‘Hokusai Morning’ – Maslin Beach, South Australia.
Charles Conder (1868-1909) is regarded, along with friends and colleagues Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, as the finest Australian Impressionist artists. Born in Tottenham, Middlesex, U.K. Charles Conder was a bit of a rebel. His strict civil engineer father disapproved of his artistic bent, and sent the 16 years old Charles to Sydney in 1884 to work for his uncle as land surveyor. Charles Conder, however spent more time drawing landscapes than surveying them, and in 1886 he left his uncle’s employ and started working as an ‘artist’ for Illustrated Sydney News. After meeting Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he moved to Melbourne, sharing a studio with Streeton and Roberts. Arthur Streeton, ten years Conder’s and Robert’s senior, was a significant influence on both. Whilst the time they all spent together was relatively short, just 18 months, nonetheless, this type of artistic collaboration produced many of their best works. Despite early studies of beach scenes in Sydney it is A Holiday at Mentone that marks not only the first major success of the then 20 year old Charles Conder but also the beginning of Australian artists capturing the unique beauty, splendour and light of Australian beaches. A Holiday at Mentone has often been called a ‘celebration’. This is not only because of its light ‘holiday’ theme and tone but also because it was painted and exhibited as part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 1888. Furthermore, the painting is highly regarded for its composition and colours. The influence of the American artist James Whistler is possible due to the white and mauve bridge that effectively cuts the painting into two halves; but there is so much more to be gleaned when examining the painting closley. There is also the discernable influence of the then popular Japanese Aesthetic Movement, as well as popular Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. The Japanese influence can also be seen in the up-turned red parasol, and as art critic Jane Clark has noted, the calligraphically-like seaweed. However, despite all this brilliance, as well as the celebratory nature of the painting I find there is something a little disturbing about this painting. Despite the brightness the respective characters are not in summer clothes. Furthermore, no one seems to be actually communicating. The seeming asleep man at the centre of the painting seems more dead than asleep; the discarded red paper, like the red parasol, hint as something lost than something gained. Furthermore, the couple at the front of the painting are distant – an argument perhaps? The figures in black add to this unsettling tone. The elderly couple nearest the gentleman are watching the couple – concerned parents? Whilst the remote black woman with a child behind the woman reading could be a nanny with the couple’s offspring. The seaweed hints at something fractured rather than ordered. The painting, for me, starts to take on a similar complexity to Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), or Stephen Sondheim‘s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) with the expectation that any second someone is going to state – ‘It’s hot up here!’
Sydney Long – The Spirit of the Plains (1914)
Sydney Long (1871-1955) is one of the most unique Australian artists. This is mainly due to his particular poetic and lyrical vision of the Australian bush, which is combined with classical European imagery and characters. Born in Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, he trained at the New South Wales Art Society in 1890. His first major work By Tranquil Waters (1894) caused a scandal, but was bought by the New South Wales Art Gallery.
The controversy brought Sydney Long to the attention of Julian Ashton. Eventually Sydney Long joined Julian Ashton as co-head of Ashton’s Sydney Art School, a position he enjoyed until 1910. The popularity and sale of his works allowed him to travel and studying London, where he stayed until 1925, with a brief return to Australia in 1921. Long continued working and exhibiting. He won the Wynne Prize in 1938 and 1940, and was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1938-1949. He returned to England in 1951, and died in London in 1955. Whilst Sydney Long produced an immense body of work it is, however, his work from the late 1890s and early 20th Century that marks him as unique. His vision and artistry in this period stands in marked contrast to his ‘Heidelberg’ contemporaries Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin. There is an erotic sensuality in his work from the 1890s and early twentieth century, which has a similarity Norman Lindsay. This form was labelled as a new school of Australian art called ‘Australian Paganism’. Virtually all the galleries in Australia display works by Sydney Long. There are two in the Art Gallery of South Australia – The Valley (1898) and The West Wind (1909). These combined with to two other works by Sydney Long in this article – By Tranquil Waters (1898) and The Spirit of the Plains (1914) exemplify the uniqueness and sensual beauty of the art of Sydney Long – making the ordinary extraordinary. Sydney Long – The West Wind (1909)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was born in Rome to English parents, who returned to England in 1854. Waterhouse, nicknamed ‘Nino’, studied at the Royal Academy of Art and began regularly successfully exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1916. Waterhouse belongs to the ‘Pre-Raphelites’ who also include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. He is also known as the ‘modern pre-Raphelite’ partly due to the influence of the ‘Impressionists’ on his painting. Waterhouse’s work is characterised by his subject matter, which is generally based in classical myths and history, including ancient Greece, Rome as well as Arthurian legend. Waterhouse’s works are exhibited in numerous galleries and museums around the world, and Australia is blessed that the respective state galleries have some of his best and well-known work. The Art Gallery of South Australia has The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883) as well as Circe Invidiosa (1892). The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius shows the Emperor in his throne room, preferring to concentrate on his birds than attending to business and his waiting councillors. The drama of the scene is heightened by the spacial arrangement and particular use of colours – the dark reds and crimsons being the domain of the Emperor, contrasted with the paler colours associated with the councillors.
