Philippa Nikulinsky

Examining the fault lines at the juncture between art and nature, Philippa Nikulinsky’s decades-long practice is shown in its full nuance and plurality at Lawrence Wilson Gallery.

‘Nikulinsky Naturally’ is a multitudinous examination of an artist whose practice has spanned many mediums and interrogative modes since the 1970s. The artist’s commercial china painting is shown alongside her covers for Landscope magazine; her early works recording Western Australia’s biodiverse ecology in fiery detail sit among more recent explorations of scroll format and the idea of the ‘landscape’ as a distinct – and distinctly human –  way of conceptualising ‘land.’

Nikulinsky’s early work shows a reverence for scientific modes of representation, and for the discipline of botanical illustration. Nikulinsky’s artistic practice emerged from, and remains embedded in, a ground of fieldwork and first-hand research. Over the past half-century, Nikulinsky has travelled to every part of Western Australia: the arid interior, the coast, the luscious Southwest of the state. Constantly seeking new plant specimens and new environments with the aim of faithfully documenting them, the artist has long produced work that seeks to hold nature in affects of wonder and interest without compromising a sense of rigour. This more scientific approach to image-making has remained an integral element of her practice through to the present moment. Works like Banksia caleyi (2018) approach nature with an impulse toward naturalistic representation. However, the brightness of the palette, along with the waft and weave of the strands of leaves, hints at the sense of enchantment that acts as the foundation for attentive observation and documentation.  Here, we see Nikulinsky’s practice hopping gently over the boundaries between a scientific aspiration toward objective representation, and an affect-led approach that privileges the experience of the observing, and recording, subject.

Viewing these works, though, one becomes aware that even the ‘scientific’ lens is a human one; that is, that Nikulinsky is always already altering nature as it is in the world in her act of representing it, however much she may be aiming at scientific objectivity. As we move further away from the strictly botanical-illustrative, we see the ways in which the artist consciously plays around in the interstices between nature and art (or artifice). In Mistletoe Bird (2014), for instance, watercolour illustrations of flora and fauna sit against a background of hand-written text. There is no aspiration toward accessing a pre-theoretical nature here. Instead, pictorial representation of our environment is set within the context of human haptic experience, as narrated in the text, which tells anecdotal encounters with the flora pictured in the piece. Nature here is always already shaped by human experience, and by the concepts articulated using that most distinctly human of faculties – language.

Investigations into the form of the scroll, and the genre of landscape, are some of the most fascinating works in the show. Enchanted Forest (1997) and Enchanted Forest Revisited (2017) place specimens of flora in variously ambiguous and underdetermined spatial relationships to each other. It’s refreshing to see a distinctly Australian landscape freed from the organisational imperatives of more classic Western landscapes. Instead, we see native trees sprawling across the picture space, floating indefinitely in the depth of the image. These scrolls almost feel as if they draw a narrative-based, episodic relationship between the plants they depict; they show us specimens of flora in different places at different times, perhaps, rather than assuming a unitary temporal perspective as Western landscape tends to do.

Other explorations of landscape, like Xanthorea thorntonii Before and after fire (2017-18), introduce a more traditional treatment of depth-perspective, while retaining a sense of the land’s sprawl through time and space. Some scrolls take a more experimental interest in the organisational function of the landscape form: Wind-blown Cliff Top Shoal Cape (2015-16), incorporating flora, fauna, and text across a scroll, suggests conceptual and imaginative relationships between the specimens pictured, rather than a spatial relationship. In a sense, this work gestures to scientific modes of arranging data visually, as much as it does to artistic modes of doing this, like the form of landscape. Branches join the dots of plant and animal specimens, as if in a kind of family tree, or even a flow chart.  Elsewhere, and quite movingly, Budgerigars coming to drink at Desert Waterhole (2018) shows a flock of bright green birds ebbing and flowing across the scroll, as if they were a feature of the land; a river, a range of mountains. Here, it’s not just flora, but fauna (without any depiction of the land at all) which can form a landscape for Nikulinsky.

This piece approaches synaesthesia: birds cluster and swell across the paper in such vibrant plenitude that we can almost hear them singing amongst themselves. Here, we return to the joyfulness with which Nikulinsky has approached nature for something in the order of fifty years. Working from a light-filled shed at the bottom of her garden, the artist balances a self-conscious mediation of the artificial and the natural with a genuinely enthusiastic approach to the ecological system in which she, and her work, are embedded.


Nikulinsky Naturally
25 May – 17 August 2019
Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Perth


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