The Russianness of Russian art
I have never been a great admirer of national theories of art. Arguments that Italian art is characterised by a sense of classical grace, French art through an innate ‘stylishness’, while German art through a Teutonic harshness and emotionalism seem to have as many exceptions as examples that create the stereotype. Nikolaus Pevsner’s brilliant Reith Lectures titled ‘The Englishness of English Art’ took a slightly different perspective, isolating qualities that he thought were peculiarly English, and through them he ventured to explore the English national character.
About a month ago I embarked on a little art adventure to explore the art of the Russian diaspora in Australia. Collaborating with the main Russian language newspaper in Australia, Unification, through its energetic editor Vladimir Kouzmin, I invited Russian artists in Australia to submit up to three artworks each for potential selection in an online exhibition. From the submissions by April 25 I had selected 27 artists, while by May 25, we had 50 artists in our exhibition represented by about 120 works. I had known only about two or three of these artists personally and so had little idea of what to expect.
What surprised me was not so much the quality, although some of it is very, very good, but a somewhat unified sensibility. The 50 artists, from all the Australian states – with the largest clusters from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane – all identified with Russian culture. Many of the artists were trained in Russia in some of the most prestigious art schools including the Surikov Institute and the State Stroganov Academy, both in Moscow, and at the Russian Repin Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Others in very respected regional art schools. Some completed their training in Australia, a few were fully trained in Australia and a few are self-taught.
What struck me and a number of my art friends who looked through the recent selection of artwork is that it all seemed to be characterised by a Russianness – less in terms of imagery and more in terms of a sensibility. It is an often observed feature that migrants in the diaspora frequently long with a sense of nostalgia for their home country. In Russian there is an untranslatable word “Тоска” that is sometimes rendered inadequately in English as “yearning”. The genius Vladimir Nabokov when confronted with this dilemma translated it as “hyp’” with an explanatory note that it was like “hypochondria, but without the chondria”. Much of the work in this exhibition is characterised by this sense of “Тоска” a yearning for something mystical and profound.
While a small number of the artists do ‘brand’ their images with a cupola topped church, most of those who employ Russian imagery generally do this in a more subtle and effective manner. Yulia Pustoshkina has developed what she has termed ‘folkloric surrealism’, a creative grafting of the Russian traditions of folkloric imagery of Ivan Bilibin and the miniaturist manner of Palekh and Fedoskino mythic illustrators with her own quirky imagination. There is a slightly whimsical wit in her art and a delightful sense of revelation in the mesmerising degree of detail. Vera Yavits is another artist obsessed with fantasy and her own personal enchanted vision. The brilliant and versatile Yelena Revis, originally from Omsk and now based in Sydney, creates her own brand of energetic modernism.
It is more problematic to speak of a Russianness with artists working in a non-figurative manner. The Sydney-based artist working under the name Robertz in her rich acrylic abstractions allows us to become enveloped by layered seas of colour – pulsating in their intensity.
The Melbourne-based artist Irene Grishin Selzer has devised an unusual technique in her ‘clay paintings’ where she blends different soils, glazes and oxides to create a fired panel of considerable size where there is a layering of marks like some indecipherable script that becomes a completely absorbing experience. The painting, although physically made of the materials of this place, is like an exquisite microcosm with a palpable feeling of a yearning for a different plain of existence.
Vladimir Rachko is a very accomplished artist from Moscow (now based in Melbourne) who creates elaborate, cerebral paintings drawing on the history of the Russian avant-garde referencing the greats like Kandinsky, Malevich and Filonov in a witty and erudite manner. His artist wife, Elena Rachko creates exquisite and refined still life compositions.
Natasha Daniloff, an artist with a considerable Australian reputation, imbues everyday objects with a sense of nostalgia and profound charm. As with the work of Elena Rachko, Daniloff’s work may contain nothing in it that is demonstratively Russian, yet it reflects a whole range of cultural associations that are distinctly of Russia.
Vera Sell-Ryazanoff is a mystical Russian artist with a very impressive training from Moscow. In the many years that she spent in Australia (presently she resides in Berlin) she perfected a technique of painting with sand that seems to create dissolving auras of light illuminating angelic beings.
It is difficult when addressing an exhibition of the work of 50 artists not to write in the form of an annotated catalogue, so I will pause rather than mention a score or so of other very interesting artists. Much of the art in this exhibition is of a profoundly contemplative nature; it references things, concepts, ideas and literary associations that lie beyond the artwork itself. The cultural associations draw on a great literary tradition – from Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Gumilev, Mandelstam and Akhmatova – and breathe of the spirit of Russia.
None of the work at this exhibition could be described as ‘nationalistic’, in the sense of championing one country as being superior to all others, but much of the work has a national identity – sometimes a spiritual yearning, a daydream, nostalgia and the search for another, deeper dimension beyond that which exists on the surface of things.
The exhibition will continue to consider further entries until June 15, 2020 and subsequently will remain as an online exhibition.
The online experience of art
Objectless art has been around for a while with its roots in Fluxus, conceptual art and post-performance art.
Glitch art, GIFs and web collage have been omnipresent and have permeated many aspects of cultural life as well as commercial advertising. Journals including NOOART (Journal of Objectless Art) reflect a sophisticated discourse that has arisen around objectless art. Objectless prints and posters – in other words prints entirely conceived on a computer screen and designed to be viewed on computer screens anywhere in the world – appeared freakish a few decades ago and are now marketed as downloadable prints internationally.
In contrast to art that was conceived from the outset to exist as a digital code and to never seek refuge through objectivity, there is a growing fashion for objectless art that is basically a surrogate for something that exists as a physical object. Museums around the world have for at least a couple of decades offered virtual tours to their exhibitions – usually in the form of a slick promo to encourage you to go and see the real thing.