John Brack (1920-1999) is one of the most important and influential Australian artists of the 20th Century. Born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Brack rose to prominence in the 1950s. He was a member of the group known as the ‘Antipodeans’ who reacted against the then popular form of ‘abstract expressionism’. Brack later became Head of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1962-68. Like many artists Brack went through particular periods, re-inventing and experimenting with new forms, genres, styles and subject matter. He is an artist who makes the ordinary extraordinary. This painting – The Lift dates from 1954 and is currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In many ways it is characteristic if Brack’s major works – a very distinctive and deliberate composition; dull, drab and muted colours, his most common colour being brown. On first glance t would seem that this painting is somewhat quite ordinary and mundane. The Lift, however, is a response to the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. As described by the gallery – ‘Rather than making an anguish or impassioned response to this subject, Brack has exercised immense restraint. The unnerving quality of this work comes from imagining that the steps leading up to the seemingly ordinary lift are analogous to the tragic fate suffered by the Jewish people led to their deaths in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany’. Extraordinary.
Dorrit Black (1891-1951) is one of the most unsung heroines of Australian Art. Born in Burnside, Adelaide, she trained at a number of art schools, including the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, and Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. In 1927 Dorrit Black went to London and attended the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, and later at Andre Lhote’s Academy in Paris. Influenced by the Modernist and Cubist art movements Dorrit Black returned to Australia in 1929. In 1930 at the Macquarie Gallery, Sydney she held her first of six one-woman exhibitions, the final one being in 1949. Dorrit Black was determined to create a studio and gallery devoted to Modernism. She opened the Modern Art Centre, in Margaret Street, Sydney, amongst the first women in Australia to create and operate an art gallery for the benefit of others. Throughout the 1930s the gallery became of enormous importance and influence for artists such as Grace Crowley and Grace Crossington Smith. Perhaps the most well-known painting by Dorrit Black is The Bridge (1930).
Construction of The Sydney Harbour Bridge began in 1923 and was completed in 1932. Many artists were inspired by the building of bridge, which until 2012 was the world’s widest long-span bridge. It is still the world’s tallest steel arch bridge. Throughout 1930, and coinciding with Dorrit Black’s return to Australia, the two halves of the single arch gradually came together, finally joining 19 August 1930. It is today, however, perhaps difficult to appreciate the impact and importance of Dorrit Black’s The Bridge. Not only does it capture this particular moment in time, but is one of the first examples of Australian cubist art. Furthermore, the cubist modernist vision allows for a freedom of expression – a beautiful echo of the historical past blending harmoniously with the present, exemplified by the old world five mast sailing ship in front of the left half of the steel arch representing the modern world. The chosen colours, particularly the respective shades of blue, green and grey, perfectly capture the unique beauty of Sydney Harbour. Truly extraordinary. The tragic element to all this, however, is how Dorrit Black was regarded by her own countrymen. She returned to live in Adelaide in the late 1930s and whilst she continued to work and exhibit, as well as become an active member of the new Australian Labor Party, nonetheless, she was also relatively ignored or dismissed by many. She died 13 September 1951 in Royal Adelaide Hospital after suffering a car accident. In the Adelaide newspaper, The News (22 September 1951), the respected Australian art critic Ivor Francis wrote of Dorrit Black that whilst, ‘deeply respected by the more informed section of Adelaide artists. She has so consistently been artistically cold-shouldered and ignored since her return here about 20 years ago that it is amazing how she maintained the courage to fight on against so much prejudice and misunderstanding. Regarded as not sufficiently “advanced” by one section, and too “modern” by the other, it will be many years before her exceptional talent can be properly appreciated in its right perspective, as it most certainly will be’. The Art Gallery of South Australia mounted a major retrospective of Dorrit Black’s work in June 2014.
