Firewall by John Nicholson


This article first appeared as 'Living colour' in The Press on 1 August 2014.

The juicy colours and synthetic surfaces of John Nicholson's latest sculptures seem far removed from the natural world, but they materialise a force that streams constantly and imperceptibly through the air around us – data: the digital information that instantly connects computers, people and ideas, and which has become an increasingly essential aspect of our daily lives.

Australia-based Nicholson – who has two works currently on display in Christchurch Art Gallery's Burster Flipper Wobbler Dripper Spinner Stacker Shaker Maker exhibition at ArtBox – is fascinated by the challenge of creating an object from something so pervasive, yet invisible. "I want to give it volume and mass" he has said. "I want it to be made of particles. I want to know what it might look like when it hits a moving car or the moment before it forms an image on a hand-held device." It's not the first time Nicholson has sought to heighten awareness of the phenomena surrounding us. In previous sculptures he attempted to give physical form to the magnetic spectrum of light – an interest that also led to a self-initiated residency at the University of New South Wales' School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Science, where he explored the creative possibilities of bioluminescent bacteria.

Nicholson's choice of material – plastic – is unusual and deliberate. Attracted by its gleaming, vibrant colours, he manipulates it in ways more traditionally associated with woodworking to create one-off, alluring forms that counteract its contemporary ubiquity and associations with inferiority and disposability. A keen surfer, he admits to an enduring appreciation for customised, highly finished surfaces and is an admirer of the US West Coast 'Finish Fetish' movement of the 1960s (also known as 'the L.A. Look' or 'L.A. Slick'), whose practitioners experimented with materials such as resin and fibreglass to create glossy sculptures that recalled the seductive curves of high-end surfboards or luxury cars.

In this work by Nicholson, those curves take on the sinuous malevolence of a digital serpent, effortlessly breaching a flimsy security firewall. In their bounding energy, they also resemble toppling board game counters, or the light trail left on a darkened sky by exploding fireworks. When I saw it unwrapped in the Gallery, my first thought was of the painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) by Giacomo Balla, arguably the most charming example of the Italian Futurist movement of the early twentieth century. Capturing a vivid sense of the pace and technology of their rapidly changing world, the Futurists created pictorial depictions of light, movement and speed, including, in Balla's case, not only the swinging of a dachshund's chain lead, but the flurrying motion of its, and its mistress's, feet. The Balla link seems especially apt for me given Firewall's current location at the heart of the Christchurch rebuild, where the city's future is being shaped surely as much by innumerable, invisible transmissions of data as it is by the assembling of glass, concrete and steel.

Felicity Milburn