Nicole Ellis

On the place of narrative in her abstract works, Nicole Ellis reflects that hers is "a more poetic way of stringing a story together –or rather, a hint of a story. A trace." Across her career, Ellis has worked to register wonder, loss, affinity, and difference where they lay in the material deposits of history

At first blush, there seems to be some kind of code to the arrangement of the small paper dots across the canvas of Nicole Ellis’s Confetti, 2006. Properly, “dots” might be an oversimplification here. Rather, these scraps – which Ellis salvaged from the streets in Rome – bear the marks of their manufacture in the array of tessellating shapes that they take: circles, but also the exoskeletons of circles, corner pieces with curved sides torn out, four-pointed approximations of stars.

From this debris, Ellis builds a work which is primarily communicative about the social, political, and economic histories embedded in her materials. We can see how each confetti has been cut from a bigger strip of paper; we can imagine each piece thrown into the air at whatever party, then laying in the street waiting to be swept away and shipped off to landfill. We can’t see, though, any firmly signifying pattern – any code, or objective representation – which might at first glance be promised in Ellis’ arrangement of her parts. The artist’s configuration is an abstraction, but one which still contains at its centre a commitment to stories: of production and consumption, of subsisting and persisting, of remembering and forgetting, as they are imprinted in the material detritus we live our lives amongst and through.

Confetti sits on the big workbench at the centre of Ellis’s studio when I visit her. On the smaller desk opposite are many of the pieces which make up the “Ephemera Works” sequences: an ongoing series of books displaying collected objects, which Ellis began creating in 2007. These are delicate little constructions, small-scale arrangements of found materials hoisted out of the world and presented as overlooked treasures. They have a sense of opulence and preciousness – almost sanctity – about them, but they also work as witnesses to their own less salubrious recent lives as waste materials. As Ellis explains, they might “equate with beautiful lapis lazuli, porphyry, gold, silver, though they’re things that are just wasted on the streets all the time.”

Ellis’s arrangement of lolly wrappers, wax seals, and patisserie papers is, thus, a salvaging of sorts. Hers is a reparative intervention into mass production, which cherishes the unexpected side-effects of a material culture as predicated on constant consumption of the new as ours. Looking over these works, Ellis observes that “a lot of the early [pieces in this series] were from cigarette packets. The beauty of it is that because of mass production being what it is, they change so quickly.” Ellis is, in this way, looking for pattern across space, but also through time, watching out for the ways in which commodities are re-outfitted again and again in chimeric iterations of themselves as they’re reproduced. She’s also sounding the echoes of material forms across history: “For me,” she says, the waste materials for the “Ephemera Works” “were like little mosaics, from baroque and medieval floors.”

A sense of loss, however, is also at the centre of Ellis’s work of recovery. Throughout her career, she’s approached the remnants of the past with an acute awareness of the irony which attends to the collection of historical material: as more and more stuff accumulates, she figures, more and more is tucked out of our view by the new, incoming layers of activity and material. Explaining this phenomenon wherein, in architectural and archeological sites alike, “You can go down and down and down and see every single one of [the historical layers],” Ellis centres an image of absence: “You might go into a church, say, and there will be a big square on the wall, where a piece has been taken off for cleaning or renovation, and you’re left simply with a dusty space.”

It’s in her attentiveness to erasure, dealt with most explicitly in the “Erasure” sequence, 2018-19, but even as far back as Arrested Sites, 1993, that reflections on a specifically artistic history enter most obviously into Ellis’s work. Ellis is, in general, disinclined to situate her practice in any directly linear relationship with artistic predecessors. Rather, the relationship is something more casual, finding its feet spontaneously as it goes. She does, however, reflect on the place of erasure in modernism: “In modernism, there’s an erasure of different things. There’s been an erasure of ‘the body,’ so called, in architecture, and in abstraction and reduction.”

This engagement with art history hints at Ellis’s institutional background. She was an MFA student at the University of Tasmania in the first year that the program was offered and, later, a teacher at the University of New South Wales’s College of Fine Arts for some fourteen years. She reflects that her time in the university system – especially given the absorption of art schools into research universities and the attendant demands of the “science model” that these schools then found themselves operating within – encouraged her to pursue certain ways of thinking, researching, and making. “I think it certainly changed the kind of projects that artists were involved in. To survive in the university structure in terms of research, money, and grants,” she says, “You have to satisfy different parameters.” For Ellis, this meant emphasising a research-based practice with its grounding in travel, pursuing opportunities for residencies at, for instance, the British School at Rome.

Certainly this wandering has provided the basis for much of Ellis’s work. She reflects though that she works, ultimately, the best when she’s at home, in a studio that she can make her own. The materials for her most recent works, the “Light Ground,” 2019, “Light Matter,” 2018, and “Erasure” sequences, are in large part sourced from Marrickville’s Reverse Garbage, which sits across the lot from her studio. There’s both this literal closeness to home in the fabrics used in these works, and a referential one. Ellis’s fabric swatches with their stripes, their tartans, and their floral patterns index the domestic: pyjamas, upholstery, patches mended onto elbows and knees.

Ellis has, at various points, thought of her work as a kind of archaeology: a digging into and a writing of material histories which are also always something more than material, always non-linear, multiple, rhizomatic. Reminiscent of archaeological practice is the kind of surveying of material landscapes that Ellis’s artmaking partakes of. There might be nothing more fitting to her work itself, then, than the survey show which Ellis is currently preparing for Drill Hall Gallery next February. Preparing such a show, after all, involves a sifting through the history of the artist’s own story, as told through her work: a survey of surveys, perhaps.

Such sifting might, if you’re lucky, turn up some treasures. It might turn up, in the top drawer of Ellis’s studio cupboard, the first little piece she ever made from found material, aged around four or five. This, unlike her mature work, is a tiny, solitary, figure. Ellis remarks that her practice “maybe came from an age-old collecting spirit as a young person. I had collections of small things.” She now has, as we’ll see come February, a collection of small and large things, things of exuberance and melancholy, sameness and difference – and it’s still growing.

This conversation was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 53, 2020.

9 June – 2 July 2022
Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

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