ARTHUR BOYD (1920-1999) is one of the most important and unique Australian artists of the 20th Century. His range of work is extraordinarily vast in scope, size and subject matter, ranging from impressionistic landscapes to biblical and historical matters.His works are always incredibly dramatic and eye-catching. Invariably the characters in his works are somewhat devoid of emotion, reminiscent of ‘mannerism’ art in the late 16th Century. The four works by Arthur Boyd are currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia and are representative of particular periods of his extraordinary work.
Arthur Boyd was born at Murrumbenna, Victoria, into an artistic family. When he was 14 years old attended evening classes at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, where he met Jewish artist Yosi Bergner who introduced him to the the works of Dostoyevsky and Kafka and played a major role in influencing Boyd’s humanitarian and social values. Boyd then spent several years living on the Mornington Peninsula with his grandfather, Arthur Meric Boyd, who influenced Arthur Boyd’s particular talent and skill in landscape painting. He then moved to in the inner city of Melbourne painting urban cityscapes. In 1941 he was conscripted and served with the Cartographer Unit of the Australian Army during WW2 until 1944. His paintings of this period, of people deemed unfit for service are startling, and reveal an interest in ‘outsiders’, which was to become a major feature in his later works.
The painting, Figures by a Creek, from this period of Boyd’s life is relatively disturbing and turbulent, almost apocalyptic. A range of human expressions are evident in the painting, including love and grief. It is however, the soulless vacant eyes and naked abandonment in this prison like terrain that is unsettling.
Figures by a Creek (1944)
In the 1940s he became a member of the ‘Angry Penguins’, whose aim was to challenge conventional art and literature in Australia. and introduce a new radical and modern perspective. In the 1940s and 1950s Arthur Boyd traveled extensively through outback Australia. He was profoundly influenced by the landscape as well as indigenous culture. His series of The Bride, a half-caste who was also an ‘outsider’, was painted during this period and became his most successful works.
The paintings Persecuted Loves and Bridegroom going to his Wedding date from this period.
Persecuted Lovers (1957)
Bridegroom going to his Wedding (1958)
In 1959 he was a founding member of the ‘Antipodeans’, which presented figurative work rather than abstracts that were the dominant form at that time. Other ‘Antipodeans’ included John Brack, John Perceval, Charles Blackman and Clifton Pugh. He and his family then moved to London where he remained until 1977. Boyd’s work during this period reveal another evolution. His Nebuchadnezzar series of painting are his responses to the VietnamWar, whilst overall there is recurrent theme of ‘metamorphosis’. He also worked within the theatre, designing sets for opera and ballet. Boyd’s Lovers under a tree with weeping head (1963) is a work painted on a ceramic tile, and aspect of Boyd’s work in the years he was living and working in London. The subject matter of ‘lovers’ and a ‘metamorphosis’ that is apparent in the work and exemplifies his artistic concerns in this period.
Lovers under a tree with weeping head (1963)
Boyd returned to Australia and he and his wife Yvonne bought over 1000 acres of property in Bundanoon on the Shoalhaven River, not far from the town of Nowra, New South Wales. They later gave this property to the Australian Government for the use of artists. He also gave the copyright to all his work to the ‘Bundanoon Trust’ that was set up to care and manage the property.
A truly great Australian artist.
The Art Gallery of South Australia has a diverse ‘International’ collection that contains work from the ‘East’ and ‘West’. The following 5 works of European art range from the late 16th to the early 19th Century and contain works by Bartolomeo Passarotti, Peter Brueghel II, Claude Lorrain, Angelica Kauffmann, and Theodore Gericault. Whilst some may not consider these as ‘major’ works of the respective artists, nonetheless, they are beautiful in their own right. Furthermore, they stand as excellent representatives of the individual artist’s work as well as the period and genre from which they come.