COVID-19 has changed all of that and the ‘real thing’ has become inaccessible, possibly permanently inaccessible, and all that we are left with is the virtual tour. On March 12, 2020 the Tate opened its much-anticipated Andy Warhol exhibition that was scheduled to run until September 6, 2020. Five days after it opened, the Tate closed its doors indefinitely and the potential audience was treated to a rather lame curators’ virtual tour of the exhibition that only highlighted the tragedy of missing what appears to be a great show.
As far as recent virtual tours go, my favourite is from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia that runs for a cool 5 hours and 19 minutes and takes in 45 of the museum’s galleries with a focus on 588 works interspersed with live performances. With echoes of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), the Hermitage virtual experience is also one continuous take. What I like about it is that it is an artwork in its own right, rather than a clinical documentation of something that is now inaccessible to us.
As public and commercial art galleries are generally closed to the public (although occasionally some of the commercial art galleries are accessible by appointment) most of the art has gone online. If art is thought of as a commodity, then there is no reason why collectors should not buy art online in very much the same way as they may acquire an expensive piece of furniture or fashion garment. If, on arrival, the garment fails to live up to expectations, it can easily be slipped back into its box and returned for a full refund. Likewise, if the purchased artwork when displayed in its new setting fails to please its new prospective owner, it can normally be sent back for a refund.
I must confess that I am a highly addicted art user and I need my regular fix of seeing art in the flesh – with its tactile surfaces, scale and even sense of smell – and do my frequent commercial art gallery crawls on a look out for artists whose work I have never seen before and whose names are unfamiliar to me. Art that I see on my computer screen, or even worse on the small screen of my phone, does little for me unless I already know the artist well and have a good idea of what her work usually looks like in the flesh. The digitised image is of course better than nothing, but it is a bit like a shadow of the real thing.
The lockdown of our galleries does in a curious way throw open possibilities. For many years I have been interested in the work of contemporary Russian artists working in Australia. Over the years I have encountered a handful of such artists and found the work interesting, intriguing and ultimately fascinating. There have been exhibitions of the work of Russian artists scattered throughout Australia, but what I thought would be a good idea would be to hold
Logistics of hiring a venue and having the appropriate lighting and security (not to mention the politics of accepting and rejecting work) as well as the considerable expense to the artists as well as the organisers made such a venture not viable. With the coronavirus locking us down, the opportunity arose for a national exhibition that could be held online. Vladimir Kouzmin, the editor of the Russian language newspaper in Australia ‘Unification’ that is celebrating its 70th anniversary, much to my surprise, agreed to give realisation to my proposal. Assisted by the talented web designer Leonid Tsvetkov who within a couple of weeks had devised a simple, attractive and user friendly webpage on the newspaper’s website and after a couple of weeks of word-of-mouth advertising on Russian language social media sites from a greater pool of potential candidates, I selected 27 artists and about 70 works for the first instalment of our exhibition.
On April 25, 2020 it went live with texts available in Russian and English. My intention is to add to the website as new artists apply for consideration for the exhibition with a target of about 40 artists by mid-May and 60 or so artists by June 15, which will be the cut-off date for the online show. While as curator I adopted a broad-church approach to show including a broad range and diversity in mediums, styles and conceptual approaches, I did enforce a professional standard in the selection that rejected work that technically was unresolved or bordered on photographically derived commercial illustration.
The results are fascinating with the names of most artists unfamiliar to me. There are a number of very strong artists, primarily women, who are worthy of greater national exposure. Perhaps when this virus thing blows over, there may be a chance to stage a smaller and more selective exhibition where the work can be presented to the public in the flesh. For the time being, this virtual adventure unfolds and, at least for the curator, this is a particularly exciting experience.
From Ovid to COVID
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, penned at the beginning of the first century AD, is a Roman poet’s epic account of the loves of the gods from the creation of the world to the reign of Julius Caesar. This ‘best seller’ from Roman antiquity is one of the most influential works in Western culture with a profound impact on literature and the visual arts.
One recurring theme in Ovid is divine vengeance where aggrieved gods will turn on their adversaries to smite them with an arsenal of horrors, including plagues. At one stage the Roman poet exclaims:
“All remedies we try, all medicines use,
Which Nature could supply, or art produce;
The unconquered foe derides the vain design,
And art, and Nature foiled, declare the cause divine.”
Ovid’s famous account of a plague on Aegina (Met. 7.523-613) is a tale of Juno, enraged that the island was named after her rival, sending a plague to wipe out the population – that commenced as a “young disease with milder force” that grew “to a larger size” and “Infected all the air, and poisoned as it flew”.
Throughout the ages people have seen pestilence as an act of divine wrath. Recently I came across an interesting Galaktotrophousa icon – literally a milk-giving icon. It has an inscription: “Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic. Please answer our prayers, because your Son hears you and he will not hold back anything from us. Our Lord Jesus, set us free from death, because your pure Virgin Mother hears our prayers, and for the sake of your Mother help us. For our sake, you pure Virgin, the hand of Jesus, you are the saint and the Mother of God”.
Outside a few pockets of fundamentalists (of various persuasions) plus the flat earth advocates and climate change deniers, few see in COVID-19 divine retribution. This may be an unnecessarily hasty conclusion to draw and this coronavirus may well be explained as a direct global response to climate change. The planet is striking back, at least according to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. He observed, “We've had a few shots over the bow here – SARS, MERS, COVID, Ebola. We need to hear what nature is trying to tell us, which is clear: let's be smarter about how we do business with the biosphere and stop disrupting the climate we depend on.”
The devastation caused by this virus with the tragic loss of life has caused a significant pause in global warming, a radical reduction in greenhouse emissions and the regeneration of habitats. Dolphins may not be swimming in the Venice canals (they are actually in Cagliari’s port, in Sardinia), but the water in the canals has become clearer and you can see fish and there are ducks in the fountains in Rome.
