Nell Nicholas’ “Treasure” Show Is An Exploration Of Objects At Monti 8 Gallery

“Sometimes I feel like a Magpie. I go around London looking through shop windows, browsing museum collections and antiques markets, and I take whatever I like, whatever I deem interesting. Then I put them into my paintings where I can keep them forever. In different times, I’ve been much less fussy when it comes to choosing my objects… I’d be quite content to paint cleaning products in a pound store, or crisp packets in a corner shop. Lately though, I’ve been more greedy. I want the most beautiful objects. I don’t really know if that’s out of greed, or just of a need to be reassured of beauty in a difficult time.

This body of work evolved from my fascination with “stuff”. I think a lot about our relationships with stuff, what we value, and why we value it. Everything has multiple values – financial, personal, cultural, historical. Since I moved to London in 2014, the city has dominated my work. It’s a place filled with objects of the most incredible variety. If you look, every street, every shop, every living room and market stall is a collection, a museum of its own. There are over 83000 shops in London, and more than 170 museums. The objects represent us, both in the real world and in my paintings. They fascinate me for their ability to silently commentate on what’s going on around them.

Nell Nichola, Treasure, 2021, Installation View, Ph. Paolo Petrignani

One of my favourite places to be a Magpie is the British Museum. It’s so complicated. It’s so beautiful, yet so ugly. It’s proud and ashamed, simultaneously a cathedral of craftsmanship and a cave of stolen treasure. While the objects in the museum manifest the beauty of humankind, at the same time they speak of colonisation and pillaging, and the racial injustices that finally started getting properly addressed last year. And who do the objects belong to? And why are they still here? And why is the museum still so enchanting? It’s so strange that we can “treasure” that which doesn’t belong to us. And what does it mean that so many of the objects for sale on the shop shelves around the city imitate those we see on the shelves of the museums? And how do their functions change when we place them in different contexts? In our homes? When they are bought, these objects become part of the furniture.

Within a domestic context, decorative objects seem to replace that which we lack. Do we use houseplants and flowers to make up for a lack of nature? And why do we put pictures of landscapes on the wall? Do pictures and portraits of people stand in for those who can’t be with us in person? Objects provide comfort. I talk to my flowers. So do you I imagine. Since the pandemic and the subsequent lack of human company, I find myself treasuring and personifying possessions more than ever. They are my friends. I put my best objects on my windowsill. That is my museum. Our possessions are like our own personal museum collections. They silently commentate on our own histories”.

Nell Nicholas, Elgin’s Marbles, 2021, Oil, graphite, ink

Treasure exhibition @Monti8

Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

Often I feel like I’m in the middle of one of those computer games, the ones where you go through a virtual world looking for gold coins. The gold coins are the things I collect to put in my paintings. This makes everything feel like an adventure… even on a trip to the supermarket there is treasure to be found. At the moment I live and work in London’s Shoreditch, so I’m always surrounded by this absolute jungle of inspiration; underground vintage markets, weird independent shops, food, flowers, antiques, graffiti…. it’s overwhelming in a good way.

After a successful quest, I will often sketch out a concept, or collage some objects together into a composition, just so the idea exists somewhere other than inside my head. If I have an idea when I’m out and about without paper, I’ll draw something out with my finger on my phone’s notepad. I rarely look back at these plans once I’ve started painting. I love building the compositions and trying to make everything balance just right, but I try to do as much of this building as possible on the canvas itself. It keeps things alive. I find creating very addictive. My friends and family are always telling me not to work so hard but I rarely listen to them.

This period you are collaborating with Monti8 gallery, who  presenting your new solo exhibition. What kind of new artworks are you showing there?

My collaboration with Monti8 began in the winter. Right in the middle of pandemic nomans land, it felt like such a port in the storm. The conditions of London’s lockdown proved to be kind of perfect for a painter in many ways. But it also had its challenges. London had shut down, and so too had many of my treasure troves – my museums, my markets – they had all disappeared.

In hindsight, I see that this challenge actually forced me to just look harder, everything was still there, it was just more of a challenge to find or access. As a result the exhibition seems more precious. I made eleven oil paintings for the show. The overwhelming majority of content for the work came from within three miles of my home.

I’m so grateful to Monti8 for taking a leap of faith and giving me my first Solo Exhibition. Due to covid, we’ve been exhibiting the show in an online viewing room. Now thanks to the loosening of restrictions in Italy, we have finally been able to open it up to the public!

Treasure’ is your show’s title at Monti8. How is this name related to your body of work in this show?

