3 Exhibitions: Sydney

A recent trip to Sydney provided an opportunity to visit three fantastic exhibitions.

The Gallery of NSW was holding a major exhibition; Pop to Popism.  The exhibition is the most comprehensive survey of Pop art to visit Australasia.  Pop art broke down the barriers between high art and popular culture when it began to be exhibited in the 1960’s and it forms the roots of much of contemporary art being made today.  This exhibition brings together  Pop artists from the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Europe and also Australian artists.  Pop is one of the defining art movements of the twentieth century, now instantly recognisable, it is as much a part of popular culture as art history.

Pop art uses a visual language derived from entertainment and consumerism and from the outset was controversial.  In 1957 the British artist Richard Hamilton wrote now-famous letter in which he defined the characteristics of popular art as ‘popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low-cost, mass-produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business’.  Hamilton was addressing the visual material flooding into people’s homes, workplaces and the public sphere that pop artists subsequently drew on in opposition to both the lofty ideals of abstract art and the more anxious forms of mid-century figurative art which were dominant prior to Pop’s arrival.  Pop artists aligned their art closely with its sources, sometimes directly by incorporating found objects and images, and often by simulating the forms and content of advertising and mass media.

Pop artists shared an exploration of pop culture but often had divergent practices.  For example Andy Warhol’s screen printed film stars, produced en mass  differ greatly from Claes Oldenburg’s outsize, handcrafted, soft sculptures of burgers and household appliances.  Similarly the funky paintings of Mike Brown that layer text and imagery are very different to Robert Boynes’ super-smooth airbrushed paintings of cigarettes.

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Claes Oldenburg
Giant soft fan – ghost version (1967)
Canvas, wood and polyurethane foam
304.8 x 149.9 x 162.6cm
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

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Mike Brown, Ross Crothall
Sailing to Byzantium (1961)
enamel, pencil and oil crayon on composition board
98 x 151.3 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra purchased 1981

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Andy Warhol
Marilyn Monroe (1967)
silkscreen on paper
suite of 10: 91.5 x 91.5 cm (each)
Frederick R Weisman Art Foundation
Los Angeles

While the art of Brown and Oldenburg is idiosyncratic and greatly engaging, conversely, that of Warhol and Boynes seems impersonal and coolly distant.  While the range of artworks and characteristics of the works varies greatly I noticed some recurring features; these included, bright colours, a graphic sensibility, a collage or montage like accumulation of imagery, the use of text, frontal compositions with compressed perspective.  Subjects are often immediately recognisable even though translated across various mediums.  Wayne Tunnicliffe explains ” The distinct categories of painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography became blurred during this time, with pop artists often conflating a range of techniques and materials derived from commercial rather than fine art traditions.  As a consequence of pop art’s close connection with the big business of commercial art and advertising, its status – as a celebration of consumer culture, a deadpan replication of its characteristics and methodologies, or a critique of capitalism – is still highly contested” (Tunnicliffe, 2014, Pop to Popsim, p. 11).

I think it is all of those things that Tunnicliffe speaks of and more. This was a time of dramatic change in the post-world war two era. Consumerism was on the rise as was the drug culture, feminism, and changing attitudes towards sexuality. Pop reflected and addressed all of these changes in society at this time. On the one extreme, the graphic, pared back, one-dimensional compressed imagery for example Warhol’s famous people screen prints and Roy Liechtenstein’s comic book style illustrative works reveal one aspect of Pop. On the other extreme the strong, confrontational, narrative loaded, disruptive works full of charge and powerful statements evidenced in the collages of Richard Larter, Gareth Sansom and Martha Rosler.  Brett Whiteley’s The American Dream; a dystopian horror, is another powerful example of an artist grappling with post-war society as he saw it.

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Brett Whiteley (1969)
The American Dream

I found value in viewing the early conceptual work of Jeff Koons as well as some of the early photographic work of Cindy Sherman.  These were fascinating to me because of my interest in conceptual installation work and photographic narrative.  Two artists that strongly engaged my attention due to the connections and resonances with my own work were Robert Boynes (Playboy club news,1974) and the photographic montage work of Martha Rosler.

