The first thing you notice about William Nichols’s (b. 1942) oil-on-linen landscapes, which were on view this spring at O.K. Harris in New York City, was the way they combine physical scale with unexpected intimacy. Twin Logs Crossing (2005) is 63-by-83 inches, but it doesn’t have the epic sweep of the traditional American vista as epitomized by the works of Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt or Frederic Church. Instead, Nichols gives us close-up meditations on woodland interiors. As a boy growing up in the urban bustle of Chicago, Nichols found a summer haven in the north woods of upper Wisconsin, and a sense of memory—what he calls “intuitive recollections”—lingers around these images. The fallen trees of Twin Logs Crossing are dappled with sunlight and shadow, and their reflection is the stream below them ripples. The detail lavished on the pebbled water’s edge and on the minute tangle of brush is evidence of his superb craftsmanship as a realist. Yet there is something elusive and otherworldly about the scene, in part due to his cool, muted palette. The title of another big painting, Twilight Colors (2004), with its web of spidery foliage, conveys the eerie delicacy of his colors, suggesting the hand-tinting of old photographs.
In fact, Nichols uses the camera as a design and conceptual tool. “The photograph is an important component in constructing the painting,” he wrote in a 1991 artist’s statement. “Its ability to lock in quantities of information at a precise moment in time… offers a unique vantage point from which to explore and reflect on things with a new kind of thoroughness.” Nichols likes to make his viewer feel surrounded by the natural environment, rather than distanced from it, and the welter of sense data he presents can be disorienting. We are so immersed in the woodscape that we may have trouble visually sorting out a schemata that makes sense of the complex, interpenetrating cycles of growth and decay. This fine-honed richness is apparent in the bare-branch filigree of Pigeon Creek Deadfall (2005) or in Swift Water Embankment (2004), where the grasses overhanging the stream have an almost Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. At the same time, an image such as Reflected Fall (2004) might appeal on abstract terms to admirers of Jackson Pollock. Nichols, who received his MFA from the University of Illinois and studied at the Slade School of Art, University College, London, has exhibited widely. In addition to solo exhibitions, he has appeared in many group shows, which place him alongside, significantly, not only other landscapists and contemporary realists but also Asian artists. Nichols’s reverence for nature and serene pantheism makes his work seem universal as well as timeless. O.K. Harris, 383 West Broadway, New York, New York 10012. Telephone (212) 431-3600. On the web at www.okharris.com