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.