Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Peter Nelson: The Architect's Dream

by Emma Jones

02 Sep 2010

Sydney artist Peter Nelson is nothing if not prolific. His recent show of paintings, drawings and sculptures which opened in April 2010 at Flinders Street Gallery, represented his third solo show after graduating with the University Medal in Painting from COFA in 2006. The works primarily build upon Nelson's ongoing preoccupation with imparting a new meaning upon the familiar detritus of urban life by reconstructing it within an unfamiliar and disjointed landscape. Seemingly banal man-made objects - a light post, a handrail, a slab, a children's swing set, a public park bench or even a bathtub - take on new identities when placed within these dislocated dreamscapes.

Nelson's mixed media on paper works are where his precise and practised skill as a draftsman is most evident. The objects he draws are often rendered from afar, or as if viewed from a great height, in considered and restrained lines marked with graphite or Chinese ink. They bring to mind the renderings of the great 20th century Modern architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, in which a design for a building or city was always elevated to its archetype through the architect's visual representation of it. Edifices, columns and building planes slide past each other with 'Miesian' fluidity, floating in empty voids, and built elements are placed in mid-air and stripped of their scale. Like these architects' utopian visions, such objects become idealised monuments to be admired from afar.

By removing all relational aspects between the elements of his landscapes, Nelson also ensures that the objects he represents are fixed in a perfect space and unchanging time. There are no figures in the frame; no traditional Western perspective; no panoramas or constructed scenes by which these landscapes can be understood. Without the relationship of a body to the space that surrounds it, the objects within it have no reference point. They are deconstructed and dismantled until they inhabit only a pure, surreal and dreamed-of space.

The influence of the dramatic landscape around Hunan Provence in China, where Nelson recently undertook an artist's residency, is evident in many of the works. Desolate mountain peaks rise from voids, and gnarled trees pierce suspended planes of pure Classical geometry. In addition to these works, Nelson's large scale cardboard sculptures have been placed around the gallery like sentinels, some standing well over 2 metres tall. These monolithic forms are part mountain landscape, part prehistoric masonry ruin. They are particularly reminiscent of architectural working models, where the physical processes of construction can in large part determine the design outcome and the form.

Just as the Modern architects sought to expel historical time from their utopian urban landscapes, Nelson appears to be searching for a representation of fixed and whole objects, dislocated from their time and space. However, around these lost, ruined but somehow perfectly preserved 'floating' worlds, the natural landscape often grows like a weed, encroaching upon these cadaverous objects as ruins are reclaimed by vines. These are relics and phantasms. Amongst the withering landscapes they become, for the viewer, sites of both fascination and dread. These alien worlds are the result of the artist's depiction of the contradictions between a static ideal and a constantly shifting reality; between immersion and exclusion; between the landscape of the mind, and the landscape in which we live every day.

Emma Jones is a graduate architect, arts writer and urban theorist from Sydney, about to commence postgraduate study at the Architectural Association in London. She is interested in exploring the ways in which architecture and the fine arts can inform and enrich each other to create more habitable and engaging spaces.