Maitland-born artist Nell mixes zen buddhism and rock'n'roll to make an impact

Nell's version of It's Long Way to The Top (If You Wanna Rock'n'Roll)

Part art world rockstar, part zen buddhist; Maitland-born contemporary artist Nell straddles the world of binary forces.

Having been quoted as saying that “in between black and white runs a river of gold”, her diverse practice swiftly moves between performance, large scale installation, painting, video, sculpture, graffiti - whatever means to best communicate this tension of opposites.

And what does the artist - who goes by her first name only - find in the space in between? Despite the complex and sometimes dark nature of her work, Nell’s practice so often highlights simplicity and joy, wherein lies her great skill as a communicator.

Growing up in a pre-internet Maitland where band posters were difficult to come by (“images were treasure”) it may have seemed unlikely that a young Nell would decide to devote her life to becoming an artist.

“By the time I was 16 I knew I was going to be an artist,” she says. “And although I didn't have an exact role model for what that would look like, I just knew it was my path.”

Nell says music was her first window to a world outside her of own. Having declared music as her first love, Nell’s passion for rock’n’roll is reflected throughout her work. None more so than a 2011 work which saw her re-stage AC/DC’s classic clip It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) with herself playing bass in an all-girl rock band, alongside the original bagpipers from the clip.  

Cutting edge: Nell is one of Australia's foremost contemporarary artists. Picture: Amina Barolli

Cutting edge: Nell is one of Australia's foremost contemporarary artists. Picture: Amina Barolli

Once finishing high school in Maitland Nell left for Sydney College of the Arts where she spent her formative years studying under Lindy Lee, who also introduced Nell to her other great commitment - Zen Buddhism.

While some might find the juxtaposition of rock’n’roll against meditation confusing, Nell says she has experienced a sense of transcendental freedom within both.

“Rock’n’roll looks very different on the surface but to me it feels very similar,” she says. “When you're at a rock concert it’s very tribal, you can feel as though you are this one mass, and it’s similar to when you meditate, you can lose that sense that your body ends with your skin.”

The combination of both Eastern and Western religious iconography with a rock’n’roll aesthetic, an observance of polarities, has coalesced into a catalogue of work which has drawn her much attention from both the art and music worlds.

In 2017 Nell became the first woman to be commissioned to design the ARIA Awards commemorative artwork; she has performed at festivals such as Glastonbury; shown her work in Amsterdam, Paris and Beijing; and last year was inducted into the Maitland City Hall of Fame. Most recently Nell released a line of clutch purses of her work Unlimited Radiance - a spectacular, large-scale wall installation - exclusively through the MCA.

There is no prescribed path. Yes, you can go to art school and be in group shows, you might get a dealer and start showing in regional galleries and museums. But after that, it’s just a roller-coaster, you’re just hanging on for the ride.

Nell

Nell however is hesitant to pinpoint when things began to lift off in her career.

“People expect there to be a pivot point but I try not to pay too much attention to those moments because even if they do happen, they are few and far between. It’s really a long-term commitment. That’s the most important thing. Cause if you get carried away with the achievements, you can get carried away with what are perceived failures as well.

“There is no prescribed path. Yes, you can go to art school and be in group shows, you might get a dealer and start showing in regional galleries and museums. But after that, it’s just a roller-coaster, you’re just hanging on for the ride.

“I trust that my work will take me everywhere I need to go.”  

When asked about what advice she has for young artists, Nell simply says: “Just don’t stop making work. Even if there are no rewards, just keep making ... And don’t waste any time googling yourself.”

There are currently three opportunities to experience Nell’s work:

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Mardi Gras, Nell will be giving a talk on the film The Wizard of Oz at the Museum of Contemporary Art on the March 21.

Nell has an exhibition show at Walkway Gallery in Bordertown, South Australia, currently on show.

Unlimited Radiance is currently on show in Arts Space Mackay, in Queensland, as a part of Primavea at 25. It runs through May 13.

At home: Nell working in her own workspace. Picture: Penny Lane

At home: Nell working in her own workspace. Picture: Penny Lane