Twenty-one years ago, back in March of 1991, I wrote a short profile of Boston painter George Nick for Yankee in which I observed that “though he rarely paints people, George Nick is a society painter.”
“In the solid, reassuring facades, high bay windows, and ornate stone entries along Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue, he finds the essence of patrician gentility. In the trendy shops, boutiques, cafes, and galleries of Newbury Street, the fashions of the moment inhabit the buildings of the past.”
Two years later, my favorite writer John Updike, on the occasion of a 1993 George Nick retrospective at Massachusetts College of Art, where Nick taught from 1969 to 1994, wrote that, “One thinks naturally of George Nick’s paintings in terms of good conscience and simple truthfulness, of saying instead of judging.”
Along with Joel Babb, George Nick is one of the finest interpreters of the Boston urban landscape. He used to paint (and perhaps still does) by pulling an old green van over to the curb and using it as a studio on wheels. The finesse of his brush work applied to the complexity of 19th century facades in 20th and 21st century settings seem, as Updike suggested, straightforward and honest. He paints like a bricklayer, a carpenter, a stonemason.
As a person, as a painter, and as a professor, George Nick is well-loved and respected. His website is the work of his former student Larry Groff who is also one of the 38 artists featured in Galvanized Truth: A Tribute to George Nick (May 20 to September 9) at The Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
Curated by another of his former students Kimberlee Alemian, Galvanize Truth surrounds Nick’s own realist paintings with those of his students and several of his peers. The student/mentees are Eric Aho, Alemian, Dimitri Cavander, Christopher Chippendale, Steve Cope, Jeffrey Ellse, Emily Eveleth, Jeff Fichera, Shirl Fink, Shalom Flash, Chawky Frenn, Elizabeth Gauthier, Groff, Paul Inglis, Peter Inglis, Matt James, Catherine Kehoe, Ilya Lerner, Dik Liu, Kimberly MacNeille, Saeed Mahboub, Hunter McKee, Nancy Mitton, Katya Nick, Alvin Ouellet, Linda Pocheski, John Recco, Judy Solomon, Ed Stitt, and Ken Tighe. Nicks’ peers and colleagues in the exhibition are past an present MassArt and Boston University faculty Sidney Hurwitz, Jon Imber, Janet Monafo, Richard Raiselis, Paul Rahilly, John Moore, and Graham Nickson, Dean of the New York Studio School.
Kimberlee Alemian explains the exhibition title in an essay in the exhibition catalogue entitled “Galvanized by George Nick:”
“In Nick’s class painting was a very serious business. He didn’t teach a specific method or formula of painting. He taught an attitude, a way of thinking about painting – a way of seeing. Once class was over and Nick left for the day to paint his own paintings, his student continued to work on projects outside of class time. We were galvanized by George Nick.”
So George Nick put a charge into his students just as his teacher Edwin Dickinson had done for him and Dickinson’s teacher William Merritt Chase had done for Dickinson. It is this pragmatic East Coast realist line of visual inquiry that Nick has passed on, one in which the senses are everything, knowledge is nothing. The ethic is to paint what you see, not what you think, but it is not as Christopher Chippendale points out in his essay “Judging by Appearances” a simple matter of imitating nature.
“Nick insisted that our painting be autonomous from the world they depicted, not copies of that world,” write Chippendale. “He would refer to them as separate, ‘parallel’ constructions. ‘Don’t render the motif,’’ he would bark. ‘Let cameras do that kind of work. Paint parallel to what you see.’ It was not copy work we were engaged in, it was translation – the motif’s materialization on the canvas through the facts both of physical paint and our own senses.”
That’s what I believe John Updike meant by the “simple truthfulness” of Nick’s art – it is faithful to the facts yet not a slave to illusion, and it gives evidence that the artist understand that a painting is a thing-unto-itself, not just a picture of some external reality.
Nick, Eric Aho, and Jon Imber are the only artists in the show whose work I know personally, but judging solely from the catalogue Nick’s students follow his lead with varying degrees of fidelity. And that is as it should be. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flatter, but great teachers like George Nick don’t want imitation, they want integrity.
A nice tribute to one of Boston’s best painters and teachers.
(The Art Complex Museum, 189 Alden St., Duxbury MA, 781-934-6634.)