By Kelly Richman-Abdou*

With its myriad movements, innumerable interpretations, and a seemingly endless range of styles, the history of art is an aesthetically sundry and diverse discipline. While it tends to emphasize originality, it also illustrates the importance of influence; artists frequently seek inspiration in the work of their predecessors, and established motifs are often revisited and reimagined over time. A prime example of such a traceable theme is wreckage, a topic repeatedly explored in art history.

For centuries, prominent artists have shown an apparent interest in devastation through their work: chaotic scenes of religious cataclysm and ensuing destruction dominated art of the Middle Ages, and, during the Renaissance, Northern artists followed suit: Hieronymus Bosch painted the world set alight in The Last Judgment (1482), while Pieter Brueghel the Elder captured the consequent disarray of a plague-stricken town in The Triumph of Death (1562).

In the high drama and low light of the Baroque period, scenes of conquered territories and smoldering landscapes prevailed, influencing the war-centric focus of the Neoclassical period and the Romantic interest in shipwrecks — like Claude Joseph Vernet’s The Shipwreck (1772) — and ancient ruins alike.

In the 20th century, prolific artists like Andy Warhol and Jim Dine would modernize this trend, exploring automobile accidents in their respective series: Death and Disaster (1963) and Car Crash (1960). These in turn, inspired a similar interest among contemporary artists — like Jan Anders Nelson.

With a lifelong interest in machinery and a pertinent penchant for photography, it is no surprise that the work of Nelson — a Washington-based artist — is aptly industrial in nature and realistic in style.

While his favored subject matter spans discarded refuse, billowing smokestacks, and retro road signs, his most revisited motif is automotive wreckage. Rendered in astonishing detail, the paintings and drawings that comprise this collection are aesthetically impressive. Yet, transcending evident skill and apparent ability, they also tell a deeply personal story.

As a budding young artist, Nelson was en route to a promising career. However, when his first child was born with developmental disabilities, his professional plans took the backseat. Foregoing studio time for more conventional employment in order to properly care for his child, Nelson lived as a self-proclaimed “artist interrupted” until 2011, when, following a nearly fatal vehicular accident, he vowed to return to his roots and create art — with automobile wreckage ironically returning as his recurring muse.

In drawings like American Landscape and Midwestern Motel and other paintings that comprise his online exhibition, Dirty Picture Show, Nelson explores the altered appearance of cars post-crash; with mangled grills, protruding parts, and crooked bumpers, the classic, all-American cars seem to allude to a broken, all-American dream.

Though personal to Nelson and rendered in his distinctive style, a symbolic approach to automotive destruction is apparent in the works of other contemporary artists, too. Pieces like Li Yan’s Accident No 6 (2007) — an avant garde collection of paintings that, through frantic, blurred brushstrokes and nearly abstracted forms, convey the violent nature of the energy released during a car crash — and John Salt’s Desert Wreck (1972) — a photorealistic depiction of an abandoned and decrepit mint-colored Cadillac— are prime examples of this remarkable iconographic trend.

Clearly, like the artists that precede him, Nelson employs the wreckage motif as a representation for abstract concepts and as a means of personal reflection, particularly regarding the passing of time:

My current focus is one of deep introspection, looking back in time, past those decades in order to reconnect and engage with the younger version of myself. I originally started out on a path as an artist and am examining the ideas and integrities of the past, considering them from my current perspective and the wisdom that time and experience brings.

With this focus, it is apparent that, through his images of wreckage, Nelson alludes to the passing of time not just in terms of art historical influences, but as a poignant metaphor of his own personal narrative, too.

* Based in London, Kelly Richman-Abdou is an art writer originally from San Francisco. With a focus on research and curatorial projects, her experience spans the realms of museums, galleries, contemporary art magazines, fashion copywriting, and art business.