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How do you depict the beginning of the universe? How does an artist portray a time before art? The book of Genesis is perhaps most commonly rendered with imagery of Adam and Eve: in seminal works such as Masaccio’s frescoes and Dürer’s paintings, the first couple is shown either howling about their demise or paired under a tree, their nakedness gingerly covered by foliage. But these new monotypes, pastels, and paintings by Nigel Swift are inspired by something even earlier: the days before the advent of the first man and woman. With this exhibition, Nigel has taken a more cerebral, abstracted approach to this question of illustrating ‘The Beginning’.
In these works, Nigel looks to the initial five days of creation. First, the earth went from being ‘formless and empty’, with darkness ‘over the surface of the deep’, to then containing the ‘vault between the waters’ (the sky), and the ‘lights in the vault of the sky’ (the sun and the moon). These are the immortal beings on which Nigel focuses – in addition to, occasionally, the vegetation created on the third day and the birds created on the fifth. As was the case with the collections that Nigel has previously presented at Eames Fine Art, these landscapes are all imagined. But in this show, Nigel’s diverse group of atmospheric scenes stems from the few words of the endlessly theorised and mythologised first chapter of Genesis. Nigel has found this a liberating theme to work with, since, unlike later Biblical scenes of Adam and Eve, “there are no visual references to constrain imagination”. It is, instead, “a limitless landscape to explore”.
In his new works, Nigel says that “the borders of shapes and forms seem to be less defined with air and earth moving together”. Dividing Sky is a perfect example of a landscape (more accurate, perhaps, would be the term ‘skyscape’) with no demarcation between earth, air, or sea. These elements of the universe are not delineated from one another because they are still being formed; in this piece, the sky and the earth are in the process of being extracted out of the dark and amorphous ether.
All of Nigel’s monotypes are unique: as the name suggests, there is only one of each image. Some of these works are made simply by rolling and brushing ink onto the plate. Others use masks or stencils to create shapes like birds and trees. This type of printmaking allows for, according to Nigel, “a direct and immediate creation”. These words that Nigel uses, ‘direct’ and ‘immediate’, call to mind the process of creation that is depicted in Genesis. By characterising his artistic technique in this way, Nigel conjures up images of him pulling these ethereal landscapes and seascapes out of a formless, artless void – similar to what is described in that first chapter of the Bible.
Nigel’s art historical inspiration for these images of the beginning of the world comes not from the aforementioned Renaissance painters. Instead, he has looked slightly later: to Rembrandt, Corot, and Van Gogh. He explains that these artists “seem to explore the mysterious impenetrable darkness of landscape”. To these three men, as to Nigel, “landscape is not a benign backdrop, but rather a threatening presence”. This is particularly apparent in pieces like The Dark Day, in which a black mist seems to rise from a dark ground to engulf the sun. In works like this one, we can sense how Nigel’s approach to colour has evolved. Many will remember Nigel’s 2019 exhibition ‘Colour’ at Eames Fine Art, which was a marked break from the monochrome works for which he was better known up to that point. In this 2020 show, many colours are darker and more intense, with Nigel frequently overlaying hues onto one another to create textures and gradations. Again, this element of Nigel’s monotype technique fits with his current focus on the creation of the world, since: “this layering seems to intensify the depth of colour and vastness of space. Many of the images depict the beginning of light so all is emerging from intense darkness. This has created subtle diffusion of light and forms in a more painterly fashion”.
While some of these landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes – like The Dark Day – are ominous with their brooding palettes and broiling suns, several more in this exhibition – such as Two Birds – evoke the placid, more Edenic atmosphere that we associate with the time before the Fall. In this way, Nigel has succeeded in portraying the unknowable period before humankind in a myriad of different, but equally believable, ways. These imagined scenes, whether baleful or buoyant, give viewers a sense of what it may have been like to be there (wherever ‘there’ is) at the very inception of our universe.
Christine Slobogin, September 2020