Issue 4: Jonathan Nichols - The Painterly Spirit

Yeo Workshop reconnects with Jonathan Nichols, a contemporary artist whose career spans 4 decades and 3 countries – Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. This year Jonathan was due for a show in Singapore where he was to showcase a perspective of his painting practice that he calls “painting as a poetic field.” The new direction was founded in his discovery of a type of Chinese paper at Bras Basah, a subject and a pose, and a sort of “empathy” with Singapore. Sadly, due to travel restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gallery has been unable to complete the process of mounting the exhibition with Jonathan since his return to Melbourne to continue his PhD studies. Instead, we caught up over a short abstract conversation, written as an essay-dialogue on his work.

Jonathan Nichols in Japan, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Before he left, Jonathan Nichols produced 3 new paintings which are oil on Chinese machine-made paper found at Bras Basah complex.

Within the framed square of one of these paintings, the truncated torso of a slim young woman in a fashionable black dress can be glimpsed. Bending slightly at the waist, her hands hovering in front of her with the fingers pointing down, she appears to be paused in the middle of a search for something unseen, bringing attention to the negative space beside her and the light washes of the minimal environment in which she exists. The body is stiff, the movement mincing – if she is engaging in action, it is as rigid as a pose; the hands do not meet, much less work together, even though they are at the same level, hanging mid-air rather than reaching out purposefully. Curiously, a thin line near the wrist indicates the anatomical joining of hand and arm, giving us our first clue. We are drawn into this intimate study of a partially hidden, mysterious “person,” wondering what her story might be.

Jonathan Nichols, Constance, 2019, Oil on Machine-Made Chinese Paper, 42 x 44cm

Meet Constance, the subject of this painting, and originally one of two seated mannequins Jonathan found along Scotts Road during his long stay in Singapore. Through sensitive brushwork and strategic compositions, he has reduced the thing-ness of these discarded boutique store props to subtle hints – which is to say, he transformed them into new entities with names. The other one, Audrey K, is presented in the same cropped close-up as her companion, but her body faces us in full-frontal view and her hands are crossed in front of her in a way that might be interpreted as defiant (and has been, by our visitors).

Jonathan Nichols, Audrey K, 2019, Oil on Machine-Made Chinese Paper, 42 x 44cm

This is an example of the way Jonathan imbues his subjects with a painterly spirit, undertaking the act of painting as a kind of revivification. His PhD dissertation, titled “Walking with Ghosts – The Utility of Independence in Painting”, concerns how painting functions, how it actually “operates.” Here painting becomes a tool for transformation and life-giving, well beyond mere depiction.

“At a very basic level my practice is figurative but that’s not just in the sense of being limited to a figurative image. Another approach is to suggest that painting itself is a ‘figure,’” he shares.

“In this sense figuration is the overarching painterly narrative or organising structure – relations are more finite and specific than infinite or abstract. The kinds of stories I am interested in and how I understand painting actually working are closer to the kinds of animist readings more familiar in anthropology. These are entirely human ways of understanding and entering into the world and they are largely intercultural. Rethinking painting along these lines leads to how figures reoccur in painting, how paintings are interlinked and earlier presences are constantly re-entering and re-emerging. The spirit of painting is at base poetic and much less concerned with an idea of objective representation, or objectivity at all for that matter. The way a person relates to a painting is more akin to the way people relate to one another. Similar feelings and complex expectations are invoked.”

Is his work, then, narrative-based rather than observational? “Observational studies suggest a kind of visual accuracy or descriptive purpose. I suppose you could say my practice involves a material accuracy. ‘Painterly’ is closer. Painterly certainly engages narrative – and in the same sense history – but that narrative is articulated according to the rules of painting. (The French artist and writer Pierre Klossowski called these rules ‘the anatomy of painting’).”