Treasure” is an exploration of objects… of what we value and why. “Treasure” is a verb and a noun. The show explores the word in all of its forms.

Could you share with us some insights into your painting named ‘Secret Societies & Psychological Warfare’? Is there any particular story or meaning behind this artwork?

This is one of my most recent paintings. Although it’s still a collection of objects, it definitely feels like there’s more of a narrative woven into the composition. I think the success of “Treasure”, my show with Monti8 gave me the confidence to push my work forward a bit, and not be shy about making things weird. The characters are actually costumes. The one with a pointy hat is the costume of a Duk-Duk dancer. Duk-Duk is a secret society. It’s part of the culture of the Tolai people. They are from New Britain, the largest island in Papua New Guinea. Duk-Duk dancers perform during funerals, initiations, and other secret ceremonies. The dinosaur-guy is inspired by a costume made as part of the medieval European “Wild Men” tradition. People make and dress up in these incredible hybrid costumes and perform rituals which celebrate natural cycles and invoke both death and fertility.

I guess part of being an artist is about trying to understand, or merely accept, this enormous and abstract notion of the sacred. I’m fascinated by this intangible force of energy that runs through us and our ancestors, and which gives life this higher level of meaning and beauty in a way that’s difficult to explain concisely. I guess this is accessed through art, through ritual and religion, music, and through our connection to nature. I suppose “Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare” is a visual expression of my attempts to understand these concepts. Perhaps I will be able to discuss this more articulately when I’m older and wiser!

Nell Nichola, Treasure, 2021, Installation View, Ph. Paolo Petrignani

Any specific artworks created by random experiments in your studio or do you always come up with a particular concept or narrative in the very beginning?

Usually I carry out my  experiments on the works themselves. I like to use paint in as many ways as possible. This is kind of risky because if I mess up, there’s no going back. Especially as using clear-primed canvas means that I can’t just cover it up with paint. I like this risk… it makes things more fun!

Do you ever wonder if additional work was needed, when an artwork’s making process is finished?

No! I always use negative space in my paintings. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, I adore fabric. I clear prime my canvases, which means that the cotton is exposed. I adore the colour and the texture. Why would I cover it all up? Also, I like to think of my paintings as drawings. In a drawing or a sketch, it’s normal to leave lots of the paper blank and to employ it as part of the composition itself. I leave parts of the surface untouched because it makes the paintings feel like they are floating and alive. When something is complete, it dies.

Can you mention any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?

I try not to be influenced by the work of other painters… it feels too cyclical, too inside-the-box. Sometimes I steal classic artworks and sew them into my paintings, but I don’t set them apart from any other type of image or object in pop-culture. For me the best inspiration comes from other forms of expression: a piece of music, an opera, the circus, a film or documentary, words… the people who inspire me the most are those who are able to bring elements together in a unique, complex and beautiful way to create something that makes your heart beat faster.

This week, those people have been Tarsem Singh (I will be in love with his 2006 movie The Fall forever), Werner Herzog (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner), and Leonard Cohen.

What about the place where you work? What does your studio space look like?

At the moment I’m working in a shop! I always wanted to have a “store-front” studio. There was a little shop a few doors down from my flat which had been empty ever since I moved in. I walked past it every day and eventually built up the courage to track down the landlord. After a few months of emailing and determination I was invited to look around the shop. Turns out the landlords were incredibly kind and open-minded. We agreed that I’d rent the shop and use it as my studio until the lockdown had ended, and they were able to find long-term tenants. I’m so in love with my little shop. As well as being a funny simulation (lots of my work being inspired by what I find on the streets of the city), I also find it so inspiring being on street-level. I’m able to see the world go by and be in the thick of it, rather than being locked away in a studio somewhere. I’m extremely houseproud. The space is sunny and filled with plants and flowers, and a furniture collection that I created last year. There is always coffee and music, and I am always open for visitors.

What do your mum and dad think about your art?

“We think you are the very best, better than Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Picasso and everyone else too.”

What are your plans for the near future?

Lots of cool things and ideas in the pipeline! I’m just about to start making my new body of work, “Spaghetti Western”, which I’m super excited about. Monti8 will be taking the show to Italy’s ArtVerona in October. And, as ever, I plan to stay curious, brave, and keep evolving. More to be announced soon!

Additional Paintings

Nell Nicholas, Parlour Games, 2021, Oil on canvas, 75 x 100 cm
Nell Nichola, Treasure, 2021, Installation View, Ph. Paolo Petrignani


All images courtesy of the artist & Monti8

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