It goes without saying that when the economy sneezes, the arts get a cold. Now the economy is gravely ill and the arts have hit a brick wall. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art faces a US$100 million loss from the Covid-19 pandemic, despite its pre-coronavirus endowment of US$3.6 billion. In the US it is estimated that 30% of the country’s museums will fail without considerable assistance.
The recently released nearly 400-page The Art Market 2020 paints a gloomy picture of the global art market. The global art market sales in 2019 were about US$64.1 billion, down about 5% on 2018. The challenges of Brexit, the turmoil in Hong Kong and the economic uncertainties in Europe and America all took their toll.
In 2020 the international art market is collapsing. Most of the international art fairs (that constitute almost 40% of the global art sales) have either been postponed, scaled back or cancelled. The Melbourne Art Fair has been rescheduled from June this year to February 2021. Most of the commercial art galleries, nationally and internationally, have closed their doors to walk-in traffic and have had their openings banned (during which most of the sales occur) in this period of social distancing. They have continued to open by appointment only or as an online presence. Art auctions continue to limp along, but much of the public spectacle has gone with the heavy reliance on on-line bidding. Also the general economic downturn and the mood of apocalyptic uncertainty have taken the wind out of their sales.
The German Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, has promised government financial help to cultural institutions and artists affected by the coronavirus. Other countries in Europe and certain state governments in America have followed in their footsteps. We all know that more Australians annually visit cultural institutions than sporting fixtures, but at a government level we seem to be more fixated with the latter. There has been little or no relief for individual artists in Australia as few qualify as small businesses employing staff or can claim to have been made redundant by their loss-making studio.
Go online and go digital is hardly a saviour. Most who can and should have done this years ago, but for many this is not feasible. Many, if not the majority, of visual artists in Australia live below the poverty line. Many survive on casual jobs, a bit of waitressing in a café down the road, occasional shifts in a bar or at a public art space and sales from exhibitions in public and commercial art galleries. What happens if all of these sources suddenly dry up – all at the same time? The situation becomes dire, with basic necessities of life still needing to be met – rent, food, utilities and frequently studio hire.
As a matter of urgency, we need immediate rent relief for all artists, a mortgage moratorium and a subsidy for loss of income. Cultural institutions and artists, as a priority, need immediate government assistance. Libraries, museums, performing arts and music sectors, according to satellite national accounts data from the federal Department of Communications, are worth collectively around A$8.1 billion in economic output in 2020. If you add the commercial visual arts sector, the number will be considerably higher. Without federal government financial support, many in the arts sector will fail permanently at a great loss to Australian cultural life and to the economy.
Some artists, such as the unique Chips Mackinolty have made some brilliant COVID art; globally many have simply applied facemasks to some of the most famous artworks, from the Venus de Milo, to the Mona Lisa and Lucian Freud nudes.
Erwin Fabian: one of Australia's leading artists dies as 104
When Erwin Fabian died on 19th January 2020, there was a sense of disbelief. In part it was because he had always been there - as long as anyone could remember- he was 104 years-old after all. Also, in part, with him died some of Australia's cultural heritage - a Dunera boy, he was a survivor of the holocaust and he was one of Australia's most respected sculptors and graphic artists.
In a weird coincidence, his neighbour in Arden Street in North Melbourne, across the road from where Fabian had his studio, James Mollison, Australia's most distinguished gallery director, died the same day. He was 88.
Erwin Fabian was an extraordinary man and artist in every conceivable sense. He did not suffer fools gladly and when journalists approached him for a comment he would send them packing despite the despair felt by his gallerists who knew and treasured publicity as a strategy to promote their artist's work, However, when intelligent and well prepared commentators, such as Jana Wendt, sought him out, his door was always open and he was both receptive and hospitable.
I was fortunate that at our first meeting several decades ago we 'clicked', a friendship was born and Fabian was determined that someone should know his story, see and understand his work and a long series of taped interviews took place over a number of years. He was impatient not to be distracted too much from his art making, as he used to say, he was "delayed in starting", and once he was confident that his story was in my hands, the publication could wait until he died. Now that he has passed over, the monograph is being written and will be published in 2021.
What was so remarkable about Fabian's art that it warrants all of this attention Why is he represented in all of the major public art collections in Australia, in his native Berlin as well as the British Museum in London and many other collections around the world.
Erwin Fabian was born in Berlin in 1915, the son of the distinguished expressionist painter Max Fabian. By the time he was ten, he had lost his father, by the time he was twenty-two, he had lost his homeland, and by the time he was twenty-five he had lost his freedom. At the age of twenty-five, he had been reclassified by the British authorities from being a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany to an undesirable enemy alien to be deported to Australia for internment in internal prison camps in remote locations of Hay, Orange and Tatura.
He was deported on the infamous Dunera, which brought many German and Austrian Jewish cultural refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe. They were sent to Australia to be interned, but ultimately, collectively, they were to do more for the creation of Australia as a clever country, than decades of federal government policies and funded programs.
As a sculptor, Fabian worked almost exclusively with scrap metal, very occasionally with glass and wood, materials that were allowed to sit, frequently for years, waiting to mature like ripening fruit, on the concrete floor of his studio. Then the alchemy commenced as shapes were arranged and rearranged until they seemed to belong. This was an ineffable quality of belongingness that is the key to his art making, a process that stretched over a number of years or sometimes found an almost instant resolution. I feel that the essence of Fabian's creative process is the creation of a new natural order, where all of the elements appear as if they belong, as if they have been found this way in nature without actually resembling any specific form found in nature.
