Thursday, 24 June 2021

Take two: China; A History in Objects, Jessica Harrison-Hall

For a full review see my Patreon

I bought this book at Abbey’s in the CBD at the same time as the Wagner book and the one on the Emperor Augustus. A book with a title like this needs little introduction, so I’ll be brief. One thing to note about this book is the carefulness of the commentary regarding the CCP. I suspect that this kind of soft diplomacy is institutional – the book was produced by the British Museum – in order to secure the future cooperation of authorities in China.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Wynne Prize finalists, 2021

I wrote about the Sulman and Archibald hangs earlier this month, and now turn my attention to the final of the three famous prizes, held each year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

As usual for the Wynne – which is a painting prize for landscape – the entries were dominated by Aboriginal works of art. Sone truly amazing items on display this year among the finalists. The strength of the Indigenous cohort seeming to help inspire those using more Western styles of painting to exert themselves to make stunning works of art.

The work on show is of an exceptionally high quality but landscape painting has a particularly strong history in my country – presumably due to the amazing visual impact of the outdoors – as a casual visit to Facebook Marketplace indicates. The number of scenes of country life that are available to purchase for a very little amount of money is indicative of a rich tradition. Any of the pieces shown below could be proudly displayed in practically anyone’s home. 

Though, as usual, some are very large, including Laura Jones’ ‘Bushfire ephemerals – Wollangambe wildnerness’. This painting depicts a strange phenomenon where the combination of heavy rain and bushfires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney resulted in a blanket of wildflowers appearing, which the artist has captured in oil on linen.

There is something very Eastern about this painting, with its dazzling array of casually-placed flowers, each of which contributes toward creating a sense of riot. Nevertheless it’s a calm sense of peace that the work inspires in the viewer, as though the world were spinning on the correct axis.

The winner of the prize this year was Nyapanyapa Yunipingu’s ‘Garak – night sky’, which I initially thought was a painting of flowers (see below). It depicts a story from Aboriginal mythology.

Leah Brady’s ‘Piltati tjukurpa’ is from the APY lands and also depicts part of the Aboriginal creation myth. The wonderful use of colour in this painting is intrinsic to Indigenous art practice.

Dhambit Munungurr’s ‘Wandawuy’ depicts the landscape and fishing practices native to an area in east Arnhem Land. A careful choice of related colours limits the palette of this work, lending it an unreal air, as though it were a dream being shown to the viewer. You can see the freshwater crayfish in the picture, however, which links you to the real world.

Nicola Bartos’ ‘Into the glade’ uses a palette resembling the one exploited by the winner of the Sulman Prize (and also by fellow Wynne finalist Leah Brady). It’s a delicate mix of ochre and green, the brown colours standing in for shadows where they are used to create contrast. This painting depicts an imagined scene that was drawn from memories.

Kenan Namundja’s ‘Ngalyod (Rainbos Serpent)’ is also creation mythology, the animal in question being central to the stories told by Aboriginal people to explain how they came to being in the world. This painting uses more traditional Indigenous methods, including extensive areas of cross-hatching.

Julianne Ross Allcorn’s ‘Thesaurium insula (treasured island)’ matches the same artist’s Archibald entry in using liquid trees to create drama and movement in the canvas.

William Mackinnon’s ‘Adventure and folly (i)’ uses dark colours in a dramatic fashion to energise the space with ghosts. 

The subject of Leah Bullen’s ‘Arid garden, Wollongong’ is in the botanic gardens in that city, a place I visited several times at the beginning of the year because I was temporarily staying down there.

The simply amazing picture shown below is by Katjarra Butler. Titled ‘Korrmanguntja’ it hardly requires any commentary. Once more, a scene from Aboriginal mythology.

Daniel Peta’s ‘East MacDonnell Ranges’ is quite lovely, the tan colour used echoing similar colours in other paintings displayed this year. I love the teal sky, as well, and the yellow trees. Lots of surprises in this work.

Jun Chen exhibits at Nanda/Hobbs Gallery in Chippendale, and his ‘Dried bush’ is very beautiful, depicting a particularly Australian scene, one that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s spent any amount of time in the bush.

Luke Sciberras’ ‘Hat Hill Road’ goes back to wildflowers again – echoing Laura Jones’ painting’s insistence on renewal.

