Friday, May 27, 2011

Speaking in colour: Ivy Pareroultja and Lenie Namatjira in Newcastle

Speaking in colour: Lenie Namatjira and Ivy Pareroultja in Newcastle
 Ivy Pareroultja (left) and Lenie Namatjira with the Ntaria Suite, Newcastle Region Art Gallery May 2011
When I started ARTCAST NEWcastLE  I considered entries  blogorative-  my own prerogative, and I had to be motivated to  respond to an exhibition or to add a footnote to H2 reviews in Saturday’s Newcastle Herald. And people have asked after the  Western Arrernte artists visit....

Speaking in colour (SiC!) opened at Newcastle Region Art Gallery (NRAG) on March 18th  with public programs running throughout April and May. It finishes this Sunday, May 29th.  SiC gave me a chance  to get behind the scenes at the gallery and  I appreciated the opportunity to curate the show which, while a compromise to  the collection, still held up as an exhibition of diversity and colour ( I had originally  proposed some works from other private collections).

At the opening, I looked at the crowd and couldn’t see any colour to speak of, or to.  But the walls were alight with it, and several lectures and discussions in the gallery provided  ample opportunities to tease out, in a painterly and historical  way, some different approaches and generic similarities in  colour use and media from  the communities represented. 

The crown in SiC was The Ntaria [Hermannsburg] Suite, purchased by the gallery in 2010 and shown for the first time as a series in Newcastle. The watercolours  by Walter & Cordula Ebatarinja, Herbert & Henoch  Raberaba, Oscar & Ewald Namatjira, Otto & Edwin Pareroultja, Adolf Inkamala & Richard Moketarinja came  from the estate of TGH Strehlow (read the short catalogue essay  for more info).

In short, the colour and freshness of the watercolours (1946-1953) is outstanding (they’ll be back in storage soon, retaining their saturation). Importantly, it was an opportunity to get descendents of some of the original artists to visit Newcastle and see the works first hand. I congratulate the gallery for taking the opportunity to host Lenie Namatjira and  Ivy Pareroultja (Oscar and Edwin’s daughters, respectively) from Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra “Many Hands” Art Centre in Alice Springs. 

What did they do? What did they think and feel, seeing their parents and grandfather/great uncle Albert on the walls in Newcastle? It’s not a first, as they have been amongst the travellers supporting the BIG hART production of the play, NAMATJIRA. When I contacted Ngurratjuta in October last year they volunteered the possibility of artists  painting in the gallery; their most recent exhibition, Echoes in the Landscape which they visited had brought generations of Hermannsburg  watercolourists together  in at Flinders University Gallery in Adelaide (curated by Alison French).

It was clear to NRAG and to the artists that their participation was always going  to be a matter of choice on the day. Two hours, two days running, making watercolours in the gallery in front of the Ntaria Suite. A crowd gathered. I spoke a little, Iris Bendor from Ngurratjuta spoke a bit, Lenie said a few words, both women painted. Some people approached the artists, had some questions. Day two was more informal, with lots of kids doing watercolour with the Art Cart program. There were some return visitors, including members of the local Indigenous community, some of whom had never visited the gallery before (a lunch for the artists at the Wollotuka Institute had made some introductions).  

There’s always the discomfort factor, but probably more so for the audience, who grapple with their own concerns– I suspect, and recall from similar events in the past, that the silence (of the artists) which is so…uncomfortable in white culture (and I prefer ‘white’ to non-Indigenous, like black), does not imply the same awkwardness, necessarily. Half the time I am guessing;  but when they finished working on day one, Lenie put her hand on her breast and told me how happy she felt, having painted next to her father’s and grandfather’s paintings, with all the people…
 Lenie Namatjira with her own work,  Newcastle Region Art Gallery May 2011
Personally I had the pleasure of hearing after and sending affection to friends from Ikuntji that in some cases I haven’t had proper news of in years. It’s hard to negotiate the communication divide, although mobile phones have helped keep in touch with Tiwi friends.

 Tiwi works in Speaking in colour (l-r) Kitty Kantilla, Pedro Wonaeamirri, Timothy Cook, 2 x Jean Baptiste Newcastle Region Art Gallery 2011 

 Sally Gabori, Jan Billycan, Daniel Walbidi Newcastle Region Art Gallery 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Violent Grass

March has been a month of action, exposure and ambivalent reflection. At Podspace, The Drawing Room: Violent grass, a series of my own recent paintings and at Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Speaking in colour  for which I was guest curator. Allow me a little vanity publishing. It won't become a habit.

