The typically white walls of Hauser & Wirth’s lofty south gallery have been painted over in luxurious blues, deep reds and playful pinks, sprinkled with pastel canvases inspired by lush forest undergrowth. Temporary floor-to-ceiling walls have pinched the Arts District gallery into cathedral-like chambers, with epic murals of waterfront caves staring each other down through faux marble archways. At the center of it all, there’s a gallery-within-a-gallery that houses a single painting from the 1600s.
This is no dry retrospective of Old Master painters, though; this is a playful collection of colorful works from contemporary painter Nicolas Party. The fast-rising New York-via-Switzerland artist has crafted a pastel wonderland of boldly hued landscapes, portraits and still lifes in his L.A. solo debut, “Sottobosco,” which runs February 13 to April 12.
Party thrives on these sorts of full gallery takeovers. “I started to do it because I think I was maybe sometimes too shy to only show paintings because they will be highlighted too much,” he says. “Maybe, I’m not really good enough, so I need to get these crazy things around it.”
“These crazy things” refer to the ways in which Party erases the built-in architecture of the gallery during his weekslong buildout: by repainting walls, constructing slender doorways and applying finishes that mimic natural materials. They all tie into a central idea or story that initially sparks each one of Party’s site-specific installations—in this case, the concept of sottobosco, a Dutch movement that borrows the Italian word for “undergrowth.”
“I discovered this painter, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, early on in the process of the show,” Party explains. “I was very intrigued by sottobosco, this genre of painting that he developed in the 17th century that is about the forest floor. Basically, on the floor of the forest there’s very little light. So there’s a very particular life that happens, and it’s quite small—little insects, mushrooms, frogs, snakes—and I thought it was a very interesting territory to explore, the darker area of places.”
In “Sottobosco,” Party, armed with his go-to pastels, captures the life of the undergrowth through fairytale landscapes, autumnal thickets, portraits composed of butterflies and mushrooms, and a room of canvases with amorphous, appendage-like forms flecked with flies. The two most monumental works, a pair of site-specific pastel murals that’d fit in an illustrated edition of a Tolkien tome, stare each other down at opposite ends of the gallery, one looking cool and wet in blue hues, the other radiant with red tones.
Party knows that his colorful creations, like a millennial pink room filled with canvases of saturated, fantastical forests, are likely to become fodder for Instagram backdrops—but he’s totally fine with that. Real-life landscapes often serve as backdrops for our photos, but, as he elaborates, that doesn’t somehow negate all of the life contained within them.
There’s maybe even a justification to get snap happy in front of those two wall-sized murals: They’ll disappear forever when the exhibition goes down in April. Party doesn’t really seem too bothered by that, though. In fact, he loves that each work has a life of its own, both within and beyond the exhibition, and compares them to playing with a bunch of toys.
“Sometimes you’re gonna play and have fun a few hours with them and then they go back in the box. And maybe the next day you use another group of toys,” he says before moving onto yet another delightful metaphor, cooking. “In the show, there is a painting that was made in 1663 [from Otto Marseus van Schrieck] that is used in that dish today, and that has been used in many, many dishes before, and that will go a separate way, a long time after the show but also after I’m dead. I don’t know if [the painting] is happy to be there, but I think it’s kind of a poetic and quite beautiful thing to imagine those things have all those different lives.”
Nicolas Party: “Sottobosco” runs at Hauser & Wirth (901 E 3rd St) from February 13 to April 12, 2020. Admission is free and available Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm.