'Blue Australian' exhibition review / by Travis Kelleher

Andrew Nicholls ,  Australian sporting  (detail),   2004, copper-plate engraved Spode decals on Spode bone china (series of 8 plates).

Andrew Nicholls, Australian sporting (detail), 2004, copper-plate engraved Spode decals on Spode bone china (series of 8 plates).

Blue Australian, Lia Tajcnar, Canberra based artist and designer, 2009.

Andrew Nicholls’ Blue Australian takes us on a personal journey exploring the political, environmental and social consequences of an idealised version of nature and our illusion of having control over it. The blue and white ceramic tradition is used to illustrate the history of the colonisation of Australia and how entwined we still are with notions of the ideal. Layers of meaning and subtlety are at play in the exhibition, which consists of ceramic vessels, drawings of historical pots and a blue ink drawing done directly onto the gallery wall. Nicholls works in concert with the objects and his source material, allowing them to speak with their own rich historical voice. These objects though, are not just used as didactic lessons but are infused with humor and an over-the-top camp sensibility that also pays homage to the decorative nature of the original ceramic wares. Nicholls’ skill and joy in drawing quite literally draws us in - seduces us with beauty and asks us to engage with our own desires and place in history.

The most straightforward works in the exhibition were created out of a residency Nicholls undertook at the Spode Porcelain Factory, UK and used cast plates that subvert the story of colonisation with its own language. Unaltered Spode decals, originally used to represent a heroic and sentimentalised version of Jolly Old England and her conquests, were carefully chosen and collaged onto the plates to portray an alternative and sinister version of the past. Australian Sporting, a series of aesthetically spare and bleak plates displayed in a line along the wall, illustrates the collectable nature of colonisation - how the exotic and the ‘other’ could be tamed and collected on a plate - a small trophy of plunder. 

Other works, with decals created from the artist’s drawings and applied onto Spode functional ceramic objects, are more multi-layered, personal and complex. Nicholls spoke to me of the influence on his art practice of a decorative Spode platter, a wedding gift to his parents, displayed on the wall in his family home. This historically-loaded object has been recreated in his drawings as both a carrier of meaning to represent ideas, and a vehicle of aesthetic investigation. Nicholls’ desire to represent the past allows us a personal insight into how the colonialists’ desires, sense of longing, and nostalgia for home led them to make certain decisions that often had disastrous consequences. Spode Cane Toad Cups, Patterson’s Curse Saucer and Rabbit Cake Plate show the colonialists’ impulse to superimpose an idealised sense of home on a strange and foreign land, and bend nature to a shortsighted and predetermined plan. The objects themselves convey additional layers of meaning and insight. The rabbit cake plate depicts a rabbit eating a plant, echoing our own insatiable appetites and the bitter aftertaste of mindless consumption. There is a sense of irony that these insidious pests are ‘contained’ on cups, saucers and plates while in reality they have proven to be anything but containable. Our illusion of being in control of nature is only that, a pretty illustration on a dainty cup. 

Several drawings from the Blue Australian pattern book series depict containers, copies of historical vessels, overrun with delightfully fecund and uncontrollable Australian native plants. The drawings, beautifully decorative, are robust and playful with assured bold lines that still retain the spontaneity and gesture of the sketch. A nonchalant and wonky elegance is achieved through his translation of the original engraving to the immediacy of pen on paper. The drawings reference history as well as the very idea of a reference, as descriptive notes are scrawled across the pictures. There is also a real sense of glee in the way that the willful and unruly nature of nature overwhelms the polite pots.

In Excess turns an earlier drawing of the Australian bush into decals, which have been applied to numerous plain ceramic plates hung on the wall. The circular format of the plates works to disrupt the sense of underlying order present in the original drawing. This sets up a thoughtful relationship between order and chaos, natural growth and human production. As you contemplate the work you get a real twinge of fear that if you were given the task of setting up the plates you would somehow get it wrong, that chaos would overwhelm order. 

Blue Australian, which shows a naked male figure supinely sprouting a delicate array of native plants, is painstakingly drawn directly onto the gallery wall. This work, as well as the other pieces in the exhibition that celebrate the homoerotic, reinforces ideas of desire and longing. They also challenge the danger of a culturally imposed hegemonic ideal of only one version of ‘nature’, and by extension, what is ‘natural’ behavior. 

Nicholls’ exhibition joins the journey of the blue and white tradition; from Asia to Europe to the far-flung corners of a post-colonial country, there is an insatiable need to recreate an idealised version of the past again and again. Art reminds us that we can only represent the past, an abstraction of hand-me-down images, not relive it, and that nature is not meant to be contained no matter how beautiful the vessel.