When I first saw Nigel Cox’s work online www.njcox.com, I knew that I had to interview him. I wanted to find out what inspired the ethereal yet somewhat solitary nature of his figures which appear to be headed somewhere and yet are static at the same time. Well, wonder no more. Here’s my chat with Nigel.
MICHAEL: Nigel, I LOVE your portraits. Very cool! Let's start with your backgrounds. They could be paintings unto themselves. They're very ethereal and dreamy ... the gray and white. They're almost like the sky. What are you thinking while creating them?
NIGEL: The backgrounds started years ago, before I painted in this style. They were more vibrant and dramatic and were stand alone oil paintings. I thought of them as deep, empty landscapes. Some were quite defined and some very foggy. I love vast open spaces, dense fog and sunny, hazy days. When I'm painting my backgrounds, I have already figured out what I want to do, where the figure will be etc., so it's really just about getting it to work. No deep conscious thoughts, just 'lighten here' or 'soften this' etc. There is something very therapeutic about the process.
MICHAEL: Your figures look as if they're suspended in some other place although they're part of the painting. Are there no deep, conscious thoughts regarding that?
NIGEL: I believe that the most natural and intimate moments are captured when a person believes they are unobserved; their walls are down and their body language relaxes and wonderful unconscious mannerisms come through. This is something rarely found in posed portraiture. When the crowd is removed and the figure is placed in a vast, tranquil setting, it completely changes the context and brings something almost surreal to the scene. The figure, previously unobserved, now has complete focus on them. Everything about them remains unchanged, but we perceive them differently. This fascinates me.
MICHAEL: I get a strong sense of isolation while looking at the figures in your work. No real interaction with others in the paintings.
NIGEL: Isolation? I know what you mean, but it’s more positive and comfortable than isolation. For me, solitude is a place of security and comfort. It’s somewhere we don’t need our barriers up and don’t need to wear any masks. My solitude is a positive peaceful place - even in a crowd - especially in a crowd. It would be a sad world if we are all ultimately alone. We are all individuals who make choices and have options. I personally enjoy solitude, but rarely feel lonely or alone. That may be because I know that I have my partner, my family, my group of friends and my dog. So I suppose what I'm saying is that for me, solitude is an emotional state rather than a physical one. That all said, I'm very happy heading out to meet mates for a few drinks or meal somewhere and letting off a bit of steam. The closest I got to a group scene was a painting of a kissing couple “The Kiss,” but it was still solitude. I’ve planned on doing a group scene from the rear. I’ve done much photography as source material for one, but I always end up going with an individual. I suppose it’s just who I am, but who knows what the future will bring?
MICHAEL: Do you think of your work as contemporary or classic?
NIGEL: For me it’s a contemporary/urban mix with a nod to classical. I feel that the minimalist element of my work distances it somewhat from the classical and puts it into a more contemporary or surreal arena.
There’s a classical painting in the National Gallery that I go to see when I need inspiration. It’s “Saint Francis in Meditation” by Francisco de Zurbarán. Seeing it makes me want and need to paint. It has a minimalist quality to it that is very calming. There is a lot of ‘darkness’ in this painting which is something I usually steer away from in my own work, but there are a few exceptions.
MICHAEL: I love his "Crucifixion of Christ" painting. I’ve even written about it. It’s stunning. I would imagine that your work is selling very well. It's hip, modern and approachable. It's also international. I mean, your subjects could be anywhere in the world. The work has the freshness of a slick ad campaign. I mean that in a good way.
NIGEL: I love the “Crucifixion of Christ” too. I have always been fascinated by crucifixion images and the cross. I’m not sure where that came from as I’m not a religious person. I suppose being brought up in Ireland with Catholic imagery everywhere has played a part in it. I have painted two paintings that relate to the crucifixion. The most recent one is the painting “The Calling” of David O’Mer, the acrobatic performer. Living in an international tourist destination certainly helps with what I paint. The people I see are from all parts of the world and young people in particular tend to dress in ways that keep the work international and current.
“Slick ad campaign.” Hmm! My paintings are certainly crisp, minimal and considered, but I think that reflects how we live today, particularly in cities – loft apartments, open plans, clean lines, lack of clutter, huge windows, natural light etc.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. I see that. Speaking of light, I love the way you create the light and shadows. That plus your backdrops really create dreamlike scenes. Shadows look like they're really hard to create. There must be a lot of issues involved.
NIGEL: Thanks. I love the way light falls on skin, hair and clothing and the subtle changes where light meets shade - really fascinating. The choice of background affects the mood of the painting helping to create that almost surreal/dreamlike quality. I go through phases of doing dramatic darker backgrounds and then veer towards light ones with almost no definition at all in them. I really enjoy working on the shadows and compared to the figures they are relatively simple. Shape is usually the most straight forward aspect. The fun is the strength of the shadow and shades within it and how soft to make the edges. I quite often ‘fade out’ the shadow as it gets further from the body. This, although not true in reality, does help to keep the focus on the figure, creates a softer, more ‘dreamlike’ mood and prevents strong shadows from overpowering the painting. My recent painting, “Shadow Walker” is one of a few where I have let the shadow compete with the figure. The figure is so powerful that it seems to draw strength from the shadow it’s walking into.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world today? Are you part of the UK art scene? The galleries? The parties? The wealthy collectors? The glamour?
NIGEL: I think the art world is very interesting today at all levels. A great diversity of work and so many galleries and art fairs to visit. Taking into account we are going through a recession, I am surprised at how positive the art scene feels. There are still opportunities out there, but you do need to pursue them rather than waiting for things to drop in your lap. With the exception of getting together with friends, I’m not really a social animal. You won’t find me bouncing from gallery opening to gallery opening trying to meet everyone I can. Not sure if that’s just a ‘reserved’ nature, but I’m definitely happiest in the background with no fuss. I love going to friends opening events whenever possible and keep a keen eye out for exhibitions of artists whose work I love and find inspiring. There are also some very interesting pop-up exhibitions in London if you’re lucky enough to hear about them in time.
MICHAEL: Finally Nigel, Your work seems to come from a peaceful, centered place rather than being motivated about making commentary or statements about society or politics. However, does your work have a message? Is there something you want viewers to know about you and your work?
NIGEL: My work does come from a peaceful, centered place, but beneath that, it subtly asks an important question: "City Dwellers - Solitude or Isolation?" In cities, we tend to question our connection to and interaction with others. Are city dwellers being pushed more and more into isolation by elements outside their control or is solitude a necessary and a positive way of creating a comfortable personal space, a mechanism to cope with the frenetic world around us? By taking figures out of their busy surroundings, and therefore their context and painting them centre stage in a vast minimalist, tranquil landscape, I challenge the viewer to engage with them and to seek a narrative. Personally, I love and value solitude, however I like my solitude sitting outside a busy city café watching the world go by. There is such beauty in everyday life. I feel privileged to be able to ‘see’ that which others miss.
MICHAEL: You’re definitely capturing it well in your work. Thanks Nigel.
NIGEL: Thanks for interviewing me. It has been fun.