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Nicolas Party’s Flames of Divine Retribution

Aug 10, 2023Aug 10, 2023

At The Modern Institute, Glasgow, an exhibition filled with religious symbolism feels curiously shallow

‘Who can tell’, begins anthropologist Tim Ingold’s exhibition text for Nicolas Party’s ‘Cretaceous’, ‘of what the sleeping baby dreams?’ Currently on display across The Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane and Bricks Space, the show – Party’s sixth solo outing at the gallery – comprises 12 works. The first of these is a sleeping infant, titled simply Baby (2023), which, for Ingold, ‘holds the key to this exhibition’, symbolizing an innocent, instinctive connection to the natural world. It’s the only human figure in the show: after it come four enormous pastel works depicting Mountains and Waterfalls (all 2023), three smaller oil-on-copper images of Mountains and Dinosaur (all 2023) and, in the final room, a trio of pastel and oil depictions of a forest fire (Red Forest, 2023 and 2022).

In opening an exhibition titled ‘Cretaceous’ – which refers to the geological period that ended 66 million years ago due to a mass-extinction event – with a painting of a new-born child and ending it with images of a forest aflame, Party is clearly inviting us to consider our current apocalyptic moment. The baby is wrapped in golden fabric which, in conjunction with the arched shape of the painting’s frame set against the rich purple walls of the space, evokes the devotional art of the Italian renaissance – an inspiration for Party in past exhibitions such as ‘Triptych’ at Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan in 2022. The images of the forest fire in the final room also appear in arched frames and, read together, these works suggest the twinned religious symbols of the holy infant and the flames of divine retribution.

Time and scale, then, are at the heart of this exhibition, both in terms of the subject matter and the sheer contrasting dimensions of the works. Individually, however, these works feel curiously shallow. Although there are clear references to earlier representations of the sublime – Gustave Courbet’s waterfalls and Georgia O’Keeffe’s skyscapes in particular – Party’s colour palette and kitsch smoothness mine the uncanny nostalgia of more commercial aesthetics: the mountains, in their glossy whites and blues, remind me of the vintage packaging for Fox’s Glacier Mints. The two dinosaur works, which depict the beasts standing on a beach against a pink and blue sunset, have the sentimental look of old postcards – a nod to the history of scientific illustration, perhaps, and its unwitting misrepresentations. The second dinosaur painting is the final work of the exhibition, but it’s so inconspicuously positioned that I almost missed it. Upstaged by the image of blazing fire that precedes it, it feels almost like an afterthought. This painting shows a lone dinosaur, rather than a sunset-drenched pair: it suggests the anthropomorphized loneliness of a subject who knows their own existential crisis has been superseded by another, more imminent threat of extinction.

In this sense, it would seem to me that the pertinent question to ask about ‘Cretaceous’ is not of what the sleeping baby is dreaming but, rather, what it symbolizes: an assertion of reproductive futurism, perhaps, or an admission of defeat? Wrapped in golden fabric, head at an obscure and slightly concerning angle, skin tinged a greyish hue, Baby might be understood as a symbol of death as much as of birth. Either way, the show’s overarching sentiment feels a little too neatly resolved, its subtext a little too easily legible.

Nicolas Party’s ‘Cretaceous’ is on view at The Modern Institute, Glasgow, until 23 September.

Main image: Nicolas Party, Red Forest, 2023, soft pastel on linen, 1.8 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the Artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; photograph: Patrick Jameson

Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, MOTHER STATE, is forthcoming from Allen Lane. She teaches in the English Studies department at Durham University.

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