Born in London in 1960, Nicola Hicks studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art, London from 1978 to 1982 and at the Royal College of Art, London from 1982 to 1985. She went on to build up a name for a sculptural bestiary of creatures with nimble-witted titles such as Avant-Garde Dog (1985) – a canine alertly sniffing the (cultural!) air, made entirely out of straw – and the playfully minatory Fee Fie Foe Fum (1996) – a quartet of cows watchfully huddled together, composed of straw swiftly applied to a malleably handled plaster base. As a child, she says, ‘holding on to a piece of clay made me want to become a sculptor… the feeling is delicious’, and in such sculptures the animate essences of dynamically compact yet fragile mortal creatures are supply conjured up.
By 1992, Hicks was making hybrid human and animal forms in drawings and sculptures. Her 2015 exhibition Pause at Flowers Gallery, London contained an array of bristlingly visceral plaster-and-straw sculptures of fabulous figures. These included an ominously vigilant crow, a vulnerable-looking bear desperately seeking tender equilibrium, and the macabre ensemble of a Minotaur (a creature with a bull’s head and a man’s body) smashing a classical statue, whilst beating a cat with an ass’s jawbone (surrounded by feline corpses hanging from branches of a tree). The latter work – an animalier phantasmagoria, drawing on currents of a year of personal crisis for the artist – was ‘really a nonsensical, classical reference to sculpture about the fact that nothing made sense in my life anymore, I couldn’t even justify making sculpture. Sometimes I’m a tree, sometimes I’m a cat, sometimes I’m a Minotaur, sometimes I’m a broken sculpture. It switches. It was a moving story and I tried to pour everything that I was feeling into it. I felt I was in a very bleak landscape in my life.’[i]
In a 2004 interview with Edward King, Director of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Hicks said that she ‘hardly ever’ drew from life but that ‘everything usefully creative comes through drawing’. Although ‘yes, I’ve drawn skeletons. Yes, I keep skulls in the studio. Yes, I’m fascinated by anatomy… I do believe very very strongly how much more important it is to make work about how things ARE rather than what they look like’. Generally, Hicks’s drawings and sculptures are created out of a fusion of memory and imagination. For drawings in the exhibition Pause she returned to working directly from the model; the resulting large untitled charcoal nudes are notable for their pliable perspicacity as well as lucid veracity of form.
Hicks rarely draws direct representational self-portraits (though her sculptures often allude to elusive aspects of herself through allegorical and symbolic forms of birds and mammals; Edward King noticed that ‘in some of your sculptures…quite a lot…seem to be self-portraits’, to which she replied, ‘Of course they look like me – whose face would look more familiar?’) Now and then there have been direct sculptural self-portrayals – seen in the tender gravity of Pandora (1992), made in plaster and straw, in which the standing naked mother holds her newborn baby to her breast – and in the raw expressionist candour of Me (1994) (in the same medium), in which the naked artist holds her head in her hands in an attitude of elemental anguish.
Her 2013 pastel-on-paper self-portrait is remarkable for its dexterous fluency and sensuous verisimilitude. The artist’s head is isolated, and so highlighted, against the bare vacancy of creamy white paper; there is only a fleeting reference to her body in a blur of dark paint below. The pinkish-brownness (variegated and tonally elucidated) of face, neck and hair, of skin, flesh and bone, is the colour, as it were, of the human clay. This term can be taken almost literally here (apt for a sculptor preferring to use earthy, non-precious materials) and metaphorically too (as relating to discerning creatures – human animals – arising from, and ultimately returning to, the earth). The artist scrutinises her unadorned self with a still, transfixing familiarity and archetypal curiosity – through which she is able to observe herself unnervingly afresh.
She says, ‘Self-portraits are often recognisable by the uncomfortable intensity in the eyes. This is obviously due to the model being unusually patient and unflinching, there is also a tendency to draw rather dispassionately as the model has not been picked for any interest or admiration – just availability. I only resort to drawing myself in my practice when there’s nobody else available. And then of course the beast vanity (closely related to the beast aesthetics) rears its head: glasses on or glasses off? Truth or dare, I personally never like the result, so much performance, trying to hold mirror/chalk/rubber/specs, it’s a terrible faff. I’m always very touched when other people like the results, but I’d rather see a portrait of me by someone else. That’s interesting and always flattering.’
Nicola Hicks has travelled widely. In 1987 she lived and worked in India, and three years later in Australia. She has also explored Japan, Fiji and Bali, and driven by car across America. ‘I travel alone… India especially makes you face yourself, everybody finds different things there but it forces you to re-examine yourself…The best artists are aliens, you have to be a bit of an alien to be a really good observer.’[ii]
Her talent was first recognised when she was selected for a solo exhibition at Angela Flowers Gallery in 1984. She has produced site-specific works for Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and has had solo exhibitions at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. Nicola Hicks lives and works in London.
[i] Hicks quoted in Nicola Hicks – Pause by Bob Chaundy in The Huffington Post BLOG, 13th November 2015
[ii] Hicks quoted in an interview with Anthony Denselow, Nicola Hicks, Momentum, 1999