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Get to Know Artist Carlton Nell

Get to Know Artist Carlton Nell

WMA’s exhibition Carlton Nell: Compositions showcases large-scale, abstracted landscapes by artist Carlton Nell. Nell is a professor at Auburn University and his paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries nationwide and are included in various public and private collections. His illustrations have appeared in numerous publications, most recently on the cover of the historical novel series, Drums of War.

Compositions is on display in WMA’s Main Gallery through June 29.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about the series of work on display at the Wiregrass Museum of Art?

The large pictures are my most recent body of work and are based on earlier small pieces, a few of which are included in the show. For the past 25 years or so the focus has been on small paintings, but I took the opportunity over the past few years to greatly enlarge the compositions. This was an effort to expand color and texture over the much larger surface area, and explore the effects of completely opposite scale treatments of the subject-matter.

“Composition 65,” 2017, Oil on panel, 48″ x 80″

Has the natural world always been your preferred subject matter? Why is it the focus of your work now?

From childhood I have had an obsession with the outdoors and the natural world. Artistically, I have been most interested in representations of subjects from observation, so my preferred way of approaching pictures is, I suppose, a marriage of the two interests. In graduate school I was focused on the figure, but was unable to avoid narrative associations, so depictions of the inanimate natural world seemed to make sense, especially as it exhibits properties inherit to the picture such as color, pattern, texture, scale, etc.

Do you paint from a photograph or your imagination?

The work is derived from direct observation of my everyday surroundings. I begin with a very quick compositional sketch, then combine sketches, photographic reference, and memory, along with some editorial changes (usually simplifications) as I work on the finished painting.

“Composition 200,” 2014, Oil on panel, 48″x 80″

What method do you use to apply the paint and do you add anything to the paint to get such abundant texture?

The paint is applied mostly with brushes and palette knife, though I have used a cake-decorating tube technique on occasion. Cold wax medium mixed in the oil paint produces a thick, stiff consistency of application. The wax also provides a matte surface sheen which reduces glare that can interfere with the darker colors, especially in the nocturnal images.

“Composition 278,” 2017, Oil on panel, 48″x80″

The studio where you create your work is small, and you are unable to see all of your paintings displayed at once. Has having the opportunity to see your paintings displayed side-by-side in WMA’s large Main Gallery changed your perspective on them (individually or as a group)?

I’m not sure it changes my perspective conceptually, but it is very satisfying to see the pictures individually-lit and each given its own space on the wall in a such a nice gallery setting.

What artists have had the most influence on your work?

There are so many artists that I admire that it is impossible to list them, but a few I am fond of: historical painters such as Velasquez, Vermeer, Degas, Ryder, Thomas Jones; and contemporary artists Alex Katz, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Fairfield Porter, Albert York, Jackson Pollack…

What are your thoughts on the role of arts education at the university level? What role do you think the arts should/could/do play in “non-art” academic programs/curriculums?

I have thought for some time that there may be better value in teaching more people about art at the university level (and below), and teaching less artists. This would give beauty a stronger advocacy in the society at large, better able to withstand the tyranny of efficiency.

Any bucket list destinations/landscapes you would like to paint?

I am almost exclusively interested in making paintings that derive from my immediate surroundings. But there are a ton of bucket-list landscapes I would like to visit.

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