During shutdown, artists have continued to create and galleries have continued to acquire work. Ebay may not be the most obvious source of art, especially for Australia’s major cultural institutions, but unorthodox acquisitions are as valuable as any.
A hand-knitted jumper depicting a runner and a kebab has been a highlight addition for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). Created by artist Emma Buswell, the knit refers to West Australian premier Mark McGowan’s response when asked about social distancing restrictions.
Ms Buswell, 29, who was stood down from her local government job for eight weeks due to the pandemic, said she initially made the jumper as a “working home uniform”. But when she posted on social media there was a frenzy, generating 102 orders for the jumpers which were sold at $100 each.
Ms Buswell said her generation felt disatisfaction with governments but Mr McGowan’s laughing fit “endeared a lot of us towards him, it was quite nice to see a politician being real”.
AGWA director Colin Walker said the jumper not only reflected the health crisis but captured a high profile figure losing control. “During COVID none of us have as much control of anything, no matter who we are,” he said.
Tony Albert’s Misunderstanding, recently acquired by AGWA, is also a response to a contemporary moment, referencing Rio Tinto’s destruction of two sites in the Juukan Gorge, one of which contained evidence of human habitation dating back 45,000 years. Albert painted several sticks of dynamite, labelled Rio Tinto, across a velvet portrait, of the kind popular in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, of Aboriginal children.
Institutions across the country have launched programs to help artists keep working during the pandemic. The Together In Art series at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was designed to support local artists by providing them with commissions to create new work.
The first is From My Window, which features works on paper by nine artists. Asked to consider the view from their window, responses varied from images of comfort and community to uncertainty and fear, as seen in Emily Hunt’s (Returned) Three Gorgons, created when the artist was in Berlin.
“I spend a lot of time on my balcony at the moment, looking at other people’s windows and watching the movements of people on the street,” Ms Hunt said. “My work is driven by looking at people, but I don’t particularly like to be around them. The lockdown, strangely enough, has helped me become more accepting of the introverted parts of my nature.”
The Art Gallery of South Australia has also reinvigorated its South Australian Artists Fund, offering six artists $10,000 bursaries to support the continuation of their practice with no exhibition outcomes.
Around the country, young artists are addressing global issues, AGWA’s Mr Walker said, and “getting their voices amplified” through their work. “I’m really interested in where truth-telling will take us, those kinds of ideas. Politically, where Australia is and where it’s been, and that gives a really strong particular strand [in art].”
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
The arts sector is seen as merely a thin scrape of icing on the big fat cake we call the economy.
Woe betide the museums and galleries that depend on such visionaries to help them survive the COVID-19 outbreak. Even without a pandemic, it’s not easy to achieve large attendances for art exhibitions, unless it’s the Archibald Prize – and even that venerable money-spinner would be wrecked by another lockdown.
With funds in short supply and the usual movement of artworks curtailed, institutions are depending heavily on permanent collections and small-scale projects.
The Wollongong Art Gallery has suffered the added complication of having to close a show by Anthony Lister two months early, due to the artist’s arrest on sexual assault charges.
Nevertheless, echoing Scott Morrison’s sage-like proscription during his arts package launch, the gallery has managed “to keep the show on the road” with three separate exhibitions by eX de Medici, Halinka Orszulok and Pamela Griffith.
The most eye-catching display is eX de Medici’s From the Room of Dorian Gray, featuring large watercolours that explode conventional expectations of the medium. A hundred years ago, an Australian watercolour was a nice bit of bush scenery by JJ Hilder or JW Tristram, but de Medici creates hyperdecorative pictures of deadly weapons, overt political statements, and, in Real Estate (2012-13), a panorama of the rocky Shir-Kuh mountain in Iran, complete with a calligraphic inscription from Persia’s national epic, the Shahnameh.
That inscription reads: “Count Persia as a ruin, as the lair of lions and leopards, look now and despair.” These are sentiments that might touch anybody who has been to this extraordinary country, so constantly vilified in US propaganda. Surely the Iranians have suffered enough at the hands of their own government without being treated as global pariahs.
Real Estate is a phenomenal feat of perseverance for an artist not known as a landscapist. The motivation remains oblique, but presumably de Medici wants to convey a sense of Iran’s antiquity and its stony resilience. Two pictures of guns, Cleavin’ Clint Eastwood (2014) and The Law (Heckler and Koch) (2013-14), are typically obsessive images that satirise the unending appeal of violence for those who consider themselves the guardians of civilisation.
De Medici’s guns are fetish objects in which aesthetic appeal is inseparable from their efficiency as killing machines. They are also metaphors for political power that offers visions of freedom backed up with dire threats. They are images that have grown in relevance in recent years as politics, particularly in America, has become more tolerant of extreme and dangerous positions. At the heart of the law, there is always violence, but we’re digging a little deeper every day.
