Andrew Nicholls’ Line, Lee Edelman, 2009
The trace of history always insists in the work of Andrew Nicholls. But the past, like the debris on the ocean floor in his Vanitas or Allegory, undergoes in his art what Shakespeare calls a ‘sea-change/Into something rich and strange’, a sea-change whereby a shift of scale, a montage of images, a juxtaposition of different styles produces a temporal palimpsest that refutes time’s forward movement. Winged heads that recall Lucas Cranach’s angels and sculpted bodies from Michelangelo’s nudes share space with depictions of ladies and gentlemen that belong to Victorian lithographs or with faux-naïve representations of children from sentimental illustrations. In the world that Nicholls’ art creates, such collages do more than reflect the appropriative carnival we know as postmodernism. They also suggest a refusal of time’s ostensible unidirectionality – a refusal, that is, of the ‘progress’ from benighted past to perfected future, whether that progress is associated with colonial administration, aesthetic movements, or individual psychic ‘development’ toward genital heterosexuality.
The deceptive promise of any such future, persistently evoked by Western culture’s iconography of the Child, proves stultifying in Nicholls’ view, ultimately holding us all the more helplessly in the stranglehold of the past. Nicholls, for example, offers up images of idealized Victorian children – represented as lifelessly doll-like kitsch – framed by the heads of disembodied cherubs in Evil Angels. Those heads seem to sprout from the very foliage that the boy gives his female counterpart as a sign of his ‘natural’ tendency toward properly heterosexual coupling. No wonder the angels all seem to laugh; the children are trapped in the endless circuit of a reproductive futurism that allows them no freedom, no vitality, no hope of escaping the cultural mandate to preserve and extend the familial line.
It might not be going too far to suggest that one key to Nicholls’ art can be found in his continuous engagement with and transformation of that line. His work is replete with proliferating plant-life whose sinuous tendrils reach out to entwine. Tentacles of sea-creatures mimic those movements, as do coral and claws in other works. Elsewhere these rhythms approach pure abstraction in the folds of draperies or the swirls of waves presented for their own sake. In Goddammit! the Last Judgment itself becomes an erotic phantasmagoria with animals, demons, and beefy male nudes enfolded in serpentine coils. Desire is always entangled in every lineage, in every line, twisting those lines into patterns, or braiding them into knots that resist the linearity of any straightforward historical narrative. The Last Judgment might want to set things straight, but it bends to a will beyond itself: the will of the line as such to bend, to break from the reproductive line and become a line of beauty, as Alan Hollinghurst might say. In Australian Valentine #1, the children who attend to the growth of the plant, anticipating their inevitable obedience to the ideological command to be fruitful and multiply, seem not to notice its leaves beginning to curl around them too, as if it were seeking to gather them into the line and the life it portends. But that life, for all the appearance of natural profusion it conveys, is fantasmatic, like the decorations on British chinaware designed to give moribund bourgeois routine an imitation of life by turning life into representation.
This, of course, is the lie of power, the line we are given enough of, like rope, in order to hang ourselves. But that line – the dominant party line, enforced by various forms of violence designed to see that we stay in line – encounters in Nicholls’ remarkable drawings the unyielding density of desire, of eros, of unconscious and demonic energies that insist on eruptions of monstrosity within the sanctity of the familial line. Kill Your Children, for example, suggests that the very ideal of innocence may be lethal by depicting the faces of infants as nightmarish visions of psychic and social mortification. A work like Follies may show how a line’s continuity produces a world, but the lariat in which that world snares us, and the noose it eventually turns into for some, gives rise to aggressive energies that mirror the violence by which we are seized.
If Nicholls’ visions of desire and monstrosity, of bestial portents and demonic transmutations, are reminders that the line we are handed by compulsory heterosexuality is always the imprisoning lie of the genealogical line, then one of his richest, most poignant works can serve as an emblem of this insight. Formless, Love stands out for its apparent resistance to representation. Here the network of lines with which Nicholls elsewhere evokes vegetation, makes a pattern that seems at once abstract and neurological. A red acrylic wash overlies it with various intensities of color that trail off to the right in drip lines that grow pale as they dry up and vanish. If the image captures the beauty of a chrysanthemum and the violence of a bloodstain while evoking, at the same time, a cranial slice and sperm cells approaching (or fertilizing?) an egg, perhaps it’s because this Rorschach-like blot aims to take us, with lines, beyond the line to the place where the brain and the blood and the sperm and the pulsing heart of the world first take form from out of formlessness. This, of course, is the moment of making we celebrate as art. It is also, however, in the work of Andrew Nicholls, the unmaking of the world that we know – a world, that has, in more ways than one, come to the end of the line.