Nicholas Shindell

Nicholas Shindell received his MFA in painting from Boston University in 2011. Nick creates odd, lush paintings loosely derived from a collection of wooden folk dolls he uses as models. Between marks that construct the painted faces framing expanses of pooling painted grounds, the work takes a close attention to surface and a curiosity to the physical properties of paint to their logical end.

Some people have of a lot anxiety about seeing figuration in painting. I think these are tough to deal with, but they should be. That’s a bigger challenge. I never knew how to use figuration to develop anything new. Since people don’t think figuration is fresh, people would say things like that to me. I always thought that was a lot to ask, but finally found what I want to be doing with it, which is to just let it be a lot more mysterious than having to find ideas about it.

You start each painting with these grounds built in layers of transparent paints. They have this mysterious sense of deep space, but also exist right on the surface. Or you do things to reassert the surface like with this one with the paint splatters.

Yeah, I dripped into it—both layers wet. This was dry. I have a background making stuff like this. I could’ve developed it into a form I appreciate, but now I just think of it as an amateur, affected way of making like a splatter painting. It’s canned abstraction like something you’d see on the wall in a TV show.

In the last Steven Seagal movie my roommate and I watched, I’m think there was a Wolf Kahn, and also there was definitely a Frank Stella in it. I think the coolest movie that featured art was in Batman 1: The Joker (1989). He goes around smashing art in the museum—Do you remember that? But when he sees a Francis Bacon, he says, “I kinda like this one,” and so he leaves it alone.

What do you like about starting with this kind of place—with ‘amateur painting’ or that sort of pose?

I don’t know what has to happen next, but something will eventually come to mind. I guess what it does is throw a wrench into it, and keep there from being a preassigned process. It can end with something that is a formula, but was never like a recipe.

You said that you also look at a lot of film stills? 

Yeah and I take a lot of screenshots as sort of notes for painting. I’ll see things, and wonder how the painting can incorporate it without being too literal about recording the beautiful thing that is the film or the still. 

Like the folds of that sweatshirt, the shadow of that red into the blue?

I think it was mostly this color relationship. I take a lot of these shots and I throw a lot of them away. It will give me an idea—and whatever thought triggered it might have something to do with that painting, but it doesn’t always work that way. This one was a window. There was a specific color underneath that before it got really dark. I was trying to understand what to pair with that, and I didn’t know if I was going to try and carve out another image.

The way you create these two color relationships in many of the grounds—with the fluorescent or bright color underneath and the over-layers of transparent paint—that creates a quality of light in a similar way to how an illuminated screen feels.

I don’t know what they do in these films to make this beautiful color unity. But yeah, it seems like this whole image could have started with this single color all over, and then proceeded to get darker transparencies over it in these areas. You can tell that this was shot on film. You realize that you can start from light and get darker, but the film insists that you have to have the right amount of light and dark for it to read as such.

Sometimes I use a projector wanting to get that sense of light—those blue and orange color hazes or halos at the edges—but I’m never able to capture it.

With through mixing you can never get that sense of light. But look at this one. Here’s a neon sign: if this sense of light is able to read digitally on my screen then what would be the right way to express that in paint—in a system, which isn’t totally opaque like pixels?

Do your paintings feel like screens to you?

I think now they do more, but these older paintings, like this one, used to be more like a wall. I would do some rubbing through on those, but, for the most part, I wanted it to look like you could put your hand on it in any area and there wasn’t a perceived depth more than what that physical expanse would be.

That changes how the faces read so much—this sort of amorphous, expansive space versus having solidity.

I like for them to have form, but not to feel totally palpable. I like the work of this artist who was in Greater New York and I think he teaches at Cooper Union too. He’s making something that reads like a face, but it’s like a system. It’s a basic paired down sign of the face. It ends up looking like glasses frames and a nose looking through a fence, but he repeats that set of forms all the time and it becomes legs.

You’re interested more in the system or those simplest forms that can be read representationally?

I want that back and forth. The fact that it’s from a real thing. I want the face to be understood more as surface instead of wanting to read too much into the exterior subject matter. I want you to be able to experience the paint—and the marks, mark to mark—and sometimes that doesn’t happen in full capacity if it’s a well-defined figure or narrative.

