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.