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 smh.com.au
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.