Outlying and far-reaching

The underlying premise of this exhibition hinges upon a dialogue between disparate artists, united only by the relative remoteness of their geographic location. The aim of the organisers was to elicit an awareness of "subtler levels of difference and commonality" (Sarah Follent, catalogue essay), levels which are easily smothered in discourses between 'regions' and the 'centre'.

It transpires that the show was the offshoot of a seminar on the topic of Regionalism – indeed the catalogue is crowned with a lucid and penetrating commentary on the debate – and was initiated in Townsville by Anne Lord. Being compelled to agree with Sarah Follent that "as a theoretical construct... Regionalism has failed and is nowadays impoverished", one wonders what can be achieved in an exhibition comprising a diverse selection of works by four artists familiar to Darwin audiences, together with contributions from their Townsville and Lismore counterparts. Or, more acutely, one wonders about the title in this context. Are the two terms "outlying" and "far-reaching" here juxtaposed in a poetic vein? Or do they, by embodying a subtle antithesis, intend a serious footnote to the Regionalist debate? In the latter case, Darwin presents a special choice for inclusion.

Territorians living in Darwin have a unique sense of the peripheral nature of their settlement. They do not identify collectively as the region of any centre; the distance separating Darwin from the nearest capital city is greater than that between Darwin and Indonesia. Occupying the narrow fringe of tropical coastline at the northern edge of the desert, their orientation tends to be northward, towards the sun, the ocean and the breezes from the Arafura sea. "Outlying", in this place, is a term carrying connotations of a small, but strategically significant, military air base on the borderline between East and West. "Centre" thus becomes an abstract political concept. (How many Australians realize that an area of the Northern Territory appears on Indonesian maps as land which was once incorporated in that archipelago?) The second term of the exhibition title modifies the first. It refers prima facie, I think, to the arbitrary geographical trajectory of the packing cases, but, in another, more pertinent sense, it seems to allude to the intellectual and emotional distances covered by individual artists in the course of a lifetime's programme of absorption, transformation and creation.

Certainly, viewing the works, this interpretation of the term strikes me as apt. Having been recently preoccupied with references to history and to the classical past in Australian works of art, I was predisposed to isolate this, among the many discernible threads in the exhibition.

Exclusions, a mixed media diptych by Shelagh Morgan, is a case in point, bringing into mutually illuminating collision the medium of collage and the subject of historic disjunctions between European and Aboriginal cultures. The piece consists of two vertically oriented plywood panels, painted in tones of red-brown, ochre and black, framed on either side, and down the middle, by three rows of drawings on paper. In form and function these lateral borders are reminiscent of the termini accompanying Baroque tapestry panels, and like the latter, the drawings fulfil the primary aim of Baroque ornament, to amplify and multiply the themes of the adjoining panels. The clash of cultures is witnessed by faceless humanoids, whose attenuated and distorted limbs unite top and bottom of the painted surface. Smaller figures emerge, like an enfilade of spectres, from an underworld of transparent passages; ancestral beings transfixed on a plane as slender as an ant farm. With unmistakable pleasure in the ambiguities of her medium, the artist has enmeshed contoured areas of flat paint with newsprint, textures and fine sketches, creating a surface which reverberates with memories of Antipodeans, Rauschenberg, and Arnhem Land bark paintings. A rhythmic, quasi-geometrical interconnection of symbols suggests ancient, oral, narratives, compelling our engagement.

Equally reflective of the history of European settlement in Australia are the calico strips by Trudi Prideaux, entitled Appropriate Objects. Whereas Shelagh Morgan is concerned with layering, and the perpetual oscillations between reality and myth, Trudi Prideaux begins with the physical remnants of the culture of the Enlightenment. Punning on the tradition of classical illusionism (painted "stone" pilasters, topped with urns and decorative swags, such as one sees in the public buildings of the Victorian era in our cities), the artist makes a witty riposte to those English critics who attributed the "otherness" of Australian art to the total lack of a Renaissance tradition.

The delicacy and precision of the drawing in Appropriate Objects creates a nice foil to Margot Rosser's large, airy hangings, comprised of Belgian linen, dyed, stitched and patched into a cosmos of layered transparencies. Poised suspended from the flies, these curtains are ready to signal the entr'acte of an archetypal opera. Nearby, at floor level, epic and history are invoked once again, in a fibre, plaster and wire horse, part of Kim Mahood's installation Artefacts for a Lost Dreaming. Allusions to the classical tradition are inescapable: we are confronted by the paradox of the ruin. Reduced by time to a jumbled collection of fragments, the fine-boned structure of the horse remains, like the faded principle of beauty, to speak of a once glorious but forever lost existence.

Paradox adopts an air of disquiet in Lynette Voevodin's vividly hued paintings. The artist presents the timeless theme of the female nude, not to rejoice in its form, but to comment bitterly on its pin-up degradation, on the manipulation of the sexuality and fertility of womanhood. The title Knowledge and Power rings dissonant with irony when appended to a painting in which the chain of being is represented as a woman's torso rent apart to give birth to, and simultaneously become impaled by her daughter. In the instant of giving birth, woman is both the future of the human race, and as deprived of her freedom is a butterfly pinned inside the glass case of a collector.

The curious note in the exhibition was provided by the little trompe l'oeil oil paintings in elaborate frames by Rene Bolten. Echoes of his childhood in the Hague recur in still lifes (onions and glass jar, violins and pears) which take that step into autonomy always promised by the originals, jostling past the frame, or openly jesting with it. Clever they are, but to my mind lacking the generosity of soul of other pieces in the exhibition.

Darwin viewers also saw in this exhibition works by Janet Gallagher, Marko Koludrovic, Anne Taylor and Chris Colton, each of whose works would, I believe, provide rich material tor extrapolating those diverse meanings and interconnections proposed in Sarah Follent's illuminating concept of "rhizomatic regionalism '.