Nicole Wittenberg – Time, space and amateur sex
Words by Arnau Salvadó | Portrait by Joe Sorwel
These past months have been rough for almost everybody. For Nicole Wittenberg, the best way to cope with the anxiety she was feeling – because of Covid-19 first, and the BLM protests and police brutality later – was to paint every day. Her ‘daily meditation,’ as she calls it, consists of drawing nature mostly through the window, and the series of artworks that resulted from this period will be soon exhibited in Miami’s Nina Johnson Gallery and NYC’s Journal Gallery.
But even though Wittenberg has been inspired by ‘landscape nature’ lately, she’s most known for her erotic paintings depicting sensual scenes of intimacy such as kisses, nudes, orgies and oral sex – even if it’s commercially unadvisable to do so, she affirms that “when I see something I want to paint, I just have to paint it; I can’t bring myself to make something that I don’t believe in.”
Wittenberg’s practice though spans way beyond sex. In her college years, she got praised for a series of bedroom paintings inspired by her childhood memories, which she painted when she was stuck in bed recovering from a back surgery and plagued by “reoccurring dreams of being held down, trapped in my room, trapped in my bed, trapped in my body” – very Frida Kahlo. And throughout her career, the time-space dimension has played an important role too, for example, by doing ‘Skype portraits’ and incorporating the glitches into the final works. In today’s interview, the New York-based painter tells us more about her life, the porn that inspires her, and how she’s lived these past turbulent months.
When you were a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, you came to public attention for some paintings about suffering from scoliosis as a teenager, but now, you generally paint from still images. How has the process of shifting the subject matter from your own experience to external themes been like?
When I was about seven years old, I started drawing from life – mostly flowers –, and when I was in class, I was always drawing the person next to me; I never stopped drawing from life. As a kid, I think you just follow your instincts.
It wasn’t till art school that I started drawing from photography, when I wanted to do some self-portraits but couldn’t manage them in a mirror. It was after my second back surgery and I was stuck in bed for about a year while I was plagued by these reoccurring dreams of being held down, trapped in my room, trapped in my bed, trapped in my body. Those early paintings were about confinement and convalescence. Years later, I realized everything we need as artists is inside. If I can connect to the feeling of what I’m seeing I can paint it – otherwise, it’s off limits.
Before focusing on eroticism and sexuality, you also did a series about bedrooms. Do you feel it was a bridge between showing your inner self and vulnerability – the self-portraits about scoliosis – and the more explicit scenes you now depict?
Oh, those bedrooms! Those were from memories of rooms from my childhood that stayed with me, places I never stopped thinking about. I feel very connected to those paintings, they were the first ones I made in New York. There are no figures, they are like film sets waiting for the actors to enter.
I’ve read that you got interested in porn as a teenager and that you found those images powerful and engaging. The porn industry is usually highly criticized by feminists because of its objectification of women. So what first captivated you about it, and how has your perception of it evolved with time?
As a teenager, I discovered pornographic magazines in my best friend’s mother’s bathroom. She had Playgirl, and the first real porn I ever saw was Tom Selleck reclining in a pull out in Playgirl. I remember the moment, discovering this magazine with my best friend while we just stared at it, jaws agape – he was so hairy! So really the first porn I experienced wasn’t of women but of men.
As a curiosity, you said that you look for odd terms when searching for porn content, like ‘back to nature’, ‘after school special’ or ‘grassy knoll’ because they generate unusual images. However, your paintings depict not-so-odd scenes: kissing, masturbation, oral sex, orgies, etc. So why do you look for more alternative content/keywords?
Amateur porn is a lot of fun, it’s the only porn I watch. With amateur porn, you’re usually watching people in their own houses or backyards having sex with their friends. And for me the tags like ‘back to nature’ just indicate the person making the porn and uploading it was having fun, that they have a sense of humor. The porn I watch does not have any paid actors or sets.
I got a lot out of the ‘afterschool special’. I found these high school orgies in parents’ living rooms kept coming up. They were a bit naughty and funny at the same time. And there is this other amazing part of amateur porn – the strange camera angles. There is oftentimes a steady camera with no one behind it, just rolling – I would say the camera is usually in the ‘wrong’ place, like you’re looking up someone’s nose and into some else’s armpit, but for a painting that’s interesting.
Even though the female body has been represented and exhibited nude/naked since the dawn of times – mainly because of the male gaze and the objectification I mentioned earlier –, male sexuality has usually remained in the background (unless you look at gay erotica, of course). What prompts you to paint erect penises and sexualized male bodies?
