Executed in soft pastel, Portrait from 2015 exemplifies Nicolas Party’s audaciously coloured, quasi-Surrealist paintings that are driving his meteorically rising profile in the global art scene. With its comic-book graphic strangeness and vivid saturated high contrast palette, Portrait is a fantastical fusion of diverse influences that range from René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, Hans Emmeneger, and Alex Katz, to the late Egyptian sarcophaguses where portraits were depicted on coffin exteriors. Most uniquely, Party’s experience of working for a decade as a 3-D animator infuses his paintings with a flat and intensely graphic sharp-edged quality, translating the tradition of portraiture into a wholly contemporary vernacular. By paring down his compositions and stripping his subjects of extraneous details, Party focuses on the interrogation of medium, shape, colour, and composition, building a singular visual lexicon grounded in the act of painting itself and the possibilities of material – that of pastel in particular. Chris Sharratt observed: “Rather than painting portraits of anyone in particular, it’s the materiality of the pastels and their relationship with the paper that this Swiss artist is exploring” (Chris Sharratt, “Nicolas Party”, in Frieze, 4 November 2013).
Born in 1980 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Party studied at the Lausanne School of Art before undertaking an MA at The Glasgow School of Art. Classically trained, Party transforms the paradigm of portraiture of art history into a dialogue with both past and future. Speaking about his figurative paintings, Party remarks: “I’m trying to work with subjects that are not original. Subjects that have been, and still are, painted all the time. Like a portrait, or a cat. What fascinates me about these topics is their capacity to regenerate themselves at any period of history, and still be relevant to us. I also believe some subjects are always painted because they are an infinite source of meaning and inspiration” (the artist cited in Federica Tattoli, “Talking with the Swiss painter Nicolas Party”, Fruit of the Forest, December 2016). Rather than creating portraits from real life, therefore, Party takes inspiration from other portraits in the history of portraiture. Most famously, Party recalls being “totally stunned” upon viewing Picasso’s Tête de Femme (1921) at the Foundation Beyeler in 2013, and claims that the image has been “the source of all the faces I’ve made since” (the artist cited in Dodid Kazanjian, “Party Time”, Vogue, June 2018).
Party was inspired in particular by Picasso’s use of pastel in Tête de Femme, and the challenging and idiosyncratic medium has dominated his work ever since. The artist observes: “Oils allow you to endlessly retouch. With pastels it’s kind of the exact opposite. You can layer and layer, but you can’t start over. The nature of the medium is much more direct. Nothing dries or is wet – it stays exactly how it is” (the artist cited in Ted Loos, “Artist Nicolas Party Revives the Language of Pastel”, Cultured Mag, March 2019). Applying the soft chalk material with his fingertips with painterly precision, pastel best allows Party to mould the essence of his subjects in new and revelatory ways, so as to amplify physical presence and heighten emotional resonance. Party’s resulting works are simple, seductive and highly accessible, yet still engage in dialogue with the art-historical binaries of representation and abstraction, observation and imagination. In addition to paintings, Party creates large-scale public murals, sculptures and installation works that employ colour and intervention strategies to construct immersive experiences for viewers. The artist has been subject of numerous solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions worldwide, including the Magritte Museum, Brussels (2018); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and the Modern Institute, Glasgow (2016).