BARTOLOMEO PASSAROTTI – The Coronation of the Virgin, with Saints Luke, Dominic, and John the Evangelist (c. 1580)
Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592) was born in Bologna from where he primarily worked throughout his life and career. He exemplifies ‘Mannerism’, a style of art that evolved in the later years of the High Renaissance from approximately 1520. Passarotti belongs to the second period of ‘Mannerism’, with contemporaries that include Giorgio Vasari and Agnolo Bronzino. Vasari described the period as ‘la maniera moderna’ (in the modern style). However, ‘mannerism’ is not easy to clearly define. Taking the later works of Michelangelo as a source of inspiration, ‘high maniera’ is characterized by deliberate exaggeration and ornamental elegance, which is often quite colourfully vibrant. Subsequently, it is often regarded as prefiguring ‘Baroque’ art. Furthermore, in ‘high maniera’ the figures often have a relatively unemotional gaze that is ‘cool’ and ‘aloof’. In Passarotti’s painting, however, there is a suggestion of smiling benevolence and happiness from the three saints, as befitting the subject matter, the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’; although the bull, on which sits The Bible looks with his central single eye a bit alarmed. Meanwhile, the naked cherubs supporting the Virgin in the middle of the painting seem to be having a rollicking good time.
PETER BRUEGHEL II – The Village Lawyer – or – The Tax Collector’s Office (c. 1615)
This small painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), is a terrific piece of satiric art. Peter Brueghel II was the oldest son of Peter Brueghel the Elder. After the death of his father (1569) and mother (1578), Peter and his siblings went to live their maternal grandmother in Antwerp, were he studied under the landscape artist Gillis van Coninxloo. By 1589 he was operating as an independent ‘master’. His large studio in Antwerp made numerous cheap reproductions of his father’s work for local sale and export. Despite the studio’s success he was often in financial difficulties, probably due to excessive drinking. Peter Brueghel II painted landscapes, religious works, and village scenes, often in the style of his father. The above painting is one of his original and most popular works, and has a rather intriguing history. For a start is has a number of titles, including – The Village Lawyer, The Tax Collector’s Office, The Payment of the Tithe, The Lawyer of Bad Cases, and The Notary’s Office. Arguably, The Village Lawyer is more accurate as the figure behind the desk is wearing a lawyer’s bonnet, and all the papers on his desk look like requests and decrees. The peasants lining up have chickens and eggs for their payment, which was common practice, but generally, tithes (taxes) we paid in grain. What is truly wonderful as well insightful are the respective characters in Brueghel’s almost cartoonish satiric portrait of this aspect of contemporary village life. The detail is terrific – the nervous peasants, including the one hiding behind the door on the left; the notary who is just writing and not paying attention to anything else (the figure of calm in this mini-storm); the woman bending over, face hidden, and looks like she is holding something in her mouth as she searches for something in her basket; the old man and his companion holding out a piece of paper (a bribe?) to the sturdy man standing at the right who is scrutinizing the peasant energetically explaining something in the lawyer’s ear – the painting is full of drama and hidden possibile narratives. That this is a room full of secrets and hidden agendas is clear by the number of characters whose mouths are obscured. There is also the strange arm and hand right in the middle of the painting that seems to be reaching for the basket of eggs, but judging by the position of the arm as well as the single booted leg with a red stripe, they don’t seem to belong to the peasant standing behind. Is there another character hiding? All this only adds to the wonderful mystery and drama of the painting.
CLAUDE LORRAIN – Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum (c. 1634)
Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682) is generally regarded as one of the finest landscape painters of all time. Considered French he was actually born in the independent Duchy of Lorraine. He spent little time in Lorraine or France, but lived most of his life in Italy, mainly in Rome. He was quite prolific with his paintings, watercolours, drawings and engravings. By the late 1630s he had established himself as Italy’s premiere landscape artist with a secure and highly profitable international reputation and demand. His popularity remained high for the rest of his life. Stylistically Claude Lorrain belongs to the ‘Baroque’ period of ‘Western’ Art. By the beginning of the 17th Century landscapes had gone out of fashion. Whilst not singular, Claude Lorrain re-invented the form and genre, and in a way that is unique to himself. In virtually his work there is a particular serenity and grace. The English ‘Romantic’ artist, John Constable, who was very influenced by Claude Lorrain, describe him ‘as the most perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen’, and that in his landscapes ‘all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart’. In regards to the above painting, a ‘Capriccio’ is an imaginary landscape. Lorrain uses the ruins of the old Roman Forum to create an ‘arcadia’, a romantic ‘pastoral’, a glimpse of ‘A Golden Age’. The figures are dressed in contemporary 1630s clothes, and are either relaxed or getting on with their business amidst the Roman ruins – all is serene in this setting sun.