I suppose the choice to paint male sexuality was not really a conscious one at first, I just watched some porn and wanted to make some paintings. I made some very quick ink studies at first and decided, why not? And as I was working, I started to think about images of male intimacy in painting. I immediately thought of Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Giotto, and classical Greek sculpture. There are countless powerful historical images of men with men. It seemed like something from the past that could be made new again.
On a previous interview, you said it’s very hard to sell paintings with male genitalia. However, you keep painting them. I’m sure many other artists struggle with their expression as sometimes their preferred artworks are the least commercial/sellable ones. Do you ever feel that way?
It’s a struggle to make your way as an artist in the world. To survive, commercially and artistically. I always think ‘art first’ and worry about the sales later – it’s just my nature. That thinking has gotten me into all kinds of trouble. And because I’m just not a pragmatic artist, for my first fifteen years in New York, I needed multiple jobs to keep me afloat. But when I see something I want to paint, I just have to paint it; I can’t bring myself to make something that I don’t believe in. I have even tried commissions and it was a disaster
You paint with very expressive brushstrokes, which make the paintings all the more personal. The harsh contrasts (black and white, red and white, and other vivid colors like yellow) and the subjects you depict also turn them into powerful, sometimes even aggressive works. Do you need a special mood to paint? Is there any ritual you perform before/while working?
I like that feeling of having time, lots of time – endless time. It’s the most luxurious thing in the world. I like to sit in the studio, think, look, listen to music, read books and watch movies. Sometimes it takes me hours to start. I think I’m just building the energy, then the painting itself tends to go quickly – sometimes it takes less than an hour.
There is no ritual but there is a mood I am after: I do love a big muscular brushstroke, a strong and aggressive image. As a kid, I can remember the first time I saw a Matisse painting, Lady with the Hat, and it has these amazing colors, very bright from his Fauvist period, an early picture. I remember how it dominated the room, it was the only thing I could see although there were many other paintings. The power of painting has always really turned me on.
The time dimension is crucial in your paintings. For some time, you painted portraits of a friend of yours while you were video-chatting on Skype, thus capturing his movements and even the delay/glitch of the connection. As of late, you print multiple screenshots/stills from videos you like. Tell us more about the importance of time in your work and how does painting from a video or stills differ from painting from live models or photographs?
When my best friend, the Countess Alex Zapak, who is a performance artist, moved back to London, I began painting her portrait on Skype. I liked the digital debris that wondered into the images, like glitches, and the way the curve of the mouth or nose would sometimes flatten out. She would do these little fashion shows for me and I would draw her belts and shoes in these cropped images that are so specific to Skype – you never see the whole person, just fragments pressed near to the screen. She is so stylish, I just had to keep painting her.
And most of the porn pictures, which came later, were of orgies where I collaged different figures together from different moments in the same film. I prefer to paint from life. It’s just better for me. There is a kind of pressure when I’m looking at something that is going to go away; it’s not a photograph, it’s not forever. But it isn’t always an option, and moving images like film, video, and Skype became the next best thing.
In addition to being a painter, you taught at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, the New York Studio School and the Bruce High Quality Foundation. Besides the academic program, what’s the most important message you want to convey to your students or the lesson you want them to learn?
I quit about a year ago from the School of Visual Arts… But I’d say: follow your instincts – that is the message. Teaching painting is about identifying who each student is, what are their values, what are their likes and dislikes; then you try to help them to see it. I’d say it’s so hard to learn ‘how’ to paint, that is already a task. But then there is figuring out what to paint – teaching painting is a way to help students uncover their own passions.
Teaching is amazing and I really fell in the groove teaching at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, which was a free school run by artists for artists, located in downtown Manhattan. I taught painting critiques there, and I designed the class to engage painting students with other painters. The class was open to anyone, and each week we had a guest critic – nearly always a known painter – to begin the class with an interview and to join us in the group painting critiques of student paintings. This class was magical, there was a deep connection between the students and the visiting artists – exactly the kind of environment where arts and arts education make sense. Teaching and schools after the pandemic will be a different experience. It’s very worrisome to imagine online education, especially for painting.
I’d like to know about your future plans. What are you currently working on? Any plans you can reveal?
When the pandemic began, I paused; life or the rhythm of everyday life had shifted and I needed time to adjust to the anxiety that was in the air. My way through was daily meditation – for me, a daily drawing. I drew nature mostly through the window and watched the world change from winter to spring, spring to summer. I am showing these drawings at Nina Johnson in Miami and Rolando Anselmi in Atina (near Rome).
In the fall, I will have a show at Journal Gallery in Manhattan – a show of paintings about intimacy, kisses in a soft pink light. This is a continuation of the paintings that began with the amateur pornography series years ago – I see them as the love pictures.