This week I was saddened to hear that the wonderful Aboriginal artist Trevor Nickolls has passed away at 63 years of age. Trevor was best known for the fact that he represented Australia, with Rover Thomas, at the 1990 Venice Biennale.
He grew up in the suburbs of Adelaide, and began drawing and painting when just eight years old. Though he never aspired to a middle-class lifestyle he studied to become a teacher. A thorough grounding in the theory of Western art during the mid 1970’s put Nickolls in a unique position when, towards the end of his post-graduate degree, he encountered traditional Aboriginal art for the first time. 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.
He described meeting with Papunya artist Dinny Nolan in 1979 as a turning point in his life. He was completing his post-graduate studies at the Victorian College of the Arts at the time. 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 synthesize 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.’
His appointment as an education officer the following year allowed him 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’. A new mood of relaxation and fulfillment permeated his work. Cramped urban complexities give 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 the Aboriginal settlements he’d visited. Working in Sydney and Melbourne during the eighties, Nickolls once again worked with the imagery of the uncomfortable duality that he felt internally, and perceived externally.
The theme of ‘Encapsulation’, or the alienation of the individual in an industrialized landscape, became increasingly important to Nickolls as a counterpoint to the concept of the ‘Harmony of Nature’. He coined the catchphrase ‘Dreamtime – Machinetime’ 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. It is the source of spiritual sustenance and cultural continuity that underpins 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; roofs become mouths lined with teeth avariciously swallowing smoke and people.
Trevor Nickolls inventive social comment invariably carried a humorous, yet biting, edge. His imagery integrated 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 included the ‘stolen generations’, the Republic, child exploitation, deaths in custody, the Maralinga bomb tests and corporate branding.
Nickolls’ 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 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.
During the final decade of his life he pared detail 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, meditative works, with warm earth tones and traditional patterns often encompassing a solitary motif, seemed to suggest that his turbulent and conflicting emotions had found some solace.
Since first exhibiting his Dreamtime-Machinetime images in Canberra in 1978 Nickolls had 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 held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.
Trevor Nickolls was a complex artist. He employed an arsenal of iconographic imagery to impart a deep satirical edge on the absurdities of modern life. Though not particularly fond of being pigeon-holed as an ‘Aboriginal artist’ his Aboriginal heritage permeated his imagery and content. This enabled him, throughout a career that spanned more than four decades, to become one of the most potent social and political commentators in the Australian visual arts.
Bondi October 2012