Finally, here’s another Aboriginal mythology painting, this time by Naomi Kantjuriny, Mona Mitakiki and Tjampayi Presley. It’s titled ‘Seven Sisters’. What colour – the warmth of the tones making you think of other paintings in the same exhibition.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Take two: Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, Adrian Goldsworthy

For a full review, see my Patreon

I got this paperback at Abbey’s Book Store in the central business district recently. The Wagner book was bought at the same time. I’d enjoyed reading about ancient Rome on other occasions – see earlier in this blog for reviews of some of those books – and had got into the habit of using Abbey’s excellent classical history section to guide my adventures.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Take two: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross

For a full review, see my Patreon

I picked this book up at Abbeys Bookshop in the Sydney CBD one day when I had to go into town for other reasons. In fact I had to buy a Thermos flask for a friend and I also – while inside Myer – bought another umbrella. The Ross book had been foreshadowed the last time I was in the bookstore when two of the staff mentioned a good Wagner biography that was coming. In fact I don’t know if this was the one they were talking about but in the “music” section they had half-a-dozen copies of this – one in soft cover and several in hardback. I bought one of the hardback ones because they’re easier to hold while reading.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Archibald Prize finalists, 2021

I wrote about the Sulman Prize here. On the same day I saw the Archibald Prize finalists at the Art Gallery of new South Wales.

There is a wide range of styles on display this year at the AGNSW for the Archibald prize hang. I really enjoyed myself this year, which might have something to do with the fact that I’ve lost almost a quarter of my body weight since last time. I feel younger and the prize just keeps getting better.

Natasha Bieniek’s portrait of Rachel Griffiths is tiny – measuring no more than 15cm in width – but it’s quite lovely, its fussy realism counterpoised with a strong design, he actress lying on a couch spread with a piece of intricately printed cloth. It’s as though she’d been captured relaxing at home. The brick wall behind her back is painted white, giving the scene a studio feel, though it’s clear this is a domestic setting. In the background, through windows, garden plants are visible, underscoring a cosiness and vulnerability that belongs also to the woman’s prone figure.

Jonathan Dalton has made an amusing portrait of an artist named Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, who is confusingly doubled, in one version holding a video camera to his eye. The camera is pointed out at the viewer, adding to the chaotic feel of this painting. The other version has, at his feet, an Instamatic camera – one of those 70s contraptions that allowed the photographer to crate a ready-to-use print instantaneously. The delay was minimal, a matter of minutes, in stead of the normal days or – at best – hours that normal photographs used to require to be made at a photo shop.

The subject wears a bright shirt that contrasts with his dark skin. The pink and yellow adding weight to his long, curly hair. He wears shorts and has bear feet. The two versions hold hand, in amity, if nothing else.

Next was Marikit Santiago’s ‘Filipiniana’, a self-portrait (in collaboration with Maella Santiago Pearl). Like the Dalton, this painting has immigration as a topic of discussion. The twinning we saw in the Dalton is present here, as well, this time the subject being the painter herself. I enjoyed the layered aesthetic of this work of art, which uses colour effectively to create drama. The white of the subject’s garment standing out strongly from the muted red background. Across it are leaves of tropical plants, broad and vigorous. 

Jude Rae’s ‘Inside Out’ is also a self-portrait, this time with the subject again pointing a camera out into the spectator’s space. Rae stands in front of a residential apartment building – it is night and the windows are lit, as though people were going about their evenings at home – taking a shot with her mobile phone, which is held in her right hand. Her left hand is crossed on her right arm. A reflection is also apparent, as though we were seeing what her camera had seen when she pressed the shutter button.

Rae has an amused look on her face, though he lips are set in a grim line, as though she were self-consciously trying to make a statement. Behind her back, on a bench, stands a bottle of wine. There are stools under a bench, so here we also have a domestic setting, as in the Bienieck.

Nick Stathopoulos’s ‘The white shirt – portrait of Tane Andrews’ is overtly Romantic, not only due to the flair of the external appearance of the subject, but also because of the smoothness of the painting’s finish. Here’s a painter who is consciously using the figurative mode to make a statement, the subdued colour palette of the work referencing the black-and-white that dominated in the 1990s.

Dapeng Liu’s painting is ‘A mind-body dualism portrait of Joanna Capon’, and it also uses hyper-realism to make a statement, this time pointing to the mystical nature of art, its ability to say things that are not only specific to an individual, but also general, and applicable more broadly to everyone. Liu also plays suggestively with Eastern and Western ideas about the self, the mind-body dualism of the title pointing, the artist says, to Descartes. But it could also equally be a comment on Eastern modes of understanding the world, with their heightened spiritual tone.

Kate Benyon’s ‘Collaborative spirits’ is a self-portrait with her son. The vibrant colours and cartoonish faces offer relief from some of the more austere works already mentioned.

Mirra Whale’s ‘Repose’ is a portrait of artist Ben Quilty, and it harks back to 19th century genre painting to produce a quiet ensemble of couch, the subject, and the darkness hovering behind him like a mythical landscape. In fact the subject could be immersed in a dream, but what visions will appear if we go inside his mind?

Fiona Lowry’s ‘Matthys’ is a portrait of an older man – perhaps in his late 50s – taking a shower. The palette is entirely pink, lending a surreal air to the scene, which has the unreality of a dream. The subject is an artist who works primarily in painting and photography.

Keith Burt’s portrait is of Sarah Hlland-Batt, a poet. Done in a realist mode, the colour palette is yet restrained and sombre, as though the person being shown were in the law or in politics. 

Eunice Djerrknu Yunipingu’s ‘Me and my sisters’ takes the traditional Aboriginal mode of depicting a subject and turns it into a humorous way of describing the artist herself.

In Sinead Davies’ ‘The charity worker’ – a portrait of Tanya Lee OAM – we get another work with a restricted and sombre palette.

A quite different range of colours drives Julianne Ross Allcorn’s ‘I listen and they tell me bush news’, which is a self-portrait. In the ensemble, the subject is facing left as though she were talking with a magpie. The right-hand side of the space is closed off by this dynamic, though a tree trunk thrusts up into the air in the top-right corner of the canvas. As a composition the tone is subdued and quiet, as though the conversation had suddenly paused since the viewer came along to interrupt proceedings. Perhaps if we go away, it will start again ..!

Michael Snape’s ‘Stuart Purves’ shows a gallerist in full flight. It’s as though the subject were talking to us (not a magpie) and had sensed a willingness to buy a picture. Though the subject’s face is a garish pink, the colours elsewhere in the painting are subdued and plain. It is a businesslike painting and one that is sympathetic to the sitter’s point of view.

I love the wistful eyes in Karen black’s ‘Professor Chandini Raina Macintyre’ (see below). There is a sadness in the face that is belied by the mostly upbeat palette, rich with warm colours in splashy zones.

Euan Macleod’s ‘Blak Douglas’ depicts an artist one of whose works I own. He is an Aboriginal man who makes pointed, acerbic works that take no prisoners. Macleod’s name is well-known.

Benjamin Aitken’s ‘Gareth Samson’ has something about Bacon in it and something also of Hockney but it’s not at all derivative. Rather, it bleeds new life into famous artists’ work.

I Included Olvier Watts’ ‘Dorian Gray (Erin Jean Norvill)’ because I’d seen one of this artist’s works talked about – by the artist – some years before. A splash of hot red is buried in a mainly plain set of colours in this lively portrait. 

Peter Berner’s self-portrait (see below) has added interest because the artist is a radio presenter. Titled ‘Stop pouting, you’ve had your turn’ I wonder if the message is directed to himself, or else to the viewer in a crowded gallery?

Matthew Clarke’s portrait of the famous Australian painter Del Kathryn Barton is childlike but quite lovely.

To cap the show here I’ll put up Julia Ciccarone’s ‘The sea within’, which is an intriguing work that references homelessness, irregular boat arrivals, and larger ideas about the nature of the world and our place within it. Loved the way the artist places herself in a vulnerable position at the same time as she’s the author of the entire thing. The comparison of homeless people with migrants is touching and accurate. Why are they homeless?

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Sulman Prize finalists 2021

This year I decided to split my coverage of the annual spectacular prize hangs into separate posts, beginning with the Sulman. The Archibald and Wynne will be covered on subsequent days.

The Sulman hang was the first one to view when you entered this year. I didn’t get all of the images I wanted because of haste. This was partly due to the fact that the crowds were quite thick for the show. The queue to get tickets snaked around the ground floor, for a start, stretching all the way back – when I exited on the Friday I saw the show – past the entrance to the bookshop. I only waited about 10 minutes to get my ticket but waiting also happened once I got downstairs to the rooms the paintings were in. This was due to Covid restrictions on numbers. Inside, I stepped on people’s heels a couple of times as I manoeuvred myself into position trying to capture the image I needed for this post.

