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Creative Research Lab

SHADE- August 2005

painting by Nathan Spondike

Nathan Spondike
Flood, 2005
oil on linen
24" h x 30" w

Catalog Essay by Michael Wellen:


"We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss - we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain."
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

The latest paintings by Nathan Spondike are alluring to the viewer until he realizes he stands on uncertain ground. The works present tragic and absurd situations veiled in smooth, peaceful tones. The combination of beauty and the macabre accounts for the works' appeal. Edgar Allan Poe's short story, Imp of the Perverse, describes man's illogical attraction to life-threatening danger -- the thrill of standing on a narrow window ledge. What Poe calls "perverseness" is the human tendency to take pleasure in acts of transgression. Although Spondike's works are not "perverse" in themselves, they prompt the viewer to question his sense of "perverseness" because, despite the foreboding sense of peril that they instill, inexplicably we continue looking.

In two large-scale oil paintings, Flood and Porch, Spondike depicts a series of impending disasters. These disasters are set outside one's front door, making danger and destruction seem inescapable. In Flood, brackish water laps against the brick walls of a building and creeps to the base of the door. The water's currents have brought an unknown black object to the surface -- it may be debris from a natural disaster, such as a broken tree branch or a floating corpse; it may be an unknown predator seeking to take advantage of the chaos.

In his earlier works, Spondike painstakingly reworked his paintings' surfaces and shading to create a satin finish that heightened the serenity of gloomy scenes. In contrast, Flood emphasizes the abruptness of a natural catastrophe through the artist's painterly touch. Splashes of color capture the tension of the scene. And, the painter withholds the superfluous details that a photograph would yield. Spondike's vision is unconventional. "I'm not painting space, but presented a collage. I pieced together these works from many found images," explains Spondike in an interview. Using images culled from old magazines and advertisements, he creates small collages, which he uses as models when he paints on canvas. Through subtle changes in the composition, the artist shapes “the collisions of viewpoints and spaces into one seamless image.” In Spondike's painting Porch, an indeterminable creature hangs in mid-air over a set of stairs. The artist has painted over all the distinguishing characteristics of the animal, leaving behind a strange organic shape. Without its animal features (such as claws, teeth or eyes), the viewer must struggle to interpret the temperament of the creature -- it may be hurling itself up the stairs or scampering away from whatever casts the long shadow on the right. The viewer is snared in the question of whether the being's presence disturbs the midday tranquility of a family home or is odd, but completely benign. Like Flood, the domestic setting in Porch becomes distorted and the fantastic subject matter produces uncertainty and a sense of vertigo.

Equally unsettling, Spondike's smaller works transform familiar animals, objects and people into alien forms. In his painting, Limb, Spondike blurs the distinction between photography and painting by painting directly onto a found image. The painting is a precursor to his larger works, such as Porch, and shows a shaggy, headless creature curled in the branches of a tree. Like the partially submerged object in Flood, the being can no longer be distinguished as an organism or an object. Is it dead or alive? Real or imagined? The artist explains that he seeks to "mask the believability [of a photograph] through the painting process." By editing the photographic image, Spondike creates a new sense of reality.

In paintings, such as Room, Spondike presents a whirling view of places where the sense of time and rationality is lost. In the foreground, heat seems to swell from the cracks of the dark wooden floor. In the background, checkerboard images burn against the wall and a melting computer stands to the right of a floating blob that is reminiscent of Salvador Dali's "soft construction" paintings. While the irrational, dreamlike quality of Spondike's images may resemble surrealist practices, the artist remains more intently focused on issues of artistic medium, rather than Dali's concern with unconscious interpretations.

Nathan Spondike's paintings challenge the viewer's sense of safety through their subject matter (threatening objects in familiar settings) and form (modifying photographs into uncomfortable images of the everyday). In this way, his works conjoin painting and editing in order to create a helter- skelter atmosphere, which tends to belie the ease with which our ability to discern unfamiliar or dangerous situations is sabotaged. As before Poe's dizzying abyss, we are mesmerized by impending disaster.