ANGELICA KAUFFMANN – Diana and her nymphs bathing (c. 1778-82)
Ever since I read Germaine Greer’s seminal work The Obstacle Race my knowledge, appreciation and respect for female artists from the past has grown. This has been considerably enhanced by the increasing number of such works that are now displayed in numerous art galleries around the world. Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) may not be as well known as her contemporaries and friends Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, nonetheless she was highly regarded in her own time, and was one of the two female founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768; the other being Mary Moser. Born in Chur (Graubunden), Switzerland, she was trained by her father, Joseph Johann Kauffmann, and by the age of 12 she was regarded as a talent child prodigy. She was also multi-lingual being able to speak German, Italian, French and English. After her mother’s death in 1754 she and her father moved to Milan. She travelled throughout Italy gaining considerable success and increasing popularity. It was whilst she was in Venice that she met Lady Wentworth who persuaded her to come with her to London. In 1765 her work was on display at an exhibition by the Free Artists Exhibition, and one of her first commissions was for the the celebrated English actor David Garrick. Lady Wentworth introduced Angelica Kauffmann to London’s high society. She became extremely popular, especially with members of the royal family. Her personal life, however, was not without scandal. In 1767 she was seduced by a Count Frederick de Horn, who proved to be a complete imposter and fraud. It is also possible that she and Jean-Paul Marat had an affair whilst he was living in London at this time. Nonetheless, owing to popularity and friendship with Joshua Reynolds she became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy., and was an annual contributor from 1769-1782. After the death of her first husband in 1781, with whom she had long been separated from she married the Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi. They moved to Rome where she was to remain the rest of her life. It was whilst living in Rome that she became great friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who she painted, and who regarded her one of the greatest artists of the age. She continued working right up 1797, and died in Rome in 1807. She was awarded a special funeral that was under the direction of the famous sculptor Canova.
THEODORE GERICAULT – Head of Youth (c. 1824)Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) was an extremely influential French painter and lithographer, and stands as a bridge between ‘Neoclassicism’ and ‘Romanticism’. He was born in Rouen and studied under such notable established French artists as Pierre-Narcisse Guerin. The young Gericault, however, was a rebellious, impulsive and free spirit. He stopped formal studying and between 1810-1815 he was at the Louvre copying and learning from the works of Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. He also spent a great deal of time at the stables at Versailles studying the anatomy of horses. His first major work, The Charging Chasseur was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1812, and was received very favourably. It revealed the influence of Rubens as well as Gericault’s passion to present work based on contemporary subjects. His next major work, however, Wounded Cuirassier (1814) was less well received. Crushed by the disappointment Gericault enrolled in the army and served in the garrison at Versailles. He continued to work through self-imposed study of figure study and construction, gaining a unique and powerful dramatic force. In 1816-17 he travelled to Rome and Naples and was inspired by the work of Michelangelo to attempt large epic paintings. This resulted in his most well-known work, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). The young Eugene Delacroix posed as one of the dying figures on the raft. This painting was based on a real life scandal. It created considerable controversy when it was shown in France, but was more favourably received in England. Gericault suffered from chronic tuberculosis. His final works, however, continued to display his dramatic flair and attraction to controversial and unconventional subject matters. This includes his portraits of the insane, as well as preliminary sketches for more epic and monumental works. Unfortunately his deteriorating health, coupled with some riding accidents, resulted in a long and agonizing decline; he died in Paris in 1824 at the age of 32. This beautiful painting, Head of Youth was a study that may have been part of an intended larger work. It was painted during the last years of Gericault’s life, somewhere between 1821-1824. It reveals the strong influence of Michelangelo, yet is also distinctly a work by Theodore Gericault; unique as it is representative of his position between ‘neoclassicism’ and the relatively new movement of ‘romanticism’ that was to dominate the first part of the 19th Century.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey from 16th Century ‘mannerism’ to 19th Century ‘romanticism’. As with any labels they are merely convenient and conventional descriptors. The real pleasure is, as Robert Hughes articulated, is to be able to actually stand in front of these works of art and allow them to effect you. They are just some of the many wonders on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Linda Jackson is one of the pioneers of Australian fashion. Born and raised in Melbourne, where she studied art and design, and then through the 1960s travelled extensively through Asia and Europe. In 1972 she met fellow Australian fashion icon, Jenny Kee, and together they opened Flamingo Park, a boutique fashion shop in the Strand Arcade, Sydney. This proved to be extremely popular and successful, complementing a kind of Australian Renaissance in the arts throughout the country. Numerous influences have played their part on Linda Jackson’s body of work, most notably the artists Peter Tully and David McDiarmid. It is, however, her travels and experience in the Australian outback with aboriginal communities that has made her work so dazzling unique. Currently on display in the South Australian Art Gallery there are a number of dresses and fabrics designed by Linda Jackson. They are all wonderful and exemplify her beautiful work.
