Brought up in the suburbs of Adelaide, Trevor Nickolls began drawing and painting from the age of eight years old. These early explorations would later become the basis for his livelihood as an art teacher, though he never aspired for the material attributes that so often accompany a middle-class lifestyle. However, grounding in the theory of Western art put Nickolls in a unique position when, towards the end of his post-graduate degree, he encountered traditional Aboriginal art for the first time. During the late seventies the intellectual climate, strongly influenced by post-modernism, was expanding boundaries throughout the contemporary art world and in this climate the concept of ‘aboriginality’ took hold, mirroring Nickolls’ own exploration of his Aboriginal heritage. ‘Self-consciously operating within the ongoing narrative of Western art, Nickolls drew upon both ancient and modern iconography as he strove to articulate the uneasy fault-line that underpinned both an identity and a society built upon the disavowal of its sacred past' (O’Ferral1989). Nickolls, though, might feel ill at ease with this explicitly political interpretation of his work for he feels 'I simply cannot make such direct, literal political statements in my paintings' (Beier 1985: 14)
Nickolls has described his meeting with Papunya artist Dinny Nolan in 1979 as a turning point in his life. He was, at this time, completing post-graduate studies at the Victorian College of the Arts and Nolan, working temporarily in Melbourne, generously shared his tribal wisdom and artistic knowledge. The Papunya artists had won international acclaim for their successful adaptation of tribal art into a modern context, while still keeping its secret, ritual meanings intact. With both artists coming from opposite directions, Nickolls felt that it could be possible to synthesise an art style from elements of both cultures. The dotting technique of Desert art and the deliberate addition of rarrk cross hatching enriched Nickolls’ love of dense and complex textures, and new images enlivened his iconographic language. He found that ancient techniques were actually very modern and scientific, commenting 'everything is moving… you can look at things in a molecular way,' he commented (cited in Liz Thompson 1989).
His appointment as an education officer the following year allowed Nickolls to travel, meeting artists and elders throughout Arnhem Land and seeing traditional rock paintings in situ. His understanding of the Aboriginal relationship to the land was no longer only an intellectual one; 'I was right in it', he says, 'it wraps itself around you, full of spirit, the space, the Dreaming, imagining how it was once' (Isaacs, 1989: 76). A new mood of relaxation and fulfilment permeated Nickoll’s work of this period. Cramped urban complexities gave way to an elemental landscape where figures, trees, animals and waterholes were held in a direct frontal foreground, confronting and engaging the viewer with a powerful sense of mythic relatedness. Tightly patterned dots radiated a vibrant life force, harmonizing the background in a unique rendition of an Australianised Garden of Eden. He returned to the city sadly disillusioned with the conditions he saw in some Aboriginal settlements of the interior. Working in Sydney and Melbourne during the eighties was a time when Nickolls once again worked with the imagery of the uncomfortable duality that he felt internally, and perceived externally.
The theme of ‘Encapsulation’ which had begun during his art school days in the 1960’s became increasingly important to Nickolls as he explored the alienation of the individual in an industrialized landscape as a counterpoint to the concept of ‘Harmony of Nature’. He coined the catchphrase ‘Dreamtime - Machinetime’ during this period to describe the divide between Aboriginal and Western cultures. In ‘Machinetime’ humankind is trapped by its own inventions; a cramped and hostile technological environment where isolated individuals, in cell-like apartments, plug into their television sets, trying to ward off a sense of loss and anxiety as they become increasingly estranged from each other and the earth. ‘Dreamtime’ introduces a relationship to nature that, in keeping with Aboriginal beliefs, is the source of spiritual sustenance and cultural continuity underpinning the necessary conditions for a life affirming and dignified human existence. Often tightly juxtaposed within one canvas, these two realities collide abruptly with contrasting areas of colour, texture and spatial composition. A recurring language of symbols twine around and into each other; a Rainbow Serpent slides into the shape of the dollar sign; as a bird wings its way towards a vibrant sun the agonized profile of an entrapped human reaches for the freedom of open space above the cacophony of high rise buildings; roofs become mouths lined with teeth avariciously swallowing smoke and people. The artist’s inventive social comment invariably carries a humorous, yet biting, edge. His imagery integrates a number of Western art conventions including surrealism, portraiture, comic book illustration and cartoon animation, with Aboriginal symbolism such as Desert dotting and Arnhem Land cross hatching, in a delicate balancing act between cultures aimed at uncovering and exposing universal truths. Additional themes in his work have included the ‘stolen generations’, the Republic, child exploitation, deaths in custody, the Maralinga bomb tests and corporate branding.
