Andrew Nicholls Living Walls Interview
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Living Walls Interview with Andrew Nicholls
What does the idea of ‘living walls’ mean to you?
In researching my catalogue essay for this exhibition I found an article about the famous Bradshaw Aboriginal rock paintings in the Kimberly. They are thought to be around 40,000 years old, making them some of the world’s oldest known wall works, but their colours are more intense than other, much younger rock paintings in the region. This article stated that scientists have recently discovered that the colours are not actually pigment at all as everyone has always assumed, but that the carvings have in fact been colonized by bacteria and fungi, which have a much more intense colour – literally living walls!
What’s your background? How would you describe what you do? And what drew you to making art?
I have drawn and painted from a very young age. During high school I attended these fantastic Saturday morning art classes that the Art Gallery of Western Australia used to run. Each term we worked with a different local artist, all of whom numbered among the more proactive early-career artists in Perth at that time, so it was an insight into the arts industry that TEE art simply didn’t provide. That was what made me understand that you could have a career as an artist: up until then I’d been thinking of going into architecture or stage design, I didn’t realize you could ‘just’ make art.
I went on to study fine art at university (about a thousand years ago) but majored in sculpture with a minor in textiles, (oddly enough). I began drawing soon after I graduated partly because it was something I could do in my studio (which was tiny) while drinking and smoking with friends, and partly because at that time (in the early 2000s) there were very few people specializing in drawing in Perth, so it gave my practice a point of difference. I have always liked the ‘purity’ of a drawing practice – since drawing forms the basis of all art, it feels somehow unpretentious.
Over the past decade I’ve continued drawing but extended what I draw on to incorporate walls, ceramics and limited-edition products, as well as interpreting the drawing process through video. Drawing remains the driving force behind my work.
Could you describe your creative process? What inspires your work? And what draws you to illustration?
Communication is central to my practice, so illustration makes sense to me as a medium as it’s a very direct way to communicate with an audience. Funnily enough I tend not to buy much figurative art, most of my personal art collection is abstract, but for my own work it’s important to connect more directly with the viewer.
Most of my work comes from a pretty dark place: I’m interested in injustices and histories of marginalisation, and the way that these histories have been expressed aesthetically: the brutality that has formed the context for images we take for granted. English bone china design (which is a major influence for me), is a good example because it’s such cozy, pretty, seemingly-innocuous stuff, yet it is so intrinsically linked to the colonial project and histories of cultural appropriation, invasion and intimidation. A lot of what I draw is appropriated from a variety of other sources (such as classical artworks, Victorian etchings, botanical illustration, fabric designs and so on), that I reinterpret into my own compositions, so I’m always on the look out for new things to ‘steal’.
My work tends to take a very long time, so I generally listen to music while I draw, otherwise the repetitive nature of the work would be too tedious. As a result I’m probably influenced as much by musicians as visual artists, I think there’s possibly a similarity between the way I build up my drawings from multiple dots and lines, and the way a composer or orchestrator may work. I name a lot of my work after the music I was listening to at the time.
How important is humour in your articulation of ideas about history and identity?
All of my work is critical, and humour can allow you to make a critical statement without annoying people too much. My work has quite a mean sense of humour though, it’s often laughing at the viewer, rather than with them, trying to implicate them within the power play that it is critiquing.
How has your practice changed over time and how would you like to see it grow?
I suppose the most important progression in my work has been the shift into ceramics. This has proven successful so far: everyone seems to like the work, and it has sold quite well, which is nice, but I’d like to get more technically proficient over coming years. The same goes for my video work: at the moment I think both these streams of my practice are too crude.
Who has inspired you most creatively, and how?
I’m inspired by creative people across a range of disciplines, but all of the artists I really admire have been able to carve out a niche for themselves in which they can produce the work they want to with little regard to anyone else. It’s such a rare thing, that level of freedom, and there are few people who can occupy that space without becoming completely self-indulgent. My two greatest idols are Louise Bourgeois and Kate Bush, followed by David Lynch. Kate Bush in particular I’m in total awe of: she has demanded a level of freedom that is unprecedented in the commercial music industry and as a result she is able to create the most extraordinary work. Given that my own work is (intentionally) derivative, I’m envious of anyone who can produce work that is so original. I’m drawn to people like John Waters and Amy Sedaris who have turned their own eccentricities into a creative practice. I admire people who work hard: Dolly Parton has written over 3,000 songs and they’re all good. That’s quite a legacy.