Halinka Orszulok’s paintings are nocturnal scenes, mostly taken from alongside the Hume Highway. I’ve driven past the sign for Black Bob’s Creek and the VC Mackey Rest Area on countless occasions, but never saw anything remarkable. Orszulok’s sensibility runs along very different lines. She transforms these roadside non-attractions into Gothic landscapes enveloped in thick, velvety darkness. In Black Bob’s Creek, our eye is drawn to a flicker of light in the distance, most probably a car. In VC Mackey Rest Area, we are conscious of the looming shape of a tree and a mysterious play of light in the foreground.
Orszulok creates a sense of expectation, instilling a niggling anxiety into scenes that would be banal by daylight. In her catalogue statement, she ponders the history behind these places, discovering that Black Bob was not an Indigenous man, but Robert Crawford, an irascible surveyor who travelled through this region with Sir Thomas Mitchell.
Such ruminations add another dimension to these paintings. The pervasive blackness symbolises the void of the past, from which we retrieve only a few concrete fragments, allowing our imaginations to add the extras.
In the third show, Wollongong Then and Now, Pamela Griffith revisits parts of the region photographed by Charles Kerry in the late 19th century. During a period in which enthusiasm for the camera ran high, Kerry & Co. was the most entrepreneurial and successful firm of Australian photographers. The images of life and landscape made by Kerry and his employees form an invaluable record of the Federation era.
Griffith’s paintings are exhibited alongside archival photos of the same locations. It’s hardly a new idea to juxtapose views in this way but it’s an exercise that never loses its interest. Not only are we asked to weigh up the contrasts between past and present, but between the way a scene is depicted by the cameraman and the painter.
Griffith shows us a landscape full of people and traces of habitation. Crowds gather on beaches, a long line of industrial buildings hug the shoreline. Compared to Kerry’s austere photographs of bygone times, Griffith’s pictures are conspicuously cheerful. One can feel the pleasure she takes in this sun-filled environment with its beaches, blue skies and giant-sized Gymea lilies.
For anyone who thinks of Wollongong as a dour, working-class city, these works suggest that many of the places Kerry photographed have remained relatively unspoiled, with Stanwell Creek seeming even more lush and overgrown. It’s a selective vision, and Griffith has chosen to focus on the bright side, but it gives the reassuring impression that despite a century of mines and steelworks, Wollongong is a place in which nature has never accepted defeat.
eX de Medici: From the Room of Dorian Gray,until August 23.Halinka Orszulok: Black Bob’s Creek, until August 23.Pamela Griffiths: Wollongong Then and Now, until October 25.Wollongong Art Gallery.
John McDonald is an art critic and regular columnist with Good Weekend.
Australia’s regional art collections draw visitors from across Australia. Here’s a selection of some our best.
New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale, NSW
If it weren’t for the generosity of two men, this gallery at Armidale, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, might not be so extraordinary. The institution owes much of its incredible collection to Howard Hinton and Chandler Coventry, two benefactors of different generations linked by their passion for art. British-born Hinton, a company director who spent time living in one of Sydney’s bohemian harbourside artists’ camps, was a prolific collector of Australian works dating from the 1880s to the 1940s. Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Nora Heyson, Margaret Preston, Elioth Gruner and Norman Lindsay all feature in a treasure trove of more than 1300 paintings. Between 1929 and 1948, Hinton donated these to the Armidale Teachers’ College. Coventry, a Sydney gallery owner born into a local grazing family, focused on artists from the 1960s and ’70s, including Brett Whitely, Gunter Christmann and Janet Dawson. In the late ’70s, he offered his collection to the city of Armidale on the proviso a gallery be purpose-built to house both his and Hinton’s works. And so it came to pass; the gallery opened in 1983. Take time to browse the salon hang of 132 of Hinton’s favourite paintings and the smaller display of Coventry’s collection. With six gallery spaces, there’s room for exhibitions by a diverse range of local talent. During my visit, Del Kathryn Barton’s animated short film of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose is showing. Downstairs, the fascinating Museum of Printing houses a collection of vintage printing presses from 1850.
A glimpse into the culture of the Tiwi people is a joyous opportunity (including dancing and damper). The Tiwi Islands were cut off from the mainland by the last ice age 11,000 years ago and the separation resulted in customs quite distinct from other Top End Indigenous groups. There are no boomerangs, but lots of varieties of throwing sticks, as I discover at the excellent Patakijiyali Museum in Wurrumiyanga. Art is all around, including at the Women’s Centre, where fabric designs are printed and clothes are made to sell to the community and tourists. Tiwi Designs, one of Australia’s oldest Indigenous art centres, has been operating since the early 1960s and is home to the creation and sale of a diverse range of traditional carvings and silk-screen-printed fabrics. Both places are important community hubs, as is the Catholic church, built in the ’40s in Queenslander style, and with altar art unlike any on the planet. The recent movie Top End Wedding gives a glimpse, but nothing matches a visit to this island, which also has a wealth of postcolonial history.
