Tuesday, February 23, 2016

In Conversation: John Nixon

We are very excited to have a suite of paintings by international-renowned Australian artist John Nixon, as part of the exhibition Reducing Landscapes. In this exhibition, Nixon's work is paired with that of Fred Williams in an exploration of abstracted space and a compositional translation of the Australian bush. The show comes to us courtesy of La Trobe Regional Art Gallery and The CBus Collection of Australian Art. Having exhibited with us in 2014 as part of Eye Score: The Audible Image we are very pleased to have Nixon's work again gracing the gallery walls, as are our audiences. Generous with his time and his experiences, he chats to us here about the current show and some of the ideas informing his work.

John Nixon in 'Reducing Landscapes'
image courtesy of Christian Capurro
THG: Your paintings in this series are derived from your residency at Laughing Waters and pertain quite specifically to that environment. Were you aware of their future inclusion in a show with Fred Williams’ work or did that exhibition premise come after the works were complete?

JN: The studio and the exhibition were organised separately to each other. After completing the paintings in the residency, a collector friend of mine from Canberra visited me at the Riverbend house and took some photos of the paintings I had completed. He then showed these photos to a mutual friend, David Sequeira, who had recently been appointed director of the LaTrobe Regional Gallery in Morwell. David suggested the idea of making a two person exhibition with works of Fred Williams which were also paintings of close ups of tree trunks.

The Latrobe Regional Gallery had these very works of Fred Williams already in their collection. This is how the exhibition came about. 

Nature and art could be said to be zones of contemplation, places and things upon which to ponder. How do you see abstraction’s role in this context?

As abstraction as a form came about due to abstracting or simplifying from nature it is not such a difficult  premise to continue to work from. Seeing that the artist in residence house was located in bushland, I took this location both inside and outside the house and visualised what I saw in abstract terms. Green and brown were chosen as the basic colours - because the nature itself provided me with these colours - and the graphic forms of straight and angled lines come from the trunks of the trees. I could use this as my theme and thus create variation on this theme.  

Fred Williams (l) and John Nixon (r) in 'Reducing Landscapes'
image courtesy of Christian Capurro
Fred Williams was only 55 when he died but he has had a rather large impact on an officially sanctioned Australian art history, and certainly also continues to have an impact on the art market. He would be one of the leading proponents of abstraction with a particularly Australian flavour. Do you see your work (your whole body of work) in the context of an Australian abstraction voice or does your abstraction spring from somewhere more universal?

Fred Williams was primarily successful as a landscape painter even though his works have a certain abstract quality, his subject was still the Australian landscape. As an artist, he was also influenced by the likes of Cezanne, so that the European influence was still firmly rooted in his understanding of painting. 

In general, my work is influenced by European, Russian and American abstract painting from the beginning of the twentieth century. It was at this moment that the language of abstraction became developed - a language outside of any strict national base.

Abstraction was the first form of international language. With this idea in mind, as an analogy, it's interesting to reflect on the development of modernist architecture and the local variants that occur in each country.

There seems to be a rather strong abstract art community in Melbourne in particular - thriving, healthy and productive. Is this something you see and what do you think might be driving that at the moment?

Yes, this is definitely true and it is interesting to me that a large number of younger artists find value in the various forms of abstraction. 

You are well known for your music and sound work, notably with your band The Donkey’s Tail. And there is occasional hints to the overlay of sound and vision in your paintings. Do you see correlations with composition, tone and rhythm across these media and is that something you reflect on when you’re working?

There are some similarities between my practice as an artist and as a musician. Seeing that I am working from principals of abstraction in both areas and that the music has actually developed out of my art practice, it is these qualities of abstraction that guide me.

John Nixon (far right) performing with The Donkey's Tail
at 'ECHO SETS' sound art event at Town Hall Gallery in 2015
Having not been trained musically, I use texture (shrill as against smooth, loud against soft, acoustic and electric, etc) as a way of building musical compositions. My paintings and my musical compositions are built from separate parts. I can use the singularity of the monochrome or the monotone of one material or of one instrument allowing the colour and sound their own place. Then, at the other end of the scale, I can use multiple colours or multiple instruments to build with. My method is always an open one.

The series of works in this show were created on an artist-residency program, how important is this type of program for artists and how do you think influences/impacts artists’ abilities to produce work?

I was very pleased to be given the artist in residence house in Eltham as even though it isn't far from where I live, I had a project in mind that I wanted to do in that situation. I wanted to do a group of artworks that dealt with the interior of the house and the landscape that it was in. The project I wanted to involve myself in was open ended and I let the project evolve of it's own volition. 

Once you have made a certain number of works other possibilities come to you. Then after having done those, more possibilities come. The two month period was very productive for me and I did a large number of paintings, drawings, collages and photographs during my time there.

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