JA Nicholls delivers portraits of awkward emotions and moods, as much as faces and bodies. She’s never shied from portraying uncertainty and ambivalence, whether about gender, the female body, desire or ageing. This question of how we put ourselves together was explored in collage paintings for many years. ‘In Touch’ demonstrates the synthesis of Nicholls’ ideas and a self. There’s a looseness and cohesiveness without loose becoming careless. The main difference from earlier work is a joyful risk in the handling of the paint.
‘In Person’ (all works are 2021) is made by sketching fast with acrylic. The mood is sad but resolved. One eye is extraordinary, suggesting a tear in which everything is mirrored, distorted and enlarged. Why does this painting - mute and almost impassive - have such power to draw the viewer in? There’s something unbroken, yet with a hint of breakage, a theme that follows through the show. The bold orange triangles of the shoulders suggest she stands by what she says. There’s solidity in such dishevelment. There are only two portraits that look straight at us, this being the most candid.
In ‘Bare’, the face is a trophy. It’s not wrinkled as much as pummeled: crumpled, unconcerned, yet feeling deeply. There’s something both smouldering and defended about it. This is the line Nicholls treads: the insouciance of the stance and the hurt of the mouth. Its direct, unforgiving candour is pugilistic. A little white scuff flicks the edge of the eyebrow, the energy of touch-and-go bursting out beneath the set gaze. Was there a decision to leave it, or did Nicholls even notice it? The painting reflects on itself, and that self-reflexivity makes it whole and complete.
‘Larking’ points to a larger scale and a more formalist composition. A vigorously abstracted landscape references colour-field painting with big blocks of red and yellow. Despite the violent red around the two figures, there is no real alarm. With a lack of communication or closeness – is it a lockdown painting? The dramatic path takes the viewer into the unknown. It is certainly dystopian, yet we’re moving through it: how most of us got through the pandemic.
When I recalled ‘Heyday’ after first seeing it, it had a face, but later I noticed that the face is hidden. I made it happen: Nicholls makes us do the work of the face. Does that make us more active as viewers? Although the figure turns away, they’re open and sensual. A powerful diagonal moves through the painting from the T-shirt up the arm. Yellow denotes sunlight setting off a delicious aqua ground. It’s a fragment of some inconsequential, uplifting intimacy: a person lifting long hair off their shoulders.
‘Solo’ is a key painting, exuding cool in every sense. It’s a lived-in face with room for more. This is complex, doughty, and resolved. Blue-green, blue-yellow, blue-grey: how far can you go on either side of aqua and still create harmony? How far can you go on either side of gender and create something beyond it? Julia Kristeva says colour is ‘the shattering of unity’ that resists the language of law. The tensions between the tones of light on water becoming flesh and hair with streaks of reds create wonderful contradictions. How do we remember faces, and how do we see our own in our mind’s eye. The face is always evolving in memory. One side of this face looks photographed and held while the other flows into the future. This brilliant painting is both firm and fugitive at the same time.
Nicholls’ work moves between the lyrical and the analytical with sensuous and nervous joy in the gestural and an acute analysis of composition and the intelligent stance of the figure. Its beauty radiates an urgent presence.
Cherry Smyth is an art writer and poet.