George Nick's Happiness


“How can anybody paint unless they're happy?” I heard George Nick ask this question to a roomful of tousle-headed, conventionally disgruntled art students. The audience woke up. Happiness as a precondition for art? Kurt Cobain had committed suicide a month earlier. The premise seemed to come from another planet. We knew we were being baited, but the tone of Nick's question didn't come across as sardonic or provocative. He sounded weirdly… straightforward. He meant it. His whole demeanor radiated a good-natured, sharp energy, a prickly eagerness, that was at odds with our expectations of art world decorum, perhaps even of adulthood.

There's nobody else like Nick. Nobody projects such a fiercely sunny view of the world around us. Nobody makes painting's default genre—“point and shoot” painting—look so fresh. Some Nick fans are bemused by his car portraits, but to me they're the perfect emblem of his eccentricity. What could be more egregiously, infectiously, materialist? Setting up his easel in collector's garages, Nick becomes a Marxist's caricature of a capitalist lackey--or perhaps a latter day version of George Stubbs, the great English painter of prize thoroughbreds. Like Stubbs, Nick courts clunkiness, placing his subjects plonk in the middle of the canvas, as if to say Here, hey, look at this. Both shirk their obligations to paint grand or transgressive subjects. Stubbs' portraits feel caressive, akin to grooming; Nick's have a recognizably American, almost sudsy velocity. In Nick's garages, everything gleams and sparkles, enriched by infatuated expertise. The results are hymns of covetousness.

Outdoors, Nick is almost literally an easel on wheels. Driving around inside his famous picture window truck, with its “martyr's wreath of parking tickets” as John Updike put it, or walking around as an American in Europe, Nick selects views based on no discernable critera at all. He has a gourmand's appetite for both the exceptional and the ordinary, from Roman ruins to Boca Raton 's corporate low-rises. Most Nick subjects are colloquial to the point of being just faintly embarrassing: livingrooms, luxury storefronts, suburban porches—the settings of our lives as errandgoers, windowshoppers, homeowners. To paint all this, to make it matter , is his counter-contrarian project. Nick reignites our excitement about where we actually live, he gives us back something we didn't know we were missing: the dazzle of the first glimpse.