Trevor Nickolls (1949 - 2012), born Adelaide, South Australia,  Machinetime and Dreamtime  1984, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 66.1 h x 55.9 w cm, Flinders University Art Museum 2281,         © Trevor Nickolls/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016.

Trevor Nickolls (1949 - 2012), born Adelaide, South Australia, Machinetime and Dreamtime 1984, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 66.1 h x 55.9 w cm, Flinders University Art Museum 2281,         © Trevor Nickolls/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016.


by Nic Brown


Within a heart-shaped face, a central, vertical seam both fuses and separates two conflicting worlds for Trevor Nickolls, which he labels: ‘dreamtime’ and ‘machine time’. Combining psychological enquiry inherent in self-portraiture with binary opposition – city/country, modern/traditional, black/white and spiritual/material – Nickolls’ painting, Machinetime and Dreamtime (1984), reveals a deconstruction of cultural identity: the artist’s attempt to make sense of the society in which he lived.(1)

The left sector – ‘dreamtime’ – is composed nearly entirely of radiating dots, a technique Nickolls learnt from Warlpiri artist Dinny Nolan Tjampitjimpa during a meaningful exchange in Melbourne, in 1979.(2) The appropriation of marks and motifs renown in Western Desert art is a stylistic tool often used by Nickolls as a means to explore and connect with his Aboriginal culture. Within the portrait a small figure plays the didgeridoo, is this Nickolls’ subconscious self? Nearby, a bird soars, solitary in the sky while a snake slithers below, and a fish swims within the generous depths of a smile that adorns the face – this persona is content and in harmony with nature, and a palpable, ancient culture. 

The warm palette of brown and red with a sunny-blue sky, however, is at odds with its shadow-self: the bleak, monochromatic right sector – ‘machine time’. An exception of red highlights pierce concrete-flesh, delineating perhaps the devil’s ear – an allusion to corruption, or, is this the head of Warnayarra, the rainbow serpent, poised, ready to pounce and carve up the desolate landscape? A dollar sign enmeshed amongst jail bars speaks of the trappings of greed, while nearby a smokestack, symbolic of industry, pollutes both mind and environment. The facial aspect is fractured with rarrk, Arnhem Land-style cross-hatching, cementing a sense of industry-congestion and revealing a brittle, skeletal machine, operated by a tiny robot.(3)  A window opens to an eye – an empty soul – concentric cogs turn, unyielding, around and around – the mechanics of it all. 

Despite the split-personality engendered in Nickolls’ painting, this bisected character also forms a unified whole. The psyche is stitched together, mending. Inner tensions reconcile and transform into hopes and dreams.



  1. Ian McLean, Other side art, Artlink, vol. 32, no. 2, 2011, p. 54.

  2. Ulli Beier, Dream time – machine time: the art of Trevor Nickolls, Robert Brown & Associates, Sydney, 1985, p.16.

  3. Michael O’Ferrall, Australian Aboriginal art: convergence and divergence, 1990 Venice Biennale, Australia: artists, Rover Thomas – Trevor Nickolls, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 1990, p. 31. 

Nic Brown is Collections Manager at the Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide, South Australia.