestigious Prix de Rome award. This gave him the opportunity to travel to Italy and later to the United States where he continues to pursue his passion for the arts.
Along with his own independent projects, Nickson teaches art at the New York Studio School, where he invented the legendary “Drawing Marathons.” During one marathon, art students draw 12 hours a day for two weeks.
Zakian borrowed Nickson’s exhibit “Dual Natures,” from the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, with the help of Robert Lehman Foundation.
The free exhibit is open through March 29. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m to 5 p.m.
January 24, 2002