Saturday, February 6, 2010


Wake Up and See the Coffeepot

February 2010 ARTnews
Kenneth Baker is art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vistors could be forgiven for overlooking the centerpiece of Tucker Nichols’s solo show last fall at Gallery 16 in San Francisco. Those who knew his work may have recognized the artist’s hand in the wayward blue verticals running up an 11-by-
30-foot wall; for others the wallpaper, which he made, may
have faded into the background. But creating work that might
go unnoticed is one of Nichols’s hallmarks.
The wallpaper design began as a small brush-and-ink
drawing. “They scanned it at some ungodly number of dots per
inch. I’m not really a fan of anything digital, but these details,”
he says, pointing to the fine mottling of the enlarged ink
strokes, “are the pores of the paper and the way the ink set-
tled into them or not.” Looking at the work with an air of won-
der, he adds, “I start to see things I just can’t believe. I just
can’t imagine what motion of my hand produced that mark.”
Nichols has a diverse practice that includes an ongoing
mail-art project ( and quirky sculp-
tural interventions in public spaces, like the work he made in
2008 as the first ever artist-in-residence-at-large at the de
Young Museum in San Francisco. “We gave him a staff badge
and let him go to freely do things like wrap harmless tape
around everyday things such as trees, garbage cans, orange
construction cones, chairs, light posts,” explains Renee Bal-
docchi, the museum’s coordinator of public programs. “Many
visitors would do double takes. Most couldn’t understand
why he was fascinated with such utilitarian objects.”
The Gallery 16 show emphasized paintings and drawings,
which Nichols executes with a casual, intuitive scrawl. The
wallpaper suited this exhibition because so much of the im-
agery there held a sense of domestic intimacy: a cup, a glass,
a teapot, a trophy, a scoop of ice cream. “While putting to-
gether this show, I realized that everything I was making was
really about one kind of thing that has some weight to it,” the
artist says. “There’s a part of me that is trying to use the
choices I make about the banal sorts of things I like to paint
and draw to sort out my relationship with everything else in
the world.” With a note of perplexity in his voice, he asks,
“What isall this stuff? If I can get on top of it, maybe I can
feel a little more comfortable with it all.”
Nichols, 39, a Boston native, has drawn prolifically all his
life, but took a long detour into Chinese art history, earning
degrees in the field from Brown and Yale before renouncing
the academic for the artistic life. He began showing his work
only in the past decade. In addition to Gallery 16, ZieherSmith
in New York represents him; it will host a show of recent work
in June. (His prices range from $1,000, for small drawings, to
$15,000, for larger installations.)
Nichols’s search for a way to cope with the culture of over-
supply springs from his own habits. “I’m addicted to the Inter-
net, bombarded with messages; I read tons of news,” he says.
“I guess the literal way of working that out would be to draw
newspapers, cell phones, and such.” But the humble mementos
pictured in his recent work feel more like the kinds of things
that “somebody once thought mattered. The idea of these
things having lost all those associations kind of appealed to
me—the idea that all the stuff people are trying to push on us
now is ultimately going to look something like this.”

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