Behind Closed Doors

Social distancing measures put the onus on galleries and artists to rapidly re-think how to share their work with audiences. For most, the answer was to close and thrive online. However, artists whose work was either scheduled to open, or already on display, felt the sting of this swift, yet necessary response. Meanwhile, with a second wave of upcoming exhibitions due to be installed also postponed, they were gifted some extra time to digitise their shows. I spoke with several artists who work with drawing, painting and sculpture to comment on the extraordinary situation that they found themselves in.

At Australian Galleries, Sydney, all the preliminary work had finished and the show had been hung. It was opening night for Camie Lyons who was uncertain of what to expect. Her fears allayed when many people did attend to share in the celebrations of the artist’s first exhibition with the gallery. Delighted with the audience response who ventured out on that night, she commented ‘it was still a beautiful evening and I felt way more supported than expected, people must have decided to come out for one last hurrah before shutdown. I was grateful so many felt that way.’

Camie Lyons, Honeyeater, 2018, bronze on concrete, 70 x 60 x 27cm. Courtesy the artist and Australian Galleries, Sydney

In Brisbane, Edwina Corlette Gallery closed the doors indefinitely as restrictions were ordered. It was the one, and only, day that Jane Guthleben’s exhibition was open to the public. With all the pre-show activity and marketing already done, including installation photographs, meant a different online pathway lay ahead. While Corlette adhered to health guidelines she was able to take individuals in the gallery, but Guthleben was in Sydney when the borders closed, making it impossible to attend her exhibition and the scheduled talk was cancelled.

At Tamworth Regional Gallery in New South Wales, closure was about to take place on the very day that Rowan Matthews was delivering his body of work. He arrived at the gallery in time to hear the news that the Director, Bridget Guthrie, had been instructed to close the doors to the public; opening night did not go ahead. However, Guthrie decided to hang the show determined to push on with creating the exhibition under the new conditions.

Back in Sydney, Kate Dorrough was in her studio with an upcoming exhibition at Arthouse Gallery due to open 5 May. As time passed from late March through April, the ground kept shifting; Dorrough said she had to ‘put uncertainty aside and focus on the works themselves’. Apprehension about the unknown eventually turned into reassurance that the exhibition would go ahead, albeit differently, and an early deadline for photography helped.

Kate Dorrough, River Language installation view, Arthouse Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Arthouse Gallery, Sydney

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, galleries have expanded the range of viewing portals for audiences – virtual spaces featuring videos and gallery installation photographs, and recruiting support from platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo and other social media. The artists that I spoke to had either worked with galleries or independently to increase their ‘views’.

Guthleben decided to do an Instagram talk from her home in Sydney at the time when her Brisbane gallery talk would have taken place and was thrilled with how many people joined the live feed. Later she was interviewed by Richard Morecroft for his new podcast series, ‘Exhibition’.

Jane Guthleben, Dutch still life with black cockatoos, 2019, oil on canvas, 100 x 136cm. Courtesy the artist and Edwina Corlette Gallery, Queensland

Lyons had been interviewed by Maria Stoljar for the podcast series ‘Talking with Painters’ about the works for her upcoming exhibition, which meant extra support was already in place. A virtual tour was quickly produced and uploaded, which helped to see the sculptures in the current gallery installation. Implications for Lyons didn’t stop there, with the cancellation of the Scenic World exhibition in the Blue Mountains, where she was to show sculpture, along with a residency at BigCi in Bilpin, New South Wales, which started then closed a week later.

During the past month, Arthouse Gallery has produced a series of videos for Dorrough in conversation with director Ali Yeldam, discussing each work. Dorrough says ‘the video will function as opening, introduction and artist talk’ with small bite-size introductions, or longer more detailed versions ‘this is critical to convey the scale and depth of expression in the works.’

At Tamworth, the gallery staff worked quickly with Matthews to upload online hi-res close-up and textural images of each painting and a virtual tour where viewers can click on each work for an audio artist’s statement. A new component will be an interactive ‘en plein air’ painting workshop in real-time, where participants will be engaging with Matthews and access the exhibition while working independently from their own studios.

Rowen Mathews, Rain is Emotional, 2020, oil on canvas, 152 x 198cm. Courtesy the artist and Tamworth Regional Gallery, New South Wales

Galleries and artists have worked exponentially over past weeks to meet the demands of this unprecedented situation. Still, the idea of not being able to offer a physical space has limitations.

The artists all spoke about the inadequacies of online, the sensory experience of immersion, the materiality and tactile presence, the sustained meditative approach to being in the same space as the artwork. These are the things that online simulation continues to develop. Matthews comments about his exhibition, ‘The paintings are large, moody and textural. They talk back’, and Dorrough remarks ‘scale and the surface qualities of works are difficult to convey; there is always a level of compromise that only visiting a gallery space can provide.’

It is hoped that the doors of galleries will be open again soon and we come out the other side of this pandemic equipped with a greater cognisance of flat screen technologies, that for now is the best tool available. Gone for the moment is the social aspect of community which so many are missing. Jane comments ‘I definitely miss openings. There is nothing like seeing the work together in one place, and honouring the effort of colleagues, and the power of the work.’

Kate Dorrough: River Language
Arthouse Gallery, Sydney
May 5 to 23, 2020
Online

Jane Guthleben: Grandiflora
Edwina Corlette Gallery, Queensland
March 17 to April 9, 2020
Online

Camie Lyons: A Physical Response
Australian Galleries, Sydney
March 17 to April 5, 2020
Online

Rowan Matthews: Land is Emotional
Tamworth Regional Gallery, New South Wales
March 28 to May 24, 2020
Online