Cultural Quarterly
Fall 2008
Volume XXI, Number 4
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Robert Nathans
Turning Tragedy into Treasure
By Rachel Galvin

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At first glance, a painting by Robert Nathans is playful, filled with colorful images and icons of yesteryear intermixed with elements of nature. The centerpiece – always a bird of paradise – juts out, flanked by blossoms, with detailed birds sitting on its leaves or waiting nearby.

Stepping closer, the texture is revealed − oils blended over patterned fabric, sometimes peeking out, other times completely hidden. The pattern sets a foundation on which dreams can blossom and snips of time can be segmented away from the subconscious to be remixed on a new spatial plane and pondered.

There is something puzzling about the overall picture, mysterious, leaving one to wonder about the symbolism behind it all, the reason why painting items of things like Porky Pig, birds, a chess piece, scissors, flowers, a chicken and a bird of paradise somehow make sense.

Certainly this interplay is one reason why Nathans was chosen as a winner of a $7,500 award in this year’s South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists. Nathans’s art is displayed with the other winners as part of the 13.08 exhibit currently being displayed at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale until October 6.

This is not his first fellowship; he won $15,000 in 1996 for a different series of his work – a much darker reflection on Nathans’ experience of the world. It is this darkness that is obscured in his newer works. In contrast to his black and white pieces of the past, he now revels in color, using everything but black. Perhaps it his way to step away from the tragedy in his own life and let the joy of living take the foreground.

Nathans has lost a brother and lovers to AIDS and now utilizes the discarded clothing items as the fabric of his paintings, literally. It may seem a bit macabre, but to Nathans it is a way of keeping them alive. “They never died in my mind so they are not dead on canvas,” he said, adding in retrospect, “It is a bit Frankenstein…” He smiled, pondering also on the irony of the Porky Pig figure, who likes to say “That’s all folks.”  Nathans also feels “an extra responsibility to live for” his loved ones whose clothing he embeds into the work. He used to do figurative painting but found some felt the paintings too erotic. By using the fabrics, he said, he implies the figure of the person who once wore them.

A solitary man these days, Nathans surrounds himself with these memories; his paintings (mostly unfinished) bedeck the walls of his ranch style home. It takes him a year to finish most pieces. The


spacious and open interior is decorated in a mix of rustic and pop pieces. Outside, a garden gives him daily inspiration.  It is filled with Heliconia, presenting its blossoms in eye-popping oranges and pinks, much like in his art.

His studio is lived-in. Once a two-car garage, this space now is where Nathans spends his time working each day. Pictures of birds are everywhere – on the walls, in magazines, spread out near another newspaper-lined table where paints wait to be used and Styrofoam plates serve as palettes. A larger painting sits on a wooden easel; it features Bert (from “Sesame Street”) this time. His inspiration for the characters he includes are PEZ dispensers, which he has placed nearby along with pine cones and other statues. The Bert character wasn’t one he was familiar with when he bought it.

In addition to cartoon characters or memories of childhood, Nathans always includes a food item − from fruit to raw chicken. He admitted he has issues with food and since he can only paint what he experiences, food ends up in his paintings. “I have Wasting Disease, a condition in which I can not hold onto any body fat. I am supposed to eat and going to Publix becomes a lot more fun when I am choosing items to paint rather than just to eat,” he explained.

When asked about the dominant presence of birds, he answered, “birds seem so fragile, but they have been around forever; they are ancient. They are survivors.” Indeed, interspersing the watchful winged creatures next to glimpses of childhood past seems to almost add to the time-space continuum. “Paintings,” he added, “seem to stop life for a moment.”

He has always started with the bird of paradise. In some of his latest work, he is exploring the earth tones more than the colors. “The dead parts are just as beautiful,” he said. In a similar reference, he talked about the inclusion of scissors in some of his paintings. To him, they also are reminiscent of childhood. “We were always cutting out things,” he said, smiling, adding, “They are also dangerous and brutal.” This oxymoron is subtly evident in his work – highlighting the contrast of life and death, the tragedy and the nostalgic.

Nathans has been a painter most of his life. His father enrolled him in the Art Students League. Later, he would obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of South Florida in Tampa as well as studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His work began with wood carvings, etchings and gradually melded into painting.

When not painting, he is an adjunct professor of art history at Broward Community College. He is a former president of the Stonewall Library Archives, has taught art to children and helped to build the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Nathans has been inspired by painters Pierre Bonnard, Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh. He sees art simply as something he has been trained to do – his vocation – but he evokes the classic tortured artist, using the canvas as a catharsis and a form of communication. Like his paintings, he is multi-layered and although his world appears dark and fragile, it is evident that he is a survivor happy to bask in the simple beauty of life.

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