Bob Nugent brings the ‘Amazônia’ to campus

Joanna Harlow

On Monday Sept. 28, Bob Nugent opened his show in the Sloan Gallery with a lecture detailing his experiences on the Amazon river and the paintings that they inspired. “Amazônia” will be displayed in the Sloan Gallery until Oct. 23.

Nugent has been visiting the Amazon since the early 1980s, a turbulent time in Brazil, which was under dictatorial rule and was experiencing poverty from inflation. He also spent time with native tribes, some of which live on protected reservations. The story of these tribes parallel the genocide of America’s native peoples.

50 percent of Earth’s plant matter can be found in the Amazon River Basin. The small, stagnant tributaries that flow from it are home to millions living in rustic conditions.

Nugent explained that in the jungle, the green is so pervasive that it becomes like a gray background. The artist’s eye focused on small exceptions: an orange flower or an intricate systems of roots. These single objects helped the artist digest the enormity of the environment around him, leaving him to synthesize the meaning of the jungle from minutia.

Some of the works include oil paintings over old scientific prints of flowers. These express the idea of perception. Nugent was not taking scientific notes of the flora he encountered, instead he was trying to express the sense of place and the movement of the river. The paint on these works is fluid, the colors silty and the subject is the suggestion of flora. The expressionistic flowers hover over their scientifically rendered counterparts without smothering them. The effect is deep and watery, evoking decay and new growth in the same object. Before learning of the artist’s intentions for the work, I interpreted these paintings as a comment on colonization. The juxtaposition of the two renderings is thought provoking.

The gritty aesthetic of the frontier towns along the river, with floating houses in a constant state of rebuilding for the wet season and flowers that cover the banks, were the inspiration for the saturated reds and yellows of his square works on thin veneer. Again, the viscosity of the paint is low, and looks very much like the product of a huge, self-sustaining river.

Nugent’s abstractions of colorful, irregular plants, dense trees and fragmented landscapes with hot, moist atmospheres, at first remind the viewer of America’s own sub-tropical climate in the “deep south”. After spending more time with the pieces, a darker atmosphere becomes apparent. Like the mystery and depth of Conrad’s jungle, the beauty of these paintings does not obscure the danger.

Nugent’s process is evident. The artist leaves grids, markings, and underpainting visible in the pieces, reflecting the constant process of construction and reconstruction on the Amazon, where man-made structures are easily dismantled by the force of the water.

The works are meant to capture an atmosphere, a feeling and a place. Nugent’s goal was not to objectively record the world around him, but to capture the experience of the traveler. Though the work sheds light on an environment endangered by deforestation, Nugent says that the role of the artist is not to be political. His work reflects this sentiment. The work opens up the natural world to the viewers which hopefully engenders awareness in about the ecological issues facing the Amazon River Basin.

The work is pleasant to view and genuinely engaging. I encourage students and faculty to visit the Sloan Gallery this month and experience the work of Bob Nugent.


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