(top left) LINDA JACKSON & DEBORAH LESER – Desert Rock top, Sturt’s Desert Pea tunic, and Desert Pea Oz map scarf (1980); (bottom left) LINDA JACKSON – Sturt’s Desert Pea outfit (1990); (top centre) LINDA JACKSON – Red Centre Textiles (1995-97); (bottom centre) LINDA JACKSON – Red Centre Standley Chasm outfit (1995-97); (right) LINDA JACKSON – Indigo gold-eyelashes textile (1999).
LINDA JACKSON – Santa Teresa outfit (1997)
The Ramsay Art Prize is Australia’s newest art competition. As the ‘Introduction’ to Ramsay Art Prize states, it is named after James and Diana Ramsay, South Australia’s ‘leading cultural philanthropists’, and aims to share their passion for art and ‘inspire generation after generation of art lovers. Open to Australian artists under 40 working in whatever material or process, the Ramsay Art Prize is awarded to one of the exhibiting finalists’. With a prize of $100,000 it is now Australia’s richest art prize. There is also a $15.000 award for the artist who wins a popular ‘People’s Choice’, ‘generously supported by Lipman Karas’. 2017 is the inaugural year for the Ramsay Art Prize and the winners of both awards, as well as other finalists is currently on exhibition at the South Australian Art Gallery. As the ‘Introduction’ further states, ‘The inaugural finalists exhibiting here have been chosen from more than 400 artists. Selected by a panel of judges, they come from across the country, representing diverse cultures and art making practices, from the moving image to intricate works on paper’. The following photos are of the finalists, as well as the two winners, and gives a hint of the marvelous work currently on display.
REBECCA SELLECK – Lapin Plague – Canberra, Australian Capitol Territory (2016)
Rebecca Selleck’ Lapin Plague is made of found objects including chairs, carpet, synthetic stuffing and rabbit fur coats. As the card accompanying and describing the work states, ‘Rebecca Selleck blurs the boundaries between pest, product and friend in this installation. Viewers are invited to enter the constructed space and interact with forms that are soft, warm, and made from found rabbit-fur coats’. Rebecca Selleck is quoted as stating, ‘Since I was a small child I’ve been entranced by the inconsistent relationships humans have with other animals. We can easily empathise with them on the one hand, but disengage on the other, denying them agency and treating them as objects’. Fair enough, however, when I visited the exhibition, neither I nor other patrons took up the invitation to ‘enter the installation’; in fact it was rather avoided once it was realised it was partly made of real rabbit fur coats. Does this mean that the work has partially failed in its intention? Possibly – but as artwork of ‘protest’, it’s repellant nature could also be regarded as successfully making its point.
ASH KEATING – Gravity System Response #28 (Polyptych) – Melbourne, Victoria (2016)
Ash Keating’s large ‘polyptych’ is as beautiful as it is impressive. As the accompanying card states, ‘Using airless spray to layer large quantities paint on monumental surfaces, Ash Keating enlists gravity as his studio assistant. This intensely physical process is impulsive, unpredictable and is also underpinned by his interest in social and environmental issues. These include climate change, urban sprawl and gentrification, as well as waste and sustainability’. Whilst the respective ‘social and environmental issues’, important as they are, somewhat escaped me, nonetheless, I really loved this artwork. In a way, based on its appearance and manner of creation it was, to me, as if Mark Rothko had met Jackson Pollack, as the influence of both wonderful American artists seemed apparent in this terrific work.
