Royal's situation in relation to the contemporary art world is very like that of his friend, the late Nathan Oliveira who once stated: "I'm not part of the avant-garde. I'm part of the garde that comes afterward, assimilates, consolidates, refines." Working offshore at the Net Loft - 3,000 miles from New York City - has given Royal Nebeker plenty of creative privacy and helped forge the character of his art.
A less dedicated artist might have thrown away his brushes, but Nebeker, who has been at the easel nearly 50 years, managed to get his studio up and running again and has actually been quite productive since. The show now on view at the BYU Museum - Royal Nebeker: An Artist's Journey - includes seven large recently completed oil and collage pieces alongside thirteen large earlier works. One of his most striking recent paintings, titled Ship of Fools is part of an ongoing series: Loss and Revelation.
Losing two years of paintings and surviving a cataclysmic storm certainly must have something to do with the painting's storm-tossed allegory, but Nebeker isn't an artist who literally channels the events of his life into his work. In fact, his references are most often oblique and derived more from his dreams than from his day to day experiences. He says: "I've found that using filters like dreams and memories helps me capture the essence of things and cut to the heart." Royal keeps a dream journal by his bedside, and the richness of his dream life provides him with an un-ending stream of ideas.
One of Nebeker's common practices is to leave some horizontal space near the lower edge of the canvas as a place where these kinds of images and notes can accumulate. Working this way allows him to combine the high traditions of painting with pop culture materials, and to make his images both emotionally and intellectually rich. Ship of Fools has a jaunty no sharks decal towards the lower left, which seems to graphically rhyme with a round logo on the boat's hull (Cleanline Surf) but the most prominent written element is a phrase from the song Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Life is but a dream... In the context of Royal's painting the rather trite lyric from a round often sung around campfires suddenly feels significant, even Shakespearean.
Nebeker, who has Norwegian ancestry and has lived in Norway, has been asked "Why do you write on your paintings in Norwegian, Japanese and English?" His answer is: "I don't like the way English looks, it is so blatant. It is too easy to take literally, too easy to see what it means. I don't intentionally obscure meaning, but I distrust clarity." For that reason, looking at a Nebeker can be like listening to an opera in a foreign language: the emotion comes through even if the words can't all be deciphered.
"They stand so awkwardly," observes Paul Anderson of the two silhouettes; "two people who don't quite understand each other." The image of the father and son carries a very strong emotional charge: it makes the resulting painting nostalgic, apologetic and cathartic. Like many of Nebeker's strongest works, The Blue Bike is about human relationships, their emotions clarified and magnified through the filter of dreams.
"What shall we then see?" We find that we have never lived."
Although resurrection has certainly been a theme used by many artists for hundreds of years, the idiosyncratic nature of Nebeker's painting demonstrates how Nebeker has come to the theme on his own terms. There is a paradox at the heart of Nebeker's art that goes like this: by presenting his personal dream world, infused with cultural references and anecdotes that mean something to him he causes his viewers to think more deeply about universal themes. Not all of us have read or seen the works of Ibsen, but at some deep level we can all connect with the universal human craving to reawaken to life's beauties and deeper meanings.
When We Awaken is actually two canvases: Nebeker added a second horizontal canvas at the top as the painting developed, realizing that his figures needed more room to ascend. His career as an artist also seems to have needed some more room at the top as well. Since the storm and losses of 2007 Royal has certainly had his own kind of rebirth, and his energy is at a peak. "I have all kinds of paintings waiting," Nebeker comments: "My mind churns around as I resurrect all kinds of ideas, worrying that I didn't say enough the first time around."
ROYAL NEBEKER: AN ARTIST'S JOURNEY
Through Sept. 14, 2013
The Brigham Young University Museum of Art
North Campus Drive, Provo, Utah 84602