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Art by association: Don Nice’s Deer.

A New Twist on the Old School
By David Brickman

Don Nice: Hudson River Paintings
Albany Institute of History and Art, through Aug. 22

Don Nice put it to me this way: “I’ve been lucky all my life.” Looking at the 50 pieces from the past 40 years in Don Nice: Hudson River Paintings at the Albany Institute of History and Art, and knowing that they represent only a fraction of his daily, lifetime output, one understands that Nice made his own luck.

Beginning where he first wrested himself out of the grip of late abstract expressionism into the midst of pop-tinged, California-school realism, Hudson River Paintings presents the Nice he wants us to know—a classically inspired frontiersman, forging ahead into fresh territory armed with the knowledge of the past, the blessing of his masters, and an almost egomaniacal certainty in the importance of his task.

The canvases are large, the colors brash, the shapes definitive, and the juxtapositions bombastic. You need to know the rules in order to break them the right way, and Nice’s Yale education gave him the right to do that; equally, his 24 years teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, followed by a booming art market in the ’80s and ’90s, gave Nice the stability to take the risks that led to a unique style that he continues to push forward and transform today, in his seventies.

At the center of the work, whether of landscape, figure, object or animal, is the Hudson River, Nice’s home since he moved to Garrison around 1969. Despite maintaining the cool detachment that characterized the pop phase of his work, Nice has become associated with the environmental movement through persistently depicting the fauna of the Hudson River valley and speaking strongly of the need to preserve the river’s resources.

Perhaps most emblematic of this concern is the central hall of this multi-gallery exhibit, where a flotilla of friendly fish cutouts glitters along deep indigo walls like a display in a city aquarium. Virtually compelling a name change to the Albany Institute of Natural History and Art, this exuberant fish alley (made of nearly two dozen paintings on aluminum mounted to 2-inch-thick wood, dated 2003-4) will attract children of all ages in a lighthearted introduction to Nice’s playful but serious artistic attitude.

It leads the eye directly to an oversized 1991 watercolor (also featuring a large fish portrait) at the center of the museum’s largest gallery, where work from four decades (1967—1997) is gathered together in a realm lying somewhere between harmony and pandemonium. Because Nice the rule-breaker won’t restrict himself as to subject matter or medium (even within single works), a certain amount of chaos reigns here. Even so, repeated icons (and there are many), a mostly consistent painterly technique, and that ineffable quality known as style combine to convince the viewer that this is indeed the work of one rather creative mind.

By the way, there are other points of entry into the exhibition—this is just one option. The true beginning is an entry hall where just a few paintings hang in quiet company with a biographical panel and a pedestal holding the show’s beautifully produced hardcover catalog, which features an essay by Nice’s longtime dealer John Driscoll, of Babcock Galleries; Driscoll also curated and designed the exhibition. Yet another entry places the visitor at the show’s logical end, with the most recent work—but a biographical panel there allows it to be a beginning, too, if you like.

For me, the best work in the show—and the most compelling as a body—comes from a middle period when Nice was combining iconic images such as Coke bottles, sneakers, bears and fruit with peaceful landscapes of the river, often including eccentrically shaped canvases or odd juxtapositions in the mix. Several pieces from this period (roughly 1975-1991) incorporate a predella, which is a design element taken from Christian altarpieces in which smaller images augment the main one, usually by being added in a row along the bottom.

Among my favorites are two watercolors: the 1976 Hudson River Ziggurat and 1977 Adirondack Totem, each of which takes a different approach to the problems of combinations and scale.

In Ziggurat, Nice has created 10 equal-sized square images and joined them through framing into a man-sized pyramid. At the top is the classic river landscape; below that, a robin and a squirrel; then come three comestibles (marshmallows, ale and pie); and the bottom row of four contains an apple, a pack of cigarettes, a toy Indian feather bonnet, and a hamburger. While a hierarchy is implied, it seems at least partially random, and there is one clear inside joke: a firm nod to Jasper Johns in the form of the partially consumed six-pack of Ballantine ale, placed right at the arrangement’s center.

The Totem, on the other hand, leaves less doubt as to projected value. Painted on a single sheet of paper about 8 feet tall, its triangular top has a mountain landscape; below that is a duck; then marshmallows, a work boot, and finally the six-pack of ale. We have Gaia, animal life, food, toil and, lastly, leisure.

In Nice’s 1975 Deer, a more than 6-foot-square acrylic-on-canvas portrait of the eponymous animal has a row of seemingly unrelated objects added along the bottom, in a separately framed watercolor on paper. How the water pistol, Hershey’s Kisses, pear and turtle are meant to be associated with the deer is left up to the viewer; one thing not ambiguous, however, is Nice’s obvious skill with the brush—the expressive realism of both the acrylic and the watercolor leaves no doubt that this artist can paint anything he wants, in any way he likes.

And here we have the rub. Nice’s interests and abilities have such range that he can’t seem to completely direct them, resulting in a significant amount of work in this show that struggles for resolution. This may explain why it is only the second retrospective he’s had (the first was in 1985); a body of work this eclectic just doesn’t want to hang together.

Additionally, Nice seems to be trying too hard to be innovative, especially with the decision several years ago to paint on aluminum. Though he contends that this is a leap forward in terms of light, transparency and color, I have a hard time distinguishing the qualitative difference between Nice’s dye paintings on metal and all manner of commercial objects, from signs to toys to furniture to cars, that use similar materials. Equally, the shapes he has adopted seem to be straining to be popular—not that popularity is necessarily a bad thing for art, but that I sense a lack of conviction in this work.

A case in point is the latest piece in the show, a 2003 shaped aluminum “spinner” which hangs from a centerpoint around which it can be rotated. Here, at last the river landscape has been eliminated, though the icons (squirrel, fish, rose, apple and bird) remain. They are joined together by cartoonish symbols meant to represent earth, water, wind, fire and gravity in a five-point star arrangement; and like a carnival game, they spin and spin but seem to have no real purpose other than to entertain.

I hope that this doesn’t become the final impression of an otherwise worthy career.

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