American Voyeurism: The Allure of the Figure Lives in Nigel Van Wieck’s Work

The British-born American Realist based in New York has found an enthusiastic audience for his cinematic paintings among young collectors.

Figurative painter Nigel Van Wieck in his studio. Photo: Ruwan Teodros

Looking through strangers’ windows qualifies as a hobby in New York City. Where one goes to people-watch is a question that the city’s influencers and public figures answer with glee. Soho! Williamsburg! Central Park! This is the metropolitan pastime: to see and be seen; to observe the world around you in the same manner you expect the world to observe you; to walk just a few steps outside of your apartment and be at the center of it all.

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British-born, New York-based Nigel Van Wieck’s art elicits this voyeurism in his work, which has steadily gained recognition in the past decade from an audience amassed on social media. Inside his studio in Manhattan, the city’s sirens are wailing and a man can be heard from below asking if we’ve seen God. Nigel’s jazz playlist, upbeats synths repeating on a loop, almost drowns out the noise. He points to an easel displaying a scene he has spent the past two years working on. “I call it Burger King,” he tells Observer, laughing at his own simplification, “but it’s about American commerce. Very transactional.”

‘Burger King,’ Nigel Van Wieck. Courtesy Nigel Van Wieck. Photo provided by Nigel Van Wieck

The image recalls the inviting, neon-lit cities depicted by film productions in the eighties, which left the viewer salivating over cheeseburgers and the American Dream. There is a near-empty diner, the ocean and a woman leaving, or entering, a car. You can hear the neon signs buzzing, orbiting in blues and greens, and the murmurs echoing inside the diner. It’s an eerie setting, but it leaves the viewer asking for more context, more familiarity, more answers.

“Look closer: all lines in the composition lead to a man reaching for his wallet.”

A wall hung with many framed paintings of people
Paintings in Nigel’s studio. Photo: Ruwan Teodros

Nigel’s studio is dotted with portraits of men and women unaware of the artist’s intrusion on their privacy as he captured them in paint for his audience. Although traces of Edward Hopper’s solemnity and solitude are found in the stillness, there is a contemporariness to his work that distinguishes him from the American realists of the past. Nigel’s scenes could be from the eye of Quentin Tarantino or Sofia Coppola—a fleeting, hyper-saturated filter that energizes an otherwise mundane moment, which he attributes to working with kinetic light and neon early in his career.

Nigel’s work has seen a resurgence in popularity since the dawn of Tumblr and Instagram in the early 2010s. For many Millennials, these were the platforms where the self was first cultivated via the manufacture and curation of aesthetics and taste. The Internet was well-established and integrated into the family home, and the children wielded its power in their struggle to become themselves, or whatever version of themselves they wanted to project.

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Just as the potency of teenage angst lives on today in the trimming and editing of TikTok videos remixed to a trending song, these pages were filled with black-and-gray illustrations of Arctic Monkeys albums, Lana Del Rey quotes and Marina & The Diamonds’ music videos. These sensibilities were displayed on users’ blogs and their feeds; an homage to the music, literature and art that moved them.

Interiority was in—and with that, Nigel’s work, which inspires introspection, was indispensable.

“What I paint is not fashionable” Nigel claims, “but young people like it.”

His wife Sandra manages his Instagram account, which has organically amassed 35,000 followers. Each painting is framed by a white border, as though mounted on a gallery wall. Scenes of diners, bedrooms and cabarets are drenched in red and yellow light in an organized grid of peepholes into strangers’ lives.

“If I could have a superpower, then I would want to be invisible,” he jokes, seemingly unaware how his wish already manifests in his work.

Sandra’s captions often draw on pop cultural references, with posts built around Millennial Pink or Doja Cat’s hit, Paint the Town Red. She posts regularly to nurture community and keep engagement high, and she has deftly organized the page into relevant Story Highlights and notable studio visitors, like actor Pierce Brosnan. When asked if he has any portraits of Sandra, Nigel laughs and admits that she finds it boring when artists use their wives as models. “But she’s the muse. A lot of the work comes through her.”

A woman and a man in a cozy art studio
Sandra, who deftly manages the painter’s social media presence, with Nigel. Photo: Ruwan Teodros

Some of Sandra’s uploads are side-by-side comparisons of Nigel’s portraits to scenes in a film or a television episode. One particular piece, Q Train, repeatedly appears in iterations so similar that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the cinematographer’s original inspiration.

The striking painting—which has been reposted, retweeted and reblogged tens of thousands of times—captures a young woman slumped in one of the orange gradient seats of New York City’s Q Train, long hair framing her shadow-obscured face and her hand cupping her cheek. There is no light outside the window of this transient train headed somewhere unknown or nowhere at all.

Some followers were quick to point out that the scene was straight out of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, or an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls, in which the heartbroken and helpless Marnie Michaels revisits a past relationship.

“What I managed to do in Q Train was to paint despair; I think I caught it perfectly,” Nigel tells me. “We all, at some point in our lives, have been in that position, and because I got it right, people have connected to that picture in particular.”

A painting of a woman hunched over on a subway seat on an easel in an artist's studio
‘Q Train,” Nigel Van Wieck. Photo: Ruwan Teodros

Many young women have sent their tributes of the painting to Nigel, mimicking Q Train’s exact pose or their own interpretation of it. Artists and graphic illustrators have also reimagined the scene, plastering Van Gogh’s Starry Night outside the window or adding BoJack Horseman and Paul McCartney as the woman’s companions.

But what’s extraordinary about the work, the artist explains, is that the scene itself was not real.

Sandra still receives messages from followers thanking Nigel for the portrait and its unabashed vulnerability. One such message asked for the narrative behind the work and said the portrait has served as an inspiration for their photography. “Lots of Nigel’s followers are in cinema because cinematographers have to think about images, so painting can inspire that,” says Sandra.

The rise of video on social media has lent new credence to Nigel’s work. Teenagers and twenty-somethings online are instructed to romanticize the quotidian, absorbing every moment as though it were a scene from a film. “A Day in My Life” series follow young men and women rolling out of bed and making their cups of coffee before spending the subsequent hours working, shopping and dining out, videos polished to perfection. Others settle for the ‘realistic day’ made up of mundane chores, like organizing pantries and cupboards, prepping the week’s meals and deep cleaning their bathrooms. Our voyeurism fuels the trend, unfiltered and entrancing to us as spectators, and creates the charged climate in which Nigel’s work thrives.

“It used to be that the Academy decided what was good art, deciding what and who could or could not be exhibited, then the Art Dealer came along and rebelled… Today, the dealers are the establishment––what the Academy was in the 19th Century,” says Nigel, whose studio is regularly visited by young collectors who first encountered his work online. “ I wondered what would replace the Dealer and the galleries but I’m starting to realize it’s social media.”

American Voyeurism: The Allure of the Figure Lives in Nigel Van Wieck’s Work