History has a tendency to celebrate artists who make a significant detour from having a predictable, and at the time a seemingly successful, career path. A history that is at odds with the fast-paced, brand-driven marketplace that our consumer society has become accustomed to, with social media’s continuous advertising feed, which psychologically rewards people who make decisions, that are fashionable and crowd-pleasing. It then becomes an easily forgotten fact that the most culturally significant artworks in our museums failed to exceed the creative ambitions that inspired them, or were simply not created with commercial success in mind.
The emerging Australian painter Nicci Pratten, by trusting in her ambitions has shifted her creative vision away from the predictable nature of the brand-driven art market. This change is made evident by her recent experimentation with both style and content within the medium of painting and drawing. For the majority of artists —who work within the framework of painting— genuine artistic development without relying on a visual precedent is a rare occurrence, and when it does appear, it often manifests itself as a crutch for the artist’s lack of technical skill. Or is substituted for a self-defence mechanism, guarding the artist’s finished work against possibly being critiqued, as you might have guessed, as a finished work.
Even in the early stages of Pratten’s art practise, there were indisputable signs of her technical aptitude for painting. In 2012-13, she pursued the strict and rigorous training of academic drawing and watercolour painting, at the Julian Ashton Art School, by attending two ten-week terms. Watercolour painting is a difficult craft to master, much more unforgiving than oil painting. Its method involves starting with a light pencil sketch, and blocking in positive shape and often masking negative space, gradually building up tones, from light to dark. This type of painting adheres to a very meticulous process, quite difficult to grasp, although Pratten’s natural instinct for proportion and well-developed hand-and-eye coordination, permitted her to learn this technique at an accelerated rate.
An exemplary way of showcasing Pratten’s expert treatment of the academic painting aesthetic is through her watercolour painting ‘Dogmat’ (2014). This figurative painting reveals the active use of a low-key palette with a warm-cool contrast. It depicts a male figure, in casual attire, ordinary subject matter, except for the surrealistic approach of the figure, which absurdly has the head of an Australian cattle dog. The image is surrealistic, despite the fact, that the human-dog figure is not visually unsettling, a frequently used theme evident in other surrealist paintings such as Leonora Carrington’s ‘Recital of Dreams’ (c. 1930) and Max Ernst’s ‘Attirement of the Bride’ (1940). Replacing the disconcerting narrative of the Surrealists is a feeling of consonance, a visual harmony as a result of Pratten’s decision to include a typographical ordering in her painting’s composition.
Typographical order in visual arts is a natural visual sequencing of tonal values, which obeys much the same rules as typography in printed text. Instead of a bold heading at the top of the page, there are darker tones in the upper part of the painting (such as the darker shade used in rendering the ear and forehead of the human-dog figure). In place of out-of-focus text in the lower part of a page, there is a less detail and a gradation of tone that becomes lighter towards the lower section of the painting. Supporting typographical order in Pratten’s picture is the light red to light grey-pink wash that forms the background, as the light pink hue is a discord of red, an artificial tone that prevents the viewer’s eye from moving to any location wherever it’s present. In the case of this painting, it keeps the audience centred on the figure, and in turn helps produce a coherent ensemble of the six elements of design (colour, line, size, shape, space, texture and value). Essentially it provides an intense visual experience of painting without any distractions.
Any object depicted in painting, it doesn’t matter what it is; an oak veneer dining table in an Ikea furniture store, a stranger passing by on a near-deserted street (in the context of painting, a person is an object), or a dirty sock crumpled in a corner of a bedroom. None of these objects project empathy by themselves. Now, imagine a painting that depicts a scene and sitting around that same oak veneer dining table are your closest friends and all the people who inspired you to take risks in your life, risks that paid off, the context of the dining room table automatically shifts, it becomes a witness to an empathic event. For the audience to have empathy for what the artist is feeling, the scene in the painting needs to legible and clear, just like the discerned clarity of a close friend’s anguish affects the weight of empathy to that distress. And this is where the importance of typographical order comes into play, as it provides legibility and clarity by allowing the audience to converse effectively with the image (in the painting).
