Nell x Colin McCahon: Through the Wall of Birth and Death

Feb 17 2024 – Sep 1 2024

This significant exhibition charts the multidisciplinary practice of internationally renowned contemporary Australian artist Nell. In a twist on the conventional solo exhibition, Nell has selected key works by iconic Aotearoa artist Colin McCahon to be shown alongside her own, drawing out fresh dialogues across geographic and generational distance.

Over the past few decades, Nell has developed a recognisable artistic practice that spans painting, sculpture, performance, video, music, and public art - ranging from small intimate objects to large immersive installations. Nell uses the language of art history, popular culture, and spiritual traditions - from a distinctly Antipodean perspective - to create works that are playful, intriguing, and poetic. Highly symbolic motifs, including smiley faces, ghosts, eggs, teardrops, and lightning bolts, recur throughout her works as a tool for communicating the complexities of the human experience.

“In limitless combinations and manifestations, it’s certainly my relationship to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christianity and Buddhism, along with my Australian-ness and Western art history, that forms the basis of who I am and what I make.” — Nell

Nell has long had a fascination with Colin McCahon’s practice, resonating throughout many of her works.

“I could talk for ages about how McCahon’s work resonates — his use of light and dark, his visual and spiritual tussles, the New Zealand landscape as allegory for big questions, his use of Māori motifs and subjects at a time of burgeoning biculturalism and his use of text in multidimensional ways… It’s these sentiments and meanings that continue to linger in hearts and minds in an altogether different dimension to the works themselves that makes me excited. And of course, it must be said that he is an extraordinary painter!” — Nell

Both Nell’s and McCahon’s works are imbued with the symbolism of opposites – light and dark, birth and death, feminine and masculine, and joy and sadness. In dialogue, their artworks speak, individually and together, to notions of spiritual awareness, transcendence, and a search for meaning.

“I only need black and white to say what I have to say. It is a matter of light and dark.” – Colin McCahon

Words align and collide, competing to be either subject or object like a never-ending game of cat and mouse. The familiar phrasing of McCahon’s ‘I Am’ is repeated throughout the exhibition in works and as titles. In many of the iterations it is reframed and recontextualised by Nell as both a homage to her New Zealand counterpart and a claiming of a universal personhood.

Alongside this more intellectual approach to image making and conceptualisation is a joy and playfulness that is hard to ignore. There are ghosts in abundance – replicated in their dozens as paintings, cast in bronze, blown in glass and patch-worked. They hover throughout the gallery spaces offering a moment for a smile while also reflecting a sense of loss. A pair of violins, an apple and orange and an assemblage of walking sticks all play out a range of emotions while ceramic characters look on from their personalised stools.

“It’s this push and pull that we feel in our bodies when we experience objects and their auras that I’m interested in. It seems to me that no object is isolated, and every material is connected to the whole world.” — Nell

The freshness of Nell’s practice seems limitless and the pairing of her works with significant paintings by McCahon offers a new reading and interpretation of both artists’ practices. Included in this exhibition are major works by both artists. Nell’s self-nature is subtle and mysterious - from the National Gallery of Australia and Where Newcastle meets Maitland from the Art Gallery of New South Wales show alongside new works created especially for the exhibition, and numerous loans from private collections in Australia and New Zealand. The exhibition features McCahon’s Walk (Series C) and Koru series from Te Papa Tongarewa, The Song of the Shining Cuckoo from the Hocken Collections, Object & Image from Waikato Museum, and Through the Wall of Death: A Banner, from the Dowse collection, after which the exhibition was named.

Nell x Colin McCahon takes us on a journey Through the Wall of Birth and Death.

Sydney/Gadigal-based Nell was born in 1975 in Maitland/Wonnarua, NSW, Australia. She studied at Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney, The University of California, Los Angeles and École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Across two decades, Nell’s work has been included in over 300 exhibitions in Australia and abroad. Early in her exhibiting career, she was selected for Primavera: Young Australian Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (1999). Other significant exhibitions include: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (2016); The National: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2017); WORDS + CROSSES, Ramp Gallery, Waikato Institute of Technology, Hamilton, NZ; Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2021) and RE-PAIR, Tennessee Triennial, Engine for Art, Democracy & Justice, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, US (2023). In 2016, Shepparton Art Museum presented an eponymously titled survey exhibition of Nell’s works, NE/LL. A monograph on her work, published by Thames and Hudson, was released in 2020. Nell is represented by STATION, Australia.


Ceremonial Ghost

Nell, Ceremonial Ghost, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and STATION.