The following is an essay I wrote for ‘Undercurrents, paintings and drawing by Chris Nicholls’ Pomonal Publishing 2013
‘None of these are actual places,’ Chris once said to me when we were looking at some work in his studio. ‘They’re landscapes of the mind.’
That they were none-the-less very much connected to the real world was evident to anyone who had seen him in the bush, climbing a steep rocky trail as effortlessly as a bandicoot, standing for hours beneath a chough’s nest to catch a glimpse of the hatchlings, watching the sun go down or the moon come up – often with a camera in hand.
Now, walking along a dirt road or pressing through unruly scrub near the Grampians, close to where he worked in the Wimmera, I find myself confronted with Chris’s Landscapes of the Mind. I see them in patterns that spring out of apparent chaos – the difficult tangles of the Aussie bush – startling angles in a branch or a creek bank, the way the shifting light suddenly brings forward the trunk of a tree while the rest sit back in sombre harmony. So many ambiguous shapes playing across the mind like images from a dream – faces, animals, monsters … I recognize his brushstrokes with an exhilarating Aha!
Chris seldom spoke at any length about the concepts behind his work, though he was quick to vocalize other passions; among which was disgust for what extreme aspects of civilization had done, or might still do, to the natural world. He had respect for the old timers who had done things more gently, and he loved to fossick for remnants of that particular past. He was also deeply reverent of the many signs of Aboriginal occupation in the region. It is not difficult to connect all these threads with the work he would not, or could not speak about.
Chris did sometimes speak about the creative process itself, and how it related to the life he lived. Whatever I can say of his attitudes and intentions I owe to late night philosophy sessions over the phone. Brother and sister ‘putting the world to rights’. He often mocked ruthlessly anything he felt to be synthetic, contrived or pretentious. He sensed that the role of the artist was changing, being forced into step with interests more yoked to industry than to culture. He didn’t want any part of that, and feared that a public account of himself within that arena might be so removed from his actual experience of creation that it would, in some way, damage the process. And then that process, so precious and transformative, could no longer be authentic.
When we were building his website together, I witnessed his frustration as he attempted to write something about his work. It’s not that he couldn’t express himself in writing – he wrote poetry, and fantastic letters. But he found that whatever he said about his work one day, never felt quite as true the next. And of course, like many other artists, he simply feared misunderstanding and rejection. So he chose to remain silent.
There were many sides to his work, many voices that sometimes converged, sometimes contradicted. He gleefully confronted the darkness within himself, his family, and a wider social sphere; he could, especially in his quick drawings, be cutting, cruel, or intentionally shocking. (‘Border Protection’ for example.)
In ‘Grampians Wedding Party’ and his ‘Landscape with Lawn’ series he pits the timeless grandeur of the earth against a paltry attempt to elevate human vanities. This play of contrast between the man-made and the natural world is a recurring theme refined in ’Down River Drive’ and ‘Landscape with Lawn’ series, where towns encroach upon wild landscape, and wilderness threatens repossession.
Chris often spoke of his regard for the local poet John Shaw Neilson. When I finally read some of Neilson’s work I was unprepared for its level of romantic lyricism – because Chris seemed to edit out this quality from his work. Many paintings were destroyed, painted over, dumped with garbage at the local tip. Fortunately we still have photos of many of them, and, I find it is frequently these lyrical, romantic, somewhat sentimental works that have not passed his ruthless scrutiny.
The word he was most afraid of was ‘facile’. In 1985 he had an exhibition of post-bushfire Grampians landscapes at the Horsham Regional Gallery; 43 stunningly beautiful works, mostly on paper. The show almost completely sold out. Afterwards Chris said, ‘I’m not going to paint like that anymore!’ He was content to work in relative obscurity because it allowed greater honesty, and freedom from artificial influence.
He didn’t want to play the self-promotion game. I got the impression that the ruthless honesty he demanded from himself was his counter to what he perceived as an increasingly contrived and synthetic world wherein anybody with a camera or computer might exhibit their too easily hatched images.
Not withstanding my brother’s efforts to be ruthless, authentic and uncontrived, for me it is Chris’ more lyrical work that has most power. Those that rely upon a subtle play of light, or the contrast between light and darkness. In these he seems to have captured something potent and primitive from his source and distilled it into a tincture, a remedy for my overly civilized sufferings.