Nadine Christensen

I’ve just arrived at Nadine Christensen’s two-car garage garden studio in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir. Once inside, she pulls the roller-door shut to keep out the neighbour’s two dogs. They’ve been barking loudly, and trying to gain entry. I make a lame joke about Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs, but suspect she’s heard variations on this before. Most of her work is currently occupying both floors of Buxton Contemporary, a huge space to fill. Christensen and curator Samantha Comte have worked hand-in-glove to bring this significant exhibition together. Titled Around it’s accompanied by a superb catalogue that includes a curator’s essay, and others by Rosemary Forde, Jennifer Higgie, and a poem about her work practices by Masato Takasaka and Errol John Kidd, commissioned in 2009 by Uplands Gallery.

Over coffee and lamingtons (everyday suburban fare appropriate to the source material of much of her work) we discuss, in no particular order, flies, trompe l’œil, housework: “often when I’m painting I’m thinking of cleaning, and when I’m cleaning I’m thinking of painting,” op shop discoveries, dog walking, binging on Netflix, and bi-annual hard rubbish collection. However, our conversation about painting in particular, ranges from the local across oceans and continents. “I’m so excited by all these incredible female painters who have been knocking it for six over the past decade. Jutta Koether in Germany and New York, Charline von Heyl, also New York, and the Norwegian Ida Ekblad.”

I remember meeting Koether in Cologne in the 1980s with her friend Diedrich Diederichsen when both worked for Spex magazine and London’s Artscribe. “Koether works as a painter, critic, and musician,” Nadine continues, “I’ve been really influenced by her novella f. [Sternberg Press, 2014]. It’s a beautiful meditation on painting, expressed though the eyes of several female characters.”

I can see why the work of Oslo-based Ekblad resonates with Christensen. The title of her recent massive show in Oslo GIRL FIRES UP STOVE is taken from a painting by Edvard Munch and encapsulates the huge energy all these female artists share, but also their individual experience of the domestic and the everyday. Outside Buxton Contemporary, where Christensen and I meet again the following week to walk through the show together, there is a video playing on the external screen that shows the artist in her garden, picking up dog poo and placing it in an old cornflakes box. Affixed to the real gates of Buxton is Christensen’s take on a typical suburban garden gate. And high up, at the other end of the building, two flags fly (I missed them on my first visit)—one with the word “HOUSE,” the other completing the phrase with “WORK,” first displayed at the artist’s commercial gallery Sarah Scout Presents. Unbidden, it reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s equally playful novel Lighthousekeeping [Penguin Random House, 2004]. Christensen gets most excited however when speaking about the artworks of local artist Katrina Dobbs, with whom she has exhibited. “She’s amazing. She lives in Preston and works in different art supply shops. She’s always experimenting, doing things like squeezing paint through flyscreen doors and then exhibiting them.”

As we walk around the gallery, we talk about the artworks surrounding us, and the personal journey through the Melbourne artworld to reach this point. There are her contemporaries: David Jolly, James Lynch, Laresa Kosloff, Diena Georgetti, David Rosetzky, and Ricky Swallow; and projects and exhibitions for Octopus 3, New 04, Clubs Projects, and Gertrude Street. Overseas, there were residencies in Los Angeles, Italy, and Japan.

On the walls, certain text-based phrases jump out: “Go Vegan” (a popular Melbourne graffiti tag), “Keeping your Head Above Water,” and “Hang in There,” the latter originally rendered on the ceiling with a cigarette lighter, reminiscent of many share flats over the years.

Other paintings, including one of my own favourites Soya Beans & Sweet Potatoes, 2006, share the early surrealists’ dictum, borrowed from Isidore Ducasse (1846–1870), of disparate objects being “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Christensen’s version of this brings together various op shop finds, chairs, lamps, rocks, and boulders framed by swooping birds in bright plumage against a desert landscape.

And then there are the flies. My father was an entomologist. While other children craved puppies and kittens, I grew up surrounded by insects, spiders, and moths, all neatly pinned into wooden boxes with hinged lids. Later, I was drawn to other artists who used such subject matter. Julian Schnabels’ big-as-a-tennis-court The Trachea of the Alder Fly, William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea, and any number of Louise Bourgeois spiders, and Damien Hirst butterflies. How did this interest begin for Christensen?

“When I moved into my Reservoir studio, I’d come there in the morning and twigs and leaves would have blown in under the roller doors and brought insects in with them. I found they were flying onto my wet canvases and leaving marks like snail trails, and I liked the idea of an infection happening on the paintings. It became a bit like an ad hoc collaboration with the garden that was invading at night and doing its stuff while I wasn’t there. I began painting just on a similar one-to-one scale as the flies or the stick insects, and that gave it a trompe l’œil effect that I liked. Later on, when the flies in my work became larger, they became more grotesque on one hand and somehow more related to the growing problems of climate change and the Anthropocene. But they are of course quite beautiful too, and I paint them in different ways. Sometimes with a brush and other times removing the paint with a cotton bud. Their wings are so beautifully iridescent.”

This culminated in by far the biggest fly painting in the show, blown up to an epic scale. It’s titled Large Fly, 2019–23 and to look at it close up is like seeing a lizard morph into a dinosaur. This is one of the few artworks in the show that is visibly signed by the artist, also on an epic scale. Why did she do this? “I don’t see it as being a signature as such, but a painting of a signature. Different layers of different colours have gone into producing the effect. It’s as much an illusion as the large fly is itself.”

Several times during our conversations, and in the catalogue essays, she describes herself in a way reminiscent of Samuel Beckett as being “in pursuit of the less-failed painting.” This important exhibition seems like a very successful resolution to that desire.

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 66 

Nadine Christensen: Around 
24 November 2023 – 7 April 2024 
Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne 

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related