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Robert Boynes
Playboy club news (1974)
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
152 x 152 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney,
purchased 1983

kitchen

Martha Rosler (1967-72)
House beautiful: bringing the war home
Red stripe kitchen
photomontage
courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

balloons

Martha Rosler (1967-72)
House beautiful: bringing the war home
Balloons
61 x 50.8 cm

Boynes Play boy club news work contains images of rows of partially disassembled mannequins that are in formation adjacent to a partially naked woman who is injured; it is abject, a critique on consumer culture being a ‘great lie’ and the ‘vision of the good life’ as proposed by playboy being another?.  The text, a quote by Hitler, provides further context and meaning. Martha Rosler’s works are photo-montages of American middle class living rooms juxtaposed with war scene’s either seen through the windows – of soldiers, the battlefield or victims of war inside the homes. Confronting and some grisly, they are pointed critiques of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war and perhaps the distance from the war and obliviousness of the majority of the American public?. I value that this artist has the fortitude and courage to make strong and disruptive works. To make statements about something that was highly contentious and political and to draw attention to the issues, to my mind this is an important part of the purpose and outcomes of the artistic community as a whole. 

Gallery visit 2: The Australian Centre for Photography: A survey of 30 years of Anne Ferran’s work

Anne Ferran : Shadow Land

This exhibition includes a selection works from her most significant projects and series. Ferran’s practice incorporates a variety of media including photography, textiles, installation and text, which are all included. The earliest series of works in the exhibition Carnal knowledge and Scenes on the death of nature, date from the 1980s and reflect French cultural theories of feminism and representation in their classical staged tableaux. Since 1995, Ferran has been examining Australia’s colonial past utilising museum collections, photographic archives and archaeological sites nationally and internationally. She is drawn to the gaps or silences in the records and personal histories of those incarcerated in prisons, hospitals, mental asylums and workhouses.

Ferran is an artist I have studied throughout this year, so it was exciting for me to see this survey exhibition of so much of her work. I am especially interested her capture of trace and representation of what is invisible.

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Anne Ferran (1984)
Canal Knowledge

Gallery visit 3: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Volume One: MCA Collection

This exhibition was a selection of works from the MCA collection. The exhibition blurb on the MCA website explains (paraphrased) – For the first time, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia has an entire floor dedicated permanently to presenting work from the MCA Collection. Works on display by more than 130 Australian artists in Volume One: MCA Collection, reflecting the breadth of Australian contemporary art over the past 20 years.

Highlighting the diversity of Australian contemporary art, this selection includes work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, film and video installations, wall paintings, ephemeral and performative art and a range of cultural voices.

The audience is able to engage with the beauty and poetry of Nicholas Folland’s icy chandelier and explore diverse visions of Australian culture through moving image installations by Khaled Sabsabi, Shaun Gladwell and Richard Bell among others. Also to be discovered is the breadth of contemporary painting practice, including works by Daniel Boyd, Juan Davila, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Tim Johnson Gordon Bennett and Imants Tillers. Colour and shape are transformed in innovative pieces by Rebecca Baumann, Gemma Smith and Robert Owen.

Extraordinary bark paintings, woven bags and baskets, video, photography, drawings and collage juxtapose the diverse practices of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, while the MCA’s new Cameron Screen Space devoted to programs of single screen video showcases a range of time-based works of art. (Retrieved from http://www.mca.com.au/mca-collection/volume-one-mca-collection/)

I was especially interested in one artists work; painter Louise Hearman. There were four paintings modest in size, square composition, oil on masonite. Three were landscapes, one containing a figure, the fourth work was surreal figurative. The artist has used the devices of the abject and the uncanny for content as well as to carry the emotional register of the works. Chairuscuro is a feature in all of the works and although many of her works are representational of potentially realistic settings, they all contain elements of Surrealism. The feeling quality of the works reminded me of the work of Peter Doig whose works most often contain the same strange, eerie, uncanny and dreamlike quality. But the dream is dark, on the edge of becoming a nightmare. Hearman is masterful in her use of paint [both color and texture] combining thin brushed out and blended layers with thickly applied and textured paint. The palette is stunning; a combination of cool and warm, strongly oppositional colors combined with pastel colors. Hearman has not only an incredible feel for paint, but also, I think an extraordinary acumen and ability for use of color. I think I connected so strongly with Hearman’s work because there are similar elements in my own earlier painting and installation works; use of the abject and the uncanny, use of chairsocuro, surrealist tropes, narrative works based around the figure.

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Louise Hearman
Untitled # 986, (2003)
oil on masonite
69 × 79cm

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Louise Hearman
Untitled #1106, (2004)
oil on masonite
53 × 58cm

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Louise Hearman
Untitled #1336, (2011)
oil on masonite
61 × 69cm

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