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Tom Nicholson: Cartoons for Joseph Selleny

Melbourne artist's solo debut meditates on the possibilities of drawing

Tom Nicholson Cartoons for Joseph Selleny 2012-14 (detail), charcoal drawings, perforated; wall drawing with crushed charcoal; artist’s book to take away, dimension variable © the artist. Photograph: Christian Capurro. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

In 1858 the Austrian imperial frigate Novara docked in Sydney Harbour for six weeks. On board was Joseph Selleny – an artist whose work now, over 150 years later, forms the touchstone of Tom Nicholson’s first solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Tom Nicholson: Cartoons for Joseph Selleny is an historically rich project, evoking Selleny’s story and the divergent histories that wove through his life. It is evocatively situated in the contemporary galleries that look out over Sydney Harbour – a landmark that represents an acute paradox for Nicholson. This is a site of creation and destruction: both the birthplace of European settlement in Australia and the origin of Australia’s colonisation with its devastating effects on the local Indigenous people, their land and their culture.

Nicholson’s work is presented in three parts: a suite of large-scale charcoal drawings or 'cartoons’ (a Renaissance term to describe preparatory drawings that are perforated then beaten with charcoal dust to create the outline of forms on a wall, in a process known as ‘pouncing’); a vast wall drawing (the result of ‘pouncing’); and an accompanying take-away artist’s book of imaginary letters that knit together the narratives of the Novara and the evolution of Nicholson’s project.

Based in Melbourne, Nicholson has previously worked with archival material and in this work he uses a similar approach to engage with aspects of Australia’s early colonial history. As well as the Novara's visit to Sydney and the style of picture making developed later in Selleny’s career, Nicholson draws upon the scenes of colonial violence depicted in French painter Edouard Manet’s famous series The execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-69). Cartoons for Joseph Selleny makes the history between imperial Vienna and early colonial Sydney manifest, articulating spectral presences through drawing, writing and their interrelation.

Tom Nicholson has undertaken research in Vienna at the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna Natural History Museum, Albertina, Museum Stadt Wien, Belvedere, Kaisergruft, Anatomical Collection of Vienna Medical University and Narrenturm (Museum of Pathology). The project has also been informed by the generous input of Jonathan Jones, Julie Freeman, Clive Freeman and their family; supported by Monash University and a creative fellowship from the Myer Foundation; and commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nicholson’s work will also be presented at ExtraCity in Antwerp later in 2014.

AGNSW Contemporary Projects are supported by Andrew Cameron.

Contemporary art with UBS

On view
22 May – 10 Aug 2014
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


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