I have exhibited in  Newcastle before; once at the conclusion of my  PhD in 2009 Long to belong: Landscape Memoir and in  2007, Portraits of Trees at Watt Space.  I felt compelled to paint Violent Grass for my own reasons, but it was also important  (to me) to show for the local audience.

The Drawing Room: Violent grass paintings were made following a family holiday to the UK in 2010. Witnessing centuries of the figure painted on that verdant grassy island, sitting in private drawing rooms and hearing family stories all informed the violent grass imagery. A boy is punished for touching wet paint; a baby is placed out of hearing range to cry alone.
My imagination roamed on the reaches of Empire based on a careful 'disregard' for children and what  part this might have played in the violence implicit in Colonialism. This is a just one simple glance at the complex history linking the lush-green and the grey-green islands. We all have ancestral collages in our heads. Sometimes we’re compelled to get them out and put them down.

‘Cute little show’ said a young curator, full of pluck and blindness. Or that’s what I thought, prickly (and unfairly). A significant person from another art institution  made the effort to come – most appreciated – and avoided the delicate duty of looking into  the work and responding. I am (still) surprised that no discourse slips ‘twixt the lips of such professionals. Politeness is pointless at the pictures edge. Or at least that’s what I thought, prickly. I will yank on the reins now, avoid an artist’s rant. Pointless, and now is the time to be polite.
I’m not the first to reflect on a body of work, sitting the gallery space. Artists often bemoan the duty, but it’s an opportunity to know the work differently: outside of the studio, looking takes on a different slant, past decision making and  into content, present and future.  Podspace's spartan country hall charm has grown on me too, and I no longer resent the florescent lights (Anna Schwartz in Melbourne would have nothing less). The exhibition experience with Alison Smith & Jen Denzin co-ordinating was also a pleasure.

In defence of a good review: Jill Stowell, whom I have previously acknowledged as the incumbent Herald Arts writer,  gave Violent Grass an engaged, thorough and positive review. We met some years ago, over my work, and she liked it then too. She hasn’t let our friendship get in the way of writing what she wants to write.  Someone suggested Stowell’s review would ‘look bad’ for me (I am the stand-in Herald Arts writer),  that Newcastle  (artists?) would be down on me.  I can only take that half seriously though. My  feedback from H2 readers is usually responsive, intelligent and enquiring.

Bleak show’  said my anarchic friend J. ‘Unsettling but strangely enjoyable paintings’ said another J. Many viewers’ conversations  have been inspiring,  commenting with insight, looking slowly. Like music, most paintings get better with familiarity. Return visitors are welcomed.

‘I can't stop thinking about Violent Grass. It really is a thought-provoking show. Although it's a very literal reading, I keep thinking about the introduction of non-native grass species and the subsequent colonisation of Australian bushland …Then I'm reminded of Virginia Woolf. Domestic, mesmerising, insightful yet unsettling’-J.D

‘Soft and strong at the same time/deep and lush, spiky and resonant/lush, rich and  slightly disturbing/thought provoking/the grass looks so soft and there is a wind’-miscellaneous.

I’ve cherry-picked the guest book comments, but no one (except Hank Williams) said anything negative. It’s the ritual.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Curious Colony in Sydney

Curious Colony, arguably last year’s pièce de résistance at Newcastle Region Art Gallery (NRAG) won a trip to Observatory Hill, coinciding with the Sydney Festival and representing the penal colony at the top end of town – another ricochet to the original intent of many a convict-cum-artist-cum- mad-(ad)-men. Promising England the world (19th Century style) and delivering the Antipodes.

