Landscapes that glow. Nick McPhail’s LA paintings

Nick McPhail’s paintings glow. They radiate the saturated hues that characterize the light in Los Angeles. Nick’s paintings typically depict buildings, powerlines and the landscape. The relationship between the built and natural landscape reflects Nick’s interest in the juxtaposition of tight and loose compositional elements. Figures are absent from Nick’s paintings, leaving the scenes eerily deserted. Windows feature in many of Nick’s paintings, and act as framing devices that create a sense of positionality and locate the viewer. This likewise introduces a voyeuristic element into the work, disrupting the innocence of the glowing scenes.

Nick uses the Renaissance technique of underpainting to achieve the luminous quality in the works. His color palettes are inspired by the LA scenery, which in turn locates the work firmly in the context of LA. A quintessential feature of this West Coast city is the powerlines that run across it. These lines are a recurring motif in Nick’s paintings that take on a geometric quality, organizing the composition and dividing up the picture space. In other paintings the lines are substituted by fencing or deep shadows which likewise structure the composition. This spatial approach extends into purely abstract series of works, which are studies in the fundamental characteristics of lines and frames.

Before turning his attention to painting, Nick worked in ceramics. He continues these two practices alongside one another, and says that the very different processes and approaches necessary for each work well together to keep his art in progress. We caught up with Nick to find out more about his art and the current LA art scene.

AMM: Hi Nick! What’s the LA art scene like right now?

NMP: LA is a massive sprawling place with no center and I think the art scene is a reflection of that. The city has always had a strong base of artist run projects, DIY galleries and a really accessible art scene. To me that seems stronger and healthier than ever. We’ve been getting much more international attention in the last few years with massive commercial galleries and the big art fairs moving in. That feels really different, sort of exciting and a little scary. I think LA used to be a great place for artists to work and have cheap space, and that has really changed in a way that is frustrating if you’ve been here for a while.

AMM: Light is a really prominent part of your painting. When and how did you first start thinking about light in your art?

NMP: The first serious paintings I did were somewhat photorealistic paintings of buildings in my neighborhood. I was really interested in shadow and color relationships, and how that can be simultaneously clarifying and misleading. When you’re painting from life I think you have to have a strong handle on light, however you choose to deal with it. I often disregard or alter the original light source until the final painting becomes somewhat unrecognizable. I’m happy to have a bit of disorientation in the work.

AMM: How do you achieve the glow in your paintings?

NMP: I always begin a painting by underpainting a solid fluorescent color over the whole canvas. It’s a Renaissance technique and many of the old masters would use this method to achieve a sense of light emanating from the canvas. This works really well with oil paint because you can build up translucent layers that allow everything underneath to show through. The way I use underpainting is different from the old masters in that I let the underpainting become a substantial part of the finished work. Because I work wet on wet, I naturally leave gaps between colors. It’s partially a functional move so that the paints don’t blend, but it also allows the underpainting to show through and gives the painting the appearance of a collage.

Driveway, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

AMM: Conceptually, what does the luminousness represent?

NMP: Before I start a painting I think about the mood that I’m trying to convey, and how large a role the underpainting is going to play in the final composition. Many of my recent paintings have yellow, orange, pink or purple peeking through, setting the tone for the work. To me, these colors are important because they are everywhere in LA.

When I saw Stephen Prina’s ‘As He Remembered It’ in 2013 at LACMA I felt like he had really struck a nerve as far as memory, specific place and design in relationship to Los Angeles. The show consisted of built-in furniture from two demolished Schindler houses that had been recreated, truncated, painted warm pink and placed on display in grids around the gallery. That exhibition pushed me to start thinking about color in relation to memory, how it can be altered, and also the importance of absence. I think a lot about what’s included and what’s left out of a painting. I doubt that was Prina’s intention with the work, but that was what I took away from it.

AMM: The colors in your paintings are really vivid. What is your approach to color in your painting?

NMP: I feel like I’m always battling with the color in my work, and I’m always borrowing ideas for color relationships from other artists and designers. I recently stumbled across a Jim Dine book and found some really interesting ways he was experimenting with color and layered paint back in the 60s. I’ve already incorporated some of these ideas into the paintings I’m currently working on. If a painting isn’t working, I’ll often bring in a completely unplanned color and see where it goes from there. Often times it will lead to something that makes the painting feel right.

AMM: Your paintings portray quintessentially LA vistas, and you recently completed a large painting on aluminum panels that was installed on Sunset Boulevard. In what ways are you influenced and inspired by the city?

NMP: There are so many competing cultures in LA that it makes the city really hard to define. I’m really interested in the way people have developed and built in the hills of LA, and also how these structures break down over time. There’s often 60-year-old hand-built shacks, clean modern structures, abandoned cantilevered construction sites – all right on top of each other with unkempt vegetation growing throughout. The public installation on Sunset Blvd was a really satisfying project for me because I’ve been doing paintings based on the Echo Park neighborhood for around 13 years now. It feels really great to have one of them on permanent public display. For me the dominant part of the composition is the power lines, and I think that is quintessential LA. It was also a really interesting challenge to paint at that scale. The painting is on a 12-foot tall by 10-foot wide piece of aluminum, so there were a lot of unique logistics to be worked out.

