Essay by Patterson Sims
HOME SWEET HOME
and TWENTY SMALL
Home Sweet Home remains on view at the Montclair Art Museum through late winter 2004; Twenty Small Sculptures through November 2, 2003.
The world, according to Tom Nussbaum is filled with big, abstracted, multi-part commissioned projects and intimate sculptures of people and animals; works that are unabashedly large and public and those aimed toward private, domestic appreciation.
Begun in 1992, Nussbaum’s small painted, figurative sculptures brought a rounded, volumetric presence into his previously planar art. Meticulously crafted, these works are charged with ambiguous narratives and relationships. Details and generalization are beguilingly mixed; his figures have eyebrows, but no fingernails. Both appealing and unsettling, his transfixed single figures and scenes raise questions; how long will that snake and man peacefully co-exist? Will the big bear continue to benignly let that man-child nestle upon his back? Why is that crow sitting on that blue-skinned man’s head?
Though painted figurative sculpture dates to the early Greeks, all that remains of their original colors are bare traces of pigment, not the thick skin of hot and dense hues that coat Nussbaum’s people and creatures. While Calder, David Smith and George Segal works can be vividly colored, most modern sculpture is unpainted and single-tones, taking its color from the material of fabrication. However, rather than looking to such pivotal twentieth-century sculptures for inspiration, Nussbaum’s use of color and form can be traced to the long and nearly global tradition of floridly hued folk and folkloric figurines. Along with toy cars and game boards, Nussbaum collects these wood, clay, and plastic figures that can be found in urban shops as well as in the marketplaces of villages and towns from Mexico to Japan. The craft and pathos of Kandler’s Meissen masterpieces, chubby Chinese Tang period burial statuettes, and English Staffordshire figurines also resonate within Nussbaum’s work. Nussbaum mines a deep terrain of elemental figural sculpture, addressing identity, solitude, and relationships with a special emphasis on interactions with the creatures that humans love and/or fear.
Another distinctly American antecedent for Nussbaum’s figurative ensembles of the last decade are the paintings of the Magic Realists like Jared French and particularly George Tooker. Their paintings freeze charged scenes of the post World War II era and are likewise popularized by compact bodies with rounded and impassive visages, who find themselves in extreme circumstances and yet appear essentially unaffected. As with the Magic Realists, both sublimation and substitution are key to Nussbaum’s figuration. But while the Magic Realists’ work often has overtly sexual overtones, Nussbaum’s vignettes are quietly existential; a women grasps an oversized apple, a man steadies a giant face atop his own head, and a woman stands impassively covered with bees, some of which are nesting in the hive of hair that tops her ample body.
The meaning and power of Nussbaum’s figures rely on a story line filled in by the viewer. Uncertainties become the answers when impossibilities are presented as everyday occurrences, as is so often the case with contemporary narrative art (think of the paintings of Eric Fischl), we are dropped into the middle of an intriguing scene. Moral imperatives seem to hover over Nussbaum’s stories; a sense that life is uncertain and inexplicable, more about anticipation and contemplation than action, and finally more about life’s processes than what is done. For all their almost quaint cheer, his work often addresses solitude, displacement, and even desolation. Finally, his diminutive figures can best be interpreted as archetypes, representative of the human condition and states of mind disengaged from, or transcendent of, daily life.
The panoramic and abstracted side of Nussbaum’s art is seen in Home Sweet Home, the giant work that was commissioned by the museum to fill the large wall of the Grand Staircase space. Visible through the big glass windows that face Bloomfield Avenue, this epic art billboard asserts that the museum is a domicile. It postulates a world where art is the locus of existence and the target of community attention and maybe even uncomplicated affection. This work connects to the design motifs of his earlier cut and painted flat sheet metal pieces. Seeking like so many artists of his generation to move beyond Minimalist motifs but still liking Minimalism’s bold geometries and certainties, Nussbaum looks to popular culture and Americana for authenticating geometries. His acknowledged sources for radiating geometries and non-objective motifs of Home Sweet Home include mariners’ compasses, Chinese checkerboards, such all-American quilt patterns as the Stars and Blossoms and Pinwheels, a Eugene McCarthy campaign button, Parcheesi boards, the cut-out paper collages of Henri Matisse, a bolwing alley sign, Las Vegas’s roulette wheels and neon signs, the color wheel that spins on his computer screen, the atomic model in his father’s office and the sign on a friends motorcycle shop.