There has been plenty written on Curious: the scholarly, elucidating and well illustrated catalogue, with essays by curator Lisa Slade (since head-hunted by the Art Gallery of S.A), art historian Ian Maclean and artist Danie Mellor. Curious at NRAG was positively and thoroughly reviewed by John McDonald in Spectrum (SMH), Margaret Farmer in Artlink, David Hansen in Art Monthly Australia and Christine France in Art and Australia - not to mention dozens of ART3000 student essays, finishing off the B.A at The University of Newcastle. I won’t add unnecessary repetition, and you can read those articles here, but I have made only brief (and far from conclusive) comments relevant to the S.H Ervin installation.
Visiting Curious Colony at Observatory Hill I had a chance meeting with artist Danie Mellor shopping for merchandise. I noted he was yet to make fridge-magnet status like Wendy Sharpe, a joke we shared. He was there photographing his work The Native’s Chest 2010, after having fussed with it over spring.
Danie Mellor with his work The Native's Chest at S.H Ervin Gallery. Photo: Edwina Pickles
I found myself curious regarding Mellor's changes: once gold, the coffin (with its Golden Casket QLD lottery associations) and taxidermied coat of arms figures had Faith Hope Charity in shells retitled Take my bones and paint them. The Native Chest’s king-plated coat of arms emu and kangaroo remain. The changes are cosmetic. This is what else I think I saw: the Wunderkammer beetle now under the coffin, with a collection of boomerangs and white ochre rocks  around the base. The coffin itself has been re-cast in a white mausoleum-like fine-bone China mosaic. The branches/perches for stuffed birds were also ghost-white, previously gold, and the Jolly-Roger skull & cross-bones encased with black beading and diamante eye-sockets is carrying a heavy load: the horrors of colonisation, the torment of slow and stalling repatriation, Damien Hirst, an eBay docket...
Enigmatic? Performative? Or not quite sure when to stop (have I swallowed my tongue yet?), a workaholic on the issues at large. Identity and past subjugation. It’s likely, as Mellor responded to my email, the changes were an aesthetic decision, a toning down. Or as he writes in his catalogue essay, perhaps an act of defying the notion of ephemera – upsetting ‘the preserved and static record, a focused assemblage of disparate parts’ – the static being the museum’s last stand. But then I feel anxious, applying such white logic, and it gets a bit us-and-them-AND -we-are-all-in-this-together.

The kangaroo is one of the driving motifs in Curious Colony, re-presented in chameleonic form throughout. That is why I missed Brooke Andrew’s The Island V 2008. Display width was an issue at S.H Ervin, with its quaint pavilion/fairground partitions, but I imagined it in the gallery’s false proscenium arch opposite Mellor’s slightly over-cooked three-course meal as a raw and beating heart, off-setting the kitsch memento mori, a tactic employed in the NRAG show. Andrew’s (19th century naturalist William Blandowski re-staged) bloody, glam-historical mirror with its cadmium alfoil shimmer, witness to the potent, resolute symbol of the grit of Aboriginal culture and its often neglected warrior ethos. It is neither cute nor curious, but awesome, ragged and defensive. A glint of Empire’s cruellest, challenged. Without it, colour was missing.
Brook Andrew The Island V 2008
The building  ultimately road-blocked the flow between the strategic placement of works that was so effective in Newcastle; there is plenty more to say but it’s a new year now, and NRAG is inviting sponsors for its recent purchase of two Richard Browne watercolours, Coola-benn, Native Chief of Ashe Island Hunters River and Burgun, Indigenous leaders from the Hunter, both painted in 1820. They joined the S.H Ervin install and there were some minor additions from The National Trust Collection. The Joseph Lycett attributed Secretaire (Riley cabinet) stayed home, but The Newcastle Chest stood its ground despite Philip Wolfhagen’s painted panel losing some lustre, (metaphorically speaking) looking thin sitting in what is ever so slightly reminiscent of another library (the original Macquarie Collectors Chest, catalyst and Queen Bee, remains at The Mitchell Library, too old and tired for travelling).
There was still lots to love, and the story translated with impact for my companion, seeing Curious for the first time. Sarah Smuts-Kennedy’s Pyramid scheme 2009 rocked again. Choral coral, candelabras, totemic and anthropomorphic and phallic, pomander-like blooming fungi, glacé pedestals to our own beloved: the coal-hearted, steadfastness of our consuming and consumptive fatness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Welcome to Artcast, Newcastle arts critique and comment

ARTCAST Newcastle is an occasional blog to extend commentary of visual arts exhibitions and art practices based in or relevant to Newcastle, Australia. Since February 2010 I have been the stand-in art-reviewer for The Newcastle Herald's Saturday H2 supplement, a Fairfax tabloid with regular, but limited, arts coverage. Jill Stowell has written for H2 for decades, and remains the Herald’s primary writer. Views expressed in ARTCAST are mine alone but comments (and corrections!) are welcome.

The limitations of a regional-or national- arts review (and I make the distinction between art criticism) are not unique to Newcastle. Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for books, writing & ideas hosted a recent symposium, Critical Failure, where panelists discussed issues of costs, shrinking print media, burgeoning online sources, small pond syndrome, the (?) changing of the guard and more, across visual art, theatre, and literature. Also available on Radio National's Artworks program.

I anticipate a monthly post that celebrates or challenges at least one Hunter exhibition or visual art-act-issue.