The first item I snapped was Sally Anderson’s ‘Nat’s Seatown cliff fall with Nik’s structure and McEvoy banksia’, a pretty amalgam that places unlike elements one beside the other to create a harmonious composition dominated by muted colours. The subdued red of the banksia is offset pleasantly by the blue used in the bottom right-hand side of the canvas. The work is acrylic, which gives it a sketchy, improvised feel that blends in with the nature of the contingent placement of disparate elements.

Nik’s structure is, presumably, the black element in the top left of the canvas, and it’s something that talks with the Seatown cliff fall drawing (bottom left). The way that Australian society developed from the edges of the continental landmass seems to emerge as an idea in this painting. I was reminded of the banksias you can see on the walk around Cronulla and the headlands to the south of that fabled beach. Cronulla also a site of suburban refuge – where people have traditionally gone to get away from their workday concerns, to have a meal and bathe in the sea.

Next in my list is John Bokor’s ‘Rose and lemons’ a still life with everyday objects that give the painting a demotic feel. This piece would make a good addition to any suburban living room – and you can buy the artist’s canvases from Edwina Collette in Brisbane. There’s something of Blackman in this work, the colours especially (love that olive green used for the background and the plate) but also the wonky perspective that gives the painting a preliminary feel. While the composition is paramount each item it embraces is visually striking and recognisable – the glass to the right-hand side being as resilient in the operation of the spectator’s eye as the book placed confrontingly at the front of the canvas.

Paul Higgs’ ‘Hurstville platform wall’ is a nice, complex and visually stimulating design that has elements of collage (I wonder how they’d last over time). Normally I’m not a big fan of seeing things stuck to a canvas – perhaps I’m a purist at heart (I don’t like many of Whiteley’s works on this account) – but here the effect is lively. Rosalie Gascoigne is possibly an influence.

Jude Rae’s ‘On the beach (Malua Bay, NYE 2019)’ is interesting because of its combination of formalism and temporal and geographical specificity. The artist has placed the viewer at a particular place at a particular point in time but the style has a dream-like and timeless feel. The use of orange throughout the design makes the painting look like a TV ad, the colours bleached out for effect in order to transport the viewer to a place and time outside the parameters of the everyday. But the activity depicted is festive. There are lots of people around, for a start. It’s not as if you’re in a nightmare – though that horse is a bit disturbing, being so much larger than the people gathered around it.

You can buy Georgia Spain’s work at The Egg and Dart and in fact she had an exhibition there this year. Her ‘Getting down or falling up’ won the Sulman Prize this year. The work toys with the figurative and the abstract, asking you to decide which is dominant. You can see figures in the canvas but they bleed and sway like trees in a heavy breeze.

I tried to take a photo of Maria Purcell’s ‘That time of day’ but it didn’t turn out as desired, so the next work I’ll focus on (this time successfully!) is Paul Selwood’s ‘Construction zone’, which I chose because I’m a big fan of brutalism.

Suzanne Archer’s 'Winterburn’ is a lovely, intricate painting that looks back to the eighties. I really enjoyed seeing this work, which contains diagrammatic representations of things in the world that are subsumed in a fantasy-scape where anything might be possible. I also like the lack of specificity, which allows the viewer to have a range of different thoughts while looking at the canvas. The red and the purple seems to move and shimmer on it, and the little white figure at right floats carelessly amid this pleasant world’s glowing colours.

Another abstract work, but one which looks back to the seventies, is John Fitzgibbon’s ‘Time, mystery, and memory’, its earth tones reminding me of the postwar era with its ambitions and dreams. Many of the ideas that artists of this era played with – a certain monumentalism, a muted triumphalism – were further questioned in the following decade. The seventies was the last time that Modernism was able to dominate unquestioned, and by the eighties Postmodernism had started to make artworks more self reflexive and overtly aware of the process of creation. Fitzgibbon’s work sitting next to Archer’s was a nice touch on the part of the trustees.

A delicate and typical naïve artwork is Sally M Nangala Mulda’s ‘Town camp everyday’, which uses the vernacular of Aboriginal communities in the outback to depict life far from the inner city enclaves where the art gallery is situated.

Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) got a painting hung, the one below, which is titled ‘Gum trunk with koala’. Typical for this artist it is humorous, though with a sharp edge -see those sticks of dynamite strapped to the creature’s chest?

Glenn Morgan’s ‘The best loser’ tells a story of a boxing match. Also naïve, this one has a strong narrative arc taking the viewer into a room full of spectators with, at the centre, two pugilists intent on smashing the other’s face in. I enjoyed this work and thought to myself how amazing it is to see such a broad range of styles in one show.