Text by Aaron Collins
Looking at Fresno-based Nick Potter’s mildly dystopian paintings on view in his first one-person show at the Fresno Art Museum in November, one might recall that this milestone was the setting for Ridley Scott’s futuristic Bladerunner (1982). But unlike in the acclaimed Philip K. Dick-inspired film, U.K.-born Potter has rendered a world not in sci-fi tropes with flying cars and plagued with technological missteps and incessant climate-induced acid rain, but an even more deflating present-day Modernist noir, rooted less in fantasy than in convincing realism. Utopia wasn’t so great after all.
Potter’s vision is replete with unfulfilled longings like those found in Edward Hopper’s pre-war trademark works, with their yearnings and isolation. Noted Hong Kong-based photographer Michael Wolf’s engulfing, overbearing modernism comes to mind, sharing a culprit in common with their towering structures obliterating sun and sky. But Potter makes a vaguely guilty pleasure of his Miesian fetish. He echoes Hopper’s pre-war emotional stance, but extends it beyond into post-WWII ennui, questioning Modern architecture’s role in our contemporary malaise, questioning how well Modernism’s gambit panned out.
The works in Nick Potter: Constructed Utopias function in a similarly dislocating if more subtle way as Scott’s unsettling cinematic masterpiece, with its (then-somewhat atypical for sci-fi) agglomerated historical styles and accumulated grit. Comparatively, Potter’s world is more pristine and closer to home, even as it reflects our times in which we are seemingly on the verge of one disaster or another.
Modernism may have flourished in the present age, enjoying a resurgence
in the oughts with its bright pristine Instagrammable surfaces, whose 20th-century predecessors may have aged well enough (if not its various theoretical certitudes). However, in Potter’s slightly foreboding canvases, it is an architecture that has seemingly alienated — not enlivened — its intended occupants. Structures are plucked from context and placed on plinths like specimens in works like Differing Fading Systems (2016) with its provocative reflection, and Order and Progress (2019), both which invite viewers to examine them in isolation as if quarantined, pathogens at risk of infecting their surroundings.
Potter’s works function like cinematic sets in their own right, akin to the ’80s psychodramas of David Salle and Eric Fischl (whose work Potter often teaches about as an art professor at California State University Fresno). While Potter clearly has love for the Modernist style, his oil paintings are often devoid of human presence and, to some extent, narrative — leaving one to ponder whether these venues’ disappointments were perhaps rooted in human folly, earnest but ultimately failed attempts that have been found unworthy, not uninhabited momentarily but perhaps permanently. Their simmering unease is palpable, but the causes are wisely left to the viewer’s instincts. Here in Potter World, ambiguity reigns.
Some of Potter’s works directly recall David Hockney’s ’60s-era good life Southern California paintings, with their swimming pools and view properties rendered as optimistically as any art of the period (“advertisements for California,” the younger Brit says). Hockney is an acknowledged influence on Potter. But while Hockney’s stance can be seen as a deliberately cheery contradiction to that era’s social unrest, Potter’s nocturnal settings bear the tensions of the present, albeit obliquely. Like Hockney, he courts the same voyeuristic quality, that of peering into a privileged world. If Hockney revels as the quintessential bon vivant, Potter portrays a sober, grimmer outlook in synch with our own particularly grim times.
“I looked at (Hockney’s) work a lot when I was at college, and although my work was far from anything similar to his in those days, I found his portraiture really interesting, ranging from his working-class parents to those living in luxury, like Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, which feels like a modern day version of Gainsborough,” Potter said. “But one thing that stuck with me more than anything regarding his work over the years were the California swimming pool and art collector portrait paintings. Hockney’s California work feels like an advertisement for the American Dream, for modernist architecture.
It seemed so alien to me when at college in Cheltenham and particularly at grad school in very gray Birmingham, with its hideous Bullring Center, now gone, which was the ugliest of Brutalism from the late ’60s and ’70s.”
By grad school, Potter had decided to make work about how architecture affects us. In contrast to the heroic status of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he knew firsthand how their derivatives — often banal verging on soulless — made one feel. He was raised in a West London estate tower (housing project) by his mother, while his music producer father resided in much tonier London climes across town in Hampstead’s utopian Temple House. “My building wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some of the others in the estate, but it was ugly, dark and dangerous. My parents separated when I was very young. My father’s building has been written about as being an excellent example of town planning, a mild attempt to create a Utopia for those who could afford to live in the area,” he said.
Potter moved between these two worlds most weeks. “I was aware at a young age that these different worlds existed. No police, no violence, parks, a variety of lovely shops, tennis courts,” he said of his father’s realm. As a result, through his art, he has been consistently digging through the many layers of how archi-tecture is connected to class, race and society, of how certain people are fairly unlikely to move up or down in terms of class or architectural experience.
From a young age, he believed that he had an unusual experience, spending time “at the homes of my music producer Dad’s musician friends, in their mansions in the country. Even though I was very young, I knew most of my school friends were not expected to get out of the government housing they lived in, we were all quite likely to see the short end of the stick.” In England as with most places, class and architecture are inextricably connected. These formative experiences directly inform his current art-making strategies.
One of the more provocative paintings in the FAM show, The Former Home of the Architect, is perhaps its most emblematic work, best summing up the wistfulness and regret that threads through all of his work. The great Oscar Niemeyer, architect of Brasilia and so many other Brazilian masterworks, was handed perhaps one of the most prized tabula rasa opportu-nities in architectural history to build his Utopia when he was awarded a contract for creation of Brazil’s new capital. Sadly, however, the home he designed for himself outside Rio has fallen into some disrepair. Potter lovingly depicts it as it is consumed by the surrounding jungle. As with most of Potter’s works, here optimism and pessimism, beauty and decay are held in tension, refusing to settle into either emotional space.
“I was fortunate to spend some time in Niemeyer’s house, with just one person showing me around. They let me photograph every square inch. I was taken by how much the house was part of the tropical landscape. That was his desire. But now the house is not well-maintained in terms of mold, crumbling walls here and there, paint peeling, etc. It’s very hard to maintain in the humidity. For me, (the residence) had a hint of how the world may look as post-apocalyptic.”
It was Potter subject matter ready-made.
The site’s statuary functions as vestiges, as reminders than even recent Modernism is a remnant, a paradise lost. Like with Hockney’s pools, Niemeyer’s is alluring and still full, if a little green. But while Niemeyer’s genius is evident, the piece is mostly elegiac. Here the Hockneyesque hedonist’s dream appears over. “Mainly though, I think it has a sadness for Niemeyer being gone, his country being in a very difficult place right now,” Potter said. “And his ideas about helping to create a fair, equal, Utopian society are unrealized. Brazil is beautiful and quite tragic at the same time,” he says, a statement that could easily pertain to the world in general as it currently is and, thus, as the artist paints.