Born in Port Adelaide in 1949 to an Aboriginal mother and a father of English-Irish descent, Trevor Nickolls did not have access to knowledge of indigenous art styles until he undertook postgraduate studies in the mid-1970s. In 1979 he met with a number of Aboriginal artists with traditional backgrounds (from Papunya) and added the dot painting technique to his repertoire. In terms of formal qualifications and education, he boasts a Diploma in Fine Art, a postgraduate Diploma in Painting (1980) and a Creative Arts Fellowship from the Australian National University, as well as the acknowledgement of the Aboriginal Arts Board, which awarded him a development grant (1984). Trevor Nickolls has also represented Australia, along with Rover Thomas at the Venice Biennale in 1991. 16 solo exhibitions (at highly prestigious institutions), 25 selected group exhibitions, the Alice Springs Acquisition Art Award (1980) and Canberra Civic Permanent Art Award (1976) attest to his skill and success.
That particular piece of banality aside, though, it must be said that Nickolls is one of the more interesting indigenous artists and astute political commentators in Australia today. His integration of western artistic conventions (surrealism, cartoon animation and self-portraiture), symbols (comic books, the Garden of Eden) and painters (particularly Vincent Van Gogh) with traditional Aboriginal symbolism (the great Rainbow Snake) and technique (central desert dot painting and the cross hatching of Arnhemland) creates a rich tapestry of textures and colours imbued with many underlying messages. He has described his practice as "a balancing act," juxtaposing elements of both cultures in order to grasp some kind of universal truth. At any rate, he prefers to be thought of as 'Trevor Nickolls, the artist' than merely another Aboriginal painter. He "incorporate[s] Aboriginal and Western techniques and symbolism to make contemporary art that relates to both cultures today."
Nickolls' subject matter spans the gamut of social issues and presentation forms: self-portraits, interpretations of the landscape, claustrophobia, urbanisation, industrialisation, materialism, aloofness in society, alienation from cultural background and cultural fusion. Although Nickolls has dallied with a number of experimental phases and progressed through many styles, the underlying theme of his work is, at heart, autobiographical (insofar as it reflects his experiences and frustrations). Those themes, however, are universally applicable and there is no specific reference to Nickolls himself in most of his work. As of late, he has concentrated on issues concerning politics and national identity: the Stolen Generation, the Republican Australia movement (and referendum), the phenomenon of insidious child-oriented advertising campaigns and the sentimentalising of corporate logos and brand name products.
One particular work stands out as containing all the quintessential elements of Nickolls' style; 'From Dreamtime 2 Machinetime' (1979) is similar in composition to a playing card (in the way the bottom half is upside down), although the two halves are not symmetrical; whereas the top portrays an abstract figure (smiling and surrounded by indigenous Australian imagery), the bottom portrays three startled-looking figures in front of high-density housing. The former gives the impression of space and freedom, by virtue of its high horizon and the use of the bird and sun as symbols. The latter, though, seems cramped by contrast. The presentation of this work seems to hint at the inherent conflict in the life of a modern Aborigine, torn between the tribal Dreamtime lifestyle and the 'Machinetime' of white urban society.
Similarly, the split figure in 'Political spiritual' (1981) represents the different facets of the individual and (as is the case with many of Nickolls' works) utilises the dynamism of symmetry to portray this. A similar diametric contrast of colours and forms is used in 'Wrestling with the White Spirit' (I can’t seem to pin a date on this one). His earlier works, however, do not have the same political elements and are - as in the case of 'Childhood Dreaming' (1973) - simply introspective voyages through the cold, mechanical context which he felt was his youth.
A neat summary of Nickolls' work is provided by the 1993-94 publication of State of the Art (Melbourne City Galleries):
Trevor Nickolls is an exemplary contemporary urban Aboriginal artist, whose mixed heritage dictates the style and content of his powerful and incisive paintings. Thematically, Trevor Nickolls is concerned with the way in which man relates to both cityscape and landscape in the 20th century. He employs this theme in order to express himself on a personal and political level. For Nickolls, this estrangement from the tribal culture of his ancestors is a source of deep anxiety and sorrow. The desire to belong to a close-knit, spiritual community of Aboriginal people stems from feeling somewhat alienated in the sterile and often hostile industrialised, western society in which he lives. Trevor Nickolls' works are rich with metaphor, compelling imagery and intricate detail. Central Australian Aboriginal art is a source of inspiration for him and he combines its imagery with his own wealth of symbols. Trevor Nickolls' works often have a biting, satirical edge to them. He has an extraordinary ability to home in on the absurd aspects of his own daily life and society at large. Sometimes, however, his work is imbued with anxiety, which stems from his mixed heritage and the feeling of not entirely belonging to any particular culture.
Sources: Critical Evaluations: Trevor Nickolls, author unknown.
State of the Art, Melbourne City Galleries (1993-1994).
Books and other documents:
http://www.nga.gov.au/federation/Detail.cfm?WorkID=89112 (National Gallery of Australia, Federation Australian Art and Society 1901-2001: Machinetime Dreamtime).
http://www.vivienandersongallery.com/trevor_cv.htm (Vivien Andersen Gallery: Trevor Nickolls).
http://www.artnet.com/library/06/0623/T062358.asp (Artists’ Biographies: Trevor Nickolls).