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One chapter in the long arts feud between Melbourne and Sydney was the export south of the exhibition, '9 Sydney 1961', a response that year from Sydney's abstract artists to the fame and figuration of the Antipodeans. Now Melbourne painter-turned-curator Gary Willis has returned the favour with the export north to Canberra and Sydney of 'X Melbourne'. With one work from each of sixteen artists, it is a snapshot of contemporary art practice in Melbourne, crossing generations and the mediums of painting, sculpture, video, computer imagery and installations. Modestly resourced, the exhibition has not the means or the pretence of being a comprehensive survey. The cooperation of the artists included depended more, one suspects, on the respect for Willis among his Melbourne peers. Nor is Willis restrained by the stance of objectivity required of institutional curators-his selection clearly reflects his own interest as an artist in the medium of paint and the exploration of myth in landscape.
With his career at one time supported by Arthur Boyd, Willis' investment in the legacy of the Antipodeans is obvious in the exhibition, in his own series of paintings around Don Quixote, and later, from 1998, the ghostly figure of Leichhardt 'vost' in the Australian desert. Juan Ford's oil on aluminium shows a similarly iconic young woman suspended over like barrenness, Waiter Burley Griffin's elegant city plan for the national capital engraved onto the metal above her. The virtuosic painter is also at work in Alex Zubryn's grungy but strongly composed rendition of a young tree caught in the empty grid of a suburban car park.
Dominating the exhibition space is Peter Churcher's large oil portrait of The Artist and his Muse. The artist here is outsider, his heroic hands on the shoulder of a vaudevillian-dressed street dweller, an outcaste, her lips studded with metal, her own hand holding the leash to her personal muse, a monkey. Churcher's baroque classicalism, if not his subject, belongs in a long tradition back to Velazquez, but the work here hangs near Gareth Sansom's abstract Face on Blue. It is a work lead-heavy with over painting and still defies us to crack the language of this painter's painter. Strangely, Face on Blue hangs at a distance from Sansom's more playful second work, a collage of digital photographs called Electrical Experiments, featuring himself in punky drag and a young Nick Cave.
Painterly concerns aside, X Melbourne also features many images of disease and viral spread, of DNA metamorphosing, of fertility and erogenous connection. In Siobhan Ryan's sculpture, Dolly Voyager, metallic blobs of DNA ooze from her blue silked case, seeking erotic connection but imploding inwards. Awkwardly thrust into the centre of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS) is the 'pre-maternity' installation of Simone Slee. From a white acrylic sheeted mattress grows an amoebic costume waiting to be picked up and worn to connect us bodily to the installation; from another side grows a similar umbilical-like tunnel, slashed through to voluptuous pink.
Slee's partner, David Harley, appears to have related dreams. Harley has worked with computer generated images since shifting from abstract painting after living in London in the 1980s. In Too Sweet, three tall panels of azure blue are spotted with a galaxy of suns and moons, amoebas, phalluses and gynaecological details, all spinning out of control. Next to it is Steve Cox's startling erotic image of a pugnacious youth, a mean-eyed nightclubber wired on drugs, the canvas spotted with hallucinogenic explosions of colour.
Willis also includes a collaborative work by Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, an oil of a floundering refugee boat against the sunset dream of the Australian bush, and-unimaginatively plonked next to it-a duraclear reproduction. Recalling their work at the National Gallery of Australia's recent exhibition, 'Tales of the Unexpected', one is reminded here that Willis has in many cases got the right artist but not their best works. It is an impression underlined by a catalogue which reproduces images by these artists which are not shown in this exhibition.
Karen Casey's ambitious multimedia installation, Dreaming Chamber, displayed at the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, is here acknowledged but inadequately represented with four digital photographs. Kristin Headlam, best known for her images of private park/public gardens, is here represented with a lesser-known (but perhaps suitably mythical) painting on linen, The Trojan Woman. And through it all plays the video work of Guy Benfield, recently in residence at Gertrude Street
Studios. We follow a couple who defy gravity while hanging an exhibition on the ceiling. Is it Benfield's sardonic take on Abstract Expressionism? And perhaps Willis' private joke about an artist now organising his own hang? Either way, Willis gives us a vivid survey of varied and significant artists.
Canberra Contemporary Art Space (15 February- 22 March 2003)
Sydney College of the Arts Gallery (10 April - 17 May 2003)