Originally published by The Upcoming on 20th March 2014.
On first glance, Robert Nicol’s landscapes seem quite serene; there’s a quintessentially English quaintness about them, as diminutive little figures frolic in the snow, each image steeped innocuously in a gentle pastel palette. But once the anodyne colours and cutesy miniature people have washed over you a few times, you start to zone in on their nefarious activities, quickly realising there’s something just not right about these surreal little scenes.
King William Island depicts an idyllic winter landscape with rolling, snow-covered hills. In the foreground a doddery-looking figure seems to be poking a dead body with her walking stick, its left arm amputated and lying inches from its body, while just a few yards away a trio of children look to be playing the most disjointed game of cricket you’ve ever seen.
It’s not a coherent narrative, the characters depicted seem completely oblivious to what’s going on around them, which puts you as the viewer in an unsettling and lonely position as being the only one aware of the heinous deeds being carried out.
Lancaster Sound sees a whale in the foreground with two galleons, perhaps giving pursuit, in the middle distance. It evokes the classic novel Moby Dick. Fittingly, a giant phallic iceberg dominates the entire scene, while little people seem to be rowing on inflated condoms. It’s incredibly juvenile, yet irresistibly humorous; something for the inner teenager in us all. Other works are replete with phallic symbols in a sort of post-post-modern ironic way.
Accompanying the paintings are a collection of ceramic artefacts, echoing the style of the images; they look as though they could have been plucked from these bizarre little worlds. The paintings themselves often seem to be little more than anachronistic assemblages of travel souvenirs, like museum dioramas that have been mischievously swapped, chopped and changed so much as to become completely nonsensical.
The Shadows of a God seems to be harking back to a more primitive time that never really existed, its simplistic stick-like figures resembling cave paintings, as if making a mockery of the Hobbesian “state of nature”. It reminds us there is no human nature, just shared human experiences like death and humour, both of which occur in equal measure in Nicol’s work.