Review / CMAG’s love letter to Canberra

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‘Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG’. Photo: CMAG.

AS a final project before leaving CMAG, senior curator Deborah Clark put together this exquisitely hung celebration of 200 works representing not only the Canberra region but the broader activities in Canberra’s art community.

Purpose-built to house and coordinate the ACT’s gallery and museum collections, the CMAG building was designed in collaboration with local artists. Consequently the idea to hang works throughout the ground floor is a good one, as it encourages people to move around and pay attention to the fabric of the venue rather than go straight to the one gallery destination.

In her catalogue essay, Clark writes that CMAG has a fundamental emphasis on collecting and supporting contemporary practitioners from the region, but has recently broadened the focus to collect historical works that relate to the region. Consequently the earliest work on show, and placed at the entry of the main gallery, is Joseph Lycett’s 1824 print “View of Lake George”. After Lycett visitors leap forward into a lush and colourful array of art and craft, reflecting the diversity of Canberra’s creative communities over the last century.

The Canberra School of Art (now ANU School of Art + Design) and its Bauhaus-style workshop system has contributed in no small way, with staff and alumni not only represented as individuals, but as collectives and organisations that formed to allow graduates to stay in the region, to build careers without having to move to larger cities. The Canberra Glassworks is one such example, and Studio One another. Both have built Canberra an international reputation as a city of glass and of print. There are many prints in the exhibition by Indigenous artists such as Rover Thomas (WA), Judy Watson (QLD) and Emily Kam Kngwarray (NT), and they were made at Studio One with the help of master printers like Basil Hall. The other big Canberra print collective is, of course, Megalo (who absorbed Studio One in 2000), but there are also smaller, more ephemeral groups represented here, like ACME INK (1983, with works shown by Dianna Wells and Ben Taylor).

‘Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG’. Photo: CMAG.

Other arts and crafts groups in Canberra are represented not by name, but by the fruit they bore via support in the form of membership, studios and grants: ANCA, M16, CAPO, Strathnairn, Watson Potters Society, Craft ACT, Photoaccess, and many others. CMAG has supported them all in turn, and it shows in the breadth of media and styles on offer.

The hang is thoughtful and clever. Outside in Gallery 4, there is sculptures by Neil Roberts, Kensuke Todo, Masahiro Asaka, David Jensz and Kim Mahood: all black and white, allowing their strong forms to cluster without a sense of overwhelming busyness.

Inside the main gallery there is a dedicated print room, but the other spaces have a careful balancing of shape and colour, with delightful synchronicities (Marie Haggerty’s, “Monarch II”, 2008, is next to Michael Le Grand’s “Eclipse”, 2010) and knowledgeable pairings, such as the “Carcass” works by Sydney Nolan (1953) and Alison Alder (2009).

There is something for everyone in this show: huge masterpieces; stunning feats of craft; quirky, humorous pieces; abstract works that seem to capture the essence of Canberra’s strange, esoteric city and imaginative works of fancy that hold the delicate tension between the region’s rural and urban qualities.

It’s a beautiful love letter to Canberra, an invitation to enjoy the region’s riches, and a farewell from Deborah Clark that should encourage CMAG to keep strengthening its small but splendid collection.

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