AMM: Have you always been interested in the built environment? What is the relationship between the structures and their environment in your work?

NMP: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between tight and loose elements existing in the same composition. I think that the built environment juxtaposed with the natural environment is the perfect way to explore this.

AMM: People are conspicuously absent from your work. What might this represent? Tell us more about this.

NMP: Hmm… I’m not sure that I have a super concrete answer for this. In my more successful works, the viewer is clearly positioned: behind a window, looking through the bushes, etc. I like the ambiguity of leaving people out of the scenes, and the point is to let the viewer have a relationship where they can create their own narrative. There’s definitely a voyeuristic aspect to much of my work, but I’m just not very interested in painting the figure.

Wall, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

AMM: Alongside your painting you also make ceramic pieces. How did you start working in this medium? What do you enjoy about it?

NMP: My relationship with ceramics actually predates my work as a painter. In undergrad I was making wheel thrown vessels inspired by classical forms, and painting on them using different mason stains and dyed clay. I was also a ceramics technician at the university and taught adult wheel throwing classes at the local community center. I currently have a ceramics studio in my backyard, which took me years to get set up. Much longer than my painting studio!

I really enjoy ceramics because it’s a much more social medium, people tend to work together in my experience, whereas painting is more often a solitary pursuit. I like to have ceramics projects to work on when I’m feeling frustrated or stuck with my paintings, and at the moment that’s how ceramics is functioning in my overall studio practice. I’ve recently started making sculptural ceramic objects that I can see myself focusing on more in the future… so we’ll see where that goes.

AMM: As with your paintings, the aesthetics of your ceramics is very much determined by color. How do you go about creating your color palettes?

NMP: Color is definitely a thread connecting the two mediums aesthetically. A few years ago a friend turned me on to colored underglazes that you can paint on dry unfired clay, and they produce really saturated colors. I started working with these underglazes to develop tight pairings of vibrant underglazes and simple neutral top glazes. I primarily use color to highlight the form of the ceramic objects, but in the future I hope to dedicate more time and resources into unique glaze formulations.

AMM: What is your process of working? Are you a planner? Do you make sketches or do you enjoy experimenting and allowing the process to lead you? Please tell us about your approach to making art?

NMP: I work very intuitively in the studio and I try not to have a set idea in mind of what the final piece will look like. I produce a large amount of work, and do some heavy editing on what I actually put out into the world. While much of the work that gets edited out seems initially unsuccessful or out of character, it often gives me ideas for future projects.

I have a lot of anxiety when I’m working in the studio, so years ago I developed a practice of stepping out and taking long walks. It’s a way to cope with the anxiety, but it’s also become a really important part of my practice. On the walks I try to be present and make observations on the different relationships between the built and natural environment. I do drawings and take a lot of photos, and they end up feeding what I’m working on in the studio. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that I find pretty interesting. I usually start by making lots of drawings from the photographs I take, which are really just compositional ideas. I then start thinking about color and what size and form the painting should be. When I start a painting, I normally reference the photographs and drawings. As I continue to work I tend to move away from the source material and just focus on what’s happening in the painting. I often will use multiple source images in one painting, or partially paint over a composition and layer another one on top of it. It depends on if I feel like the painting is working or not. It’s not so much about creating an accurate depiction of a scene as much as it is about memory, and memory is constantly changing.

AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

NMP: I’m really fixated on windows at the moment.

AMM: Your series of geometric paintings seem to be an abstracted extension of some of the compositional elements from your architectural paintings, like power lines and stark shadows. Can you tell us more about these works and how they fit in with the overarching concerns of your practice?

NMP: I think you’ve got it right when you say it’s an extension of my other work. With this series I try to focus on a simple image or architectural idea, and then break it down into a series of evenly spaced lines restricted to two colors. I like the challenge of trying to depict an image within a strict set of constraints. I create them by using a sgraffito technique of scraping away the top layer of oil paint. It’s very tedious and you have to do it in one shot so it really becomes a matter of concentration.

AMM: You’ve recently been on residency at Ochi Gallery in Idaho. What was that experience like and how has it influenced your work?

NMP: I’ve actually only been here in Idaho for about a week, so that’s tbd! The light here in Ketchum, Idaho is amazing, and the sunsets linger until almost 10.30pm, creating all kinds of interesting effects on the landscape. I’ve been doing a lot of hikes at dusk and just taking in the colors.

I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to leave LA for extended periods for the last few years in a row. I think that really helps me to have a healthy relationship with the city. Being away and painting in different locations has helped me reshape my focus on LA, and see it with fresh eyes. LA is a really unique place, but if you’re there for a long time you can start to take it for granted.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

NMP: After I finish the residency here in Idaho I’m going to Geneva, Switzerland to do a residency and a solo exhibition with gallery Un(titled) 1983. After that, I’ll be back in LA to prepare for a solo exhibition with Ochi Projects in Los Angeles in early 2020.

Find out more about the artist: www.nickmcphail.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Step Housing, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches