Review: Christian Nicolson: A Giant Among Heroes

Posted by on Nov 29, 2010 | 2 Comments

Artist: Christian Nicolson: “The Bionic Boy”
Gallery: Art By The Sea, King Edward Parade, Devonport
Until December 2

The Tardis Acrylic on Board 61cm x 45cm $750

The Tardis Acrylic on Board 61cm x 45cm $750

Any artist who through her/his work makes literal references to a “golden era” of pop culture and television is setting themselves up for a savaging from the critics. Their message and the means of communicating that message had better have its main brace spliced and its yardarm hoisted or they are likely face accusations of everything from false consciousness to prurient nostalgia. More Art AT Sea, than Art By The Sea.

Christian Nicolson’s blurb, distributed with his current exhibition “The Bionic Boy” at “Art By The Sea” gets off to a bad start: “When I was a boy, I was younger than am I now. Things were different.” Uh oh.

Fortunately, by the time I had read the blurb, I had been so completely blown away by his exhibition that I recognised the gentle irony and deeper significance in his message.

What also struck me is that – at this particular point in time – we as a culture are in a position to review the first 50-odd years of a world with television. When you think about it, that’s hugely significant. And Christian Nicolson has given us his own view of how times have changed. He hasn’t done so by juxtaposing contemporary TV against that of the 70s, but by casting his adult view of his childhood perceptions of those heroes and villains in amongst the characters themselves. This makes for some hilarious, contrapuntal and poignant moments. But it also provides us with some valuable tools for understanding contemporary culture.

All of this might be little more than a bit entertaining if Nicolson’s rendering of his vision wasn’t so beautiful, and so accomplished. This is a man who has mastered many techniques. For example, his abstract landscapes demonstrate this; not so much through what he puts in, but what he leaves out. One work features an arid desert, masterly portrayed through its minimalism (even the sky and the earth are roughly the same colour). One can’t help but impute into the work the surreal towers of Monument Valley, or hear the chilling harmonica from “Once Upon Time In The West.” In the distance, four cowboy silhouettes ride off into the sunset. In the foreground a young child, dressed in his cowboy outfit, frantically gesticulates at the figures from his tricycle. The text reads: “Wait for me boys.” Haunting, touching and funny, but crafted with enough skill and originality to allow you to appreciate it not just as a cartoon but also as a work of art. Wait for Me! Acrylic on Canvas 122cm x 61cm $1850.

Which would be interesting for a couple of pictures, before the joke started to wear a bit thin, right? Move on to the next work; a gigantic standing portrait of Tom Baker as Dr Who. Tom Baker Acrylic on Board 109cm x 207cm $6500. Here, the background is a fizzing bed of energy, the almost Daliesque emptiness of the previous work replaced by a vibrating peach trifle of colour that Jackson Pollock might have been proud of. And so it goes. Each work is unique, each character from a TV series peering out from among the chaos of colour and distant memory, their eyes calmly fixed on the observer with that “Don’t worry, I know what to do” look of the 70s hero, their bodies and clothes often a blur of colour and form, absorbed and misshapen by time.

All of which is a bit frustrating, because there are a lot of things about this exhibition that should have got my back up. I’ve never been a fan of words or messages being written into artworks (I know, call me old-fashioned), but this blasted Nicolson kid has done it in a way that doesn’t just make one think “Oh alright, just this once” but had me tittering uncontrollably at some of the glorious juxtapositions of text and subject matter. Go check out How to Evade a Dalek (Acrylic on Board 61cm x 45cm) $750; I challenge you not to laugh, go warm inside and have your senses massaged by the ludicrous mix of colour, brush strokes and patterns when dovetailed with the deliberately child-like voice of the text.

Literal references to specific subjects is another thing that has always got my goat (you know specific political causes, favourite animals or sports); if the artist wants to be that goddam explicit, why don’t they just write an article ? But this pesky Nicolson guy has done it again. The answer is simple,  and like all budding appreciators of art should, I learnt something from this exhibition. If the artist’s intentions are honestly attempted, concisely expressed and universally applicable, it doesn’t really matter what’s on the canvas. It might just take a little longer, or a little more experience to get it.

The message in this exhibition is simple;”I cared for these characters. I shared my affection for them and my concern for their travails with all my mates, because we only had two TV channels back then and we always watched the same programmes. I wanted to be like those heroes because they stood for something good, they taught me stuff and (ultimately) they always did the right thing.”

And that’s where the significance of the exhibition punched me between the eyes. Remember the debates back then about the violence and dangerous fantasies on TV? How our parents all thought we would turn into kung fu kicking, six million dollar reprobates? What Christian has captured is that actually quite the opposite message was being received. “Here is what you need to do to be the good guy young Nicolson, even if your shoulders are a bit drooped and your legs are a bit twiggy.”

That to me is a powerful message for today’s society. Who are our kids’ heroes? And how will they be expressing their memories of those heroes in 20 years time?

It made me think again about the gloriously complex Matrix trilogy and how its central figure played by Keanu Reeves became an iconic hero of the 21st century pop culture; but whose message is often interpreted as simply being “Christ is back, and this time he’s packing guns.” A careful watching of the second and third films will reveal something quite different; but it will be some years before the Neo character can be represented as a symbol of anything more than the monosyllabic gun-toting saviour somewhat flatly portrayed by Reeves.

The current popular obsession with reality TV suggests a dumbing down of viewer’s expectations. Or perhaps we just want our heroes and villains to be more everyday figures. The medium has changed, but it’s the same message isn’t it? Nicolson’s work allows us to ask these questions, and probe a little deeper into mainstream culture, rather than immediately writing it off.

Needless to say therefore, young Master Nicolson’s main brace is expertly spliced and his yardarm ingeniously hoisted as he laconically jibes his way through our shared history of hero figures and love interests, while also managing to convey a prescient message using just about every means possible when employing a two-dimensional surface.

This guy is already big. He will get bigger (that was his giant at the Sculpture on the Shore exhibition, since purchased by James Wallace). But you better hurry, ‘cos I’m saving up to nab one of his works that features my first girlfriend.

2 comments

  1. Becky says:

    Loved the exhibition, really good stuff,keep it coming. And great to see Art By the Sea all fixed!

  2. gosh. you say the nicest things. i am blown away by this review. thank you very much. This sort of things adds fuel to my fire in every way possible. Perhaps if I could express myself in the same way you do then i would. I can but do my best and try to connect in my own way. It is exciting to hear that sometimes I do. Keep reviewing my work and I will try not to let you down.

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