Life and death and smiling clouds: Nell

There are few artists for whom a simple mononym, such as Madonna, will suffice. Sydney-based artist Nell, however, needs no surname. Nell is just Nell. This is not precocity on the artist’s part. Rather, it demonstrates the artist’s whimsical personality, which intimately infuses her practice. For those close to her she has always been an extension of Nell; she is Nell Bunny, and her email sign-off always includes the exhortation, “Forever joy.” Again, this is not an affectation; it is just further evidence that the artist’s life and work are inseparable. It would not be too much to suggest her life is her artwork. Nell wants to touch you.

feature by Alison Kubler FEB 2019

Nell’s practice is highly autobiographical and its content is richly personal. Her willingness to lay bare the truths of herself is her artistic driving force and, it would seem, inescapable. She explains her motivations to VAULT: “What else is there? I can only make artwork that springs from my own experience. Like all kids I wanted to make sense of my little world. And somehow making art became the perfect container for me to explore anything and everything, and I just never stopped making things! I learnt early on from looking at art and from making art that the personal and the universal are wholly interchangeable. And that’s precisely where I find all the good stuff – meaning and understanding for myself and empathy and connections with others.”

This commitment to being empathetic is deeply embedded in Nell’s practice, which oscillates across media and form. As a whole, it is difficult to condense into a tidy package, and is perhaps best described thematically. Her work tackles the big stories of life – birth, death and the ugliness and beauty in between – with humour and a kind of naive wit, articulated in what might be described as ‘Nell’s lexicon’ – a series of aesthetic tropes including smiley faces, poos, lightning bolts and the juxtaposition of text. It should be noted that Nell was employing these graphics before emoji even were a thing. Her favourite, by the way, is the ghost –
another repeating motif. This visual language is recognisably Nell’s.

She tells VAULT, “I’m envious of artists who have a neat sound bite about their practice, because I don’t! Things change, I change, so my work changes. Most of my work probes the thresholds of .. Subscribe to read this article in full


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Art Gallery of New South WalesNGA Metro Govett Brewster NGVBendigo Art Gallery