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Nelson Shanks: Paintings and Drawings

By Peter F. Blume




The problematic intellectual content in post-pop realist painting as witnessed by Tom Wolf not too long ago in The Painted Word points to serious problems in modern aesthetics. Concurrent with the development of the icy reserve of photorealism were the paintings of Al Leslie in his "post-modern" phase which manifest a serious concern with emotional accessibility of content. This content (in banal and exalted forms) was a condition of art until Kandinsky banished subjective content in favor of more formal concerns about painting. The reintroduction of emotional accessibility in the work of Leslie provides a convenient critical approach to the work of Nelson Shanks. Purely formal and intellectual concerns aside, Shanks' subjectivity makes a strong case to overcome the emotional bankruptcy of post-pop realism. In looking at Shanks' paintings, we are asked to eschew all the intellectual virtues current in formal criticism of realist painting to become emotionally involved.

Billy's Wife (No. 36, p. 25) 1975, is one of the most demanding female nudes this writer has found in modern painting. While Philip Pearlstein's figures are more brutally explicit, Billy's Wife is challenging to current critical mores for her humanistic appeal. And it is this aspect, this warmth, in Shanks' work that makes us uncomfortable. Pearlstein, among other figurative painters working today, insists on a remoteness between artist and model; Shanks is intensely involved.

The technical ability of Nelson Shanks is astonishing to find in the late twentieth century. He is capable of doing anything with paint, as we can see from the illustrations in this book. He does not use photography as reference, but attacks canvas directly with preliminary work that has the bravura quality of a mature artist comfortable with his medium. These preliminary drawings with brush and oil disappear beneath a meticulously finished surface, the look of which betrays none of the many pentimenti that must happen in this method. The canvas surface presents us with no impasto but with a dry scumbling, and at times a small exuberant splash. In many ways, it is sad that we do not have more preliminary drawings in charcoal for Shanks is a draftsman of incomparable skill. This loss of works left undone in charcoal is compensated by color; Shanks' observational powers are uncanny.

Color, as we can see from the paintings of these past six years, has become an important avenue of experiment to Shanks. From the low key Renaissance Chair (No.6, p. 19) of 1971 to Mr. Fitting (No. 23, p. 17) of 1975, higher in key, with tonalities pushed almost to the point of abstraction, it is clear that he has yet to fall into a formula. The most recent painting in this show (Schuylkill, No. 45, not illustrated) which is now being completed, is an explosion of late afternoon Kodachrome.

Schuylkill was observed and initially sketched from nature and finished in the studio in the manner of artists such as Theodore Rousseau. While Shanks acknowledges his debt to "The Masters" (he had a wonderful Philips Koninck landscape in his home for part of the time in which Schuylkill was painted, and perhaps we can see a small bit of it in the remarkable depth of this picture), this painting is by no means sugared nostalgia, or reverie of the past. While the condition of light and nature were never more honestly recorded than by Rousseau and his contemporaries in the Barbizon School, they could not have conceived the juxtaposition of the complementary colors blue and orange in quite the same broad manner depicting the late afternoon sunlight of February. Shanks' picture, though exercising an artistic license in the details of the town of Conshohocken, and the tonal development of the scene, is a true and beautiful picture of suburban Philadelphia in 1976. The industrial landscape is as valid a statement of the late twentieth century as the urban banality of Los Angeles. The contemporaneity in Shanks' work has been a long time coming, and Schuylkill has lost a sweetness that we sometimes find in pictures of an earlier date.

Nelson Shanks' paintings are the antithesis of the current avant-garde in realist painting. They have a warmth and concern between artist and subject that might easily become saccharine. They have their precedents in classical humanism of the Renaissance, a tradition which, despite the clamor, dies very slowly.


Biographical Note

Nelson Shanks was born in Rochester, New York in 1937 and lived in Wilmington, Delaware for most of his childhood. He has been a resident of New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, since 1968.

He studied at The Kansas City Art Institute and in New York at the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League. His teachers include Ivan Olinsky, Robert Brackman and Edwin Dickinson. In Italy he studied at L'Accademia de Bella Arti, Florence, and with Pietro Annigoni. He has traveled and studied extensively throughout Europe. While at the Art Students League, Shanks was the recipient of the Frank V. Dumond Memorial Scholarship. His European travels and studies were made possible by grants from the John F. and Anna Lee Stacey Memorial Foundation and the Elizabeth T. Greenshields Memorial Foundation.

His work has been exhibited in many museums and galleries including the National Academy of Design, HirschI-Adler Galleries, Coe Kerr and FAR Galleries in New York, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, The Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Art Alliance and The New Jersey State Museum at Trenton.

Shanks has been on the faculty of the Memphis Academy of Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Princeton Art Association.

Portrait commissions include those of Dr. Julian Johnson for University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. Paul Anderson, former President of Temple University, and portraits of four founders of Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., Allentown, Pennsylvania. His work is included in many distinguished private collections throughout the country.


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