The Land Farms the Farmer and the Mind. On Peter Nadin’s “First Mark”

— Mathieu Malouf


Peter Nadin, “First Mark”
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York
June 29 – July 30, 2011

Peter Nadin making paint at Old Field Farm in 2007

“…passionate bloom”
—James Broughton, The Gardener of Eden

In a recent profile about his return to the art world in T Magazine, Peter Nadin explained that while his organic carrots are not art per se, they are still the result of an artistic process. Already an artist and a poet in New York during the 1980s, Nadin became an artist-farmer in 1992 after a nervous breakdown drove him away from the city. In the Catskills he founded Old Field Farm, with the mission of “exploring the mutual benefits of art and agriculture” and “unlearning” to paint. During the twenty years that have since passed, he raised piglets, produced small batches of organic vegetables and meat exclusively distributed to a farmer’s market and a restaurant in the West Village, hardly exhibiting until First Mark, a monumental comeback exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise last summer. Nadin’s art has always been about revealing what he calls “the underlying experience of consciousness,” and while this once took the form of very late, crusty 1980s Schnabel-esque neo-surrealist paintings that relied on industrially-produced materials like oil paint and brushes, the operation of an art studio on the farm has seen the latter replaced by more sustainable, locally-grown options like cashmere wool, bee propolis, wax, and honey. Referred to as “reliquary” by Nadin in statements, these fragments of the landscape used as art materials are said to activate an unmediated experience of the artist’s inner being. Thanks to this transubstantiation, experiencing Nadin’s art or eating food from his farm (for sale in hand-labeled jars at the back of Gavin Brown’s during the show) means eating his soul.

In the 1960s, as technological advancements sparked by the Second World War laid the infrastructural groundwork for information capitalism as we have come to know it, many of those who “returned” to nature had already internalized the technocratic logic of societies they defined themselves in reaction to, experimentally pushing it to new extremes. From the photo ops of Woodstock and land art to gentleman farming and the rise of ecological design—even going back to Wandervögel brigades—this impulse to “reform life” more or less always rested on a metonymy of soil and mind (or blood…) according to which sanitary agricultural habits generates economic autonomy, dignified labor and provides solid grounding for the angst-ridden technologically-mutilated self to take root in. As often referred to by alternative cancer therapists,[1] nature is our external metabolism.

In the midst of the art world’s ever-accelerating, hyper-networked and always more social landscape, Nadin’s comeback delivered a very large quantity of organic matter—a gigantic Wagnerian buffet offering the slowest of slow foods. Populated with amorphous, vaguely anthropomorphic chunks of clay representing body parts, contorted little men with rocks in their bellies (pregnant with meaning?) and grimacing masks sometimes nailed to pedestals with long rusty nails covered in spiderwebs, The Bo’ Sun’s Chair (2011) was a sculptural installation occupying the whole middle room of the gallery that resembled a forest of tall, stinky, humid hemlock trunks covered in barn dust and dead insects, supporting the various relics sublimated from Nadin’s consciousness. On the half-melted wax letters made of organic beeswax and pork slabs caked in honey, it became possible to read the date of the object’s making, the newer ones showing lesser accumulations of dust. Their lungs filled with a robust essence in which moisture, rotting animal flesh, and hay played off of each other, visitors who weren’t buying could at least go home with cell phone pictures of the complex networks of spiderwebs running across the many components of the heterogeneous art.

Recently, a journalist writing for Monopol Magazinremarked how David Adamo’s sculptures, “with great theatrical effect,” offer a pleasantly disorienting experience to city dwellers, who “like it primitive and hand-made.”[2] Last year, Adamo was included in the group show The Confidence Man presented at the Tanya Leighton Gallery in Berlin and curated by Gianni Jetzer. In a brief press release, the curator uses a word that recalls Nadin’s decision to retreat to the country: “unlearning.” The tactile, mostly abstract work in the show is said to “speak for itself.” On some of the installation images circulated online, the walls of Leighton’s gallery have been overexposed during the color correction process, causing them to bleed into the white background of the web page on the computer screen. Hovering in the homogeneous abstraction, filling the gap between the physical site of the gallery and the networked space of the blog, the material wholesomeness of the works produces a therapeutic countereffect remediating their diminished presence.

Knowing that the “inability to penetrate a landscape without spoiling it and the desire to purify it from such penetration are two sides of the same coin,”[3] the aesthetic posture of organic materials today seems antithetical to the trending drive towards the (in)organic both Nadin and the artists in Jetzer’s show could be tied to—and, precisely for this reason, it seeks to make peace with the atrocities of the post-Fordist crisis of presence through the overdetermined cultivation of organic consciousness rather than contest the very economy of signs that brings such organic-ness to market, or start a farm. Like plein air painters refusing the aesthetics of industrialization, even as their newly unbound practice was enabled by the availability of industrially manufactured art supplies, the artists in this show, in a superficial way that offers no comparison to Nadin’s true agricultural-artistic vocation, choose not to challenge the general crisis of presence that gives their work “currency”—and this despite their interest in depicting the various vectors that constitute the historical “sign of painting.”

Back to Gavin Brown’s, a work titled Raft consists in a vast basin filled with coagulated low-grade honey and propolis occupying a whole room—a dark, glossy, room-sized pedestal, the ghost of Gavin Brown exhibitions past may liken to a sort of artisanal iPad with a rugged screen on which strange constructions made of twine, terracotta, and pebbles are displayed. A large cutlet of honey-glazed meat tied up with rope recalls the oily torso of a body-builder; some hand-sculpted numbers made of beeswax emerge from the amorphous murk, others seem to melt into the immensity of the whole… the gooey, heterogeneous surface producing a grimacing reflection of the neons above. This artwork that also looks like an arch seems destined to drift on a stormy market before returning to fertilize the soil it was born from with its usda-approved cargo. One could imagine Raft as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the industrial age in America, and perhaps more generally on the perishable and transitory nature of all human endeavors. As I picture the fragments that accompanied Peter Nadin during his time on earth, decomposing through the action of bacteria and fungi, a feeling of desolation inundates me. As I step out of the gallery, it feels like an ominous sign announcing the end of the human species.

Peter Nadin, The Bo’sun’s Chair, 2011. Hemlock trees, terra cotta, wood, string, nutria fur, wax, fabric, indigo pigment, bronze, galvanized nails. Ranging from 60 inches – 122 inches high

  1. [1] A notable example would be Dr. Max Gerson.
  2. [2]
  3. [3] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999), 51.