Nick Mourtzakis

Nick Mourtzakis passionately and studiously strives for precision in his craft. His work is not confined to a specific genre of abstraction or realism, of portraiture or landscape painting. Instead, his compositions are a varied mix of studio etudes, plein air sketches and reflective self-portraits.

In his Collingwood studio, Nick Mourtzakis paints for himself. His diligent and disciplined approach to drawing and painting is driven by a cerebral pursuit to understand the form and structure in his compositions. In equal parts, emotion and instinct underpins his practice. Muted hues and sombre tones capture the essence of feeling within his pictures but do not distract from the technical quests. We spoke to him about his art practice, and all its disciplines.

Both painting and drawing are significant components of your practice. Can you tell me about the relationship you have with these two methods of working?
I think painting is the primary medium for me but at the same time they are very closely related – after all, they’re both two-dimensional. The two-dimensional space allows me to engage my interest in the structural aspect of form. But also, just listening to myself and thinking about it I realise that it’s a subjective interest that I have in the use of both mediums. I don’t think I can really say anything objective about the mediums at all, not in terms of my own personal practice. I can speak about what I think is different in drawing and painting in a more intellectual sense, but from the point of view of my processes it is the thinking that drives my engagement with both mediums.

What drew you to painting in the first instance? At art school, you produced work that was performative, experimental, sculptural …
Yes, two or three years out of art school, I think painting became, for me, perhaps almost exclusively, the medium that would suit my temperament and would allow me to, in a very intricate way, effect my thinking and my vision, my sensibility. Painting in a way intensified the sort of investigative work I’d done at art school, where the work one made was determined by how one was. I think I understood and grasped the implications of this very emphatically, very conclusively. I understood that the kind of painting that I made, the kind of work that I engaged in, was what was going to form me as an artist. That’s why painting is so important for me. It really is a pure plastic medium; it’s a completely abstract medium.

Your subject matter is quite varied. Can you tell me about how you decide what you paint?
Oh, that’s become, perhaps, more and more complicated. Initially it was to present myself with experiences that were going to test my capacity to see and apply myself to the medium itself in such a way that I’d progress in some way as a painter. So, I began with still life and self-portraits. The early works were chosen with a sense of looking for some pared down minimal, almost platonic presence of form – object as idea. I chose objects that could present me with a particular problem and perhaps a kind of mathematical perspective on perception.

These aspects of form interested me immensely because they made me think. But then there was the difficulty of actually somehow translating from my sensation of the object into the language of colour and structure. So, it was always, to speak more generally, the degree to which the forms presented me with a level of difficulty that determined my choice of subject. I learnt to love difficulty because I realised that only through difficulty was I really registering my limitations.

Your subject matter evolved over the years …
Yes, in the late ’70s I decided I wanted to paint en plein air so I kitted up a little van and I’d go out for three or four days at a time around the Victorian coast, mainly, but also inland. It was a struggle, it was hard, because I really wanted to try to apply the same ethic in terms of my approach to painting the landscape as I had done to painting objects and self-portrait studies.

I wanted to not rely on the past so much, in terms of what a painting could figuratively represent of the landscape; I wanted to test myself against it. There were times in the landscape where I literally couldn’t paint because I would start something and it would just be too overwhelming. I’d just have to literally lie down. The sense of the world as metaphor was so overwhelming, so total – in other words it became a purely poetic experience.

What role does memory play in your practice?
When I reflect on memory what I encounter is a space that just stretches out in all directions, a sort of conceptual space. Memory, for me, is a space of potentiality; in memory I know myself as I’ve been registered in the moments of my experience. When I look outward into a landscape or to an object, I feel as though there are conceptual inversions, because rather than just focusing on an objective point of seeing, what happens is that a vast conceptual field is delivered up and refers itself to the point at which I’m looking, which is where the poetics comes in.

What really counts is the way in which the memory of the experience continues to be embodied in some very profound way in one’s psyche, and the way in which that becomes a poetic vehicle through which to experience one’s feeling and developing sensibility. So, for me, painting is the vehicle, the medium, of a very mysterious process. Painting the actual object, the work itself, has to constantly arrive in a way that justifies it being drawn out of that kind of experience. If it doesn’t make it then it’s got to be worked on more until it does arrive.

That would require much quiet contemplation, rigour and discipline?
One of the things I think about the way I work is that it is very, very modest. I don’t need big projects. There is something profoundly humbling in the process of painting one’s intimate and personal existence.

3 – 24 September 2016

Courtesy the artist and MARS Gallery, Melbourne

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