• Nicholas Ives

We must take quite literally the idea that man is a face drawn in the sand between two tides: he is a composition appearing between two others, a classical past that never knew him, and a future that will no longer know him.
- Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, 1986

Past is present is future. Nic Ives' Natural Intensities follows on in development from his 2021 exhibition The Crudes. These are portraits of Nic's young son Sonny. The same intimate and empathetic themes are there - youth, his son, potential, the future - but pushed even further into painterly impressionism.

The title alludes to Gilles Deleuze's concept of 'intensity' - the affirming and creative impulse that transcends mere epistemology, Spinoza's call to a life of joy, jouissance - intellectual delight. An intensity is a possibility, the organic potential for an idea not yet formed - an emergent context. Nic's paintings manifest that quality across their surfaces in the process of painting as a natural 'becoming'. They sit within broader sites of intensity, first the studio and then the gallery.

This Deleuzian intensity also manifests in Nic's work by what seems to my eye a stylistic channelling of a very specific thread of the Rococo - the muted palette and melancholy-tinged pleasances of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

Watteau was undoubtedly the first artist to fully embrace sole loyalty to his own inspiration and feeling. Sonny takes the role of Watteau's Pierrot. Sometimes this dips in the direction of Picasso's 'Blue' and 'Rose' periods. There is, perhaps, a hint in titling one of these portraits Study for the Sun King (in which Sonny becomes a kind of crudely-modelled faun-cum-golem) - though Louis XIV was right at the earliest phase of the Rococo and Watteau at the end.

Pierrot was a character of the commedia dell'arte, a naïve cuckhold and buffoon. Watteau gave him greater complexity and interiority, making him a sympathetic figure of the disenfranchised, and later periods a disillusioned, alienated cynic or an existential absurdist. It was David Bowie who turned the sad clown into an Everyman, but Nic returns his innocence.

This feeling for the past is something of a paradox and perhaps mostly incidental, given it emerges from Deleuze's interrogation of what the 'new' is. The Deleuzian view is that the new is an emanation of intensity. The new is difference, and therefore being. But as there is nothing truly new under the sun, perhaps it is more of a cyclical process.

The Rococo is the final phase of the Baroque. Deleuze argued that Gottfried Leibniz's concept of the monad, the singularity and basic stuff of being, as folds of space, movement and time, is the essence of the Baroque. Reality is a body of infinite folds weaving through compressed space-time.

"Either it is the fold of the infinite," writes Deluze in his 1986 book on Foucault, "or the constant re-folds of finitude which curve the outside and constitute the inside." Time is folded in on itself - the past is not past but inextricably entangled in the present and in the projection of the future. Sonny exists throughout time and space, and on Nic's canvas deconstructs into glittering fragments of joy, animating his thought and art, in awe of and slightly disbelieving of this curious little manifestation of the divine.

Painting and boy are created and let loose into an uncertain future. But the painting is also a gestural Rococo locus amoenus, or a wilderness in Levi Bryant's sense of a wilderness ontology:

As an ontological concept, "wilderness" should not be taken to signify the opposition between civilization and nature, but rather two distinct ontological orientations: the vertical ontologies of humanist, correlationist thought where being is a correlate of thought versus posthumanist orientations of thought advocated by flat ontologies or immanence. In a "wilderness ontology", humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings with no particularly privileged place. (

Immanence in this sense is Deleuze's sense of a flat plane of existence in which all things exist simultaneously, though I think Nic admits the possibility of joy and love to transcend immanence. Is Nic's love for his son an absolute value detached from any other material or philosophical concern? I like to think it is.

The paintings of Natural Intensities is both a record of Sonny's growing self-awareness in relation to a wider and uncertain world, and of the way Sonny disrupts Nic's sense of the real and certainty, bringing about the new and providing an imperative to worry about the future. And yet a wild little being still in a liminal space outside the cages of social convention. A distorted reflection of Max in Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book Where the Wild Things Are.

Sometimes Sonny gives up physical integrity all together to become a kind of semi-abstract idealised thought form as in The Post or The Wandering Acrobat.

There is only the hint of a figure and a few lines to draw it out. Emerging individual dissolves like some Theosophical post-transcendence Paul Klee fancy. Nic pushes the machinery of the painting to the point of near collapse, to the point the paintwork becomes deliberately excessive or even transgressive, approaching either a kind of anti-aesthetic ugliness or cloyingly sentimental sweetness.

At times Sonny seems almost animal-like as in Wobble or a near-abstraction resembling the kind of figural looseness seen in certain Rembrandt self-portraits. Sonny's face in Into the Ground seems to possess the snub nose and black hole eyes of Rembrandt's Artist in His Studio (c.1628-29). At other times Sonny is sad, or at least introspective, as in Together for a While, which exists in term of mode and tone somewhere between one of Murillo's seventeenth century urchins and a Margaret Keane big eyed child.

In Here Comes the Sun King Sonny is a little naked Phoebus in a style that alludes to Degas, vulnerable but not altogether of this world. Son =Sonny=Sun. The mercurial, whimsical centre of his father's universe. The paintings vibrate at high frequency or throb like a heartbeat between figure and ground.

Like Walter Benjamin's take on Paul Klee's Angel of History - the paintings are flying into the future while staring at the wreckage of the past. Yet there is also optimism. Joy. The real is ruptured by the unruly wildness of being. But this pursuit of the singularity, the essence of the thing, is to, perhaps, distract from the beauty of the paintings.

Nic's is a consummate painterliness - he is in love with paint, delighting in interrogating its materiality. His brushwork, fluid, thoughtful and incisive, is somewhat unusual in an era in which painting tends to be dominated by either ironic postmodernism (though he can certainly turn his hand to that too) and zombie formalism. He is master of his art historical sources, philosophy, and the technicalities of painting.

One might go so far as to call him something of a genius. Nic's work continues to evolve constantly into ever greater refinement and formal sophistication, but never loses sight of the anchor points that make it human, playful and relatable.

Past is present is future.

-October, 2022
Nicholas Ives: Natural Intensities, By Andrew Paul Wood

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  • Mt Eden, Auckland