Nickolls was cast into the limelight when chosen to represent Australia with thirty paintings in the 1990 Venice Biennale. His ability to inscribe his paintings with an experiential quality had always given them an autobiographical leaning, attracting attention for their unflinching honesty. His recurring self-portraits have charted the development and progressions of an eclectic and provocative style, reflecting the dilemmas of contemporary life as much as his own fears and longings. From the early to mid 2000’s, detail is pared to a minimum, colourful and busy textures fall away, leaving basic elements such as a boomerang or spear thrower in a sparse, semi-abstract field. These quieter, meditational works, with warm earth tones and traditional patterns often encompassing a solitary motif, seem to suggest that his turbulent and conflicting emotions have found some solace. In his most recent work complex multiplying layers reemerges as a testimony to an ongoing sensitivity to his breathing environment that never lies entirely at rest.
Since first exhibiting his Dreamtime-Machinetime images in Canberra in 1978 Nickolls built an extensive exhibition record of more than 50 group and solo shows across Australia, in addition to several in Europe and the United States. In 2009 a solo survey of his works, Other Side Art, was put on by the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne and is set to tour nationally. In 2010 a solo exhibition, Self Portrait and other Spirits, opened at the Kintolai Gallery in Adelaide. In addition he is represented in all the major national collections and has collected a host of awards, prizes and commissions. Trevor Nickolls was a complex artist whose oeuvre becomes richer and more fascinating as one delves into it. He used an arsenal of iconographic origins, even comic book imagery, to provide fodder for the artist’s deep satirical edge as he ruminated on the absurdities of our modern reality. Though not particularly fond of being pigeon-holed as an ‘Aboriginal artist’, his Aboriginal heritage permeated his art imagery and content, enabling him, over a career that has spanned more than four decades, to become one of the most potent social and political commentators in the Australian visual arts.
While both Trevor Nickolls and Rover Thomas jointly represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale, it is Thomas, Australia’s second most successful Indigenous artist, who is more widely recognized for this particular distinction. It seems ironic then, that the two highest prices paid for a work by Trevor Nickolls at auction were both for the same painting titled Roving in Thomas Town 1994. This 152 x 212 cm canvas was the first of his paintings to be highlighted in an auction with a catalogue essay. It sold for $53,525 at Deutscher-Menzies in June 2000 and three years later, when it re-sold at Lawson-Menzies in July 2003 auction, its value dropped very slightly to $49,350.
22 of Nickolls' works were sold by Sotheby’s throughout the 1990s and, not one was illustrated in the sales catalogues. This would account in large measure for their poor sale rate with 34, or 47% remaining unsold during that period. Sotheby’s first illustrated his work in 2001 and by 2004 showed his paintings across two pages illustrating four works, one of which had a long description plus the mention that he had been chosen for the Venice Biennale in 1990. This 91 x 76 cm canvas, Machinetime Head 1989, sold for $13,200, the artist’s third highest recorded result at the time and nearly twice the sale price of the other three, even though all of these these were small.
Though his sale rate is unimpressive at 56%, the majority of works that have failed to sell have been minor pieces, including pen and ink drawings, offered during the 1990s. Of the 23 works on paper that have been offered only six have sold for an average price of approximately $870. His paintings on canvas and board, however, have experienced a success rate of over 60 % and the prices achieved for Trevor Nickoll's works have been on the rise since his first major result in 2000. The appearance of Aboriginal art on the secondary market is still a quite recent phenomenon and, Hermannsburg paintings aside, sales records generally do not go back more than 20 years. The vast majority of work is ‘traditional’ or ethnographic and the audience for urban art is smaller, even if well informed. Trevor Nickoll’s work first appeared for sale at auction in 1990 and, by 1993, of ten offered only two had sold. Between 1994 and 2001 his statistics were turned on their head with 24 sold and only six unsold.
Trevor Nickolls painted complex ideas within multi-layered imagery, expressive of the black/white dilemma and the machine age conflict with nature. Amongst them are works that are crudely rendered - tough subjects that can be too ‘in your face’ for the average collector. However, just as often, if not more so, the paintings are not only aesthetically pleasing but also unforgettable, perhaps because the image has captured the spirit of our times. The best works by this artist have yet to appear at auction. Having played a prime role in the development of urban Aboriginal art, he is extremely well represented in the literature and museum collections, therefore greater recognition is certain when his best works are offered for sale. The prices of works by this artist are still low enough for those with an eye for ‘tough subjects’ to invest in paintings that could easily, given current environmental and human concerns, become emblematic and increase in value markedly over the coming decade. Collectors should however carefully consider those images which verge on ‘new age kitsch’, or ones in which there is little interest beyond what appears to be a ‘dotted’ landscape. His major works in this genre may well become masterpieces but many of the smaller versions fail to excite.