@womansdayaus & Photographer @phillipcastleton

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The majesty of a horse in full gallop is undoubtedly one of the most captivating expressions of forward volition in nature, one moreover that occupies a place of lasting significance within the human psyche. For artists especially, the equestrian subject has long been a source of fascination. From the cave paintings of Lascaux in Southern France, where, more than 17,000 years ago the figure of the horse first loomed out of the darkness, to the earliest experiments in cinematography, the movement, energy and shapeliness of the horse has lingered as a perennial source of delight. The horse, whether wild and beyond our bipedal giait or familiarised by the presence of a seated rider, seems synonymous with our own bid for freedom. Horses are undoubtedly objects of admiration and desire; but it is through the harnessing of their energy that human civilisations have enlarged and extended their reach. The image of the horse in art is also a depiction of us.

For artist Nicole Slater, horses constitute a singular point of focus. Slater is both a painter of large-scale equestrian portraits and a breeder of outstanding thoroughbreds. Horses are her business; they are a daily presence in her life and they are her muse. Nicole’s intimate knowledge of her subject emerges from a lifetime of involvement with riding, nurturing and showing. This prolonged experience underpins the artist’s ability to observe and transcribe the intricate formations of equine conformation: the skeletal proportions and musculature, the coat, sheen, fetlock, forelock, whither and mane that only begin to describe the remarkable dynamics of the creature we call the horse. Standing before these life-sized paintings, it is impossible to ignore the drama of Nicole’s subject – whether a stallion at full gallop or a docile mare at rest. Each are a celebration of energies both realised and potential. Here are impressions extending from the smouldering delicacy of a creature at close quarters to the full expression of physical release on the hoof.

In her most recent series of paintings, presented as ‘The Stables Collection’, it is possible to perceive the inner equine spirit, conveyed through a myriad of small details that build into complex psychological studies. The articulation of each of her subjects is amplified by the expansive space that contains each image. In a manner that echoes Britain’s most celebrated animal painter, George Stubbs (1724-1806), whose equestrian masterpiece ‘Whistlejacket’, 1762 was sold to the National Gallery in London in 1997 for a record price of eleven million pounds, Slater outlines the contours and forms of her horses to the exclusion of all else. The results are nothing short of commanding. Rather than the eye being drawn by the surrounding landscape, the focus sits on the corporeal undulations and bodily territory of the horse. As an expression of inner life, both physical and psychological, the effect is hard to ignore, and it is little surprise to discover that Nicole is much in demand as a painter of commissioned equestrian portraits.

Slater’s stylistic approach to her subject ranges from solid in-filled forms, to delicate impressions that suggest both spirit and topography. Seemingly, the land and the horse are one – a magical equation that also ensnares the viewer. More than paintings, these are environments that can easily absorb attention.

Visiting Nicole at ‘Slater Thoroughbreds’, the stud farm she runs with her husband and sporting legend Billy Slater, their extended menagerie of horses (both thoroughbred and rescue), sheep, goats and exotic birds reveals the depth of their commitment to animal husbandry and care. Certainly, these days, it is not uncommon to hear expressions of empathy for our animal cousins; far less are those who can lay claim to a life surrounded by them. This is the world that Nicole and Billy have created for themselves and their family, and it is the place where Nicole’s expansive equestrian paintings take shape. As a self-trained artist, Nicole’s remarkable commitment to her art has produced significant results – equine portraits that occupy a class and quality of their own.

Damian Smith, 2021 Secretary, AICA Australia (International Association of Art Critics, sponsored by UNESCO)

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