To mark the opening of Unit London’s take over of the Nassima Landau space in Tel Aviv, we invite you to take a closer look at the practice of one of the exhibiting artists, Nicolas Holiber.
UL: How would you introduce the work you are currently making to someone who is unfamiliar with your practice?
NH: My work incorporates a process that I developed using different painterly mediums in a sculptural way. The first stage that I call ‘sculpting’ is actually more closely related to drawing. I start by manipulating and moving an acrylic medium around on the surface of the canvas. I always begin with an idea in my mind of what I would like to make, but it’s actually through the sculpting process that I find the image and the idea in my mind comes to life and becomes a physical object. So with this painting here [Image 1] it’s two hands holding a skull and there’s a candle on the left. That image was born in the first sculpting stage and through the application of colour, through painting, it reveals itself. The general themes in my work over the past few years are related to the figure and a lot of it has to do with an individual’s emotions or their psychological landscape.
UL: What does the process of creation look like to you? On both a technical/material level and on a more intellectual level.
NH: The acrylic-based medium that forms the base structure of my painting comes ready to use. It’s a paste. It’s like really thick, fluffy paint without any pigment. I basically saturate the canvas with this material. I drag it and push it into the weave of the canvas and then literally dump buckets of this stuff on the surface and start moving it about with different tools. Once I have the foundation image created and the paste is dry, I paint on top of it with oils. My work looks totally different in person; in photos everything is flattened and you can’t really grasp the terrain of the surface. This led me to embrace the idea of these paintings more as objects than pictures. In a way they’re hybrid works. They’re not sure if they’re paintings or sculptures or what. I guess technically they would be called reliefs, but I don’t know if I would call them that.
Conceptually my work deals with a number of things. In the past couple of years I’ve focused mainly on ideas around human behaviour, violence, and different emotional states. Conflict has always interested me, whether that’s between people or within oneself, or like the technical conflict between sculpture and painting. Lately I’ve been exploring themes of mortality and ephemerality, also fatherhood and vulnerability. I feel like in my process of creation, through the techniques I’ve developed, I’m creating my own language whereby I can express how I feel about these issues, which is also often conflicted. There’s a friction built into the work at the very start from a technical level, and then carried through into its content.
UL: Have you experimented with full-on sculpture in the past?
NH: Yes. My background is actually in painting, but I stopped for a few years and started sculpting, then I went back to painting. I think that flip-flop was a big detour in my practice, but also an important one because it allowed me to approach painting in a different way. I can combine what I love about sculpture – which is physically making something, moving around a work using your hands, using different tools – and then let it come full circle with painting, where I can really start going back to my artistic roots and just focus on colour and expression. I grew up looking almost exclusively at painting so I guess that’s kind of in my blood.
UL: How long have you been interested in this idea of memento mori? When and how do you know to progress things in terms of your style and subject matter?
NH: I’ve always had an interest with memento mori. I think if I’m trying to read into it a little bit, probably the birth of my daughter had something to do with this. She was born in June (2022) and so I feel like this is the culmination of a lot of things, but this idea of the memento mori or vanitas – or just the still life – has been brewing for a while and has just started to come out now. I had tried a few renditions of still lifes a couple of years ago and something wasn’t right. I think my painting approach was off with those first ones and now I feel like I’m not so concerned with representing something as an illusion or depicting something quite literally. I’m focusing more on colour. I don’t think too much about how my style or subject matter will progress, but it’s important to me that I feel like things are evolving in the studio and I feel the momentum.
UL: Alongside the new memento mori works, you’re also continuing to work within portraiture.
NH: Portraiture is another motif that has always interested me. The portraits that are from my imagination are really interesting because I get to construct the architecture of the face and I really feel like I’m building something. There’s a face in there and I get to bring that out through colour even more. Lately, since my show at Unit London, I’ve been having close friends sit for me during the sculpting part and that is where everything is kind of opening up. There’s a whole new range of possibilities there because as I’m working with this material and essentially reacting and interacting with it, I’m also trying to capture this person’s likeness and capture this person’s sensibility. Now I prefer working with a sitter, although I do both side by side. I think working just from my imagination for a long time gave me the tools I needed and techniques. I really understood how to manipulate this material into doing what I want, so now when someones in front of me I’m not really experimenting anymore, I can just get after it. It’s continuing the tradition of portraiture in a different way and that feels important to me as an artist.
Hands Holding Skull
61 x 51 cm