Each of Robert Nunnelley’s paintings presents the viewer with a discreet invitation. These are landscapes and still-lives reminiscent of dreamed-of escapes. Especially when they are grouped, these paintings seem like so many rich reveries the viewer wishes to plunge into, seduced by color, light, mood, only to find the perspective so surprisingly compressed, the relationship between space, form and line so commanding, that the gaze is lured to the condensed dream set forth on canvas rather than turned inward toward the fantasy in the viewer’s own mind. It is nearly three decades since Nunnelley left abstraction behind and turned toward the representational, so it would seem at first glance paradoxical to assert that the power of his current work is created less by the viewer’s own associations to what is depicted than by an authentically visual experience of color and form -- a phenomenon which is more naturally associated with abstract than representational art. This is not to diminish in any way the evocative subject matter -- the voluptuous peaches in their black bowl, flanked by two urns, or the melancholy landscape glimmering at dusk; but even while we respond to their mysterious eloquence our gaze is inexorably drawn to the point where the road vanishes in the landscape, or to the inexplicable rectangle of deeper pink behind one of the urns. The eye’s responses to the work seem to be exacted by some internal laws, as with abstract painting, but are not accompanied by the usual intellectual analysis. We sense only, if we query ourselves about why this is such a compelling visual experience, that an ambitious feat of synthesis has generated a composition to which we find ourselves growing increasingly attached. Moment by moment, these are paintings that gain from being looked at, and the more they are looked at, the more apparent is their structural coherence and the more Nunnelley’s singular juxtapositions of color act on the viewer.
To account for this melange of evocation and rigor it seems reasonable to turn to the mid-1950's and Nunnelley’s encounters with David Smith and Robert Motherwell. Nunnelley was in his mid twenties in 1954 and still in graduate school at the University of Arkansas when he became Smith’s favorite student. Two years later, he studied with Motherwell at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Their combined influence was immediate, pivotal and decisive, and Nunnelley turned to abstraction. It wasn’t until ten years later, in 1964 that, following a summer trip to Florence, he changed course again, back to more representational painting.