THE SHIP AND CHRISTOPHER NITSCHE
By Suzanne Deats
Christopher Nitsche was a young artist when he recognized the ship as a form and concept that would furnish an inexhaustible source of subjects for his art. He formalized his ideas into a flexible and all-encompassing vocabulary that has sustained a steady vision through the years. Now, at mid-career, he draws from a vast reservoir of memory and personal experience to sustain a coherent body of meditations on the ship as vehicle, vessel, seed, symbol, muse, metaphor, transition, and cultural catalyst.
Nitsche’s early work foretold the scope and power of his art. Visitors to a 1990s studio in western New Mexico would go for a walk and find themselves standing in the middle of a large skeletal ship, which had sunk so deeply into the desert that only the tips of its ribs protruded from the sand. Nearby was another ship form, over a hundred feet long, made of desiccated Cholla cactus that barely rose above the arid surface. Swarms of questions immediately arose: How did this get here? What happened? Was this always a desert? How did I get here?
Another ship construction from the same time, made of mirrors, rose from the ground bow-first and invited the viewer to consider the nature of place, passage, and personality. A long series of ship drawings began, establishing Nitsche’s position as a major practitioner of a medium that requires exceptional skill and sensitivity. He is able to imagine on paper, with utmost elegance, the outcome of a sculpture or an installation composed of found materials and built organically according to their dictates. The finished drawings are works of art in their own right.
The year 2001 was pivotal both nationally and in Nitsche’s art. A massive installation at the University of Wyoming Art Museum took his work to a new level of scale and concept, and simultaneously solidified his reputation as an educator. He presented an idea to students concerning the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, and challenged them to get into the minds of the killers. They accrued various rough materials and built a structure that filled a large exhibition space from floor to ceiling, jutting into the room with defiant force.
Immediately after September 11, 2001, he worked with students at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, just north of Dallas, to articulate the grief felt by every citizen. Again gathering broken and weathered materials, he constructed ships that tested the limits of the form. It was at once an acknowledgment of destruction, an elegy to disillusionment, and a statement about the unsinkable nature of America.
A long, ongoing series of ships, both wall mounted and on pedestals, features related found materials such as sunglasses, words, light bulbs, poker chips, mouse traps, and toys, each with its own freight of philosophical baggage. Nitsche works in the moment, deliberately eschewing pat answers. Like a ship in uncharted seas, he has no idea where the story is going – only what it is carrying, and why.
Always, he has stretched the formal limits of the ship, working in every conceivable medium from bronze and resin to glass and assemblage, effortlessly bending the shape to his will. He has recently become interested in the idea of confluence, observing it in the arrangement of tree branches and the ordering of tributaries on river maps. He has begun to deconstruct the ship form, calling into question the nature of seaworthiness. The ship dissolves; the flow continues.
In recent years, Nitsche began elongating and twisting the ship form even farther, creating works in welded steel that burst with muscular vitality. Forms pile up and lodge against one another in a swift, inexorable current. The ship transmutes into the river; the bearer and the borne become one in the onrush of time.
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Suzanne Deats’ thirty-five year career as an arts writer, originating in Santa Fe, spans a dozen books and hundreds of reviews, profiles, and interviews, as well as numerous editorial projects. She is currently traveling the United States full time in a mobile office. She has followed Christopher Nitsche’s work for 25 years.