artist profile: Tucker Nichols
By Barbara Morris
With the work of artist Tucker Nichols, the whole is invariably far greater than the sum of its parts. Nichols’ studio is a cheerful orderly space, his small vibrant drawings and paintings dot the walls—grids and stripes in red, blue, violet, green or DayGlo pink, or simple calligraphic line drawings of sticks, plants and vases. “Art is such a beautiful language of complexity,” says Nichols. Given to creating multitudes of small works on paper each day, his work is as much about the “editing” process as it is the act of making them.
Born in Boston, he became interested in Asian art history as an undergraduate at Brown University. In a survey class, he was struck by the ability of a brushstroke from an ancient Chinese painting to reach across the years and convey an intense feeling: “I’ve been following that ever since.” He received an undergraduate degree in Chinese Art History and moved to Taiwan, immersing himself in a community of lively and innovative artists and musicians.
Returning to the US, he obtained a position at the Asia Society in Manhattan. “It was a place that was really understaffed, but with a very ambitious director and program,” he recalls, “so it was ideal really for me to do things for which I was not actually trained for or entitled, really, to do, like exhibition design... handling a lot of priceless ceramics and scrolls.” Deciding that the kind of creative life he wanted to pursue—perhaps, he thought, as a museum director—would be best served by further study of art history, he embarked on a master’s program at Yale. “Pretty much as soon as I got there,” he revealed, “I knew that I had taken a wrong step.” He simultaneously began having serious health problems, diagnosed as Crohn’s disease. Nichols managed to complete his MA requirements in one year. Nichols enjoyed several summers during college spent with friends in the San Francisco Bay Area, moving to the West Coast in 1989. During the dotcom boom, he worked for an internet start-up with a “somewhat ill-conceived plan to sell fine art on line.” When that ended, and with continuing health problems, Nichols came to the realization that he did not want to waste his precious time and energy in a corporate job, and started to reinvent himself as an artist.
He first began showing with SF’s Lincart gallery, where director Charles Linder became a very important figure in his early career. Moving into an empty studio space near Linder’s, Nichols realized that the space had been vacated by a failed start-up. “It looked like they’d left in kind of a hurry,” he laughs. He began drawing directly on the walls, creating a hypothetical “brainstorming session gone awry” flow chart, as though he were the last man standing at the company. This work has continued to feed into other conceptual projects and commissions, such as a recent one for Facebook.
Griff Williams’ Gallery 16 has been showing the artist since 2009. “I found in Griff the perfect collaborator, he is nothing if not open to artists showing things they don’t quite understand yet.” Nichols’ last exhibition there, “Stockhouse,” mounted in conjunction with a theatrical set piece commissioned by the SFMOMA, included small works on paper in DayGlo pinks, black, lemon yellow or bright greens with simple, child-like designs and patterns, all carefully arranged into wall-size compositions. The result was to ultimately convey a great sense of intention that becomes, in some way, profound.
Nichols’ upcoming show at Gallery 16 in February will tie into the concept of how objects convey meaning. Nichols expects that it will evolve from a recent commission of 40 works for the children’s infusion ward at UCSF Hospital at Mission Bay. “I’m just completing the first project that really unites my health world with my art world.” Nichols himself regularly visits an infusion center to keep his Crohn’s disease in check. In one work, a simple outline of a vase on an irregularly cut piece of paper sprouts wayward lines, these stems capped with bold circles in red-orange that convey the essence of blossoms, perhaps poppies. “In a hospital environment you see a lot of flowers in vases in people’s rooms,” Nichols says. “It’s an attempt to communicate… something beyond words.”
Tucker Nichols’ new solo show will be on view at Gallery 16, in San Francisco. From January 26 – March 6, 2015. www.gallery16.com
Published January 2015