Suspended Polarities in Nick Fagan’s Too Busy to 86, an essay by Ramey Mize

Suspended Polarities in Nick Fagan’s Too Busy to 86

An essay by Ramey Mize

A dark arabesque of text and image engraved on foam, entitled Too Busy to 86  by Nick Fagan, considers the reticence of suicide as well as the clamor of questions that occur to those in its wake. This piece, a memorial of sorts, grapples with the staggering complexity of the deed, and aims to visualize the frequently-suppressed trains of thought that emerge around such a taboo subject. Fagan, who has attempted suicide in the past, produced the piece in response to a memorable conversation with his mother about the episode. Over drinks, she asked him, “Do you think you’ll ever do it again?” Fagan matched her casual question with an equally even response: “I’m too busy.” Their light-hearted tone belied the heart-wrenching stakes of their exchange; surprisingly, such dark humor provided a moment of connection and empathy for them both. The title lifts directly from this dialogue: “to 86” is code for an abrupt halt, a permanent withdrawal.

It is the ready proximity of these incongruous, tragicomic emotions that Fagan emphasizes in Too Busy to 86. Two cartoon visages confront each other across a field of dark foam, sandwiched in between the titular phrase. Cartoon characters, often toting dark pasts, volatile moods, and serious addictions, deftly encompass despair and hilarity as two sides of the same coin; Fagan capitalizes on this concurrence and mobilizes it as a means of approach into what could otherwise be an alienating concept. Citing Kilroy, Andy Capp, and Garfield as reference points, Fagan constructs his own cartoons to navigate the complex terrain of this troubling impulse. The words “Rx” in the bottom right represent the mood stabilizers that mitigate the effects of bipolarity and mania, both of which Fagan has also struggled with.

The carved contours comprising the work’s central depiction loop and undulate, connecting each element in a tangled web of figures, limbs, and text. These lines mimic the aleatory nature of interpersonal dialogue and mental rumination through their elaborate roving and intertwining; in the artist’s words, the effect is that of a “visual narrative collage.” Storytelling constitutes an important aspect of Fagan’s work, but not to the purpose of constructing a linear chronicle. Of greater interest is the attempt to convey the way in which news, especially those reports which follow a tragedy like suicide, emerges in fragments, separate from any intelligible timeline— and how our minds strive, and frequently fail, to process the events as they occurred. Fagan’s line is also an incision, one that inflicts a wound, or a permanent absence, upon the tender “flesh” of the foam. An “x” pattern in oil paint gleams over the central tableau, black on black, signifying society’s collective phobia and negation of the difficult topic. Fagan is also compelled by the incised line for its probing rawness, its conflation of flatness and depth, and its ability to render an impression of drawing as dimensional. Philip Guston, whom Fagan has named as an influence, alluded to a similar affinity: “It is the bareness of drawing that I like. The act of drawing is what locates, suggests, discovers. At times it seems enough to draw, without the distractions of color and mass. Yet it is an old ambition to make drawing and painting one.”

Fagan’s most recent body of work, collectively referred to as MOURN, responds also to the suicide of one of his friends. For the artist, making and mourning occurred in tandem, with each experience virtually indistinguishable from the other. “I don’t think what I do is therapeutic,” Fagan clarifies. “I don’t look for answers, but to see questions in a way that makes more sense to me. Mourning is more contemplation than anything else. Questions that cannot be answered.” At 8 x 8 feet, Too Busy to 86 looms over the viewer, envelops their field of vision, and evokes a reverent atmosphere akin to that of a monument or a mausoleum. Although the work is saturated with personal history and reflection, Fagan also imbues it with more universal, existential implications. To communicate this broader application, the foam base, though fantastically lightweight in reality, conveys a sense of stark solidity and profound heaviness. The unexpected contrast is fitting; it mirrors the polarities of life and death, grief and laughter, presence and absence, sound and silence— all of which hang in frenetic suspension in this provocative installation.

 Nick Fagan, Too Busy To 86, Latex, Acrylic, Enamel on Polystyrene 96” H  x 96” W x 2” D

About the Author
Ramey Mize is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. From Atlanta, Georgia, she holds a BA in Art History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a Master’s degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. To date, her research and publications examine the intersection of nineteenth-century art, gender, and material culture in Europe and the United States. She has held curatorial fellowships at the Colby College Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with curatorial internships at UNC’s Ackland Museum, the Penn Museum, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Most recently, she has co-curated exhibitions at the Arthur Ross and New Boon(e) galleries. She currently serves as a managing curator for the University of Pennsylvania’s Incubation Series and as a Spotlight Gallery Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


To download a PDF version of this essay please click HERE


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