The face is also something people think of as amateur or outdated. Like art doesn’t need to deal with faces unless they’re described in a really crude or cynical manner. Think of Yuskavege or Currin. When figuration came back it was really backhanded.

Yours are more sincere.

Yeah, I hope they have that quality, because I got sick of looking at that.

How do you relate the faces back to the ground? You seem to deal with them separately in different points in the process.

Well, with them together, I think it lets the ground speak more. Your eye wants to do things with the materials to build through your own psyche an image of a face or relate it to that. And that gives a variance in the ground—like a potential voice, but nothing too defined. 

I think the trouble with having a painting of something like grass is—you’re like, “okay, grass.” And you go from element to element and put together the narrative.

You’re avoiding the sort of recognition that stops the looking—

Yeah, when you see a painting of a guy on a horse, sometimes it just stops your eye from exploring the surfaces—unless you’re an artist like Rembrandt who makes the surface so intriguing that you can read it texture to texture, with bits of light versus big sharp shapes of light that would make it read more like a composition—or like a composition composition. Staying in the realm of mystery is important. I want to be able to move through it, or around it, but have the option to do both. I guess the antithesis of what I want would be a silhouette against a stark white background. I would like the flatness that takes place inside the silhouette. [Laughs.] But you know, it’s too much of what I’ve already done with portraiture in the past and with my training—so that’s what makes this new territory for me.

But yeah, I’ve also found out that I like having a horizontal format, because your eye immediately wants to read that as a landscape. A vertical format is a very traditional format for a reason, because the way that we read bodies is top to bottom. It’s been a way to confuse the figurative element, and it is also kind of like a movie screen.

Using the dolls as painting models plays into this sensibility?

The doll is made to be this totally understandable thing that you physically animate, and you can look at and sort of conceptually animate through your imagination or try to figure out how it moves. I guess why I’m painting these is so that every opportunity I take I can make a surface that animates them in a less physically literal sense. I don’t want the viewer to think of them as blinking objects, but objects that have texture within them and outside of them that move and breathe—as paint, and less so as eyebrows or cheekbones.

When you’re playing as a child looking at a doll, the simple marks on the face become so significant and expansive. They read and you read into them—

Yeah, when you’re a kid, it’s like they are really looking back at you. When you do that when you’re a kid, your emotions are a lot stronger and you’re able to project that onto objects like that and see yourself. And I think it’s the same when you’re painting whether you are conscious of it or not. You’re always putting life into something whether you like what you’re working on or not, or if it is something you’re passionate about or not.  

Are you thinking about certain people when you’re painting? I can almost recognize a few faces.

Sometimes that manifests after. Usually I don’t think about a person, real or imagined. But sometimes, after the fact, I kind of see things I have to own up to— the fact that I probably was making decisions based on the memory of someone. I don’t care when that happens but it’s not my intention. Stuff is burned into our brain, and you’d like to think that your hands don’t know it, but they do.

And you show up.

In the paintings, yeah. Especially in the beginning when I was working from the original doll—Elvira. [Laughs.] I mean she too has pointy eyebrows and little nose and mouth close together so I think a lot of them ended up having similar features to me.

Only Elvira has a name?

One is Delia. I think another one of them might have a name. But one of them has reddish blonde hair and one of them has blonde hair, but you usually only find them with this dark pelo.

They come with the names?

Elvira is written on her chest. But you’d think, buying these in person, they probably refer to them as, “Oh yeah, okay. You want an Esmeralda?” just to avoid calling it this one versus that one. I would like to meet the people who make these instead of buying them from some third party on eBay. I mean the first one I bought was from an antique shop, but it would be nice to meet someone who paints these or makes the papier maché. My grandmother made these— 

Really, these animal dolls? They fit right in. 

Yeah, she made everything. She made all kinds of stuff. She made like three a week. That one was supposed to be a snowbird, because she lived in Phoenix and people would come in in the winter.