The clarity of Nicci Pratten’s paintings would not go unnoticed. She has won numerous awards for her paintings, in 2008, she was awarded first place for her painting ‘Portrait of an Elderly Man in Murrurundi’ (2008) at the Inter-College Art Show, University of New England (UNE), Armidale. And in 2013, she received commercial gallery representation through Michael Reid Galleries (Sydney, Murrurundi, Berlin). This series of successes created momentum in her art career that was followed by study abroad, which would continue for the next few years. Starting in 2014, Pratten braved the cold and windy weather of Wales, to study at the Cardiff School of Art and Design, where she further developed her practical and theoretical fine art skills. Without rest, she then travelled to the birthplace of the painter Francis Bacon, and the playwright Samuel Beckett, The Republic of Ireland, to study at the Burren College of Art, and in 2015, enrolled in a Post Graduate Diploma (Visual Arts) course.
While Pratten was studying at the Burren College of Art, her direction in art began to make a sharp detour from previous work. Perhaps, such a dramatic change is due to the remoteness of Clare County (the location of the Burren College of Art), with its massive carboniferous limestone pavements, and open landscape, a hard country that coerces artists to make scabrous decisions on the direction of their art practise. Alternatively, it could be the long distance from Pratten’s upbringing in Australia. The art politics within Australia, with its servitude to contemporaneous ideas in visual arts, and intellectual discourse that willingly sacrifices beauty and emotional gesture in visual arts; political strategies, once viewed as overpowering, and through distance, appear to be less pertinent.
Regardless, of what spurred Pratten’s motivation, a deviation away from the exacting nature of academic painting started to infiltrate her artistic sensibilities. The most noticeable variation being the influence of The New York School, in particular, the action painting of Willem de Kooning. For an artist such as Pratten, acquiring such adeptness in the technical aspects of painting at a relatively young age, and then to temporarily abandon it, for the psychological drama that characterises ‘action painting,’ reveals that she is no longer satisfied with the division of art and life. For Pratten, they are one and the same, and a singular style cannot express both, so two methods are necessary, academic painting for documenting the surface qualities of the visible world. While action painting does much the same, except its field of interest is the inner world, the inner world of emotional transcendence, irreverent humour and self-identity.
A primary example of the exploration of external-internal worlds is evident in Nicci Pratten’s painting ‘Lennon Roo’ (2016). A portrait painting of an anthropomorphic kangaroo wearing round red-coloured glasses, an apparent reference to the late musician and peace activist John Lennon (1940-1980). Painted in an expressionist style, and on the surface, is reminiscent of the portrait paintings produced by the well-known Australian painters Ben Quilty and Guy Maestri. With the exception, of the broad-brush strokes of thick paint (a chief characteristic of Quilty and Maestri’s paintings) is not present in Pratten’s artwork. The technique of plastering thick paint across a canvas in a quick and helter-skelter manner is the most straightforward route the general public can access the emotional content in painting. It’s a tried-and-tested method and a gamble for Pratten to exclude it from this artwork, a risk, which has opened up new inroads into the vocabulary of painting. Pratten is experimenting with a more psychological tone in her painting. Attempting to trap the rhythm and flow of time in the paint, much like a method actor in how they try to ensnare mannerisms different to their own. And following the trailblazing efforts of other female contemporary painters — the American artist Dana Schutz comes to mind — where quoting other art movements is no longer the status quo, instead a new-found interest in a narrative that echoes the possibilities that the inner performance of painting can evoke.
– James Aksman-Glosz
James Aksman-Glosz is an arts writer and a practising artist whose work places emphasis on painting, drawing and printmedia. He holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Painting) from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Previously he studied at Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf. With further study at the Sydney Gallery School and at the NADC (Nepean Arts and Design Centre). More recently he was the Master Printer for Matthys Gerber with the works being exhibited in Hot Art—Cold Market (2012), Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (I.C.A.N), Sydney.
Nicci Pratten can be found at http://niccipratten.com