NATALYA HUGHES – All of Your Women and Some of Mine – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Natayla Hughes’ all encompassing artwork is as challenging and provocative as it is vibrant. It is described as ‘drawing attention to the role women play in the rhetoric of modernism as subservient objects of desire, removed from the reality of their individual bodies and experiences. Through excessive patterning and ornament, Hughes creates a counter canon – one that is feminised, decorative, gendered and embodied’. The socio-political intention behind the work was not initially clear to me. I was drawn to the vibrancy of the colours, the intricate patterning, and the accessibility in being able to stand within this confined, prison-like room. It was Matisse meeting ‘Pop Art’ meeting victim-orientated feminism. I admit that I am not fully cognizant in regard to the role women play in the rhetoric of modernism’. I enjoyed the challenge. However, dismemberment and distortion is not necessarily appealing to me on any level. Nonetheless, I do respect the intention behind the work, even though I may not fully appreciate and understand it. I just loved the vibrancy and all encompassing nature of the work.
OWEN LEONG – Sankapala – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Owen Leong’s startling self-portrait is an archival pigment print on cotton paper. It ‘visualises energy meridians as a form of armour or exoskeleton that emanates from the mind and yet is anchored in the body. This work takes its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Sankapala’ which means an idea formed in the heart or mind’. Like other works I found this work impressive, challenging and thought provoking. There is a fascinating mystery inherent in this work in its harsh photographic realism and connection with religious art. The visualisation of ‘energy meridians as form of armour or exoskeleton’ reminded me of being similar to a halo or aura. I loved the thoughtfulness of the mystery of cognizant thinking, defensive, ‘armoured’ as well as meditative, as well as the personal physical vulnerability that the artist reveals of himself in this work.
TONY ALBERT – Exotica (Mid Century Modern) – Yogyakarta, Indonesia (2016)
Tony Albert is from the indigenous Girramay/Kuku Yalandji people in North Queensland. As stated, ‘Tony Albert’s personal collection of souvenirs referencing aboriginal culture has been put to work in this installation to question how we understand, imagine and construct difference’. Tony Albert’s is quoted – ‘When I was young, the media was barren of Aboriginal imagery…so when I saw these images of black people, mostly in second-hand shops, I really related. Only later did I appreciate them on a political level’. When I first read this description and viewed the work this I initially giggled. It is funny, in a self-deprecating way, as well as cringe making. It is a terrific piece of satiric art. It may not be clear in this photo, but the smaller squares are ash-trays full of cigarettes – it is so deliciously kitsch. It harkens back to a kind of ‘noble savage’ iconography and imagery from past centuries, undercut by the cigarette filled dirty ashtrays; both of which are still readily available in first-hand and second-hand tourist shops around the country. The only item missing is the obligatory tea-towel. ‘Exotica’? – OMG! Hilarious! And thank heaven I don’t possess, nor have ever owned, any such ‘exotica’.
TRENT JANSEN – Pankalangu Wardrobe – Wollongong, New South Wales (2016)
The sense of indigenous ‘exotica’ continues with Trent Jansen’s fantastic Pankalangu Wardrobe. The ‘Pankalangu’ is a mythical indigenous creature from the Western Arrente region surrounding Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. ‘While in Alice Springs Trent Jansen was introduced to Western Arrente elder Baden Williams, and the pair bonded over Williams’ accounts of Western Arrente creatures. The pankalungu is a territorial being that lives in the scrub, completely camouflaged in its environment, moving only with the rain and made visible when rain droplets illuminate its body’. In an article in The Conversation (14 November, 2014) Trent Jansen wrote about his fascination with indigenous mythical creatures, and being non-indigenous how he has received a certain amount of flack and criticism from including such creatures as the pankalungu in his work. Jansen concern is with ‘crossing the line’ between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. He references the Australian author Robert Holden who stated that ‘fear of creatures like these became a common ground between Aboriginal people and British settlers, and these stories were a point of conversation between individuals from both cultures, a catalyst for personal connections’. Despite angering certain bodies who have accused him of being a ‘carpet-bagger’ and of ‘using these culturally sensitive stories for my own benefit’, Jansen justifies his use of indigenous mythic creatures – ‘I hope these narratives will once again become part of the common myths associated with Australian identity, perpetuating an identity that is inclusive of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture’. He is, however, very aware of the division between the two cultures – ‘Perhaps this is not my line to cross, but then whose line is it to cross? Individuals from one side or the other must be the first to act. Is this a division that I want to perpetuate through inaction? Or is this a line that I can help to dissolve?…If I can share this love and fascination with my audience, perhaps they can cross this cultural line with me.’ I agree and support Jansen. He quotes indigenous visual art historian Greg Lehman –
White Australians cannot continue to place Aboriginal culture on a shelf, afraid to touch it. This only cements the divide that already exists between white and Indigenous Australians. It is important for people from all backgrounds – artists, musicians, designers etc. to respectfully take Aboriginal culture into their own expressions of culture, and communicate these ideas to new audiences.
