Story by Gail Robinson
For this interview with an artist intricately connected to the power and pleasure of drawing I’ve come to the vigorous heart of Perth city.
I park underground in a Northbridge car park and, emerging onto James Street, study the building opposite – old, old walls of red brick tarted up with paint, peeling here and there with graffiti for company. I spot the doorway, cross the street and try the handle – locked against the passing throng. Following instructions , I pull out my phone and dial, wait. From somewhere inside stairs thud and in moments Andrew Nicholls appears.
On flouro orange sneakers he spirits us both inside and up the stairs to his studio on the top floor. It is bigger and brighter than I expected of Gotham Studios; a century old building that seems in imminent threat of demolition as new cultural buildings replace old in Perth’s shiny redevelopment phase.
I am so taken with the original turreted skylight above that I almost step on the drawing which covers half of Andrew’s floor space. At sixteen metres square it is the largest artwork he has undertaken and is a public art commission for the City of Perth’s new library. The piece will occupy the ceiling but he eschews my comparisons to Michelangelo. “I won’t be up there lying on my back to draw it. When it is done I will scan it [on Perth’s largest scanner] and then it will be blown up to 13.5 metres wide for fixing onto an architectural substrate at three stories high.”
I am briefly frustrated when he explains that the terms of his contract mean I can’t take a photo of this work in progress. I am allowed to tell you about it, though. Drawn in the fine and detailed style that is typical of his art (see examples below) it is filled with figurative imagery that portrays a suitably literary narrative interpreting Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.
Reading at first as full of sweetness and light the commissioned piece is, in the same vein as most of his work, alive with contradictions because Andrew admits he likes to play games with the viewer. “I make art about horrible things from classical culture so my work tends to be quite angry and mean,” he says. “So I use imagery that is playful and appealing to try to trick the viewer, rather than portraying the narrative as what it is.”
This drawing currently occupies nearly all of his studio time when he isn’t working as a Curator at the creative advocacy organisation, Form, where he was part of the curatorial team behind the recent PUBLIC: Art in the City program, which focused on putting street art around Perth.
According to Andrew the project was really successful. “People tend to find street art is very accessible,” he says, noting that while some businesses were brilliant, in general getting support from companies was “unbearably difficult” with some even wanting the organisation to pay them to add artwork to their walls.
I ask about his role in the program and he explains that, “street Art isn’t really my thing, so I carved out a niche doing something I was passionate about. My project was Dear William which was about artists working in the public realm site specifically, not just street art but multi-media as well.”
By way of example he cites a multi-media work by Abdul Abdullah and Pixel Pancho’s painting of an Italian person on the wall of the Central Institute. “These works speak to the area’s deep history of migration. I loved that we had migrant artists making art in William St and engaging with the community.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, I remind Andrew of his own foray into street art in 2012, when he did his own wall at the old Zekka’s café in King Street. “That was the last time I did work on a wall,” he admits. “I don’t identify as a street artist – many of these artists have come from a graffiti background, they are fast and are part of a whole scene – I see myself more as a conceptual artist who sometimes works on walls.”
As an artist Andrew does identify with his sexuality and this is integral to his work, having been both curse and blessing in the development of his career. “For so long I was pigeon-holed as a gay artist and that really annoyed me,” he says. “But then, perhaps spite is a great motivator, because my work continues to comment on the way gay subjectivity is portrayed as a broken form of heterosexuality.”
I’m not surprised to learn that Andrew also has a fascination with psychoanalysis. “Freud is so important – he had such a great influence on how we think about ourselves’, he says as we examine photographs from a residency he organised at the Freud Museum in London last year for himself and the women who are his favourite artists – Thea Costantino, Susan Flavell, Tarryn Gill, Pilar Mata Dupont and Nalda Searles. “We were the first group of Australian artists to go there and it was incredibly exciting. We are all creating work for a show about it next year.”
I tell Andrew about my own couch trip, trawling through the Turner Gallery site and my interest in the ceramic works he’d created. “I don’t call myself a ceramicist, though,” he says. “I have some skills and I think I would like to go back to hand building again, when I have the time.”
I’m looking forward to seeing more of the way he combines drawing with this medium so I am pleased to learn that he’s creating work with ceramicist Sandra Black for Here&Now14 – a ceramic sculpture exhibition at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery from 26 July. It runs until end September so perhaps I’ll see you there.
Meanwhile, I’m hopping on a plane and have an interview lined up in Melbourne with an artist who takes line into space with stunning results. You can look forward to that next, so why not subscribe so you don’t miss out.
Until then, for the love of art