Nell: Freedom within contradictions

Sydney artist Nell’s work explores birth, sex, mortality, Buddhism and love to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Carrie Miller takes a look at what in particular informs her latest exhibition.

Words: Carrie Miller

“Nell makes are and art makes Nell.” It may sound like a grandiose statement but not when you are talking about a girl who grew up in Maitland, a country town on a flood plain 32km north-west of Newcastle, absorbing the combined aesthetic of an austere Baptist church and the bogan heavy metal look of the local boys because that is all there was for her acute observational eye to take in. As soon as she could she headed for art school, which included an Honours year in Los Angeles (just because her favourite artist Mike Kelley lived there):

“When I was 16 I knew I was going to be an artist and that my art practice was my life practice. I experience art making as the totality of possibility for anything and everything to come into existence or to disappear. And freedom is always near.”

Nell has been treading her own path ever since. This included initiating herself into a creative family by dropping her surname.

To understand Nell is to understand that contradictions do not have to be resolved. While she may have an inner rock chick she is also someone who took her Buddhist vows in an ancient Chinese ceremony. A genuinely cross- disciplinary artist, Nell’s practice is rooted in the particularity of its material context – the stuff of life – which is drawn from sources as diverse as her own personal history, to her search for a universal meaning. As Nell explains, her work deals with “birth, sex and death understood through physical experiences of impermanence.” Her great love of life and small joys “manifest in artworks that are everyday meditations on what it means to stay familiar with the certainty of your own mortality”.

In an art world full of cookie-cutter artists Nell has a creative life force from which her practice springs and which makes her unforgettable. Attention came early to the precociously talented artist. She was chosen to be part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera at the age of 24 and was then picked up by one of Australia’s most high profile galleries, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, by the time she was 26 years old.

During her late twenties and early thirties Nell showed consistently, undertook residences in Rome, Beijing and Paris, as well establishing an artist-run space with a group of her peers. What sustained her during this period was her commitment to her practice: “I learnt to let go of the identity of being an artist but just getting on with the business of making art.”

In recent times Nell’s had another wave of success. She re-created AC/DC’s iconic It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) video in a performance in Sydney in 2011, which was extended by the Museum of Old and New Art in 2012. She completed a 7-floor neon installation for the corporate law offices of Allens Arthur Robinson currently on display at Deutsche Bank Place, Sydney. In 2011 she was a finalist in the Blake Prize and the Wynne Prize. She’s collaborated with fashion label Romance Was Born. Nell also returned to her roots with a solo show at Maitland Regional Art Gallery called Home Town Girl Has Wet Dream and was chosen for the inaugural Museum of Contemporary Art Young Ambassador Committee.

Nell’s latest show Gravest Hits will be her seventh solo show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, where she will exhibit old material and ideas and represent them in a new context in order for audiences to see the continuity of her practice. She has recently been picked up by KALIMANRAWLINS in Melbourne with a show slated for the second half of the year. She is also working on a children’s book.

In typical Nell fashion I received an email from her just before filing this article letting me know that “as far as things sit now my turd will be heading for Paris”. This is a reference to her bronze cast, silver-plated smiling shit sculpture collected by MONA and currently on show at the Theatre of the World exhibition that will tour to the City of Light in October.

Some people question what the signature style of an artist like Nell’s is. This email tells you everything you need to know about the artist’s style – straight shooting, endearingly kooky, full of life, and always, always about the art.

Image: Nell, self-nature is subtle and mysterious –, 2010. Glass reinforced plastic, silver leaf, varnish, nickel plated bronze, Nell size, 2 parts (121 x 8 x 4 cm; 91 x 75 x 59 cm). Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 64, APR – JUN 2013.


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