Adept at working with both abstraction and representation, Nussbaum produces public works of art that are accessible without being simplistic and that are particularly distinguished for their attention to the specifics of the site and appropriate subjects. Starting in 1987 with a multi-part piece for the Hasbro Toy Company that covers a seventy-two foot long wall of the company dining hall, Nussbaum has completed many public commissions. They include projects at a New York City Public School, two environmental centers, a residential development, and eight train stations. Pursuing public commissions, Nussbaum initially sought more solid economic support as well as opportunities to explore a wider range of aesthetic interests. He was drawn to making art that would advance the public built environment and social good. His public and corporate projects have taken a good deal of his time and do not always get realized, but they represent the best known aspect of his work. Like Home Sweet Home and his 2002-03 commission Train Time, at the Bay Street NJ Transit Station in Montclair combine well-researched and site-appropriate details and motifs that are transformed into lively, abstracted compositions.
While Nussbaum’s big public works enliven many corporate and public settings, his editioned resin figures, while accessible and affordable to individuals, have only been seen in private collections and occasional gallery shows, this first one-person museum exhibition offers an initial opportunity to see in one place the public and private sides of Nussbaum’s now over twenty-year career.
The following questions and responses are the result of e-mail exchanges between Tom Nussbaum and the exhibition curator Paterson Sims, Director of the Montclair Art Museum.
How would you describe your creative process and how it plays out in your art?
For me, doing this work is a process of self-discovery, a kind of a personal mining of images. Theses images and figures usually first appear in drawings and then develop through the process of working directly with clay and paint. Some of the pieces concern personal relationships, and others are an intuitive mixing of forms and images.
What is the role of, and interplay of, representation and abstraction and non-objectivity in your art?
I am essentially an object-maker and builder. The paintings, such as Home Sweet Home, though ostensibly non-objective, are built from non-figurative images and designs that I feel a kinship with or have a personal connection to. The figurative sculptures come from a desire to create something that expresses my relationships and states of mind.
What was your work like before starting the series of small figures in 1992?
I first started to explore vessel forms as sculpture in ceramics. An interest in the connections between architecture (buildings and houses), vessels (pottery, baskets, and boats) and the human figure, led to an extensive series of wood sculpture. These pieces were painted framework constructions. I gradually started adding sheet metal to these structures and then for a few years worked only with metal to make more figures and houses and large scale painted objects. That series of work led to my first large scale public commissions. A desire to find a medium that was more expressive than sheet metal led back to working with clay and paint and to the figurative pieces I’m doing now.
Which aspect- your public or your private work- gives you greater satisfaction?
The figurative work is more personally expressive and so it offers me the greatest emotional satisfaction. But the process and completion of public work is tremendously rewarding for its connection to the community and the ongoing response of the public.
What is the role and importance of the small scale for you?
Small size is not psychologically threatening. It’s approachable and personal, making it easier to access the world it represents. It puts the viewer into a one-on-one relationship with the work. In a way it pulls the viewer in, inviting them to engage with an image that may not be immediately revealing.
What is the role of color in your work, particularly skin color?
Color is a common element in much of my work. And I often think of working with color as having a complex vocabulary to use. It’s challenging and immensely pleasurable to manipulate. Skin colors is always of interest, because it’s natural for viewers to want to identify the figure as a type. But I’m hopeful that the viewer can find themselves in the work by identifying with the feeling or state of mind the work evokes, rather than identifying the figure as representing someone else.
Would you want your sculptures to be considered timely and topical or outside a temporal reference?
I think most artists hope to create something beyond the temporal and that continues to have resonance over time. That hope is probably part of the drive that keeps me going back into the studio.
Thomas Nussbaum was born in Philadelphia in 1953 and raised in Minneapolis. While studying at the University of Minnesota he worked a variety of jobs; he was a production potter, a hired hand on a horse ranch, installed exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and used his skills as a carpenter to restore houses.
Nussbaum moved to New York from Minneapolis in 1980, and worked as a studio assistant for several artists. He began showing and living off the sales of his work in the early 1980s and started his active career in public art and sculpture in 1987. In 1985 he began The Acme Robot Company, a cottage industry producing nightlights and light fixtures of his own design. In 1988 he founded Atomic Iron Works, producing iron hats and coat racks and other useful items of his design. In 1999, Children’s Universe/Rizzoli published his activity book, My World is Not Flat. Nussbaum and his wife, Rolla Herman, and their son and daughter have lived in Montclair, New Jersey since 1993.
Nussbaum’s work has been exhibited at RC Fine Arts, Maplewood, New Jersey, Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and most frequently at the Robishon Gallery in Denver, as well as numerous gallery and museum group-exhibitions.
Works in the Exhibition
All works, except Table, Montclair Totem, and Home Sweet Home, are made of acrylic resin. Certain works will be displayed on individual shelves made by the artist, others on a painted table made by the artist. All sculptures are in editions of 9, except Montclair Totem, 2002, which is an edition of 6. All works are lent courtesy of the artist.