Monaco Meets: Nick Schleicher

 

This past February, Monaco members Sage Dawson, Meghan Grubb, and Edo Rosenblith visited St. Louis based artist Nick Schleicher in his new studio conveniently located behind Monaco’s newly opened Project Space.

 

We talked shop about Chicago, the cosmos, Rothko, his new dog (a dachshund), his Instagram, the importance of installing custom shelves, and his transition from figurative to abstract painting. 

Nick Schleicher (b 1988) received a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 where he focused on painting and sculpture.

His work ranges from color field abstractions focused on the process of painting as informed by astronomical imagery to sculptural forms inspired by the domestic display. Recent solo exhibitions include Grease 3, Saint Louis, MO; PLAQUE at Granite City Art & Design District, Granite City, IL; Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, Saint Louis, MO; and The Millitzer Gallery, Saint Louis, MO. Following the studio visit we relayed a series of questions to Nick, and his responses offer insight into his work and practice.  

 
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Edo: I'm always interested in how artists grow up because I can't help but think those early childhood experiences influence what that person ends up making later in life. So if you don't mind talking about these things, if you could give us the basics about yourself: Where/When were you born? Where did you grow up?

Nick: I was born in Saint Louis City but grew up mostly in South County. My parents got divorced around the time I was in first grade, so my brother and I split time between my mother's house in the county and my father's various apartments.

My dad seemed to move every year, or so, so I was exposed to much of the Saint Louis City/County throughout my childhood and early teenage years. 

 

E: What do or did your parents do for a living?

My mother is a hairstylist and has been my entire life. She was our financial, structural, and emotional support growing up as my father was an artist/musician. While my father went on to receive his MFA from Fontbonne University in 2012, he struggled with mental illness that caused him to be mostly unemployed for most of my life. During my childhood, we would spend one weekday and weekends with him. My father had an incredibly large personality and was as smart as hell. Every day at 3 pm he would watch Jeopardy! And get every answer correct, yelling "BOBBY KNOWS" at Alex Trebek as he would reveal the answer.

He and I traveled to Chicago once when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and both tried out for Jeopardy! I'm pretty sure my continuous playing of the first two songs on the Space Jam soundtrack during the drive there led to our unsuccessful tryouts. Every night he would fall asleep to the sounds of classic films like Casablanca, Woody Allen's Manhattan, or Duck Soup by the Marx Brothers. Where my father lacked in financial contribution, he made up in my exposure to culture and the arts. My father, Robert Schleicher Jr., passed away in 2013 of a heart complication. I was able to share a studio space with him for the year before he passed and will always treasure that time. 

 
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E: When did you decide to become an artist?

Because my father was an artist, I always had art and art supplies around. He would bring my brother and me to museums, art fairs, and gallery openings every weekend so I never really knew life without art. Like most kids, I drew all the time, played with action figures, read comic books, built Legos, and played a lot of sports.

If you asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was a movie director or a basketball player. I didn't start giving serious attention to my art practice until high school when I had some encouraging art teachers reinforce a lot of the things that my parents were nurturing my whole life that I took for granted. 

 

E: Where did you go to college and how did this experience affect/influence your art practice?

I graduated with my BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012 after spending two years at Meramec Community College in Saint Louis. Chicago was a whole new world to me. I had never really thought of art outside of a means of representation until then. I went into school as a figurative painter and was challenged the entire time conceptually. At first, I was very resistant to that way of thinking because I was so used to learning technique that the narrative behind the work was never considered as significant. I had a couple of figure painting teachers and TAs that knew how to open that part of my practice up without me even knowing at the time. My last semester there I was accepted into the Advanced Painting Studio; this was like pre-grad school. Everyone got about 250 sq. ft. of studio space that was shared with one other student, and we were expected to be in that space as much as possible outside of regular class hours (the class was 9am-4pm three days a week). My studio mate, Kalani Largusa, and I became very close as we were some of the only painters working representationally.

