MAD DANCE: The paintings of Nadaleena Mirat Brettman
“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.”
Willem de Kooning, 1950
In her series of large-scale oil paintings of twisters, Nadaleena Mirat Brettmann achieves a rare truce between the brute force of the natural world and the visceral limits of individual expression. If the New York School proposed Abstract Expressionism as a cohesive form of mark-making divorced from physical reality, Nadaleena has retained their signature—the evocative gesture, ripe with emotion—while aiming this energy squarely at actual phenomena: Hurricanes, tornados, wild and destructive storms at sea. The artist herself is working from experience—one of her properties is in Nebraska, giving her a front-row seat to meteorological drama, and she’s witnessed plenty of tropical storms in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. “A tornado is one thing,” she says. “It’s another when it becomes a violent twister, destroying everything.” Nadaleena embodies the storm in her practice, always intensely physical; mirroring the words of critic Harold Rosenberg, writing in the early 1950s, the canvas becomes “an arena in which to act,” the painting a record of this encounter. “I start losing myself,” Nadaleena says. “Sometimes I get a little angry—you can see by the bold strokes of the brush.”
The twister paintings were completed in energetic bursts, without preparatory drawings or sketches. They were all begun by the artist facing the blank canvas and, through intuition more than meticulous planning, translating her internal vision into impactful images (“Whatever my hand and mind does,” the artist says). Nadaleena works exclusively in a format that is appropriate to the power of her subject—60 by 72 inches, or 72 by 60 inches—occasionally partnering several works together into a triptych possessing sublime force. She keeps her studios amply stocked with a bounty of custom canvases; a set of ten professional easels; and rich oils, in this case luscious reds, whites, and blacks which will achieve their own peculiar alchemy when applied au premier coup. This is merely the technical foundation from which Nadaleena is able to launch herself at the work; having set the stage she is able to move, uninhibited, to mix colors at will, to measure her own body and its movements against the height and weight of the surface. “It’s like watching a mad woman dancing, sometimes even beating on the canvas,” she says. “I can’t paint fast enough.” 2013 has been especially productive, with Nadaleena creating more than she ever has, including 40 works in the “Twisters” series alone. This speed is key—like a photographer hunting for Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, Nadaleena is aiming to capture a particular, minute expression of her own psyche. (This is why having the equipment in a constant state of preparedness is vital—she needs to be able to paint as the mood strikes her—and also why she’ll occasionally work while wearing a Chanel dress, or sporting a Rolex. There’s simply no time to transition from life to art; and indeed, for Nadaleena, there seems to be very little difference between the two.)
It’s possible to contextualize these recent works somewhere between the bold and aggressive punch of the Abstract Expressionists we have already discussed—most of them, of course, male painters—and the softer, multi-layered floral explorations of Georgia O’Keefe, especially a work such as 1924’s Red Canna. Indeed, Nadaleena’s twisters have something of this spirit, albeit replacing the static nature of the still life with the frenzied, crushing motion of the tornado. Yet the very act of painting alchemizes the subject into an object of beauty, rather than an act of destruction; by becoming art, the twister redeems itself. “It’s not like you’re looking at violence,” Nadaleena stresses. “In a way, they’re very calming to look at. You get lost in the ribbons, the brushstrokes, the idea, the color.” That sensation—of becoming lost, or subsumed, by the painting—is vital to the experience of looking at a Nadaleena. The works strive to position you inside the event, as an active observer, with the harsh winds of the twister all around you. At the same time, it’s safe voyeurism: Nadaleena has harnessed the storm, and painted it into captivity. Its wildness has been domesticated, tempered, pinned down to the wall. “You get swept into them,” the artist says. “And then you have to go home with the painting.”
Twister 2, for instance, imagines the tornado as a bloom of color arising from a blood red background. The powerful, confident strokes of red and black form a ghostly cloud that births the storm; the twister’s funneling motion, strong enough to tear a house from its foundations, is expressed through winding, interwoven bends of color. Twister 7 could be the same storm more stirred up, ready to unfurl: the reds have heated up into a darker frenzy, like the coals of a fire; the entire surface of the work is crisscrossed with frenetic strands of paint. (We can imagine Nadaleena’s hand tracing these lines, the form a literal signature of the artist in the moment of inspiration.) Twister 10 and Twister 11, which appear to capture multiple-vortex tornados, trade these brimstone hues for seductive reds; the churning funnels of the storm have an ethereal edge here, as delicate as a puff of smoke, yet pregnant with a coiled power.
Nadaleena’s “Seascapes” series is likewise a way of taming the infinite force, and danger, of the natural world. Again, the artist’s biography is key: She recalls being a young child on her family’s boat, off the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, when a surprise storm nearly capsized their yacht. Adriatic Sea Cat 5 most directly addresses this experience. It’s a brilliant swirl of blues, yellows, reds, and oranges, a palette that nods to Nadaleena’s affection for Willem de Kooning, and also recalls the flowing motion of the poured paintings by contemporary Dutch artist Rezi van Lankveld. Like many of her works, it’s infinitely layered and nuanced, containing multitudes. (“It’s like twenty paintings in a painting,” she says, stressing the importance of experiencing the work in person. “It keeps popping on you, you keep seeing more things.”) Chained 1 approaches the figurative, depicting two organisms bound together, perhaps creatures of the deep sea, clinging to each other like lovers. Eye of the Storm IV is an abstract composition that recalls Van Gogh’s Starry Night, with its impressionist star swirls. Disaster here can be a thing of beauty—or rather, in the spirit of the Romantic sublime, it’s only when we are pushed face to face with true risk that we are able to feel the depths of what it means to be human. Compare Nadaleena’s “Twisters” or “Seascapes” to that iconic work by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818’s The Wanderer Above the Mists; both are about playing witness to the astounding drama of the elements. In Friedrich’s work, of course, we see a lone figure with a cane calmly surveying the scene. In Nadaleena’s paintings, the human subject is absent—or rather, she exists as a ghostly presence, the painter herself.
But of course, these paintings are about more than just the endless assault of nature, its potential for both impossible beauty and unspeakable tragedy. They are also oblique self-portraits, documents of Nadaleena’s journey as an artist. And what an uncommon journey it has been—not many contemporary painters have spent time on the cover of Playboy magazine, or sold a single piece for over the million-dollar mark. She’s not enamored of the enforced poverty that so many artists struggle under, as if the desire to sell one’s work—to have it out in the world, shown and loved in peoples’ homes—is something to be embarrassed about. Her neighbors coyly refer to her as the local Picasso, and she’s quick to point out that Pablo himself was not afraid to enjoy the finer things in life.
Likewise, the way Nadaleena discusses her work is refreshingly uncommon when compared to the chilly conceptualism prevailing in so much of the contemporary art world. She wants, she says, for her paintings to “touch the soul”—a sentiment more in keeping with those 19th century Romantics than with the detached, emotionally frigid temperament of 21st century art making. And yet her actual practice, so dependent on speed and intuitive, real-time reactions, has much in common with the Action painters—Jackson Pollack translating paint into pure movement—as well as female artists, like Carolee Schneemann, concerned with the physical relationship of the body to the work of art. Nadaleena’s practice is omnivorous, drawing from these disparate realms to arrive at her own vision, wholly unique, and wholly her own. As Nadaleena says, “it’s almost like you’re there” when faced with one of her paintings: In the eye of the storm, and the hand of the artist.
--Scott Indrisek. August 2013, New York.