STAY Coral Expeditions has 2021-22 itineraries between Darwin and Cairns that include the Tiwi Islands; coralexpeditions.com.
Many of the best textiles and design collections to come to Australia have been exclusive to this regional city, 90 minutes by road from Melbourne airport. As a few examples, BAG has presented 200 Years of Wedding Dresses, the contrasting styles of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, and even 350 Years in Underwear with everything from Dior and Westwood to Queen Victoria’s drawers. In 2018, it held a tribute showing of Finnish design icon Marimekko, while last year’s headline act was Balenciaga. BAG is ready to reignite its design theme from September 5 with Piinpi, the first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian garments and textiles. Put together by the gallery’s young First Nations curator Shonae Hobson, the colours and textures are like nothing else. Details are still under wraps, but a dazzling fashion import is slated for next March, focused on the 1960s and ’70s. BAG’s permanent collection underscores its heritage as a Gold Rush boom town, with important oils and sketches from the 1850 to the 1890s, followed by examples from Heidelberg School luminaries Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Walter Withers. Patricia Piccinini, Ben Quilty and Emily Kame Kngwarreye headline the contemporary offerings, with a rollcall of special showings, including photographer Bill Henson, death-row painter Myuran Sukumaran and the confronting sculptures of Ron Mueck.
Mitchelton Gallery of Aboriginal Art, Nagambie, Victoria
Whether you arrive by lift or, more grandly, via the brick-arched, Robin Boyd-designed cellars, the first sight of this underground gallery, a little over an hour from Melbourne, is a joyous shock of pattern and vividness. Dozens of artworks colour the all-white space but it is the large-scale canvases — almost 5m long and half as tall, painted by some of our best-known Indigenous artists — that leap out. The masterpiece is an arresting work by the late, great Pitjantjatjara artist Yannima Tommy Watson. Called Warnka Tjukurpa, depicting his birth country at Anumarapiti, Western Australia, its asking price is $1 million. Most works are for sale but cost significantly less, starting at a few thousand dollars. Art consultant Adam Knight and Mitchelton Winery’s owner Gerry Ryan established the gallery in 2018, drawing on Knight’s contacts with Aboriginal artists. More than 20 Indigenous art centres are represented, and there is also a museum shop with more affordable treasures including Sherrin footballs handpainted at Santa Teresa Mission near Alice Springs, sculptures by Tjanpi Desert Weavers and the popular Desert Dogs, metal cut-outs of actual Tanami Desert hounds decorated by women artists in Yuendumu. Definitely not for sale is The Message Stick Vehicle, a Vietnam War ambulance painted by hundreds of Indigenous artists during a decade-long, post-war odyssey around the continent. Filmmaker Michael Butler asked artists in each community to leave messages for each other, transforming a war vehicle into a peace envoy. Open weekends, with 11am guided tours.
The Outback Way, dubbed Australia’s “longest shortcut” because it’s the shortest way to get, by road, from Perth to Cairns or vice versa, is also Australia’s longest art trail. Spearing through the heart of Central Australia and the western deserts, almost every small community between Kalgoorlie and Alice Springs has an Indigenous art gallery or co-operative art centre. Some sell direct to the travelling public, others to commercial galleries in the cities, but Tjulyuru Regional Arts Gallery in the tiny community of Warburton on the edge of the Gibson Desert — home to a roadhouse with a few motel units, a caravan park and not much else — was set up in 1989 by the Ngaanyatjarra people to collect and retain the best works of local artists as a way to help keep their culture strong. Fast forward three decades and there’s now more than 1000 contemporary works in the impressive museum and gallery space, the largest collection of Indigenous art under the direct ownership of Aboriginal people in the country. It’s also one of the most remote; the nearest big town, Kalgoorlie, is 900km to the southwest, Alice Springs is 1000km away in the other direction, and both are at least a two-day drive across the mostly unsealed Great Central Road. There are about 900 paintings in the collection, but it’s the large textile pieces and contemporary art glass, produced in a kiln onsite, that really steal the show, including glass bowls and panels featuring traditional designs originally drawn in sand before being transformed into glass.