They’re great, bizarre. This one’s part paper roll and egg carton or something, but the combination of shapes—that huge heart shape of the head and what’s that piece of leather on its chest?

Yeah, it’s weird. I’m not sure what that is. I think it’s a fanny pack. She had all kinds of weird little stuff she would recycle into pieces, and she would make these really cool needlepoints.

Is that why you were originally attracted to collecting this type of material?

To trinket-y stuff, yeah.

Do you collect other trinkets?

In Phoenix maybe, but nothing great. I like this stuff a lot more. The things I have in Phoenix is probably a lot more polished whereas with these they’re distressed and wonky from the beginning. I wish the lion wasn’t falling apart, but that has some nice qualities too.

I mean they are all painted objects, but the way they are distressed makes them look more like painting.

Exactly, they’re dealing with this form that really doesn’t look like a head, and then they hake a painting the on the head. But there’s something in the way that you look at it that you could imagine the head in profile. If you look at it, the way it’s framed by the shape of the hair. Starting with something that already looks like a painting, you get that painting within a painting quality without it being so literal.

There’s such a huge divide between your source material—The silky digital images and the rough wooden folk dolls.

[Opens Screenshot] Well, I like this one. It’s crazy because without them there you would think it’s just a close up of distressed metal.

They’re barely articulated as people like the dolls’ faces are—only two little legs on the right of the frame.

Yeah, that was a bad movie, but it was made by Rick Alverson who did The Comedy (2012). Do you know that?


I constantly watch stuff. With the screenshots, I like a lot of these things taken out of context. And I like the bits of text and things you see in subtitles that are disjointed, especially when it relates to images.

I think that’s going to somehow translate to a painting. I used to take screenshots and think I’d have to make paintings that involve the actual printed-paper in a still life setting. I was at a loss about how to use these. I wanted to add imagery to the painting that was from a screenshot. I knew I liked them, but I thought it was my direction to print that out and be literal about the reference and about putting that into a still life. I was against what I started doing later on. I would put the printout against a bowl or something and painted the screenshot.

Did you make some paintings like that?

Yeah, they weren’t very good, but I’ll find the image and you can look at it. There was a good still in it—it was a shot of Peewee Herman and a lion.

I like picture in picture.

Yeah, I like stuff like that. Fairfield Porter is really good at that.

This (digital painting) I made with the eye dropper tool—actually pulling those colors from a screenshot—color that isn’t found from the subject matter I’m working with. I do a lot less mixing now. I used to mix, mix, then over-mix.

But in using transparency, a sort of color mixing is happening between layers instead.

I’m glad for that. I was taught in this macho alla prima opaque painting. I was always thought transparencies sounded like too much of a time investment. But in art school there’s still a macho connection to opaque painting so I feel like now it’s helped me get away from that and be somewhat more lighthearted in subject matter and the way I’m painting it.

They’re not lighthearted.

No, I don’t look at the paintings as lighthearted, but I look at lighthearted intentions as a good way to approach—rather than trying to be a slash-and-burn painter or something. It’s better having it end up as a moody piece through that confusion rather than starting out with that subject matter.

I feel like procedures between layers get a lot more complicated when you’re using transparencies. It requires more thinking and strategy between layers—more like of what a lot of printmaking requires.

Yeah, and I don’t really like that. I like the surprise. I don’t like actually thinking two layers from now. I like to have a problem occur that I have to deal with, because otherwise it’s tedious. I only like direct printmaking like woodblock and monotype. Are you into printmaking?

No, it’s too procedural for me too. But I like that way of thinking and building surfaces between layers in multiple steps and sorts of applications that work on each other.

I don’t know. Some people who get involved with that are such technique dorks.

Yeah, but I think you like technique too, but in a different and more open way. I mean these are accomplished in that way—

Yeah, technique is one of those difficult things where post-1950 it’s frowned upon and seen as institutional. But then you have to understand that everything—no matter how crude or refined it is—is going to have technique. I’ve come to the conclusion that I like paint so much that I’m going to have to think about it as a material that has properties that I want to understand. That’s the fun part.

For more information about Nicholas and his work please check out his webiste