Fabian had that rare ability of creating a new and convincing reality through which the viewer can be seduced and captivated. His sculptures, in the final analysis, belong to the grand tradition of humanist sculpture - in other words, they interact with us on a human and emotive level - we come to believe in their existence not only as aesthetic objects, but as metaphors for the human spirit,
The other major aspect of Fabian's oeuvre were the monotypes that he started to make while he was in prison camps in Australia. In his unusual technique, Fabian covered a hard surface, like a pane of glass, with ink, then placed a sheet of paper on top of this and drew on this, on the back of the paper, creating a sort of traced image in reverse - a unique impression with a rich play of different textures and lines, where masses suggest faces, figures and forms without even a hint of literalness of representation. As with much of his work it is immediately memorable and visually exciting.
Fabian was initially recognised as a printmaker when the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a figurative monotype under Daryl Lindsay on the recommendation of Dr Ursula Hoff. Subsequently, purchases were made by the British Museum in London, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and by many other institutions.
In the final analysis, Erwin Fabian's art is a celebration of visual intelligence. He was a major and significant artist, one of the venerated and respected elders of our tribe.
James Mollison – a legacy
James Mollison – Australia’s premier art director, charismatic visionary and my friend, died 19 January 2020. He was 88 years old.
Who was James Mollison – a gay lad from Wonthaggi in South Gippsland in Victoria, who trained as a schoolteacher and as the arts teacher at Melbourne High inspired the young Les Kossatz to become an artist. He subsequently became an education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria, briefly was the director of Melbourne’s Gallery A commercial art gallery and in 1967 was the director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, then known as the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
At the age of 38, in 1969, he came to Canberra where he stayed for 20 years and from obscurity rose to become a household name in the Australian art world and well known in the community more broadly. He initially took up the position of the executive officer for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and as the exhibitions officer in the Commonwealth Prime Minister's Department.
Two years later, his position had morphed into that of the acting director of the fledgling Australian National Gallery and by 1977 Mollison was appointed as the director of the gallery, a post that he retained until 1989, when he returned to his beloved Melbourne. From 1990 to 1995 he served as the director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
In 1977, when Mollison was appointed as gallery director, I was tasked with establishing the academic discipline of art history at the Australian National University. What appealed to me was to work, where possible, directly from the art object (rather than from reproductions) and the fledgling national gallery seem to present an ideal opportunity. The only fly in the ointment was that the gallery was not yet built and was not to open to the public for another five years. When I discussed this with the director, he was unfazed and simply told me to bring my students to the warehouse in the slightly seedy Canberra suburb of Fyshwick where the collection was housed. So commenced a relationship that continued for many decades.
As well as heading the art history discipline at the university, I was also the art critic for The Canberra Times, a curator and several other things. I collaborated with Mollison on many projects and got to know him quite well professionally and socially. He was a passionate workaholic, encyclopaedic in his art interests, he had a wonderful eye and an unquenchable enthusiasm.
Although he was best remembered for several spectacular purchases, such as Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles (1952) and Willem de Kooning’s Woman V (1952-53), when he worked with our visionary Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, these were minor skirmishes with philistine politicians and their friends in the gutter media of the day. The attacks drew blood, Whitlam lost the election and two major potential acquisitions, Georges Braque’s Nu Debut (1907) and a fourth century BC life-size bronze, possibly by Lyssipos, were forfeited. Mollison’s acquisitions stood the test of time and have increased in value some 300 fold.
Mollison did manage scores of major acquisitions, including Kazimir Malevich’s House under construction (c1915-16), Claude Monet’s Grainstacks, midday (1890), Constantin Brancusi’s Birds in space (1931-36) and Amedeo Modigliani’s Standing nude (c.1912).
I will never forget my first encounter with some of the newly acquired gems for the collection first shown in the exhibition Genesis of a Gallery held at the ANU, incidentally, directly beneath my office. Fred Williams came to my office to whisk me away for an unofficial preview before the opening. It was then that I was first introduced to the Ambum Stone, one of the most perfect sculptures that I have ever experienced. Williams and Mollison shared this opinion. The gallery collection is studded with these outstanding aesthetic objects.
Mollison, like a librarian in love with books, loved art and bought widely and bought well. By the time the gallery opened to the public in 1982, it had a collection approaching 50,000 art objects, while by 1998, this had jumped to over 90,000 art works. Not only did he secure (with love) from Sunday Reed Nolan’s Kelly series and Arthur Boyd’s huge gift to the nation, he also co-funded and acquired the Aboriginal Memorial (1987). The Ken Tyler print collection, Picasso’s Vollard suite and the huge collection of Ballets Russes costumes, stage sets, Russian graphics, constructivist and futurist art also entered the collection.
Mollison was a driven visionary, hired some of the best curators nationally and internationally (despite their idiosyncrasies and difficult personality traits) and trained a whole new generation of art professionals (many of whom were my former students). I would argue that he largely created a new breed, for Australia, of art professionals that went through the entire system.
What was the legacy of Mollison? He re-booted the Australian museum scene, helping to destroy our provincialism and to bring it out on to the international stage. Ultimately, he, more than any other individual, changed the way most Australians view art today in their public galleries and museums. We have an enormous debt to this very unusual individual and it is a strange feeling that he is no longer with us.
What should Australian publicly funded art galleries and museums show?
There are three certainties in life when it’s summertime in Australia: bushfires, the cricket and blockbuster exhibitions at the major Australian publicly funded art galleries and museums.
The shortlist for this summer includes Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Matisse and Picasso at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and Water at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
In the best blockbuster fashion, these are all exhibitions with an international focus and reliant on high-profile international loans. Of all Australian galleries, it is only the National Gallery of Victoria that belongs to the international big-time league, boasting almost 3 million visitors a year, and it is included in the top twenty most-visited art museums in the world. The runner-up is the Sydney gallery with 1.3 million people visiting its building in the Domain.