Margaret Olley Art Centre, Tweed Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah, NSW
It is as though the artist, one of Australia’s finest of the 20th century, has just stepped out of her living room studio, maybe to make a cup of tea in the adjacent green kitchen. This is exactly as Margaret Olley’s creative spaces, the Hat Factory and Yellow Room, were when she died in July 2011, although now relocated 800km north of Paddington, Sydney, to northern NSW. The studio is a dazzle of items, 20,000 all up, that fired her imagination, including sculptures, statues, vibrantly coloured rugs and throws, vases and glassware, pencils, brushes and paints, and flowers everywhere, both dried and regularly replenished fresh. And, yes, ashtrays and cigarette butts. While Olley is perhaps best remembered for her luscious paintings of bowls of flowers in interior settings, she remained a country girl at heart, ever fond of her green childhood home in the Tweed River region, just south of the Gold Coast and 90 minutes from Brisbane. Hence the re-establishment of her studio in a purpose-built home with splendid pastoral views across to Mount Warning. The Margaret Olley Art Centre displays works by her and contemporaries, and supports a research library, education workshops and an artist-in-residence program. The Tweed Regional Gallery also has an impressive permanent collection, specialising in Australian portraits, regional works and artists’ prints.
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Curator:Jane Cush – former Director and Curator, Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, also Artistic Director, Canberra Glassworks and Southern Tablelands Art.
Judges:Brenda May – Owner/Curator May Space, formerly Brenda May Gallery and Access Contemporary Art Gallery, Sydney, & Damien Minton – former Owner/Curator Damien Minton Gallery and coordinator Hughes and Watters Galleries, Sydney.
Entry: Contemporary visual artwork – painting in any medium, drawing, printmaking, digital, photographic and video art, textile and fabric art, collage, multi-media and new media – no theme – emerging and established Australian artists.
Entry Fee: $30/entry, limit two – Commission: 25%
Sales: All accepted artworks for sale at the Exhibition and on our Online Gallery through October – over 1,000 people at previous Exhibition – 30% of artworks sold.
AlsoSatellite Gallery: King Street Gallery on William @ The Hive: Curated by Rex Irwin, international art dealer and former Director, Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney in cooperation with Randi Linnegar, Director, King Street Gallery on William.
AndKangaroo Valley Art Trail: Two premier studio/galleries in Kangaroo Valley & a contemporary art installation Every Angel is Terrifying reflecting the recent bushfires and the creative diversity of the Valley.
Seton said he was proud to show alongside other artists from the region, ‘where all the most exciting art is being made now’.
Alex Seton, Oilstone 05_Corrosion (2019). Courtesy the artist and Sovereign Art Foundation. Image: Mark Pokorny.
Australian artist Alex Seton won this year’s Sovereign Asian Art Prize with a Yamaha boat engine recreated in marble. He receives US $30,000 in acknowledgement of the work, entitled Oilstone 05_Corrosion (2019).
Two more prizewinners were announced alongside Seton. Pakistani artist Saba Qizilbash was awarded The Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize of $5,000 for her work Inbezelment (2019), an installation of graphite drawings on mylar paper, and Indonesian artist Made Wiguna Valasara won the Public Vote Prize of $1,000 for her work Daily Parade (2019), a hand-stitched, embossed canvas evocative of traditional Balinese painting.
In his practice, Seton adopts materials and techniques used in classical statuary to bring out the beauty in banal contemporary objects. To create Oilstone 05_Corrosion, he took 200-million-year-old stone and smashed it, reassembled it, and weathered it with hydrochloric acid to give it the appearance of an ancient relic.
Seton was nominated for the prize by Dr Mikala Tai, Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney.
‘Without curator advocates like Mikala it’s almost impossible to stand out in the wonderful roar of contemporary art now,’ Seton said. ‘This year’s field of artists have my admiration and heartfelt congratulations for their bold and sensitive works, and I’m proud to show alongside them together as artists of the Asia-Pacific region. It is after all, where all the most exciting art is being made now.’
Altogether, Mikala and 87 other art professionals nominated 611 mid-career artists from 26 countries and territories for the prize. That number was whittled down to a shortlist of 31 by a judging panel comprising: museum director David Elliott, Financial Times arts editor Jan Dalley, art historian Jiyoon Lee, and artists Miao Xiaochun and Zhou Li. The shortlisted artists took part in the Finalists Exhibition at K11 HACC, from June 6–July 19, where Hong Kong-based judges architect William Lim, Asia Society’s Alice Mong, and Asia Art Archive’s Elaine Lin added their scores before a winner was chosen.
The Sovereign Asian Art Prize was established in 2003 by the Sovereign Art Foundation, a charitable organisation that aims to draw attention to art talent in Asia and use the arts to benefit disadvantaged children. All the shortlisted artworks, other than Seton’s, will be auctioned online at saapauction.com, with proceeds split evenly between the artists and the foundation’s charitable projects. —[O]