Iconic Trans-Tasman artists to showcase at The Dowse

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Published: 22 February 2024

The Dowse presents Nell x Colin McCahon: Through the Wall of Birth and Death

The Dowse Art Museum is delighted to showcase a significant exhibition charting the multidisciplinary practice of internationally renowned contemporary Australian artist Nell. In a twist on the conventional solo exhibition, Nell has selected key works by iconic Aotearoa artist Colin McCahon to be shown alongside her own, drawing out fresh dialogues across geographic and generational distance.

The exhibition Nell x Colin McCahon: Through the Wall of Birth and Death, opened on 17 February and is part of the Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts 2024 free visual arts programme.

“This is a unique opportunity to see two distinctive artistic practices coming together. This exhibition is not only an insightful introduction to Nell’s work for local audiences, but through her lens it also contextualises Colin McCahon’s work in new, unexpected ways,” said Karl Chitham, Director - The Dowse Art Museum.

Over the past few decades, Nell has developed a recognisable artistic practice that spans painting, sculpture, performance, video, music and public art - ranging from small intimate objects to large immersive installations. Nell uses the language of art history, popular culture, and spiritual traditions – from a distinctly Antipodean perspective – to create works that are playful, intriguing, and poetic. Highly symbolic motifs, including smiley faces, ghosts, eggs, teardrops, and lightning bolts, recur throughout her works as a tool for communicating the complexities of the human experience.

“In limitless combinations and manifestations, it’s certainly my relationship to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christianity and Buddhism, along with my Australian-ness and Western art history, that forms the basis of who I am and what I make,” said Nell.

Nell has long had a fascination with Colin McCahon’s practice, resonating throughout many of her works.

“I could talk for ages about how McCahon’s work resonates — his use of light and dark, his visual and spiritual tussles, the New Zealand landscape as allegory for big questions, his use of Māori motifs and subjects at a time of burgeoning biculturalism and his use of text in multidimensional ways… It’s these sentiments and meanings that continue to linger in hearts and minds in an altogether different dimension to the works themselves that makes me excited. And of course, it must be said that he is an extraordinary painter!”

Both Nell’s and McCahon’s works are imbued with the symbolism of opposites – light and dark, birth and death, feminine and masculine, and joy and sadness. In dialogue, their artworks speak, individually and together, to notions of spiritual awareness, transcendence, and a search for meaning.

One of the most striking parallels, beyond elements of visual language employed by both artists, is a strong spiritual underpinning to their artistic practices and lives. McCahon’s works are loaded with biblical references and his relationship with religion has been well documented. Nell, in contrast, is a practising Buddhist, which informs the way she works and how her ideas are realised in the studio.

“My Buddhist training has taught me to not have preferences about what is happening, to be able to stay a bit longer with difficult situations and not run away from problems and to accept and even celebrate imperfections when making art,” said Nell.

Included in this exhibition are significant works by both artists. Nell’s self-nature is subtle and mysterious - nun.sex.monk.rock from the National Gallery of Australia and Where Newcastle meets Maitland from the Art Gallery of New South Wales show alongside new works created especially for the exhibition, and numerous loans from private collections in Australia and New Zealand. The exhibition features McCahon’s Walk (Series C) and Koru series from Te Papa Tongarewa, The Song of the Shining Cuckoo from the Hocken Collections, Object & Image from Waikato Museum, and Through the Wall of Death: A Banner, from the Dowse collection, after which the exhibition was named.

“This is an exhibition that is thoughtful and uplifting. Through Nell’s practice it offers insights into other ways of looking at the world through art that is both familiar and new. It takes us on a journey through the wall and out the other side,” Karl Chitham, Director - The Dowse Art Museum.

Nell x Colin McCahon: Through the Wall of Birth and Death will run at The Dowse Art Museum until 4 August 2024.

More information on the Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts can be found here: www.festival.nz

More information on this exhibition can be found at: dowse.org.nz