Only a hand­ful of artists work­ing to­day will be re­mem­bered in 2048, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

WHO are Aus­tralia’s best liv­ing artists? Such a sim­ple ques­tion, yet you’d be sur­prised how rarely it’s asked. In the art world press, it’s com­mon to read ar­ti­cles about our ‘‘ hottest emerg­ing tal­ents’’. In the com­pany of art lovers you may also hear ar­gu­ments re­lated to the past: about whether, for in­stance, Fred Wil­liams was bet­ter than Sid­ney Nolan; or whether Brett White­ley was worth get­ting so ex­cited about; or whether John Brack was more than just a Melbourne phe­nom­e­non. All th­ese ques­tions are fun to con­sider: they en­liven our sense of his­tory and help to clar­ify val­ues.

But they do so within pa­ram­e­ters we can all agree on: the his­tory is writ­ten, the ret­ro­spec­tives have been held, the rep­u­ta­tions es­tab­lished.

Much harder is to ask which Aus­tralian artists work­ing at their peak to­day will be the sub­jects of books and ret­ro­spec­tives at our lead­ing gal­leries in 20, 30 or 40 years. Who will be given the kind of at­ten­tion that artists such as Wil­liams, Nolan and Arthur Boyd are given to­day?

It’s hard be­cause in­her­ent in the ques­tion is the deeper ques­tion about which val­ues we think will en­dure and which will be re­vealed as fleet­ing fash­ions, mere con­fetti on the zeit­geist.

No one can an­swer this with much con­fi­dence, and not just be­cause it re­quires speak­ing for more than one­self. The greater prob­lem is that art to­day is al­most un­gras­pably eclec­tic. There are no recog­nis­able move­ments. There is no cred­i­ble cen­tre. And there is no co­her­ence in art prac­tice at all. It’s truly a case of any­thing goes: any medium, any im­age, any phi­los­o­phy.

Rather than feel­ing threat­ened by all this, I say we should wel­come it. Af­ter all, com­pared with film, theatre, mu­sic and even fiction, con­tem­po­rary art looks ex­traor­di­nar­ily ro­bust right now, and not just in the mar­ket ( where it’s bound to take a dive soon). You need only look at at­ten­dance fig­ures for the gal­leries that show it and the amount of pub­lish­ing ac­tiv­ity about it. The in­ter­est is so much stronger than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

As this in­ter­est ex­pands and deep­ens, peo­ple are in­creas­ingly will­ing to think for them­selves; to re­spond to what they like and to re­act with dis­dain to hype, plat­i­tudes and pre­ten­sion.

The great move­ments of the 20th cen­tury — cu­bism, sur­re­al­ism, ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, min­i­mal­ism — were man­i­fes­ta­tions of the zeit­geist, yes; but they were also ex­pres­sions of group­think, safe havens for fol­low­ers and sec­on­draters. At their worst, th­ese move­ments snuffed out in­di­vid­u­al­ity. To­day, by con­trast, the key val­ues in art are in­di­vid­u­al­ity and con­vic­tion: to hell with move­ments.

It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter in to­day’s terms whether you are la­bo­ri­ously carv­ing wood in a des­o­late stu­dio on the out­skirts of Los An­ge­les or mak­ing videos of men in bear suits with the help of a team of as­sis­tants: the im­por­tant thing is that you do what you do with con­vic­tion, and that the re­sults stick in peo­ple’s minds. Con­vic­tion, un­like al­most ev­ery­thing else about art, can’t be faked.

Sadly, the cu­ra­tors at our state and na­tional gal­leries — those peo­ple who help to forge rep­u­ta­tions by hon­our­ing liv­ing artists with ret­ro­spec­tives — are not so com­fort­able with the new eclec­ti­cism. They are stuck in the old par­a­digms, think­ing in terms of move­ments and zeit­geists.

Thus, hav­ing es­tab­lished the rep­u­ta­tions of older artists such as John Olsen, Ros­alie Gas­coigne and Jef­frey Smart, th­ese cu­ra­tors have be­gun sift­ing through the next gen­er­a­tion, the artists who came to promi­nence in the late 1970s, the ’ 80s and early ’ 90s. And in­stead of look­ing for mav­er­icks, they have tried to spot move­ments.

The best they could come up with were the aca­demic in­car­na­tions of post­mod­ernism that came out of ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s. Thus, the no­table ret­ro­spec­tives of the past two years — the shows aimed at ce­ment­ing rep­u­ta­tions at our lead­ing art mu­se­ums — were de­voted to Gor­don Ben­nett, Imants Tillers, Mike Parr and Juan Dav­ila.

