On Friday, February 16th PLAYGROUND DETROIT presents featured artist Nic Notion with his first solo exhibition, Amerixan Notion. The show will feature his most recent series of mixed media works, including a variety of paintings, photography and installation. Pulling some of his inspiration from the city itself, including references of its changing landscape and the official Flag of Detroit; Amerixan Notion is an alter destiny of the “American Dream” embracing the grit and beauty of everyday life.
Nic Notion is a Detroit-based visual artist. Using putty knives and industrial paint, he develops dynamic layers of aggressive lines on canvas. Much of his work depicts abstract houses and structures decaying and burning; an urban landscape being over taken by nature, and anonymous figures partaking in mischievous behavior.
Notion’s roots run deep in Detroit, although he was born and spent much of his childhood in California. While his father and uncles grew up in Highland Park, Notion moved to his family stomping ground when he was fifteen and has been living there ever since. Over the past couple of decades, the 34-year-old artist has watched the city transform and reflects these visible changes in his own urban environment through his artwork.
Combining a background in film and photography with his self-taught putty knife painting method, Notion shares a view of the world through his own lens, while challenging widely-held stereotypes of the “American Dream.”
Tell us about your background as an artist- where did it all begin?
I feel like I’ve been an artist my whole life. I used to draw a lot and probably really started to pay attention to it for the first time when I was doing video and photography with my dad as a kid usingg VHS cameras. I thought I was gonna go to art school, but I never really took art classes- coming out of high school I only took one or two. When I started looking for art schools and they were kind of intimidating with these kids who were more advanced, so I just decided to do video, it was what I knew. I went to college at Wayne State and learned a lot of video techniques and watched a lot of film- even to this day, that’s where a lot of my ideas and the way that I structure my paintings comes from.
Is there a specific film or style of film that influenced you more than others?
I like black and white movies, old movies, film noir. I like the Bicycle Thief and a lot of old gangster movies. Even stuff from the nineties; Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, all that.
When did you make the transition from photography and film to creating visual art?
Probably seven or eight years ago. I was doing a lot of music videos at the time and I kind of got tired with working with other people’s stuff. I wanted to create my own narrative and do my own thing. I felt like painting was the quickest way to get it out, rather than editing for hours, days, weeks. So I developed the technique I use now with putty knives; it’s kind of just now getting to where I want it to be.
I started out with found objects and wood. A lot of pastels, a lot of spray paint. And then I wanted to ease myself away from the spray paint and street art and graffiti, so I felt like the putty knife was a good tool. I just kind of stumbled around until I figured it out.
What mediums are you working with for the upcoming exhibit, Amerixan Notion?
Half of the show is photography- even though I haven’t really used photography in a show like this before, I’m still dealing with the same aesthetic as the beginning, even when I was working with pastels. I’m also dealing with these totems — the church, the liquor store, abandoned buildings, or maybe lived in buildings, car — that represent my own narrative.
What is the process behind your work in this upcoming exhibition?
The scenes depicted in these photos were shot exactly how they were originally sketched out. The photographs are manipulated, put on to Plexiglass and layered to expose certain areas with paint seen from behind the image.
As far as the large paintings I’m creating, they’re going to be dealing with black, white, and gold leaf on canvas mostly primarily, but there might be a couple wooden pieces. My process when I’m painting is working layer by layer. I might have seven canvases at a time, and I have to do backgrounds all black with the putty knife — I like to get a buildup of texture. I have a certain way where I cross it back and forth to create the texture I want and keep laying the paint until the work takes shape.
What is that narrative you describe?
Basically with my art, I try to create an abstract landscape. I like the car [used in the photographs] because it used to be luxury. At one point, it was a Cadillac limo — it was white, it was luxurious, somebody probably rode in that for their wedding in the ‘80s. Now it’s just rusted out in a yard in Highland Park. So, I like that. It still runs, but it’s not in its heyday.
Same thing with the house or the liquor store. People [in Detroit] will say ‘Oh, we don’t want a liquor store in our neighborhood,’ but then they’re like, ‘Damn, I’m thirsty! I need some beer…’ So, I try to play on that line. Cars, churches, liquor stores – as a person who doesn’t drive, I do a lot of travel by foot in Detroit and I see these things over and over and over again. They’re core parts of the community – almost like landing spots for pieces on a game board.
In this show in particular, I’m placing the people into the world I’ve already created in past shows or with other artwork. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Detroit, now it’s like its own world. I’m going for the aesthetic quality. I like high contrast, I like to find that middle ground story.
Is most your work a reaction to the contrast or change that you see around you?
I think it was at some point. But now, I’m not fighting it. Before, I think some of my work was not only a reaction to the world in entirety, but also living on this block and seeing everything change — I think there was a reactive part. Now instead of reacting, I’m just absorbing and seeing where I’m at, and trying to give a deeper understanding through the art rather than fight back.
What’s the concept behind the solo exhibition, Amerixan Notion?
It’s an alternative to the American dream…
On the Detroit flag, there’s a Woman of Sorrow, who has the burning buildings behind her, and a Woman of Hope, who has brand new buildings – instead of one woman being in sorrow and the other in happiness, I’m trying to create a marriage of the two.
That’s all shown through things you see – the houses, the cars – and replacing the white women from the flag with black and mixed women from families who were immigrants into that. Instead of the typical “American Dream,” it’s the Amerixan Notion:
The beauty of decay. Forcing people to see beauty in a different way that they might not normally see. Even in the way I dressed the models and the poses they’re in – it’s not just two pretty girls standing next to a car.
The show is dealing with powerful feminine energy — like goddesses looking over the world, not waiting for Jesus, not waiting for a white man to save us, but looking into our own selves to do so. It’s looking towards what feels natural and normal instead of this idea that’s been put in our heads.
What inspired you to create a show around this theme?
Maturity. I used to be trying to fight something but now I’m more of the mindset that the fight is already taken care of, I just have to go and create something for people to take home with them. Not preaching, just something to digest. I’m just taking it all in and trying to make something beautiful out of it.
How has living in Detroit influenced your journey as an artist?
It was an incubator situation for a long time, like ten years. Everyone who made music and did anything artistic, nobody f*cked with us, it was just us. We shared our ideas and went to each other’s shows and there was an art scene and music scene way before Detroit “came back.” It was an incubator in that sense and I feel like that helped define me. It’s like putting metal in those tumblers with the rocks. You get the edges off, but there’s certain edges you have to keep. I feel like being in Detroit at that time, early 2000’s, was my master’s degree. Being out in the streets and dealing with people all through Detroit really added to who I am and I owe a lot to my art and how I think to that.
And then, also, the last seven to ten years, I’ve been able to meet somebody from every different continent, religion, just on this block. Even to this day, most of my closest friends are not even artists, they’re people from different countries who are living here now. So, that helped me a whole lot. There was no outside influence for so long. Being able to have that core but now having influences from all over the world really adds perspective.
And even the money aspect, there’s more people looking to buy art, there’s more of a spotlight on Detroit art. A lot of people didn’t make that transition and gave up after the “incubator days.” They lost the wind in their sails but I don’t do that shit. I always try to make a situation work.
Join us for the opening reception of AMERICAN NOTION
FEBRUARY 16th, 2017, 6-9P
2845 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, MI 48207