One of Nell’s paintings, delivered in black, gold and white, declares, “It’s the beginning of a new age.” Originally found in the Velvet Underground song New Age, the lyric comes at the tune’s finale, and it doesn’t quite know which way it’s heading: the knowledge of leaving an old life behind is held against the lamentation of time passing, which is overrun by the urgent promise, and slight trepidation, of the future. It’s the limbo in between these feelings that’s meaningful: it’s not unlike a moment we’re in now, and it’s not unlike a moment found in much of Nell’s art.
Alongside rock references, Nell has many signatures. She places smiley faces on objects like gravestones; she’s created an entire visual language with her painted and sculpted ghosts bearing “O” shaped mouths; she often uses lightning bolts; and she seamlessly weaves the pop with the spiritual. Yet in borrowing gestures from popular culture, Nell isn’t making an ironic comment, staking out a theoretical position, or pointing to pop’s commercial tendencies— rather, she shows its profundity. She takes an AC/DC lyric from its original world and gives it new meaning, while also honouring the context it came from. “I like celebrating,” agrees Nell. “I think there’s an element of my work that’s very child-like and simple, and I think in many ways I’m still that teenager in my bedroom listening to Triple J in wonder at a song.”
And just as a teenager may self-confine to their room, a global pandemic has placed us all in domestic quarters. Nell’s studios at Carriageworks closed in late March, her residency in Auckland was cancelled and her group exhibitions were postponed. Now she’s getting used to Zoom meetings and Zoom yoga, is working from friends’ studios or a Bunnings table at home, and establishing an online community quilting project. “I don’t think I’ve had a day off,” she says. But within this new routine, music and spirituality are still key figures.
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