Melbourne’s dominance means that in its international blockbuster exhibitions, it can mount shows that would hold their own on any international stage, whether it be the Tate in London, the Beaubourg in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This is certainly true of its current Haring/Basquiat show. Having seen a number of exhibitions devoted to these artists, in the depth of its loans and the boldness of the installation, the Melbourne show is outstanding and compares well with any parallel exhibitions. In many ways, the show is defiant, provocative and the gallery does not feel obliged to hang the fig leaf to conceal any part of its agenda.
The same cannot be said of others in the current crop of exhibitions, which are undoubtedly studded with individual gems, but at best will tour to the National Gallery of Singapore. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact – most of the state galleries simply lack the budget and the pull to compete with the adults in the room.
Setting aside the example of Melbourne, my main question is – should the state art galleries and museums be mounting exhibitions where they will always be second best or should they only mount exhibitions that will be the best in the world?
There is an imperative placed on most public art galleries to be part of cultural tourism, bring revenue into the local economy and to mount glittering shows of exotic novelties that should amuse the crowds.
I am not really sold on this idea. If taxpayers’ dollars fund these institutions, should they not be considered as educational and cultural institutions whose charter should clearly state that they should mount exhibitions that are of great national or state significance. In most instances, these would be exhibitions that could not be staged at this level of excellence anywhere else in the world. This would mean major exhibitions on all aspects of Australian art, including Indigenous art, Oceanic art, Australasian art, Pacific Rim art and some aspects of Asian art, especially that of southeast Asian art.
I already anticipate howls of disagreement – elitist, provincial and narrow-minded. The tourist sector (that is always struggling in any media release) would strongly disagree as would the revenue-hungry local government. Diplomatic and aspiring art gallery directors will in conciliatory tones say, “surely we can do both – popularist blockbusters and scholarly focused exhibitions of Australian art and art of our region”.
Sadly, in most instances it is difficult to do both – it is a case of carefully juggling limited resources (financial and curatorial), limited space and limited publicity dollars. For us to do what I would like to happen, we would require a substantial increase in funding for our public art spaces and yet we are living in a political climate where the Liberal and National Coalition federal government has abolished any ministry with the name ‘arts’ in it. What hope is there for the arts to flourish and grow in this climate?
At the same time as the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra launched its credible, beautifully presented but slightly low on substance Matisse and Picasso show, it opened a most amazing exhibition devoted to the art of Hugh Ramsay. It is a definitive exhibition that explores an extraordinary Australian artist who, despite dying at 28, achieved so much and competed with the best in the world.
The NGA needs to be applauded for this superb exhibition (with no admission charges) and the good scholarly monographic catalogue, yet I am certain that the publicity budget for this exhibition is only a fraction of that devoted to its blockbuster counterpart. Sadly, many in the art world will remain unaware of the significance of the Ramsay exhibition – or even its existence.
Likewise in Sydney, beyond the hype associated with the spooky Japanese, Quilty is the major Australian show that should warrant the focus of attention from the art community. While opinion on the merits of Ben Quilty may be divided, this is certainly a major exhibition for this very high-profile Australian artist.
There are scores of Australian artists (especially women artists) and artists from our region that are desperately in need of major serious exhibitions. Many of these are very exciting artists, considerably more interesting than their over-promoted cousins overseas, and it should be the role of our public art institutions to educate the public in their appreciation.
Yes, this may be a utopian dream that one day we may catch up with what is happening in many art galleries around the world, but dream we must, especially when the local product is frequently superior to the relatively minor trinkets imported from abroad at great cost.
The affable Guan Wei has been a fixture in the Sydney art scene for a quarter of a century. Although he belongs to the same generation of artists who fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Guan Wei had come to Australia months earlier for a residency at the Tasmanian School of Art. When he popped back to China and saw what was happening, he returned to Tasmania and then gravitated to Sydney where he took up permanent residency in 1990.
With a smile one could say that he also took up ‘permanent residency’ at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) – becoming their first artist-in-residence for a year in 1992. Later, in 1999, he was the first artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the MCA and now, twenty years later, as far as I am aware, he is the first and only artist to hold two solo shows at this young and prestigious institution at Circular Quay. He was also the first, or one of the first artists commissioned to execute a giant mural for the new foyer of the MCA when it opened after its renovations with a sprawling frieze-like composition that made poignant comments on Australia's attitudes to the ’boat people’, to climate change and global pollution.
Now aged sixty-two, Guan Wei divides his time between Beijing (where since 2008 he spends much of his time in a large studio making huge paintings and sculptures) and Sydney (where he maintains a modest studio in Newtown). He produces work at a prodigious rate with over sixty solo exhibitions to his credit all around the globe and dozens of commissions.
Guan Wei has developed a hybrid mode of thinking and method of work that reflects both traditional Chinese as well as Western European visual systems. In his art, since the 1990s he has devised a peculiar blend of Surrealism with a distinctly Chinese sensibility. In Chinese art, as far as I can gauge, there is nothing quite like it, whereas his work has taken the Sydney art scene by storm and his witty visual commentaries on the antipodean lifestyle have won instant acceptance.
Storytelling, mythology and the migrant experience all interweave in his art into a light-hearted visual narrative, which frequently contains a political sting in its tail. His is predominantly a linear style, where humanoid forms are outlined against relatively flat background masses. Apart from distortions in the articulation of his figures, Guan Wei also engages with the Surrealist strategies in games with perspective and scale, for example, huge birds descend on landscape masses, which cartographically resemble continents.
The exhibition at the MCA brings together several bodies of work all in the collection of the MCA. Two-finger exercise (1989) was made in Beijing and consists of forty-eight small gouache paintings, poems and collages made from black-and-white photographs and Chinese envelopes. In the paintings, his humanoid figures have only a single eye or a gaping mouth and hold two fingers up in the air as a victory salute that he witnessed all over the city that year.
