Artists Nick Doyle
Venue Stems Gallery, Brussels, Belgium
Text Danny Kopel
All images Courtesy by the artist and Stems Gallery, Brussels
His practice aims to undo American myth-making by its very products— cigarettes, vending machines, urinals—rendered in denim, a signature material for the artist. Denim calls forth a range of associations, from the excesses of the cotton trade as it relates to slave labor to military uniforms to the co-opting of “working clothes” by layabout outsider culture and beyond. Doyle’s critique of American culture, vis-à-vis its objects, stems from the very fiber of their makeup; they destabilize from within.
Nowhere, Doyle’s first exhibition with the gallery, is steeped in nostalgia for mid-century American artifacts. Take, for instance, Oasis, a concrete briefcase into which the kidney-shaped pool of many a motor-inn courtyard is carved. Conjuring the image of the traveling salesman and his dueling drives for success and escape (the fatal contradiction captured by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), Oasis points to the impossibility of that distinctly American promise: having your cake and eating it, too. There is no optimism in these objects, just foiled attempts. The Party’s Over, appropriately titled, features an oversized cigar stubbed-out on a woven lawn chair. Leisure, or the pursuit of it, seems just out of reach in many of these works.
The array of vending machines in Healthy Competition thrusts us into the space of American labor. Initially assuming that the title refers to the dueling brands of cola—factory food products and notably unhealthy ones at that—we appreciate a witty lightheartedness at play. But a deeper reading asks us to consider the behavior associated with such objects. The vending machine and the water cooler have long operated as a kind of American working-class watering hole: the site of exchange and comparison where talk of weekend plans, promotions, and all manner of posturing and peacocking occur. The competition referred to in the title is, in fact, the typically masculine compulsion for success, and a relentlessly American and bottomless keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.
Creep is the most pointedly political and damning of the works exhibited. In it, a Trumpian figure peers anxiously from inside a mailbox. The overlong red tie identifies the man and the act he engages in confirms it. Creep comments on the defiant transparency with which the outgoing administration has attempted to interfere with the results of the 2020 presidential election specifically as it relates to the suppression of mail-in ballots. This work, made in September 2020, could not have predicted the pitch to which such this scandal has risen. But as Doyle points out here and elsewhere, American maleness, at least the toxic variety, is predictable in its impulses.
In the rear of the gallery, a composite of various works is installed to resemble a landscape. Here, the land we behold is the American west: the aspirational horizon of the American dream, brimming with optimism and even nationalism, for what is art that celebrates the land? A blue moon waxes full over cacti with contours so prototypical they recall the set of a Road Runner cartoon. Refreshingly, Doyle’s work deals in pop cultural references more so than art historical precedents though here he also summons the tradition of American landscape painting (i.e. the Hudson River School) with its propensity towards the picturesque at its worst and towards the sublime at its most pompous. This otherwise idyllic desertscape, however, is undercut by the prominent placement of a trash bag in the composition. Doyle’s American landscape is the truer one: one that includes what has up until now been left out of the frame. The spell has been broken and we are better for it.