Artist Statement
Nilsa Garcia-Rey
standing in front of Tumortuous, 1995

My paintings are mostly abstract, with figurative and natural forms, psychological and situational references.These abstract situations can be narrowly personal or broadly political, sometimes ecological. I broke out of the rectangle in the early 80's, creating large unruly, shaped canvases, harking back to times before stretched canvases, i.e. cave painting, medieval art and architecture, paintings that were the walls themselves. I wanted the painting to be part of the viewer's space instead of a window opening onto another space. I was driven to express the tension created by forms pushing against the sides of the rectangle, until they finally broke through.

I communicate in the language of form and color, formally as well as symbolically. For most of my painting life I was obsessed with the dillemma of duality, the balancing of extremes, including opposing dynamics in one painting; i.e.speed counterpointed with stillness, areas of calm with agitation, warmth next to cool, thickly applied paint and glaze washes.

My influences are far and wide ranging, from prehistoric artifacts to chaos theory, from the masters of early modernism to the masters of graffiti. I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors and teachers, the first being my father. I continue to explore the pictorial possibilities of events, or shapes in movement and the tension they create in relation to one another in a non-rectangular format.

Art First, Words After

I came of age as an artist when words were still secondary to the art-making process. Experimentation with materials, including paint, was the dominant studio practice at the Boston art school I attended, since many of my teachers were second generation abstract expressionists. I arrived there with traditional drawing and painting skills, eager to find my way towards making contemporary art.

Once I learned to paint on the floor, painting was transformed into body movement, changing my approach to art making forever. We were encouraged to be free with our psyches and materials, letting what emerged from our unconscious lead the way. Ideas for more paintings came from looking at the results of this process. The abstractionists were wary of any figuration that appeared, to a few of us that didn't matter. Only the painting mattered, and I embraced all the associations my imagery conjured up. By the time I left art school this 'process' had degenerated into a style, relegated to the walls of corporate board rooms.

For a few years painting was alive and well, full of figuration and juicy paint, and Neo-Expressionism was in the art magazines. Punk and post-modernism had arrived, and new media were emerging. After the art market crash of the late eighties the art world moved from the galleries to academia. Thus began a new era of conceptual art and the art installation, defined first by words, where the art came after. Deconstruction and the French theorists would soon take over.

In my journey as an artist, the words are finally arriving. I can look back on my 'oeuvre' and now write or speak about what I was making, and possibly why. Being a latina painter, strong color and politics were destined to poke through, only to make my work fall out of the bounds of high art and good taste. I started making shaped canvases as a result of feeling constrained by the grid of the rectangle. My forms were curvilinear, bio-morphic and nature-referencing, uncomfortable with architectural geometry. I was enthralled by some of the graffiti I had seen in NYC, wonderfully composed paintings working within whatever shape they were painted on. Frank Stella's Birds of Paradise were exhilarating with their bright color and use of French curve shapes. My own forms were pressing against the edges of the canvas until they finally bent them. I started with one edge of the rectangle being curved, then was able to find warped wood to build stretchers from. Eventually I devised a method where I would make series of automatic charcoal sketches, doodles really, and pick a few to make paintings from, cutting the shapes out of plywood.

u.s. series

Over time I noticed a recurring visual idea that manifested itself in a similar shape, echoing the shape of the continental United States, the lower 48. It was an unconscious and unsequential pursuit over 20 years, one that didn't become intentional until recently. The first one I remember doing was a painting titled Promised Land, a twelve foot canvas with a large paleolithic bison forming the western side of the painting, with his head lowered pushing against the eastern seaboard of glistening toppling skyscrapers. In 2005, after Katrina, I began consciously exploring this visual idea continuing the series to make several paintings, each one embodying the shape of an animal interpreted in the shape of the United States. For the moment I am done with this idea, the notion of 'national boundary' has played itself out. I continue to make and stretch my own canvases.

November 21, 2009