Book Review: Alan McCulloch, Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch-Childs

McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art
Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne 2006

‘The last word has always been written in the sand.’ Bill Moyes.

‘When we look at a rock, what we see is not the rock but the effect of the rock upon us.’ Bertrand Russell.

The latest edition of McCulloch’s Encyclopedia presents a remarkable achievement. Direct comparison with its 1968 predecessor in terms of size, complexity and even the increased categorisation in the new edition is a telling indication of how the visual arts industry has burgeoned in the last thirty years (and by the way puts the lie to the widespread affectation that the arts is not an industry and therefore not about commerce).

On a personal level it describes a devotion to the visual arts by the McCulloch family that spans three generations. This massive information tool builds on the success of the historical perspective authored by Alan McCulloch. Having said that, the Encyclopedia’s significant expansion, from a simple reference tool to a comprehensive information book covering the gamut of Australian art, has been driven by Susan McCulloch and daughter Emily who have taken the 250,000 word edition penned by Alan McCulloch to 1.2 million words. It now includes general essays on Australian art, Aboriginal art, and thousands of new entries, and the entirely new categories on Auctions, collections, trusts and foundations; Exhibitions; Public art galleries and art museums; Private art galleries; Prizes, awards and scholarships; and Schools and universities. Tony Tuckson’s work, White on black with paper, c.1970-73 from the collection of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, provides the backdrop to the hardcover edition, slipcover and design elements throughout the book.

As an arts writer and worker for over two decades I am all too aware of the ephemeral and slippery nature of Australian visual art and its history, despite increased publication opportunities available in recent years. All too often really significant events and the circumstances around them rest in oral history and disappear into Bill Moyes ‘sand’, together with individual memories. While some incidents may be recorded in newspapers around the country, the Encyclopedia’s record of Richard Bell’s wearing of the ‘White Girls Can’t Hump’ t-shirt when awarded the 2003 Telstra NATSIAA prize for his painting Scientia E. Metaphysica, together with an authoritative summation of the nature of Bell’s art practice, provides a rare perspective. The capture of such material nationally, with the minutiae of much topical detail, makes it unique on the Australian art shelf.

The individual authority and informed position of Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs and the combined strength of authorial voices makes for credible and compelling reading. At the same time, it is clear that their strengths lie in the southern states. For example, what is written on artists and galleries in Victoria (where the McCulloch’s are based) is generally better informed than some of what is included on, for example, Queensland artists and galleries. Bertrand Russell’s ‘rock’ analogy has a cameo here. Notable Brisbane-based omissions include entries on painter and performance artist Luke Roberts, photographer Carl Warner, rising realist painter Michael Zavros, and a misleading entry on Bellas Milani Gallery, where the founding role and decades of directorship by Peter Bellas were overlooked.

This is merely to make the point that a reference such as this can only be as good as the information provided to it and the reach of individual writers has a limit in a country as spread out as Australia. As the acknowledgements in the book make clear, a reference of this nature is an organic entity. The histories are ongoing, with the prospect of later and increasingly comprehensive editions.

The additional sections make it an invaluable reference, not only for researchers, but for every artist and institution in the country. Extended entries, such as the reach of information included under ‘Crafts in Australia’, make this book the must-have easy reference tool for the arts library. It is well-informed, with a critical edge unusual in the generic reference book, which extends the personal flavour and makes it a pleasurable read. Commentary is informed and opinionated, but there is also the quaintly dated idealism of Alan McCulloch’s ‘homage’, a refreshingly direct and uncomplicated tribute to the role of art in our lives.

Errors in a tome like this are unavoidable. While they exist, they are unimportant given the ongoing achievement it represents in terms of sheer coverage and amassed information. This 2006 edition of McCulloch’s is a tour de force.

Cover of McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art. Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006.