A Realist Painter Investigates the Architecture of Human Life in Boston and Beyond

The particular talent of the Realist painter George Nick was perhaps best summarized by one of his more famous contemporaries, John Updike: “One thinks naturally of George Nick’s paintings in terms of good conscience and simple truthfulness of saying instead of judging.” 

Updike should know. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and art critic was a Realist himself. And like Nick, he specialized in depicting day-to-day life in New England, specifically Boston and its surroundings. Whether in literature or painting, both mastered the art of simplicity and truthfulness, of “saying instead of judging.” While Updike passed away in 2009, Nick, at 88 years old, is more productive than ever. His newest works are the subject of “Joo Joo Eye-ball,” an exhibition at Gallery NAGA in Boston.

There’s an intimate feel to this new collection of paintings, as if the scenes Nick depicts—a seascape, children’s toys, a stately building, a still-life of a woman’s dressing table—were postcards from his personal life. And they are, in a sense. Nick has built his career around portraying everyday scenes of Boston. And while he rarely paints people, he paints the places they occupy, from city streets to domestic spaces. There’s a quiet quality to works like Winter Scene 24 Feb 2014 and Academical Village, Jefferson 14 April 2014 (both 2014), though not an emptiness; these scenes give you the sense that someone was just here, or is just about to return. Nick’s painted world, though largely devoid of humans, is lively and real. His vibrant vignettes feel like quick snapshots of the moments in between the action.

It comes as no surprise that the artist describes his own approach as intuitive and observational. But while inspiration may come to him naturally, Nick is open about his struggles as an artist, and his constant drive to develop and fine-tune his process: he’s spoken candidly about “wrestling” with the medium of painting. “I’ve abandoned every painting I’ve made,” he once said

Nick’s assertions about his internal battles, and his awareness of self make his choice to paint his own likeness particularly intriguing. His current exhibition features several self-portraits, from classic (Begonia and Me 3 Nov 2014, 2014) to conceptual (Mimi's Umbrella UVA 2 Feb 2014, 2014). By electing himself as the only human who appears in his paintings, Nick makes an interesting statement: that his own body and mind is as integral to his world, as essential to its framework, as architecture and geography.

Bridget Gleeson

Joo Joo Eye-ball” is on view at Gallery NAGA, Boston, Nov. 13 – Dec. 19, 2015.

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