Interview with Nicholas Sistler


Neoteric Art: You work very small. Discuss the scale of your work and your overall intent.

Nicholas Sistler: I have worked larger, when I was in school & for several years after school I bounced between large, medium and small. At the base of my work since 1992 is the irony of presenting a monumental environment or deep space on a tiny surface while providing an intimate experience for the viewer.

In more recent work I’ve included photo images painted in a photo-realist style. This addition caused the overall surface to grow a bit to keep these photo elements both paintable and readable; also, to keep the photo elements from covering too much of the painted surface. Some of the photo images are disturbing to look at, and would push people away if presented on a larger scale. Because the viewer’s body is so much larger than the painting, the viewer can feel in control of the image. In contrast to that, the low angled perspective in my paintings, gives an impression of a monumental interior space, and this infers the viewer’s submission to the image. This flip-flopping of power between the viewer and the painting echoes what’s going on in the image(s) depicted.

identification.jpgNA: Discuss your process when composing your work. Do you work from memory, actual objects, photography?

NS: I start by intuitively choosing photographs to incorporate in my painting. I determine how large I want the photo elements to be, and this determines the size and proportions of the paperboard I work on. I establish a horizon line and vanishing points (usually three point perspective), again these decisions are intuitive. Using a straight edge and pencil, I start drawing lines, first setting up the basics of an interior architecture, then filling in details, furnishings and props. The photo elements get positioned by creating a grid on the appropriate rectangles (this requires that the grid be in perspective so the image appears to be laying on it). The photos I work from get gridded tracing paper placed over them, then I transpose the image to the drawing. Lighting and shadows are determined, but not shaded in yet. I discover all of this as I go along. I will sometimes use certain objects as models, but not unless my intuition says it’s the right thing. When the drawing portion is complete, it looks a lot like an architecturally drafted drawing. I start painting, usually with the larger areas of color first. Again, I work intuitively, rarely thinking about color and rarely changing my mind about a color. The non-photo elements are filled in before work begins on the photo images, which are painted with thinner layers of gouache allowing the white of the paper to show through (more like transparent watercolor). The edges between colors are sharpened, and highlights and subtle shadings are added. The final step is painting a solid color on the 1/16 of an inch edge of the paperboard.

uneven_keel1.jpgNA: You were born, went to school, and still live and work in Chicago. Do you consider yourself to be a “Chicago” artist?

NS: No. I happen to be an artist (in fact I’d prefer to say I’m a person that makes art – what I do is not who I am) that has lived, and continues to live and make art in Chicago, but that doesn’t make me a “Chicago” artist. In the same way that I identify myself as “gay” (here again, I’d prefer to say I am currently in a same-sex relationship, and “out” about it), but that doesn’t make me a “gay artist”. Some people for the sake of simplicity might use the term “Chicago artist”, or the term “gay artist”, in a similar way that some people use the term “Chicagoland” (momentarily forgetting that it’s not an entire country such as Greenland or Iceland).

NA: Your work seems like it could make an interesting transition into other art forms like film or photography. Have you ever thought about that?

unexpectedinvitation.jpgNS: Yes I have. But it never gets very far along in my head because that doesn’t really interest me. EXCEPT with prints. I’ve made a dozen between 1997 and 2008. The most recent are a set of three. I’m hoping this will grow to become a set of 15.

NA: Who are some of your favorite painters?

NS: Vermeer, Sheeler, Wood, Tooker, Cadmus, French, Bronzino, Carravagio, Kent, Graham.

NA: Do you see yourself continuing with your current size work and subject matter into the future?

NS: Regarding the size: yes, because there’s more there for me to explore (I’m as surprised as anyone). Regarding the subject matter: this does change, sometimes subtly, sometimes quite dramatically.