THIS exhibition shows a small selection of the work that was purchased or commissioned for Parliament House while it was being built. The 1980s was an exciting and important decade in the development of contemporary art in Australia.
The Parliament collection comprises three distinct strands, one being works of art commissioned or purchased during the design and construction of the building, from 1983 to 1988. The others are the historic memorials collection of portraits and other works begun in 1911, and gifts presented by other nations, the states and by national organisations to commemorate the opening of “new” Parliament House in 1988.
This period offered increased opportunities for a younger generation of designers and makers – new technologies, easier and less expensive overseas travel and new materials, which were often cheaper. An increase in modes of training, skill development and apprenticeship gave a solid foundation to studio practice in Australia.
The outstanding feature in my mind is the exuberance and bold colours of most of the works.
Liz Nettleton wove a wonderful rug “Oz flora mandala”, designed by Jenny Kee that combines many of her familiar motifs, with garlands of immediately recognisable Australian wildflowers in red and white on a blue ground. Her watercolour design for the rug is also on display, reminding audiences that artists undertake considerable preparation before producing an artwork.
Canberra artist in glass Judi Elliott is showing two square plates. The colours bounce off the surface in geometrical designs. Two other artists working in glass are Warren Langley, who is showing a circular plate, also in geometric patterning. Chris Pantano’s shallow bowl, titled “Perspective II”, is in black and white, but the geometry is still there in a chequer pattern that vanishes into the centre of the work. The bowl is displayed with two works by Diane Peach: a lidded box in matt black and white porcelain, with stripes and blocks of the two colours and an angular teapot continues the geometry.
Tasmanian ceramicist Penny Smith created a tea set in pale gelato colours in a glossy glaze. The rings which pierce the top of the mug might be rather impractical as handles, but are matched with rings on the base of the mugs, and the strong handle of the teapot and its lid.
These works were all innovative in the mid 1980s and they have stood the test of time. They convey the positivity of the period, and remind the viewer that Parliament House has a large and significant art collection.
In the past, Parliament House has had exhibitions showing different aspects of its collection and it is to be hoped that this exhibition, celebrating the building’s 30th anniversary, is a revival of this practice.