Legendary Critic, Peter Frank's Essay on the Nexus Series
Updated: May 31, 2021
Humankind’s relation to nature – the physical and biological phenomena comprising the world around us – has been fraught with conflict and complexity ever since, well, the last Ice Age. But we live in an extended era in which we have consciously and continually questioned, even disputed, our relationship to the ecosphere. The history of western art and philosophy betrays this dynamic; while Asian art by and large seeks harmony and resolve, European art has amplified the struggle – even as it poses the struggle as within us rather than (simply) between us and our earthly surroundings. The pictorial distinction between landscape and human activity emerged early in the Renaissance (in fact, late in the Medieval epoch) and was codified into artistic practice with the establishment of academies at the outset of the Age of Enlightenment. It was the Industrial Revolution and the resulting shift from agrarian to urban culture, however, that put us where we are today vis-à-vis nature. We have come to realize, perhaps too late, how we have endangered our own species by separating from the natural world, by divorcing ourselves from a shared and perhaps innate comprehension of nature. Instead we allow industry to be our de facto ambassadors to nature – or, more accurately, our occupying armies.
Paul Paiement is concerned precisely with the tension between our professions of love for and dependency on nature and our attempts to manifest such professions. Paiement regards architecture as the realm in which we most consciously express our desire to “return to the land” – logically enough, as buildings mark their places on the land with the distinctiveness (or lack thereof) of their forms and, at least to some degree, their functions. But, as Paiement articulates, fixed structures, no matter how inhabitable or how integrated into their surroundings – indeed, no matter how self-effacing, even invisible – they may be, they are, if anything, anti-natural. Nature is the site of continuous change, but such edifices – artifices, really – are constructed to endure, not to erode. However gracefully they may fit themselves into their topographies, houses and offices and even fences and lanes enhance their surroundings artificially, in a process more akin to scarification than to natural evolution. A human figure dancing or gesturing in a field is more “natural” than a building sitting in it.
And yet we consider architecture among the grandest and noblest of our accomplishments. How can these elegant forms we install amidst groves and fields be insults to the biosphere? Are they not, rather, homages paid it? This is the perceptual dilemma Paiement addresses, nay, illustrates. He renders his natural landscape elements with a verism so dogged as to reify and at the same time challenge our regard. We become hyper-aware of the painter’s own artifice, of his canny reliance on techniques that minimize evidence of the artist’s hand while ironically celebrating the virtuosity this self-effacement actually represents. Further, in his compositions Paiement emulates both the conventions of traditional landscape painting – Poussinesque horizons, Ruysdael’s chiaroscuro, Corot foliage, Luminist light – and the optical distortions and decentered framing that photography introduced into painting in the 19th century. Addressing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conundrum about the man-nature split, Paiement has appropriately adopted a kind of neo-Barbizonism – with an altogether post-modern twist.
Those ghostly buildings, construction skeletons, plastic panels, and other discordant elements Paiement introduces into – or, if you would, imposes upon – otherwise pristine bucolic scenes awaken us to two parallel conditions: the artifice of the artwork and the artifice of society’s abusive exaltation of nature. The artist is not critiquing the artifice itself so much as our passive acceptance of it, that. Is, our failure to critique it as we look at art and life out of the same eyes. To be sure, Paiement is as committed to the aesthetic expression of ideas as any of us is; but he feels obligated to hassle our views and our viewpoints by marring his “perfect” scenes with contradistinctive markings, images, and materials.
Do we recoil from such insults to the picture? More importantly, do we regard them as mitigations of our viewing pleasure or as defacements of the subject matter itself? Paiement would have us understand his approach as playful or iconoclastic. But a deeper subversion motivates him: the subversion of what we know by seeing, and the resulting awareness gained thereby of what we are losing. Paul Paiement’s art does not call for us simply to heed climate change, but to reassess what our relationship with nature should be as a theoretical as well as practical construct. As Paiement’s painting puts it, “Nature”’ is not simply where we live, but how.
Los Angeles, California