Feng Shui (2004) is a huge mural, comprising 120 individual panels, that explores the idea of harmony amongst all living beings and elements co-existing with the planet earth. The term sometimes rendered in English as ‘geomancy’ is an ancient Chinese philosophy where energy fields are brought into harmony with the environment. In a curious way, there are echoes with the small gouaches on the adjoining wall. There are nine swimming figures, ten floating white clouds, a fecundity of birds and marine life and the four winds of the four ‘corners of the world’ bring life to the ocean currents.
The artist writes concerning his thinking about the piece, “[an] ancient and traditional Chinese concept based on the interrelationships between human beings, nature, the environment and the universe at large, and how these specifically relate to the spaces we inhabit. Ancient Chinese Taoists believed that good feng shui maintained the balance between humans and nature and, additionally, that to create a harmonious living space, the construction of any building should follow the natural order of the environment. As the condition of our environment grows more critical daily and we move headlong towards the depletion – or destruction – of our natural resources, such enlightened ancient wisdom seems to take on an even greater significance for our modern lives. The guiding premise is that good feng shui can bring much happiness to our lives and the theme of this work stems from this core notion of the equilibrium between human beings, nature and the environment.”
The final piece at the exhibition is Paper War (2014-15) and again conceptually is a multitiered work. In 2003 in New York, Guan Wei made a work where he overpainted a reproduction of a Qing Dynasty long landscape scroll with figures and military symbols. Now, through video animation, the figures have been brought to life and have become more menacing and contemporary. The artist notes, “We witness war through TV, film or computer, and it is now quite ‘appealing’, like playing a video game. Although seemingly unreal, that is reality.”
Guan Wei, as always, amuses and delights his audience in China and around the world.
Guan Wei: MCA Collection
Museum of Contemporary Art, 140 George St, The Rocks, Sydney
11 October 2019 – 9 February 2020 daily 10am – 5pm (late night opening Wednesday until 9pm) No admission charges
Memorable and disturbing images of Petrina Hicks
The Sydney-based photographic artist, Petrina Hicks, has established a reputation for very deliberate, arresting images that play with the shape of time. They are sparse images, where all extraneous detail has been deleted as you are forced to witness a disturbing encounter with something that is frequently ethereal, uncanny and mercilessly uncompromising. There is a subdued eroticism in many of the photographs, but one that does not invite voyeurism or male sexual gratification.
Unlike some photographers who champion a form of illustrative academic narrative, Hicks is stingy in not providing us with too many clues – the image is the thing that matters and it is allowed to assert its own form of magic without depending on a verbal or theoretic commentary. However, in the imagery, there is a rich resonance with art historical associations, mythology and literature. Once the primacy of the image has been established, it is allowed to find echoes within a broad cultural framework, at times employing strategies from montage and surrealism.
Hicks has been working for about fifteen years with the same model – Lauren, an albino singer and performer – who does not appear to have aged over this passage of time. There is a touch of the otherworldly about Lauren – a delicate fragility where light seems to bleach detail and to erode corporeality of her body.
Hicks poses her models in unlikely juxtapositions – a girl appears to be swallowing a budgie’s head, Lauren in an awkward position is holding ten peaches (to add to the enigma we are informed that they are bruised peaches), a girl holds a large pink conch shell that seems to conceal her face in a surreal gesture. On other occasions, dogs, snakes and cats seem to drape themselves lovingly around the female figures. Apart from some unnecessary heavy-handed punning in some of the titles – Bird’s eye, Bird fingers and She wolf – the interpretation of these enigmatic images is left to the viewer.
Petrina Hicks, Bruised peaches 2018, from the Still Life Studio series 2018 ed. 2/4, pigment inkjet print, 120.0 x 120.0 cm (image) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018, © Petrina Hicks. Courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney; and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne
The uncanny has been a popular hunting ground for many contemporary photomedia artists and one need only think of someone like Pat Brassington. Hicks’ photography can in part be interpreted as lying within the general spectrum of the uncanny, but it pulls in a slightly different direction. Her photography is large-scale, glossy and seductive in its presentation with more than a passing nod to commercial photography in which the artist has served an apprenticeship.
For Hicks, a game with time is one of her main strategies in creating an image. Isobel Crombie, the curator of the Petrina Hicks: Bleached Gothic exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square, observes, “Hicks’s work often seems to slow down time into one compressed moment”.
In some ways, it is also an ‘arrested’ compressed moment, where there is a projected path of transition – puberty, unfinished action or concealed vision – that has been arrested when time slows down, as in a Bill Viola sequence. But unlike in Viola, it is not allowed to find its resolution. Does the girl swallow the budgerigar? Will the snake sting her Cleopatra? Will the wolf devour the lamb? Will the girl ever grow up? The created situations are unusual, even uncanny, and we are left with an enigmatic image with very few clues provided to help us to resolve it.
Hicks’ large-scale, high-gloss pigment inkjet prints are not only striking on first encounter, but they are also memorable, more so in the flesh with the experience of scale and surface, than in reproduction. Over the years when I have seen her images in various exhibitions, I have found that they become engraved in my memory – they are the sort of images that cannot be easily ‘unremembered’. They are very deliberate and highly contrived compositions, where nothing has been left to chance and all that is not part of the central idea has been deleted from the image. Hicks works with medium-format film photography, where much of the image is resolved in the exposure rather than through later manipulation.
In the few examples of video work presented in this exhibition, Hicks seems to enjoy her game with subdued eroticism, where the sensuousness of a young girl licking a flower is frozen in time and seems to hint at a possibly sinister dimension. Have we witnessed something that is private and innocent, but can be defiled by the gaze of the outsider?
