Walking into the foyer of the Art Gallery of Western Australia on a hot summer’s day always comes with a refreshing blast from AGWA’s mother of all air-conditioning systems. Even more refreshing is the WA Now space, where AGWA has been presenting consistently engaging exhibitions by West Australian artists. The latest of which, Andrew Nicholls’ Hyperkulturemia, is yet another example of the intriguing and innovative projects showcased.
Nicholls’ Hyperkulturemia takes us on a cultural and historical journey, inspired by his own travels, artist residencies and research. The various narratives, history and reimagining of antiquity presented throughout the exhibition are enveloped by the common theme of the 17th and 18th Century European custom of the ‘Grand Tour’; a trip most commonly undertaken by upper-class young men as an educational and cultural rite of passage. The Grand Tour provides Nicholls with a lens to wittily and artistically explore a range of themes, including gender, historical aesthetics, gay sexuality, and classical concepts of male beauty.
Beginning the exhibition is a series of large format photographs of Nicholls overcome with the eponymous “hyperkulturemia”, or Stendhal Syndrome. Named after the 19th century French writer Stendhal, the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle, the syndrome refers to the unexplained and commonly considered fictitious experience of overwhelming emotion at the exposure to great works of art. Succumbing to ‘too much culture in the blood,’ Nicholls faints at the sight of Donatello’s David in Stendhal Syndrome #1. Nicholls employs photography in a number of conceptually innovative ways to craft theatrical images that play off the exhibition’s central themes.
Curated by Robert Cook, the exhibition forms a thoughtfully harmonious whole on the pastel blue walls of the space. The various materials and ideas of Hyperkulturemia entwine to form a considered visual unity; Nicholls arranges porcelain skeletal remains among photography and drawings, underscoring the exhibition’s relationship with the past and history. This, in combination with repetitions of tableaux occurring in both drawn and photographed work, forms a visual vocabulary which Nicholls employs with consistency.
One highlight of the exhibition, The Last Judgement, is a prime example of Nicholls’ illustrative pen work. This ambitious polyptych, consisting of twelve painstakingly detailed drawings, reimagines Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement (1536-1541). Nicholls playfully casts figures from the Western Australian art scene in the roles of The Last Judgement, including Gian Manik as the central figure of Jesus and Nicholls himself as the flayed Saint Bartholomew. These inclusions may allude to the Renaissance Masters’ occasional depiction of associates in their work. Nonetheless, Nicholls’ inclusion of artists and friends provides a personal touch and satirical wit to the work.
A number of porcelain vases and busts further Nicholls’ exploration into materiality and perhaps the classical idea of the ambitious artist, skilled in sculpture, drawing, and now photography, eluding to the Renaissance debates of paragone. Decorated with drawings retelling ancient Greek myths, these porcelain works were crafted in collaboration with Cheng Liang, Huang Fei and Jingdezhen artisans while Nicholls was participating in an artist residency in Jiangxi Province in early 2016 and mid-2018. Nicholls thoughtfully navigates this layering of ancient and contemporary culture with care; at instances where Nicholls detours into new territory artistically, the work remains anchored to the core themes of the exhibition.
In some respects, Hyperkulturemia feels like the artistic equivalent of a well-travelled friend teaching you a thing or two from their documented experiences. In works such as Via Appia Antica (after Piranesi), Nicholls’ experience of travelling comes forward as a potent source for subject matter, weaving together scenes of his favourite sites in Italy. This is one of the real joys of Hyperkulturemia; that it never rests in one place for too long, moving between cultural critique, witty theatrics, memento mori, personal subjects, historical pastiche and meticulous artisanal work with innovative style.
Exhibition runs 15 December 2018 – 15 April 2019 at Art Gallery of Western Australia
Andrew Nicholls will be presenting an Artist Talk on Hyperkulturemia Saturday 9 March, 11am – 12pm
Words by Sam Beard