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Decades of natural wonder from Nikulinsky

Review: Philippa Nikulinsky, ‘Nikulinsky Naturally’ ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery · 
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Since the 1970s, Philippa Nikulinsky has been travelling to remote areas of Western Australia to embed herself in the rugged but fragile landscape and illustrate its botanical beauty with great precision and care.

“Nikulinsky Naturally” is a survey of the artist’s deep investment and love for the incredibly diverse, resilient and beautiful flora of Western Australia over the past 40 years. Published alongside the exhibition is the book Nikulinsky Naturally: An Artist’s Life, which provides a depth of understanding about Nikulinsky’s working methods, her life as a female artist in the 1970s and 80s, and the history of botanical art and collecting since European arrival.

The exhibition and publication, both curated and edited by Ted Snell, speak to many pertinent themes of conversation in our current political and environmental climate. They address questions of classifying and preserving flora and fauna as well as the ability of artworks to reproduce, change form and mutate into more portable formats such as monographs and reproductions.

This last point is made in the book by Clive Newman (p. 34), that the mobility of a publication has the chance to do what exhibitions cannot – to travel beyond their immediate location and reach audiences much farther away. This seems prescient to the itinerant nature of WA’s botanical life in the 19th century, as specimens and seeds were voraciously captured, preserved and shipped back to Europe as exotic luxury items, far away from their homeland and the sandy soil that sustained them.

Taking items such as plants (and animals) out of their context and preserving them as specimens has the effect of anonymity, reducing an individual plant or animal to a representative of its entire species, a classifying act that fails to consider the specificity of environment. In her works, Nikulinsky works hard to avoid this trap, wanting the viewer to understand the relationship between flora and its environment, to make clear that they are part of an entangled whole. Displaying her deep investment in delicately portraying the natural world, she is mindful of finding ways to represent specific flowers or trees in their original environment, as individual parts of a whole, rather than as an anonymous specimen, a representative of a species.

This effort is shown clearly through her work as she focuses on the intricacies of entangled brush, or through her images displaying the banksia growing, flowering, browning and dying. This experience of  difference and growth over a life span is a common theme in her work, and one that is beautifully and movingly represented. In the same way, the blackened, twisted bodies of xanthorea thorntii (cundalee grass trees) after a bushfire are hung below pre-scorched trees. This before-and-after series represent the dangerous, harsh environment in which biodiversity flourishes. It is both a stark reminder of the devastating effects of fire and the joyful potential of renewal as Nikulinsky’s subtle splashes of colour gesture towards rebirth. These cycles of life, death and regeneration give her images pathos and an individuality that removes any idea of scientific, classifying distance from one’s artistic subject.

The monograph delves deeply into Nikulinsky’s approach to her work, and her single-minded drive to embed herself deeply in the bush. She spends weeks in remote desert drawing and illustrating what she sees, going bush to live in a space, as  her daughter-in-law Angela Nikulinsky stresses in her chapter That Girl From the Bush (p. 7). The extent of her immersion in their environment is reflected in the way her own field notes and diary entries are written across the paper upon which she has illustrated whole scenes of bushland. This is a particular kind of emotional and physical investment, an embodied presence upon the images.

This approach to the landscape, and to conserving and representing its particularities, felt deeply political, especially in the post-election haze and increasing sense of climate anxiety with which I viewed the exhibition. I felt that with such a strong focus on an embodied presence within the landscape, something that Nikulinsky clearly brings to her work with dedication and passion, the monograph would have benefited from Aboriginal perspectives or contributions.

Against the backdrop of a topic that so clearly references colonial practices of naming, classification and preserving, which are delved into in both Ted Snell’s and Kingsley Dixon’s chapters in fascinating detail, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more reflection on the impact of imposing Latin names, collecting specimens and using European agricultural practices that differed radically from those used by First Nations people.

It would have been valuable to see a dialogue about this, or a critical reflection. However, considering Nikulinsky’s passion for continuing her practice, bush trips and conversations about the incredible biodiversity of our state, perhaps this is something for the future.

‘Nikulinsky Naturally’ runs until August 17.

The monograph Nikulinsky Naturally: An Artist’s Life may be purchased online or from the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Pictured top is ‘Misteltoe’ by Philippa Nikulinsky.

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