Jansen concludes – ‘Only then will this divide begin to disintegrate and only then will Aboriginal culture be loved and embraced by the mainstream’. It is a bold and brave goal, but one that must be attempted, despite the criticism and resistance from both sides.
KEG DE SOUZA – We Built this City – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Keg de Souza’s We Built this City is the largest installation in the exhibition – and my personal favourite. It is a ‘reading room’ that you can enter and is made of salvaged tents, plaid laundry bags, discussions, and publications. The accompanying card states, ‘The materiality of Keg de Souza’s work serves as a metaphor for displacement at a time of increasingly global upheaval and instability. Having spent time squatting de Souza believes that tent cities can reveal places of protest, informal economies, self-management, self-education, direct democracy, resourcefulness and tolerance, and in doing so function as sites of resilience and resistance’. Whilst acknowledging that this installation was inside the relative safety of an art gallery and not subject to the variants of weather and climate, nonetheless, it was very comfortable inside. I love installation art when it is immersive and all encompassing.
JULIE FRAGAR – Goose Chase: All of Us Together Here and Now – Brisbane, Queensland (2016)
Julie Fragar’s Goose Chase: All of Us Together Here and Now is the ‘People’s Choice’ award winner. It is a stunning multi-layered and deeply personal work. ‘Julie Fragar made this painting after her trip to the Azores islands in Portugal in search of her ancestor Antonio de Fraga. Leaving Portugal in 1850 on an American whaling ship at the age of twelve de Fragar was twice shipwrecked. The artist’s two children who were roughly de Fraga’s age when he left Portugal are momentarily united with him in the fictional space of the painting’.
SARAH CONTOS – Sarah Contos Presents: The Long Kiss Goodbye – Alexandria, New South Wales (2016)
Sarah Contos is the inaugural winner of the Ramsay Art Prize with her autobiographical work. It is a large quilt made of numerous items, including – screen prints on linen, canvas, and larme, digital printed fabrics, various found fabrics, PVC, polyfil, glass, ceramics, plastic beads, thread, and the artist’s gloves. ‘This colossal quilt brings together the personal remnants of Sarah Contos’ practice from the last four years, resulting in her most ambitious work to date. Previous works of art and exhibition histories are captured in this textile, making it a self-initiated retrospective of the artist’s career’. It is an extraordinary work, and whilst challenged I was not as moved or provoked as I was by other works in this exhibition. This is probably due to being relatively unfamiliar with Sarah Contos previous work, or as knowledgeable about her career and artwork as the judges. However, everyone is free to make up their own minds and every work of art is met in the given circumstance and immediate moment of time and place as well as emotional and psychological state.
Generally, I dislike art of any kind being reduced to some form of competition. The worst examples are those found on TV variety shows involving popular songs by untrained and inexperienced singers. The lure of fame, fortune and celebrity, and other variations of greed and vanity is to me anti-art, and sets up false and phony expectations that can only lead to depressing consequences. However, awards and prizes are an unfortunate necessity, particularly in the art world where too many artists exist and work on the poverty line and without any public and peer recognition. As such the Ramsay Art Prize is welcome. Furthermore, art prizes and award competitions such as the Archibald and Wynne Prize, as well as now the Ramsay Art Prize, do attract some of the very best works by contemporary artists. The choice of finalists, the winners, as well as other works, always tend to attract some form of controversy and discourse. This is a good thing. Like theatre and film festivals the respective works should be provocative and challenging. This is the case with the inaugural Ramsay Art Prize. Not having seen the other 400 odd other works we are dependent upon the judges choices, which is dictated by their own experiences, knowledge, tastes and prejudices. The works that I have selected to highlight also reveals my own; as Oscar Wilde noted about any form of criticism of art, that it often reveals more of the critic than the work of art. I accept this. I do hope, however, that this article will stimulate interest, encouraging those in Adelaide to go and see this exhibition, as well as general interest in Australian contemporary art.