After I graduated from SAIC, I worked in Chicago as a studio assistant for one of my professors, Philip Hanson. I would say in retrospect that this had the most impact on me. Because I was doing the preliminary work for someone else's paintings and because he was operating heavily in the realm of color theory and color was the forefront of his work, I saw it entirely differently. I fell in love with the optical games it could play. The beauty of color relationships not dictated by what existed in the observed world was strangely new to me. I moved back to Saint Louis shortly after and began to reconsider my painting practice. Strangely, Kalani had done the same thing after he went back home to Hawai'i, so we both set out to transition to abstract modes of painting together. Instagram played a massive part in keeping us connected and learning from each other since we no longer shared the same physical studio space.

 
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E: How do you support your art practice? Do you have a day job? If so what is it?

I have a full-time job at the World Chess Hall of Fame as the Exhibitions Manager. 

 

E: During our studio visit you mentioned that you came to abstract painting because you wanted to find an art practice that valued process over a finished product. How did you come to that conclusion and how has that desire changed your work over the years? 

After painting representationally for so long, I reached a point where I no longer enjoyed the process of doing the work. I was happy with the painting when it is completed, but the journey there wasn't challenging or enjoyable in a way that I was interested in or learning from anymore. I first started making papier-mâché replicas of the things I was painting (still life’s etc.) but was still stuck in the mode of representation. For me, abstraction was a new mode of making that was so alien. It made me feel unsure of myself in a way that I had no choice but to dive fully into this work. Initially, the process was intimidating, not knowing when work was complete or even knowing where to begin.

My only real exposure to abstraction was my time as a studio assistant, but even then I was executing someone else's vision and following basic instruction. After about six years of practice, I've arrived at a process of color field painting that I think has potential. I "officially" started on a series I was calling Colors in Space in 2018. The process involves pulling layer after layer of translucent acrylic glazes over the surface of a wood panel that I construct. I use acrylic gloss gels, glazing mediums, matte gels, iridescent pigments, and neon pigments to permanently suspend layers of color and stack them until I arrive at a composition that works for me. 

 
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S: Can you speak about how popular culture has influenced your work in the past, and what influence it has on your current body of work?

Popular culture has played a considerable role in my work and life. When I first started painting abstractly, I wasn't sure where to begin the painting so that I would steal color palettes from things around me. Anything was fair game: Cartoons, comic books, movies, sports, outer space. After working like this for some time, I began to develop my vocabulary of color that I feel I can now draw from without specifically referencing anything. Again, because we free associate with color, I will often name works in a way that references something that I connected the artwork too, but in a way that obscures it so, I do not project that reference to the audience.

One example is a recent painting titled BJS-720. In the Colors in Space series, I titled the work in a three letter - three number format loosely referencing the way NASA categorizes celestial bodies. As I was working on BJS-720, I noticed it reminded me of a specific scene from an episode of The Simpsons from Season 7 called Bart on the Road. Bartholomew JoJo Simpson (BJS) and the particular season and episode (season 7, episode 20) had to be the title. 

 

Sage: In your previous and current body of work you often work with highly saturated hues, transparency, and iridescent pigments. Within this context, how do you think about color and its potential?

Color taps into the associative part of the brain. I notice many viewers want to point out what the color palettes remind them of, these associations that the viewers make to the works create a personal narrative or connection to the work that I could not have conjured up myself. I hope that this "doorway" into the paintings can keep the artwork accessible to a wide audience. 

 
 
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S: In the exhibition Show Show Show Show you collaborated with Shawn Burkard to create several pieces. How has that experience influenced your practice going forward? What surprises or realizations did you have through that collaborative process?

