My father used to make trophies, so in a sense ever since I was young, I always had the environment to see the artistic. At 13, I wanted to be an architect. Then I went to New Zealand where I worked as a dishwasher while drawing in my free time. The restaurant owner discovered this and asked me to redesign the entire interior of the restaurant and also do a huge painting outside. On my return to (West) Germany, I went to the Alsterdamm Art School in Hamburg and did a course in graphic design.” That was the beginning of Id Nickels’s career as an artist. His early work was influenced by the precision of graphic design. Later he changed to the more figurative process, honing it to perfection. “It got to a point where people would think it was a photograph. That led me to think that if it can be expressed by a photograph, why do I need to paint it.”
North Frisia, West Germany. The cold, flat landscape with the bleak, treeless marshes, the all-dominating sky and the incessant western wind, all had a profound impression on him. These have now been contrasted with lush Kerala, its palm trees and people. The conflicts within were severe, as he ex-plains. “In Germany, everything is so very neat and clean. The neon signs and lights are so bright and flashy, the TV visuals so perfect that rust has become the anthem colour of abstract painters there. It is a rare colour, something that allows you to calm down from the visual on-slaught. I find my work used softer colours in Germany, but that is going through a change in my work here.” Other changes came as he attempted to come to terms with his impressions of the subcontinent.
This led him to his search for an expression that was more abstract and reductivist. He want-ed to achieve pure art without any figurative aspects and has arrived there using the vehicle of abstract expressionism. Nickels has accompanied his wife, a German language teacher, to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where the couple have completed three years of their five-year stint. His latest works, being shown at an exhibition at The Gallery in Madras from November 22 to December 2, have been created between Christmas 1989 and Easter 1990, and are only a representative collection of a certain phase and not, as he emphasizes, a depiction of a Westerner’s first impression of India. In the tradition of the free artist-adventurer Nickels has had his share of frequent travels. In 1984, he spent time in Australia picking tomatoes and learning etchings from Seraphina Martine. Recently he worked for two years as a cook in.
The tourist’s exclamations of delight gradually wore thin with the change in status from visitor to resident. For. a foreigner in a town where one is easily recognized as a stranger and mostly mistaken for a tourist, life can be quite frustrating. Added to this was the very little contact he has had with his own cultural background. The heat and dust of urban India, the chaotic traffic, the howling dogs at night, the temple music in the pre-dawn hours, the sweet-sour smell from the jasmine and garbage heaps, the gorgeous sarees and beggars’ rags — Nickels has had to adjust to all these and more. But his work is not so much an India travel guide as a personal, introspective statement of his experiences. “My work is suitable for living rooms, not museums. You need to take time with my work. It is rather quiet — you can look at it and think. Sometimes the titles I give are to confuse the viewer, to make him think a little more than ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a nice painting of a woman.’
Very often I will have a title in mind and then the work metamorphoses.” The large central canvas is similar to a huge war tableau. A body is stretched out. A god or demon looks down at it — a black monster. Smoke clouds hover over the devastation. Contrasts in conflict. This painting, “North-South Conflict,” gives the show its title. There is also the irony of a northern hemisphere man’s experience south of the Equator. Another recurring theme in Nickels’s work is defense. Why? “When you are new to India, you are constantly being watched, especially in Thiruvananthapuram where we are the only Germans. People stare at you and beggars be-siege you. I know this is part of the tourist scene in India, but after a while you look foward to your privacy and isolation. This also creates conflicts. Often, I will tolerate so much and no more. I turn defensive and inwards then. I think both the horrible and the positive impressions affect my work: – When a little child, Nickels was attacked by a big bird. This has turned into fear of beaks which is expressed in the series “Phobia.”
A sense of humour too is there in many of his works. “Auto Breakdown” is reminiscent of the clouds of dust while stuck in a rickshaw. -Chicken Fry, Kerala Style” is a homage to a favourite dish while “Three Weeks to Go” (presumably back in Ger-many for a holiday) is calm and meditative, the artist in touch with his roots again. -My medium is colour. I want to achieve perfect art by composing in colour. Often it means working with as few colours as possible. It is more a search: the more honestly, I ask, the more the questions arise seeking to be answered. In my ‘Angeldust’ series, I feel I have come closest to achieving it. There is a reduction of every-thing. Two colours at the most and they express the ultimate experience, be it through drugs, yoga or spirituality.” Nickels uses a variety of materials when he paints. Coffee, red wine, beer and other drinks are used or mixed with oil and turpentine to create the structural texture of an etching. He has also experimented with chlorophyll from plants besides the normal range of water colours and oils. Carbons too feature in a big way. “Sometimes a black crow form becomes an all-black painting.
When I work, a lot of thoughts go into the work and it changes over time from what it was to its final state.” The works breathe authenticity. There is no pretended admiration for India. Neither is there pity or philanthropical hypocrisy. There is no at-tempt to glorify developed Germany. The paintings are the language, a set of signs, conceived by the painter to grasp at his own inner condition under the influence of the strange. By personalizing the issues of conflicting climates, cultures, morals, languages and colours, he tries to make an individual point of view, speak to an individual onlooker. If one turns away from the conservative ways of perception, the paintings open up and what seemed abstract and perhaps incomprehensible turns into a cosoms of its own.