Canberra Times, Sasha Grishin, March 8, 2021
image: Nicole Ellis, Erasure 3
Although born in Adelaide in 1951, Nicole Ellis since the mid-1980s has been based in Sydney. She is identified with the art scene in that city, particularly with the College of Fine Arts where she taught for many years.
For Ellis’s art practice, collage is the founding principle. Carefully selected fabrics, canvases and other surfaces are juxtaposed, overlapped and brought together or even forced together, into a new harmonious whole. Many of her materials bring with them traces of their former existence and now, within their new context, they hint at earlier histories. The artist seems intent on giving voice to the castoff fragments around which the work grows and a narrative develops. The choice of textiles is done within the deliberate consciousness of 20th century feminism – fabrics have generally been associated with women’s work – but much of the work goes considerably beyond making this simple point.
Ellis selects her pieces of fabric through a mixture of historic curiosity and aesthetic attraction. Once the starting piece has been established, then commences the process of layering and the building up of tactile surfaces. The seams, erasures and passages of frottage combine to make a complex and ambiguous surface, one where meaning may reside not so much in overall impressions, but in the actual seams where ideas, surfaces and histories collide.
When I first visited Rome in my late teens, I remember looking at the great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and in my mind wishing to strip it back to its fifth-century original state and rid it of later encrustations. Subsequently, when I have revisited Rome, I would look at this great church and would admire how over 1500 years successive generations have reused it, rethought it and readapted it to their own purposes.
Rome is a special city for this artist and she appears to have arrived at a similar realisation that there is a majesty and beauty in constantly recycled material cultures.
In her assembled pieces of cloth, Ellis builds up what could be described as an archaeology of materials inviting us, as spectators, to enter the work and within it establish our own reality. Most of the pieces in this extensive exhibition lack a clear or rational orientation and a little bit as with the work of the Russian Suprematists or many of the Central Desert artists of Australia, the horizontal or the vertical orientation of a work is relatively arbitrary.
In her art practice, Ellis has been attracted by the patterns of wedding confetti on the ground, discarded Kinder Surprise wrappers, the pavements and marbles of Rome, garments of India and the tentmakers of Cairo as well as the paint stains on studio floors or oil stains in old factories, but these have been subsumed into her practice. The nomadic nature of her scavenging leads to a virtual United Nations of fabric scraps in her art.
Ellis, speaking of her practice, aptly noted, “The method I use with different textiles and canvas is one of using acrylic paint and acrylic mediums to adhere the different surfaces together, later pulling apart to reveal different marks and traces from the dyes and mediums used to adhere the surfaces. It is a layered result that can include tears or mends in the linen and one that brings activity and life into the works.”