About whether he is a “contemporary” or a “figurative” artist, Jonathan responds, “What we understand as ‘contemporary’ is very elastic. I’m not entirely sure my work is contemporary in any way other than as paintings made recently. The contemporary is perhaps easier understood as something quite different – as a genre defined by the art world. The best paintings operate as much outside the language of contemporary art in good ways and I think my paintings do this too.”

Jonathan Nichols, Elaine, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 54 x 39cm

Conveying life through art, whether that is perfecting a likeness or capturing the spirit of a thing, is a challenge artist have faced since the beginning of time. It never stopped being daunting through thousands of centuries of iterations, even when drawing or painting from life. And here we have Jonathan Nichols focusing on things that to most of us are not only lifeless, but cold, blank and hard, inaccessible in some way, yet treating them otherwise. However, this is no work of trickery or trying to breathe life into a husk.

“Certain things have a presence – perhaps it’s an aliveness – and in painting I try to focus on this quality,” he tells us. “It’s important to understand that this thing—this presence or whatever – already exists in the world. My work lies in showing this, or actualising it. It’s easier to describe these things when you look at the paintings, but even easier to realise the motivations when you are actually painting.” Still, some mystery remains. The presence of a thing might be apparent enough to draw him in, but the connection can only be deepened over time. “Meanings are never explicit in my work. I paint in order to better understand, to find meaning. You wouldn’t paint something if the meaning were already understood.”

Jonathan Nichols, Saraswati, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 76 x 37cm

In addition to mannequins, he has also taken inspiration and reference from a photograph of Elaine de Kooning and a stone sculpture from an Indian temple. “The figure [of Saraswati] – the body shape especially – reminded me of someone I know very well and she too carries the name of Saraswati. So the object of the painting was to paint ‘Saraswati,’ both the person I know and the deity.”

Interestingly, Jonathan considers his painting of the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning, based on an ancient stone incarnation, to be the “sister” of another painting simply titled Mannequin, this figure based on a mannequin he used as a model back in a studio he once had in Melbourne. The figures have the same step and shape, and they were both carved out with a knife as much as they were painted. “For me, the two paintings carry across time in a strange ethereal way and are entirely related to each other.”

Jonathan Nichols, Mannequin, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 39 cm

Saraswati and Mannequin are paintings made on raw canvas. From his access in Singapore to a different landscape of mediums, Jonathan has experimented with Chinese paper as well. His use of materials has resulted in striking textures and colours, but strangely, he does not think of them as aesthetic choices. “I prefer to think of painting as a poetic field rather than an ‘aesthetic.’ The raw or unprimed canvas and the Chinese paper add to this, introducing a material density. I don’t think in terms of ‘colour’ or even in terms of ‘representation;’ a thing is the thing that it is, and a painting is entirely connected to this thingness.”

Jonathan Nichols’ studio at Rimbun Dahan, Kuala Lumpur, a residency hosted by Angela and Hijjas Kastori in 2013

As Jonathan continues his artistic, academic and intellectual pursuit of the possibilities of painting, he is embarking on a journey in real life as well. After 7 years in Southeast Asia, he returned to his native Australia with his family late last year. Melbourne is currently in the midst of another lockdown. Jonathan admits that not accessing his studio hasn’t been easy, but he is trying to find the positives and reminiscing on his life in Asia, a time he “enjoyed immensely.”

Among the painters he thinks fondly of and whose work resonated with him in Singapore and Malaysia are Ng Joon Kiat, John Chan and Anum Mohamed. He remarks on the wonderful pleasure of repeatedly visiting Wu Guanzhong’s work at the National Gallery Singapore.

“It is interesting to think about the longer-term effects of the pandemic and how the art world will cope. Maybe there will be more certainty in the long run; maybe with all the stresses we will learn to re-evaluate many things that we take for granted and art and painting could be some of these. Or perhaps painting will go underground again. It was like that in the 1990s and in lots of ways it was a good time to paint. There was a lot of freedom with no one looking over your shoulder.”


Interview by Jolene Teo

Written by Cassie Sim

Edited by Audrey Yeo