Collaborating with another artist is always an exciting experience for me, as my studio practice can be very solitary. I started 2018 with the goal to work more collaboratively with artists and to participate in more group shows. Shawn and I talked about doing a two-person show, so we began collaborating on some paintings. These paintings were a fun exercise in working with materials and colors neither of us would typically choose to work with on our own. At the time I was working on a series of skin paintings that were investigating the construction and deconstruction of painting and Shawn was casting acrylic paint into these odd little pyramid shapes and creating free-standing sculptures that followed all the basic rules of how a picture is constructed (wood support wrapped in canvas with paint applied).

We added two more artists to the mix that were doing similar things - Vaughn Davis and Conor Murphy. Collectively we began working on ideas for a group show together. Our first show together was a one-night pop-up exhibition called SHOW SHOW SHOW SHOW. After this, we had a sense of how our work operated together as a whole and put together a follow-up exhibition called SSSS* that was on view at Forest Park Community College for October 2018. Hopefully, we can get two more shows out of this collaboration, in some other cities, to complete the theme theme theme theme we have going on. 

 

Meghan: How do you consider the viewer concerning your work?  Do you have objectives for their experience, a state of mind?  

I want my work to remain accessible to a wide audience no matter how singular the concepts tend to be. If the viewer makes connections to something they find personal in my work, I think it keeps the paintings engaging. I once showed a couple of portraits I painted back in college and was eavesdropping on some people that were looking at the works. One guy was like "these paintings are good and all, but I don't know who these people are so who cares." I know this is just one person's interpretation, but that stuck with me for some reason. Removing specific imagery from the current body of work allows me to meditate as I gaze into these color fields and reflect on myself and the things going on in my life. I like to think of the Silver Surfer (from Marvel comics) in relation to these works.

He travels throughout the universe observing and studying civilizations from planet to planet, always internalizing and struggling to comprehend how these civilizations exist and more importantly, how he can solve their issues after going through so much personal struggle. I can relate to that. So much is happening right now in the world, in our country, in our city, and in my personal life that I feel overwhelmed with the inability to affect so many of these larger problems as an individual. Even after experiencing so many personal losses and having the emotional experience and strength to deal with some of these things, I find myself feeling a bit adrift when faced with adversity. In my studio, I often reflect on these issues, and this body of work is the byproduct of that personal meditation. 

 
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M: Where do you see your work going? If you faced no barriers or constraints, what would your next big project or series of artworks look? 

I have been working on a series of monoliths that have so far only materialized as 2 ft. Tall maquettes. I hope to realize these monoliths as full scale, 8ft. Tall, sculptures that exist in shared spaces such as galleries, parks, community centers, etc. 

My interest in the monolith was inspired initially by prehistoric megalithic standing stones scattered throughout Europe. I started looking at ways contemporary and fictional representations of the monolith sparked my imagination and curiosity. John McCracken’s blocks and planks, the famous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the film and novels), the idea of the lighthouse and tower from Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy and many other manifestations continue to puzzle me. Inspiration pulled from the beginnings of human history and ending in contemporary embodiments led me to conspiracies of Alien representations taken from observations of “monoliths” on the surfaces of Mars and Phobos (one of Mars' moons), among other celestial bodies. While these representations exist as both fiction and nonfiction, the mystery, presence, and feeling of wonder they invoke is the same.

The most exciting feelings I felt came from the resulting theories attempting to describe the origins of these monoliths. Most of them veered toward science fiction and speculation, these theories of origin they shared formed my representation of the monolith.

While the theories of origin are vague and often fantastical, one thing remains strong, the location of these monoliths seem to suggest a significance of the place. “The obelisk, silent as only stone can be, nonetheless seems to say that nothing else can, ‘Here is something significant.’” This quote referring to the Washington Monument describes these markers of place correctly. As an artist, physical interactions with our work exist mostly in homes and galleries. These locations by nature encourage gathering and discussion; harboring safe conversation as well as providing a platform to incite challenging dialogue for change. When I reflect on my monoliths, especially in these spaces, I see them acting as a beacon signaling shelter and safety for gathering and conversation.

 
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To view more of Nick’s work, visit nickschleicher.com