At the age of forty-seven and with over twenty solo exhibitions and over a hundred national and international group shows, Hicks cannot be considered an emerging artist, but one who has a distinguished track record. Her visual curiosity and probing intellect give this exhibition a sense of consistent visual excitement by an artist, who in this exhibition explores autobiographical truths through a cast of characters who play out her fears, phobias and thought adventures.
Petrina Hicks: Bleached Gothic, NGV Australia, Federation Square, Level 3, 27 Sep 2019 – 29 Mar 20 20, Open 10am–5pm daily, [no admission charges]
Roger Kemp – one of Australia’s most significant, yet least celebrated artists
Roger Kemp (1908-1987) was never a great self-promoter, nor was he an artist in a hurry. He was thirty-seven years old before he held his first solo exhibition (by then he had been painting for sixteen years); he did not travel abroad until he was fifty-eight; he was nearly seventy when he first tasted economic success in exhibitions at the Realities Gallery in Melbourne and when he turned seventy, only then he was recognised by the National Gallery of Victoria with a retrospective exhibition.
Over forty years later, the National Gallery of Victoria is holding a new retrospective exhibition, Roger Kemp: Visionary Modernist, which makes the defiant claim that Kemp is one of Australia’s most significant 20th century painters. This claim is not made verbally, but through the evidence of the presented work – it is bold, brilliant and visually and intellectually mesmerising.
Kemp was born the son of a Cornish goldminer near the old mining town of Eaglehawk in central Victoria in 1908. Here he spent the first five years of his life before the family moved to Melbourne where, when he was twelve, his father was killed in a car accident.
By the age of twenty-one, Kemp was attending evening classes at Melbourne’s Gallery School. These classes lasted for three years and after an unsuccessful attempt at studying commercial art at the Working Men’s College, Kemp was back at the Gallery School for another three years, this time studying fulltime under WB McInnes, Charles Wheeler and the elderly Bernard Hall.
Later, Kemp mused on his schooling, “Probably I learnt a little, but only after having gone through various schools, and you move into the world of experience, that one achieves anything at all.” Kemp completed his studies in December 1935 and then retreated into the relative isolation of studio practice for the next decade.
The following year, in 1936, Kemp encountered the touring Ballets Russes in Melbourne, where his love of music was reconciled with his love of art. The earliest pieces in this retrospective are from the 1930s and demonstrate his struggle with symbolic landscapes and dancing angular forms.
From the outset, Kemp turned his back on cubist fragmentation and rationalist thought and like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee and Kupka, he sought in theosophy an alternative path in describing the visible and invisible worlds, which he interpreted as a single entity which was at one with music.
Kemp was prolific and impulsive in his output. While maintaining a singularity in his expanding vision, he frequently worked on a heroic monumental scale in his paintings, drawings and in his late series of wonderful intaglio prints.
Very early in life, he rejected figurative naturalism and embraced modernism. For him, it was a liberating force from the tyranny of literalness, rather than a rejection of reality itself. Many of Kemp’s paintings of the late 1940s and 1950s had spikey, schematic forms and could be interpreted as images of transition, expansion, flight and movement which incorporated a dimension of existential despair within a tight claustrophobic space.
For about a decade, immediately following the war, Kemp produced a series of quite large metaphysical paintings, many untitled or in series, including Movement into space II and Extended forms of the 1950s. Many of these paintings were built on the idea of dynamic movement and created what James Gleeson termed a “highly original and distinctive style”.
Kemp in his paintings employs a subdued palette favouring blues, greys and black, which heightens the nightmarish and sinister note in these works. It was only in the mid-fifties that Kemp introduced a number of formal strategies, such as the surface grid, through which to rhythmically organise the pictorial structures. His palette also gained in luminosity with a preference for a combination of singing vivid blues, reds and white set within a black armature, which equally brings to mind the great rose window of Chartres Cathedral and the paintings of Rouault.
In a painting such as Organised forms, 1961, where Kemp is working in enamel paint against a hardboard surface, the gestural sweep of the marks is proportionate to the scale of his own body, with a structured scaffold keeping the abstracted figures in a finely balanced equilibrium. The painting was entered into the John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize, where the judge, John Brack, controversially awarded the prize to Kemp, the first time that it was awarded to a non-figurative work.
Subsequently, Kemp was awarded the Darcy Morris and Albury Prizes in 1964 and in the following year, the Georges and the Transfield Prize and then the Blake Prize in 1968 and again in 1970. Kemp, in work of this period, frequently created dense patterns of symbolic emblematic forms built around what he termed the square of the masculine and the circle of the feminine, all of them pulsating and drifting within the surface film of the paint.
Art critic Ronald Millar observed concerning this series of work: “His painting may seem to be devoid of reference to the human form but, in fact, it is based on the figure – his own in the beginning. The cruciform shapes one sees here (either tilted, abbreviated, cut into blocks or complete) are never at rest. A cross rotates around its own central point, and other crosses pivot and wheel and spin off as to make for themselves correspondences elsewhere in his symbolic universe. Each beginning of movement introduces other movements; each coloured variation looks for a sympathetic echo somewhere else in the canvas, finding it in a big circular travel around the back of the surface marks.”
If one can refer to Kemp’s work as a form of mystical emblematic symbolism, then both in its execution and perception it is part of an intuitive meditative experience. Relativity is a key formal concept in his picture making, where each element relates to another and in this manner the whole becomes an endlessly expanding vision, but one which is somehow almost magnetically held together.
Kemp once noted: “There are no stable points after the revolution so to speak; all are broken. The revolution let’s all free and there is some kind of relativity. It would appear to be chaos. We have no format at all to work in. It is up to man to discover and to go out looking for these various points – one here, one there”.
