Review / ‘Impressive’ art stems from hard work

“Ship of Fools”, 2016, by Ann McMahon, stainless steel, recycled plastic strapping, 90 x 350 x 110 cm. Photo: Sam Copper.

THE ANU School of Art + Design Gallery has a bold new direction: it is to be a pedagogical gallery, a teaching tool for the Art History and Curatorship students. The students will be involved at all levels, overseen generously by the new management team. It promises to be exciting, encouraging, fresh, and bring experimental offerings to the public.

The first offering, “Here Now”, is a variant of the traditional staff showcase exhibition, this time looking outwards at alumni who work in Canberra’s “arts orgs” or cultural institutions. It’s timed well for the beginning of the semester, when new art and design students are often given a chat about possible pathways that their budding degree could take them.

Happily, the focus of the exhibition is on practice – the regular creative activity that is often completely at odds with a working life. How long an artist continues to make and exhibit after art school can be dramatically short; it’s less to do with talent and everything to do with workplace conditions, income, and time management. “Here Now” is a snapshot of a subsection of Canberra’s creative community, unique in Australia because it involves national institutions and small organisations within a tight geographical area. It’s a collegiate city, thanks to the impact of the ANU SOA+D on Canberra’s creative history.

There are 19 alumni featured: SA Adair (NPG), Robert Agostino (PhotoAccess), Surya Bajracharya (NGA), Alexander Boynes (CCAS), Kirsten Farrell (ANU), Richilde Flavell (Canberra Potters), Hannah Gason (NLA), Clare Jackson (Megalo), Karena Keys (ANCA), Jay Kochel (NMA), Anja Loughhead (NGA), Alex Lundy (Megalo), Ann McMahon (BAC), Katy Mutton (Megalo), Tom Rowney (Canberra Glassworks), Shags (NPG), Kensuke Todo (NGA), Peter Vandermark (NGA), Madisyn Zabel (Craft ACT).

There are of course many other arts orginisations around the territory, but it does feel that CMAG is a serious omission, with a number of good practicing alumni in its ground-level staff.

Untitled, 2019, by Richilde Flavell, stoneware, scarva, and glaze, dimensions variable.

Flavell’s ceramic vessels are cool and simple, sheened by glaze and wax, begging to be held. This tactile tease (available, untouchable) is repeated by the glass works by Gason, Rowney, and Zabel, the latter deftly playing with space and illusion using string. Farrell’s “Measure” is a making from making: she’s knitted recycled plastic bags used in a past international installation work, carried home in her luggage. Nothing should be wasted, it says.

McMahon’s “Ship of Fools”, constructed from recycled plastic strapping, agrees. Todo’s steel pieces are thoughtful and deceptively simple, Vandermark’s “gazers” provoke curiosity, then a laugh, and Keys gives us whimsy and perhaps even some optimism.

“79 Parts of A Film” (film still), 2018, by Robert Agostino, two channel randomised video from Super 8 film, continuous loop.

The wallworks are no less engaging. There are videos from Agostino and Boynes, one silent, one ringing out through the gallery like a call to action. Loughhead, self-proclaimed “Internet Explorer”, reels through the rabbithole of objects sourced through the internet, presented onscreen. Other works feel like video: Bajracharya’s moody image caught in motion, Kochel’s drawn matrix, still yet moving. Adair presents sculptural cutting, around a corner and highlighted with a strip of red paint. And then there are the prints by Shags, Mutton, Lundy and Jackson, which take full advantage of their drawing talents and the processes printing can offer.

The works are impressively gorgeous, a broad mix of graphic, abstract, dimensional and emotional output. These artists have found a path that allows them to continue making at a highly professional level. A conversation with any of them will reveal that it’s not an easy path: there are hard choices, and many compromises. However, the works exude the satisfaction of making, and this results in the joy of looking. 

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