Nolan Preece was born in 1947 in Vernal, Utah. His parents encouraged his early interest in art, and he was helping his father in the home darkroom at age five. Preece was an avid young photographer, who remembers the impact of his father making a photo collage of what is now Dinosaur National Monument to show what it would have looked like, under water, if a proposed dam were built on the Green River.
Preece’s interest in nature has been a constant, from growing up in the desert, to being a river guide in the Grand Canyon, to working as a field photographer for environmental impact statements in the 1980s, to creating an on-going series of landscape photographs.
After serving in the army, Preece studied photography at Utah State University, receiving his BA in 1973. Four years later he began his graduate study there in photography, learning the Zone System method of exposure and development, and absorbing the tradition of Western landscape photography. Preece became interested in experimental photographic techniques, and in 1979 he was working with the cliché-verre process using smoke-on-glass as a photographic negative. He accidently spilled kerosene on the glass, and it created unexpected and fascinating forms. He discovered that mineral spirits worked best and perfected his newly invented technique, using the prepared glass in the enlarger and printing the resulting images photographically.
In 1981, Preece’s darkroom experiments led him to develop the chemogram, a technique for painting abstractly with chemical processes on silver based photographic paper. The work has shifted from being nonobjective to including images that reflected his involvement with the environmental movement. Throughout, the work has, in the artist’s words, reflected his “relationship with the desert in eastern Utah where I grew up and now the Nevada desert where I currently live. The desert is my home and passion. These resonances flow through this work.”
Over the past thirty years, the artist has continued to create images of surprising complexity and beauty, exploring new methods including the use of digital technology. Preece has noted that having been trained in the Ansel Adams tradition of fine art photography, he was able to envision his physically created chemigram print as the “score” and the digitally scanned and manipulated image as the “performance” of that score. In 2013 he met Pierre Cordier, the Belgian who had originated the chemigram in 1956, and persuaded Preece to use this designation for his work. He was inspired by Cordier to use resists of acrylic floor wax and other substances, and began a new and very productive phase in his art.
Preece’s work is in the permanent collections of 34 institutions across the country, and his solo exhibitions include Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV; Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, UT; St. Mary’s Art Center, Virginia City, NV; Oates Park Art Center, Fallon, NV; Nevada State Arts Council, Carson City, NV; and California State University, Turlock, CA.
Art presents us with a parallel reality, clear and close at hand, but simultaneously strange and new. This paradox of verisimilitude and novelty creates a mental frisson that challenges the notion that we truly know the reality that we experience every day.
In the work of Nolan Preece, images seem to arise mysteriously, visually present yet materially tenuous, from substances that resemble flowing liquids, swirling gases, and thickened light. They move as if of their own volition to form biomorphic entities, faceted architectures, and virtual vistas. These imaginal domains, which shift from fluid to concrete, are abstract yet enigmatically charged.
Preece has referred to his work as chemical painting, and he has adapted techniques from photography’s infancy and invented his own new methods for creating images. He has adapted cliché-verre, an antique method for making handmade photographic negatives on glass plates. He covers the glass with soot and by applying mineral spirits, a kind of automatism is activated, with unpredictable images coming into being. In his chemigrams, the artist works with resists and photographic chemicals for developing and fixing the image, to achieve a wide range of complex, fascinating effects which are then digitally enhanced.
These techniques have allowed Preece to work with an open, imaginative freedom. There is a sense of perpetual becoming, of constantly discovering new visual worlds. This quality of origination, of an animating energy, runs through the dazzling variety of the artist’s work. It ranges from spatially ambiguous atmospheres, to intensely patterned grids, to visionary biologies, to impacted archeologies.
Preece’s work evokes a speculative, poetic space where phenomena are generated, stimulated, and then entered into. The essential qualities of this experience include a sense of translucency, stilled movement, vastness within the intimate, and a quietude that contains within it a spectrum of unsettled emotions. Within these surreal and dream-like mindscapes, we are reminded of the inner space of the psyche, and the outer world of nature, in both its microscopic and macroscopic scales.
Concern for the fate of the living world is made explicit in many of Preece’s works, especially those that combine abstract imagery with signs of human development within the landscape. These works express a heightened environmental consciousness, and an awareness of the toughness, fragility, and beauty of the desert, which has always been the focus of his life and work.