Nathan Hylden on Abstract Painting and “A-Ha” Moments
Los Angeles-based artist Nathan Hylden is currently showing luminescent, large-scale paintings (all untitled, 2015) in the towering nave of Berlin’s KÖNIG GALERIE, a former church. They characterize the artist’s use of serial abstraction to explore process and progress, as related to both art-making and innovation of all kinds.
The paintings here have been hung in unexpected groupings and use a limited palette of rich, almost glowing tones. Gradients of diaphanous amaranthine, deep blue, and caesious-black are sprayed in neat lines, and over splattering brushstrokes, across the surface of six canvases. The compositions resemble something of double exposure. Radiant, minimalist color fields spliced with wild gestures, they suspend two approaches to abstraction in one space. The result is a surprisingly subtle and sublime balance of color and form, structure and spontaneous gesture. It’s a pleasing dichotomy reflected in the layout of the exhibition itself, where Hylden’s lushly tonal paintings are hung on the textured brown, Brutalist walls of a once-holy building.
Born in 1978 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Hylden first studied in his home state, and later with abstract painter Michael Krebber, in Frankfurt, and conceptual photographer Christopher Williams and multimedia artist Richard Hawkins, in Los Angeles. From his teachers, representing a broad spectrum of practices, Hylden gleaned an approach that fuses logic and intuition. “I have structural approaches to things—one canvas is put on top of the other and sprayed, then the reverse, but in the end there are always subjective moments. Color choices have to be subjective,” Hylden explains. “In a way, I’m really interested in that tension. Some things are determined and some things come down to choice.” The new works, in particular, rely heavily on structure; his red and blue-sprayed paintings hang opposite their black and green counterparts, like photo negatives of each other—two sides of the same process. “It’s a play back and forth of what’s chosen and what’s determined.”
The exhibition’s name, “Goes On,” also references a playful binary—the paint going on the canvas, and the canvas going on the wall. This circular play crops up in many of Hylden’s show titles, because, as he says, “I like the allusions to time. I think it’s a particularly interesting problem or question for painting in terms of the temporal, because they’re such given objects. In the ’60s, Stella would say ‘What you see is what you see.’ There was this idea that paintings were instantaneously present”—immaculately conceived.
And while Hylden’s paintings are largely abstract, he likes to hint at their source. Throughout the gallery, the green and red gradient paintings are mixed together—and cleverly interspersed with a third group of grey-hued works, the most representational of the show. On them, a large close-up of a light bulb (or alternately, an empty porcelain light bulb socket) has been UV-printed over the same thick, sweeping brushstrokes that appear in the gradient paintings. One immense wall bears five of Hylden’s works, the back wall hosts a group of two, and another holds three. On each, a light bulb or empty socket appears in between the abstract canvases, like moments of inspiration—or, in the case of the empty socket, artist’s block.
Here, we also witness Hylden’s use of the studio as a source—both as a location for creation and as inspiration. Throughout his career, he has taken images of simple objects or groupings of objects from his studio and incorporated them into his paintings. In his 2013 show “Meanwhile,” it was the shifting shadow of a plant and stool. In “Goes On,” the four light bulb works represent the experience of creation and our understanding of their underlying methodology.
These are works where traces of process are perceptible—clues for the viewer who embarks on a journey of understanding, and for the artist, who contemplates his relationship to the studio in his practice. They become a tribute to the space where they were created, a sort of mise en abyme of what is depicted. “That’s what I like about the studio,” Hylden reflects. “When photographing in the studio, it becomes the birthplace of the work, but then the work circles back and takes the studio as the subject. I like that logic.”