For Frieze London 2021, Adams and Ollman is excited to exhibit paintings by American artist Joan Nelson, the artist's first major presentation to a European audience. For nearly four decades, Nelson has been reverently and subversively painting the landscape. Since the start of her career in New York in the 1980s, Nelson’s singular subject has been the awe and the artifice of the tradition within which she is working. New works examine the experience and depiction of the landscape as it touches on key themes of feminism, spiritualism, science fiction and the environment.
Well-known for her paintings that incorporate multiple pictorial traditions and borrow from the long lineage of artists depicting the natural world (from Bierstadt to Hicks, Friedrich to Bruegel), Nelson creates hybrid landscapes of places both real and imagined. Using fragmentary details–clouds, trees mountains–borrowed from iconic depictions of the landscape, Nelson creates her own vantage point by mixing these elements with personal references–photos, travel books, old postcards, imagination, memory–calling into question the genre’s presumed authority as she paints and repaints it as fiction. Nelson’s invented images push back against a male-dominated tradition of landscape painting and question deeply-rooted narratives of expansion, conquest and resource extraction.
Nelson’s paintings are enigmatic and ebullient; rainbows arc over gravity defying waterfalls, a trippy phosphorescence emanates from the valleys of mountains in the distance, and a gradient of cascading electric color fills the sky. Offering us a glimpse into unknown or unknowable places, Nelson’s utopias exist in some other world whose logic defies our own. Scenes of volcanoes erupting in a thunderstorm, beams of sunlight pulling at the tides, a twilight sky of pink clouds over a tumult of hills refracting the waning sun into glittering bits–Nelson’s landscapes are wild places that perhaps depict the escapist imaginings of the earth itself, fantastical and idealized. These unexepected arrangements arrive through accident, experimentation, and play as Nelson spray paints, stipples, draws, and etches into the surface of each painting, coaxing a mood, a bit of light, or an impossible view into being. Often adding mascara, nail polish and glitter to her maximalist palette of spray paint, acrylic, oil, and inks, Nelson creates fertile, nourishing, and deeply mysterious images of a land with its own agency and imbued with a distinctly feminist sensibility.
In this way, the landscapes reveal themselves as spiritual sites and places of imagination. These mediumistic works have roots in science fiction and world-building prompting the viewer to reflect on who we are and why we are here. Indeed there is an almost antagonistic aspect to some of the landscapes that, while overflowing with abundance and lifeforce, frames the viewer as distinctly outsider. As Donald Kuspit wrote succinctly in his review for Artforum of Nelson’s 1988 show at Fawbush Gallery, “she suggests a condition so inherently 'unearthly' that her landscapes seem to exist beyond the force of earth's gravity.”
"Nelson's landscapes...speak of yearning for and alienation from the natural world, an unbridgeable distance recorded in a postindustrial world." – Christopher Knight, LA Times, 2011
"If her work is feminist, it is because she sets landscape free from ownership and paints past a masculine need to conquer." – Benjamin Terrell, 2020
"Nelson's landscapes are not simply reprises of traditional landscape, as they might appear to be at first glance, but fugitive, mannerist homages to the grand tradition of ideal landscape." – Donald Kuspit, Artforum, 1988
“In a painting, you can do things that defy gravity.”
– Joan Nelson, with Brienne Walsh, Forbes, 2020
Joan Nelson (b. 1958, California) lives and works in upstate New York. Her work has been exhibited widely at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, PA; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA ; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI: the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; among many others. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all New York, NY; the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; the Minneapolis Museum of Art, MN; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH; and the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin. Nelson received her BFA from Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and currently lives and works in upstate New York.