A few years ago, images of New York and Brussels-based Swiss artist Nicolas Party’s brightly saturated, cartoonish works were popping up with regularity on social media.
The homogeneity and tedium of zombie formalism had given way to slick, eye-catching post-internet works that looked great online and reflected the mood of an increasingly hype-driven market.
Collectors, speculators, and galleries were clamouring for the young artist’s work, which turned heads with eye-watering prices on the secondary market. When Hauser & Wirth picked up Party in 2019, it was easy to see why.
Red Forest, Party’s exhibition with Hauser & Wirth in Hong Kong (30 June–24 September 2022), his first in the city, delivers more vibrant, collector-pleasing compositions that launched his reputation into the artistic stratosphere. Comprising 13 new pastel-on-linens, saturated landscapes and portraits draw from art historical references, from Pop art, Surrealism, and Fauvism, to Romantic landscapes.
The exhibition is divided into three rooms, each painted a different colour—a signature feature of Party’s exhibitions, and perhaps a throwback to his days as a graffiti artist in Switzerland in the 1990s.
This exploration of colour is central to Party’s practice: how it can transform a composition, a mood, or a room; create a feeling of harmony or unease. In some cases, the wall colour clashes with the works; in others, it serves as an extension of the work beyond the canvas.
Viewers are immersed in a playful, technicolour world where art is not only seen but experienced. Escapist and mood-lifting, it’s hard to feel glum in a Nicolas Party exhibition—mostly.
Hanging in the first lavender-painted room are four landscapes and two large portraits that appear genderless, with features recalling classical Greek or Pre-Raphaelite portraiture. Their unnaturally coloured skin is either the same, or complementary to the monochromatic backgrounds. Similar features are depicted across each—a round puffball of hair, wide almond eyes, defined noses and thin lips, and softly smudged contours.
With a preference for dusty pastel—a medium with historic connections to 18th-century Rococo portraiture—Party works with his hands and fingers to smudge and blend colours; sensuality and tactility come across in the finished compositions.
But while Party’s works reference the tradition of portraiture, they do not depict anything personal about their subjects. There is a sameness to them. Even the titles are identical, as with the self-descriptive works titled ‘Portrait with Meteorite’ (2022), shown in the first lavender room and an emerald room downstairs.
As with the artist’s previous hybrid portraits of torsos emerging from animals and plants that evoke humanity’s dependency on nature. Two portraits rendered in grisaille lend their figures an otherworldly quality, their soft lavender-grey skin against a black background; another is a yellow figure against red. Their torsos appear to be consumed by meteorite clusters, or hemmed in a particularly uncomfortable, avant-garde bodice.
Like the portraits, Party’s landscapes conjure fantastical scenes. They are untouched and devoid of humans; unnaturally dreamy and abstracted. Works from the ‘Water Reflection’ series (2022) are Willy Wonka-esque, with psychedelic mountains resembling soft layers of marshmallow clouds and scoops of ice cream, and ripples of water almost vibrating.
Composed of brightly coloured, flat geometric shapes in purples and blues, these works may owe more to Matisse’s cut-outs than traditional landscape painting, given their smooth surfaces saturated in unrealistic colours that highlight their artificiality.
Unsurprisingly, Party worked as a 3.D. animator for a decade—his pictures look like they could have been created in Maya or Adobe Illustrator. With his characteristic pictorial flatness and bold, immersive compositions, they seem made for Instagram.
Yet, departing from Party’s distinctive style are three ‘Red Forest’ (2022) paintings, rendered more naturalistically in the third and final crimson room. Each depicts a forest on fire—with silhouettes of ashen trees standing against a blaze of reds, yellows, and oranges—and bring to mind the images of wildfires that are cropping up with increasingly ominous regularity around the world.
While this exhibition invites reflection on the relationship between humans and nature, equally relevant is the state of viewers experiencing confinement within the artificial gallery environment.
The red walls feel overpowering, closed-in, and suffocating, as though fire and heat are engulfing you. The colours on each picture plane are furiously layered and blended, with finger marks and clumps of pastel powder visible on the surface.
The ‘Red Forest’ works feel more urgent, visceral, and emotional than the detached, impersonal portraits and landscapes that define not only the two previous rooms in this show but Party’s previous bodies of work more broadly.
Unlike his stylised landscapes, these red forest visions illustrate the impact of human activity on the environment, offering no escape into imagination. We can only indulge in fantasy for so long amid the inescapable reality of climate catastrophe.
Published on ocula.com, 20 July 2022