Although numerically the new Kemp retrospective may be smaller than the 1978 show, the latter was spread throughout Melbourne at five venues with only about twenty paintings at the gallery itself. This said, I still wanted a couple of more rooms for the new display. Despite the dramatic lighting and black walls that make Kemp’s late works glow like gems of stained glass windows, the double hang does restrict the intimacy of viewing and personally I simply love the tactility of Kemp’s surfaces.
This is a great exhibition by one of the true giants in twentieth century Australian art.
Roger Kemp: Visionary Modernist, NGV Australia, Federation Square, Level 3, 22 Aug 19 – 15 Mar 2020, Open 10am–5pm daily [free admission]
Landscape art as a contemporary art form
In the 21st century, landscape art in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world, seemed increasingly on the nose in serious art circles. There was a general rejection of landscapes of ownership and possession that stemmed out of the colonial tradition; also the Hans Heysen gum tree looked tired through decades of repetition by technically untrained enthusiasts, while Fred Williams’ modernist landscapes were brilliant in the hands of the master, but became somewhat lame and repetitive through the efforts of his many admirers.
Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen and Rosalie Gascoigne were some of the lone mavericks that stamped their vision on the Australian landscape in the 20th century. Indigenous art did primarily deal with the landscape, but it introduced an almost entirely new rulebook to depicting country that had little relevance to the previous traditions of Australian and European landscape art.
Australian 21st century landscape artists who have made us stop in our tracks and take note have been few in number – the theistic universal visions of William Robinson provide one such example. A few days ago, I came across an impressive and unusual exhibition that brought together three artists – John Wolseley, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda and Mary Tonkin – all involved with the landscape.
John Wolseley has for several decades been Australia’s preeminent landscape and environmental artist – a lyrical poet and a prophet who challenges some of the assumptions that we make about our future and our coexistence with our environment.
The basic distinction between a landscape artist, in the old-fashioned understanding, and an environmental artist, is that a landscape artist stands in front of something to capture, convey or depict it, while an environmental artist is part of the landscape or environment and seeks to convey it, its rhythms and patterns, from the inside.
Wolseley since the 1970s has sought various strategies through which he could explore the oneness with the environment – a collaboration with nature. He has allowed animals to waddle over his drawings, burnt branches to leave their secret marks over sheets of paper that he has danced through bushfire-ravished environments, he has frottaged the traces that glaciers have left on rock faces and has allowed the patterns caused by burrowing worms in tree trunks to be transferred as prints onto his papers.
In recent years, Wolseley has been fascinated by the theories of Jakob von Uexküll, and the concept of umwelt and how creatures perceive their own environments. He speaks of ‘inscapes’, in preference to landscapes, with the idea of seeing things from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
In 2009, Wolseley was adopted by Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda – the daughter of the great Yolgnu leader Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, and an elder and an artist – as a ‘brother’, a member of the Dhuḏi-Djapu clan of the Dhuwa moiety where she anointed him with the name Laŋgurrk. This is a larval grub that lives in mud and yams near freshwater billabongs.
Since then, the two artists have collaborated on four exhibitions, including the huge touring Miḏawarr | Harvest: The Art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley show developed by the National Museum of Australia. The present exhibition at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne marks their most recent collaborative venture, this time devoted to shellfish (Maypal) of East Arnhem Land.
Mulkuṉ paints the species as she knows them, in a secular way, combining their naturalistic form with their rhythm, personality and taste, and finding expression in beautifully painted barks and larrakitj poles surrounded by the teeming life of the Arafura Sea.
Wolseley in his sprawling drawings with crystalline passages of watercolour explores the life of molluscs and insects, inserting relief prints and rubbings from the burrowings of the larvae of beetles and moths under the bark of the trees. He introduces us into the dynamic marine life and vegetation of the coastal mangrove swamp.
It is a bold an innovative exhibition that presents something of a scorecard of the richness and sacredness of crucial marine eco-systems that are presently under threat from development and pollution.
At the same gallery, but in the building across the road, is a striking landscape exhibition by Mary Tonkin. Tonkin, an artist in her mid-forties, works with a backyard mentality of painting only that which she knows intimately well. She grew up on the family bulb farm in Kalorama, perched atop the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.
After her art training at Monash University and at the New York Studio School, she has spent much of her life painting en plein air at her property. She quite literally moves around with what appears as a converted cherry-picker that supports her sizeable canvases – about 180 x 190 cm.
The showstopper at this exhibition is her immersive nineteen-metre-long Ramble Kalorama, 2017-19. It is not really a panorama in the William Robinson sense, or a continuous narrative as in Monet’s Waterlilies, but a gathering of sense impressions to create a huge scene into which you can dissolve.
Tonkin writes in her catalogue note that this painting, “is the culmination of more than ten years of drawing and painting around the problem of how to make a work that conveys the immersive and somewhat episodic experience of being in the bush. Even if I’m standing in one spot to draw or paint I move about, my point of view, relationship to forms, light and seasons all change. The previously seen impinges on the present and all the internal stuff I bring to it is in flux. I ramble about and try to make sense of it all, in a kind of ecstatic reverie.”
It is an untidy cross-section of the bush – messy, chaotic and inspiringly beautiful. The artist has allowed herself to dissolve into an environment that she knows intimately well and leaves the viewer with enough breadcrumbs to follow and to become entangled within this enchanted setting of fallen logs and damp fecundity.
John Wolseley, Mulkun Wirrpanda and Mary Tonkin are three very different artists who demonstrate that there is plenty of life in the art of the landscape.
Two old artists looking for shellfish - John Wolseley and Mulkun Wirrpanda,
Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 28 Derby Street, Collingwood
23 July – 11 August 2019
Ramble - Mary Tonkin, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 35 Derby Street, Collingwood
23 July – 11 August 2019
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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