My awkward, tender, pastel self

– on the painting of Nettle Grellier

I have stumbled upon a UK-based artist Nettle Grellier’s works during one of the never-ending Instagram dives, scrolling by multiple artists’ profile recommendations one after the other, until I find one which captures my attention for longer. Nettle Grellier’s profile was almost hallucinogenic – a mixture of works executed with pencil on paper, and paintings, some dominated by intense colours – reds and oranges, and others in more subdued, pastel colourways.

Nettle Grellier has always been close to oil paints – as she told ArtMaze Magazine in an interview in 2020 – one of her earliest memories is the smell of paint on her mother’s clothes when she was picking her up from school, while the first set of paints she ever got was a present from her grandmother. One of my first visual associations with her works was the oeuvre of Maria Lassning, whose works study the physical presence of the body (which she describes as ‘body awareness’). Lassnig’s works have a certain awkward quality to them, one, which, in my opinion, was also present in Grellier’s works. It was then very surprising that Grellier spent a couple of years after finishing her fine arts degree, painting vegetables, as she told ArtMaze Magazine. But maybe it should not be that surprising. Maybe it is actually a very intuitive way of exploring natural forms, before dealing with one of the most challenging ones, the human form, and Grellier certainly has her own, individual way of doing so.

Her 2020 series of paintings, ‘Every Thought has a Face’, with its title still serves as a reminder of ongoing stages of isolations, in which everything having a face is no longer an overstatement. There is a lot of hand-holding and embracing in this series. While for Grellier colour is usually at the very forefront of her works and she is no stranger to surprising, eye-catching combinations of colours, ‘Every Thought has a Face’ certainly takes this interest to another level. The series is dominated by electrifying clashes of yellows, oranges and reds, which is not necessarily an intuitive combination, as in many cases combining many similarly warm colours can seem to flatten the palette rather than make the final work truly buzzing with colour. It is the use of colder tones of violets, greens and blues, applied in strategic places, which allows Grellier to break out from a simple ‘warm’ palette, her works are literally stinging and tingling to the eye.

The artist describes her process as usually beginning with the choice of colour for the background and then reworking her sketches onto the canvas, oftentimes rubbing it with her fingers and observing the different colours blend with each other. ‘5 o’clock shadow’ is a great example of this treatment of colour – electrifying, intense pink dominates the palette but it is complementary to it, more muted green that truly brings out the intensity of the pink. The painting depicts two women, one, on the horizon, seamlessly blending with the trees of what appears to be a horizon of a savannah. The other one, occupying the foreground is spread comfortably on the grass, is exposing her breasts and pubic hair to the sunset, embracing her solitude on the savannah. Nettle Grellier is exploring the theme on the border of tenderness and awkwardness – as she told ArtMaze Magazine in 2020, ‘I aim for tenderness that could tip over into awkwardness, some of the limbs being wound in ways that wouldn’t actually feel comfortable. The sense of awkwardness her works evoke goes beyond the arrangement of the human (usually female) body. Uncomfortable elements, like earthworms, held carefully in fingers and about to be eaten by the protagonists are another way of building the discomfort in the viewer. The true crossing between tenderness and discomfort (to the viewer) takes place in the works which explore various manifestations of affection – for instance, in ‘Tangle tease// Ah ha ha ha come the fuckdown’ the figures are captured in the moment of spitting into each other’s mouths, giving the viewer an almost voyeuristic experience.

Her earlier series, ‘Easy Peelers’ was more illustrative of the scenes of affection and intimacy – more about lovers wrapped comfortably under a blanket and the imaginary conversations they might be having rather than about what one can imagine eating an earthworm might feel like.

Nettle Grellier seeks the inspiration for her figurative works among friends and acquaintances, perhaps this is what gives her works an authentically intimate feel. It comes as no surprise, considering that she had spent a lot of art in close-knit artistic communities and was developing her style in the near presence of other people, which was a breath of fresh air, as an artist’s work is oftentimes an alienating experience. Her approach to intimacy and tenderness is not an easy one – it is never picture-perfect or sugar-coated. There is a strong underlying sense of the difficulties coming with opening up to someone, with sharing the same living space, sharing food or spending time together. In each of those mundane situations, there is a constant struggle – not necessarily a painful one – just a sense of awareness of each other’s presence, physical and mental, and all the challenges the intimacy can bring. But also, the fluorescent joys.

Follow Nina on her Instagram @l.ninka