making it new

focus on contemporary australian art
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
10 September - 11 November 2009

This recent survey exhibition from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is the fourth in the series addressing Australian art of the present. Each with a different curatorial slant, these shows are shaping up to be a fascinating compendium of diverse artistic practices and modus operandi. ‘Making it New’ was premised on Ezra Pound’s pronouncement of how the past informs the present and future in a pendulum-like motion. Accordingly, curator Glenn Barkley has achieved a refreshingly ‘unlikely’ grouping of eighteen practitioners of varying ages and career stages, from the venerable Ken Whisson to X Generation’s Archie Moore (neither of whom would ever have expected to be exhibited together), and diverse media from Tom Moore’s Bosch-like glass works to Alison Alder’s political screenprints. While the genre mixing is not particularly remarkable, what is destabilising and edgy is the refusal in most cases not to corral the work by a particular artist to one designated space or to limit the reading of their work to a strict thematic.

The labyrinthine feeling of the show is compounded by the use of all available space on level three of the museum and the fortuitous over-lap of the concurrent ‘Primavera’ exhibition of emerging artists. For instance, from that show Ross Manning’s incongruous constructions and sublime prismatic reflections lead the way directly to the work of Neil Taylor (who is almost twice Manning’s age) upstairs. Taylor’s obsessive handmade wire constructions replicate the character of his Melbourne studio with its walls festooned with small geometric shapes, Calder-like figures, entwining nets, coupling shapes like two hammers bound with wire, and so forth. The laboratory feel of this exhibition extends to the deliberately wonky drawing machine for making animation films, and the end results that clearly show Taylor’s debt to Len Lye. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic work from this irrepressible talent is the series of sculptures that are composites of found mechanical bits, rusted with time, that have been manipulated into ‘lumpen personages’. It is not an accident that nearby Linda Marrinon’s playful sculptures in plaster strut on an elevated stage as though emulating the comedy of life through different types of women and men, each bearing a simplified face of the artist herself. A jolt to the viewer comes in an adjoining room housing a series of Lou Hubbard’s video works. These are among the most disconcerting images of the entire show and unlike the delightfully witty and childlike glass sculptures of Tom Moore, they employ toys as though they were sentient creatures victimised by human boredom. Whether drowned in a kitchen sink with running water, run over by a fork-lift outside or severely maimed by a rotary hand tool, in these films soccer team players, a brown bobbing-dog and a green plastic turtle are brutally pulled apart.

 A strong thread running through Making it New is the overturning of one’s expectations about the development of particular artists’ oeuvres. This is seen through the mini-surveys imbedded in the show, in which mature-aged artists are treated in depth. Whisson is one example, with his paintings spanning the period 1967 to 2005. Most of his images are in one room and the over-all tenor of his landscapes (and disturbing figures) is one of angst and ominous threat. However, in the space his work shares with Khaled Sabsabi’s inverted ziggurat of political flags from Lebanon’s 2009 national elections, a different Whisson is revealed. Here, with grisaille-like solemnity his oils, From the Newspapers, are based on journalists’ photographs of the war in Iraq.

A generous hand is also extended to Toni Warburton, whose funky painted ceramics populate a room to themselves alongside the artist’s recent eccentric garlands of coastal detritus. Micky Allan’s works will be surprising to some, with her move away from her painted photographs (including a very affecting series of disabled children leaving school at the end of the day), to immerse herself in a mystical investigation that sees the everyday turned into a large canvas resembling a private universe with cosmic symbolism. Or again, more recently, her move to a series of exquisitely rendered nature studies splattered with flicked paint or perched (as with a cockatoo) on a lace spiral. Most of the works in Allan’s Seasonal Shifts (2008-09) series are divided laterally across the middle into zones resembling the heavens and sea, with cheap baubles along the bottom edge where the fringe of a prayer mat might be.

The use of tacky materials in dialogue with traditional art materials, as seen in Allan’s work, is a broader feature of Barkley’s survey. Whilst Allan does not deliberately ‘deskill’ through unrefined techniques, distortion of form, or rough open-ended projects, other artists do. Alwin Reamillo (with his collaborators) is a case in point. The wacky adaptation of a hills hoist and North Queensland bamboo with the addition of an acrylic dome in his Thuringowa Helicopter Project (2007-09), makes this work a curious, ungainly creature. Studded with orange mud crab shells, it is in keeping with the artist’s long-term interest in migration, travel and mobility. Since arriving in Perth from the Philippines in 1995, Reamillo has collaborated with diverse communities to create large-scale sculptures. The work at the MCA has resulted from his engagement with a Townsville community and, as with so many works in this show, it is dominated by echoes of the manual, the raw and an honest materiality.

Ruth Waller, long remembered for her Pawscapes (1989), paintings of land exploitation, is represented also by a bank of earlier socio-political print collages from her Remote Control series and, more impressively, by relatively new ‘dustbin’ figures made from cardboard cast-offs. These precariously balanced robotic architectural structures are largely painted white and are based on Dulle Griet (or ‘Mad Meg’), the figure fleeing a scene of apocalypse in a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. For Waller, this figure represents the baggage and negative fallout of First World greed. As with many of the participating artists, Waller’s work is spread intermittently throughout the show. This is apparently because the provoking nature of it demands that modernist conventions of display be dismantled. In similar vein, Raquel Ormella’s felt banners, with their sewn texts (politically incensed and soul searching by turn), are propped up against the walls as though resting from a street rally. Matthew Hunt’s black and white word prints give a rough and ready slant to Ed Ruscha’s elegant typographies. Worded Bean Counters, Knuckle Head, Ear Marks and Meat Axe (for example) these scraperboard images from 2009 give an appropriate, down-market, feel to the show.

Alison Alder’s ‘adjusted’ Tennant Creek food market posters, wall-papered to one wall, and fine art ‘poster’ prints remind the audience of outsider life. Alder once played a pivotal part in Redback Graphix and continues, from her Northern Territory perspective, to remain vigilant to social injustice. At this juncture her works relate to her reaction to the Government’s Intervention (the Northern Territory Emergency Response or NTER) policy for Outback Aboriginal communities. A demonstration of self-determination is clearly evident in Marrnyula Mununggurr’s paintings, prints and memorial poles, which adeptly cross boundaries between he traditional and the modern. Working from Yirrkala since the 1980s, she has moved from intensely worked designs for ancestral stories on traditional bark paintings, to allow detailed scenes of a ‘secular’ nature that aim to raise community awareness. There are included here, for example, bark paintings such as Love Me Safely (which led to a subsequent screenprint of 2005, also in the show), which aim to raise awareness of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Making it New is a spirited exhibition. While some of the work would have been best left out, the tenor of the show is one of inclusion and unpretentiousness. While Gen Y’ers may have come principally to see Primavera, they inevitably found themselves upstairs and stayed for longer than intended. Furthermore, Tom Moore’s Kids’ Activity sketchbook has lured more children than normal to check out the floating glass potato people and their transformation into an animated film with bopping sound track.

The only reservation I have of this survey exhibition is the lost opportunity for more meaty introductory essays introducing the catalogue. This ‘seriously informal’ exhibition demands a critical focus by Australian writers (like Chris McAuliffe, for example) to decipher issues of deskilling in art, another to tackle popular culture in art today that cites journals like Juxtapoz, and yet another on the social and political dimension, which grabs us by the throat and parallels what is actually on display. Given its two-hundred plus pages, of which I would deny none of the illustrations, the catalogue to Making it New could have done with more thought.