As a general (and very sexist) rule I find that women produce more interesting artwork than men. Most of my favourite artists are women – Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Moffatt and locally, Nalda Searles, Susan Flavell, Cathy Blanchflower, Helen Smith, Eubena Nampitjin and Kantjupayi Benson. Conversely, and all my favourite directors are men: Lynch and Waters of course, Georges Melies, Val Lewton and Dario Argento.
How do commercial considerations affect your practice? Is it possible for young artists to make a good living in Perth?
It depends on your definition of a ‘good living’. I feel like I live a good life, but luckily I’m not especially driven by money; If I were, I wouldn’t be making the work I do, as drawings on paper are very difficult to sell. I’m blessed with a great gallery that does sell a lot of my work, but I have to supplement my income through other means. I don’t know of many artists (young or otherwise) who can live off their practice in Perth, particularly in recent years with the cost of living increasing so dramatically. People in this city go on about the boom and how we haven’t suffered like the rest of the world with the GFC but all the boom has meant for me is that I now spend ninety percent of my income on rent and food and have no savings. That’s a tad depressing at my stage in life.
Is the labour-intensive nature of your work crucial to its integrity and power?
Definitely. I find a lot of art being made at the moment (and being made a lot of) to be very cold. It seems to be posturing as art, rather than actually trying to express something, and there’s a real smugness about rejecting any kind of technique that I find tedious…it’s all very wry and clever and I understand the appeal of that (collectors feel confident investing in work that makes them feel smarter than other people), but I feel that there’s a level of integrity implicit to labour-intensive technique that you can’t help but appreciate, even if you don’t enjoy the aesthetic. I’m not at all a particularly altruistic person, but I do see my work as something of a gift of time and labour for the viewer. With my temporary wall works, I like the tragedy implicit in spending two weeks drawing something, only to paint over it at the end of the exhibition.
In what ways does the value or the meaning of art change when it’s used for illustrative or decorative purposes, or for urban spaces or in the gallery?
Since the Renaissance there has been a separation between ‘fine art’ and ‘decorative art’ (in Western culture at least), and for much of the twentieth century there was a dominant assumption in arts criticism that abstraction was more ‘important’ than figurative work, or that figurative work was too easily adopted by the right wing for questionable ends. These attitudes have relaxed somewhat in the wake of postmodernism and poststructuralism, but I think there’s still a prejudice against work that looks to be enjoying itself too much, or that seems to want to be accessible. As my own work is concerned with the processes of marginalisation, this history provides a rich context to draw upon.
Has street art influenced your practice? And if so how?
Not particularly. It isn’t something I know much about and I’ve certainly never been a part of that world – I’m way too much of a nerd. Certainly I envy the speed at which aerosol artists can work. My own wall drawings take weeks to install, so the thought of resolving a wall-scaled work in a few hours is very appealing. There’s real technique in that.
I quite like seeing graffiti of the illegal kind in city because it seems to suggest that the young people who live there have an opinion about something – young people should break the law.
How would you describe Perth’s art scene?
I really think Perth has some of the best artists in the country, but as in many industries the people who achieve recognition are seldom the ones who are most deserving; I get tired of seeing mediocre work get celebrated in this city. Perth is still a small pond, so it’s a good place to establish a career: I’ve been given opportunities here that I probably wouldn’t have in another city, but you reach a point from which it becomes very difficult to progress in your career, and it’s still extremely difficult to establish yourself elsewhere else from here. I know of very few artists who have achieved meaningful national recognition from Perth without moving away, which is sad because inevitably we end up losing many of our best artists as a result.
What role do you think street/urban/illustrative art has in the contemporary life of cities?
As I said, I’m not particularly knowledgeable about street or urban art. A lot of what passes for public art in this city seems devoid of energy or ambition to me, so by comparison, at least a lot of street art feels sincere…I suppose I’d rather look at technically accomplished graffiti than a billboard or some hideous sculpture at a train station that had to go through an approvals process.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Get a university degree – that’s very conservative advice I know, but I feel very strongly that if artists are going to put work out into the world, they have a responsibility educate themselves enough that they can be critical. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an art degree, but something in the Humanities where you’re forced to read books.
Other than that: see as much art as you can; travel; read as many books and watch as many films as possible; do proper research (don’t rely on wikipedia and google); take advantage of the arts funding system (there’s so much money available for emerging artists that I’m now too old to access); work hard; be humble.
In short: Don’t be lazy and mind your manners.
Prints of Andrew’s work is available at FORM Gallery – contact 08 9226 2799 or firstname.lastname@example.org to order.
Whirlpool archival print
Earth archival print