All four take their cue from aca­demic the­ory. All forged ca­reers out of ques­tion­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of orig­i­nal­ity. And none has shown any faith in the idea of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Not one of them, need­less to say, would make it on to my list of the best artists work­ing in Aus­tralia to­day. So who would? Let me first ex­plain my cri­te­ria. I am not in­clud­ing el­derly artists whose rep­u­ta­tions — in­deed, leg­endary sta­tus — are al­ready es­tab­lished. Thus Olsen and Smart are im­me­di­ately dis­qual­i­fied. Nor do I want to plumb for younger

stars, such as Ben­jamin Arm­strong, Del Kathryn Bar­ton, Daniel von Sturmer, Brett McMa­hon, Ricky Swal­low, Tonee Mes­siah, Joe Frost or Daniel Crooks, even though I am con­fi­dent all of th­ese artists will carve out rock- solid rep­u­ta­tions in time.

In­stead, I want to con­cen­trate on artists no longer in their 30s but not yet in their dotage; artists who al­ready have an ex­ten­sive body of work be­hind them and who — though they may be well es­tab­lished in the art world — are not so well known to the wider pub­lic.

In short, I want to an­swer this ques­tion: which Aus­tralian artists work­ing at their peak to­day are likely to be cel­e­brated well af­ter they are gone?

I have in­cluded in my list only one Abo­rig­i­nal artist and no dot painters, de­spite the fact Abo­rig­i­nal art is such a key part of Aus­tralian art dis­course to­day. This is not be­cause I do not feel con­fi­dent judg­ing Abo­rig­i­nal art. It’s be­cause I be­lieve its suc­cess in the mar­ket does not re­flect its qual­ity, which is rarely high.

For too long now in dis­cus­sions of Abo­rig­i­nal art, peo­ple have been get­ting artis­tic ex­cel­lence con­fused with so­ciopo­lit­i­cal pieties and pa­tro­n­is­ing, ill- con­sid­ered forms of ro­man­ti­cism. I be­lieve I am far from alone in hold­ing this view, but one rarely hears it ex­pressed be­cause al­most ev­ery­one with ex­per­tise in Abo­rig­i­nal art has a fin­ger in the com­mer­cial pie.

I have also left out some of the big­ger names in re­cent Aus­tralian art, such as Tracey Mof­fatt, Peter Booth, Michael John­son, John Firth- Smith, John Peart, William Robin­son and Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini. I ad­mire them, but some as­pects of their var­i­ous achieve­ments leave me un­con­vinced.

All of the artists on this list have been writ­ten about at length, by oth­ers and me, else­where. So I will keep brief the ex­pla­na­tions of why I have in­cluded them.


HEN­SON is a pho­tog­ra­pher who con­tin­ues to find magic in the medium when most of that magic seems to be leak­ing away. His images of soli­tude, erotic com­mo­tion and trem­bling in­ti­macy are as beau­ti­ful and emo­tion­ally tur­bu­lent as ever. For­get the bet­ter known Dus­sel­dorf School of pho­tog­ra­phers such as An­dreas Gursky and Thomas Struth; Hen­son, along with South Africa’s Roger Ballen, is among the most in­ter­est­ing pho­tog­ra­phers at work to­day.


FRANK’S knack for com­bin­ing ram­pant beauty with a kind of scathing in­dif­fer­ence makes him one of our most thrillingly un­pre­dictable artists. His ab­stract var­nish paint­ings, cre­ated dur­ing the past eight years and which con­jure as­so­ci­a­tions with land­scape and a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally 21stcen­tury sense of men­tal drift, are stu­pen­dous se­duc­tions of the eye. The best of them can hold their own in any com­pany.


AN­OTHER brazen in­di­vid­u­al­ist. San­som, like Frank, has truly come into his own in the past 10 years. His an­ar­chic side still pulses through his paint­ings, which ex­press the con­fu­sions, the plea­sures and the re­bel­lions of the psy­che. But his sense of colour and form has been re­fined to a point where it seems he can do what­ever he likes.


HALL works in ways that al­ready seem to be fall­ing out of fash­ion. She favours in­stal­la­tions and long se­ries of works that riff on eco­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal themes. But her work will last and con­tinue to im­press be­cause it is so full of wit, so orig­i­nal and so grown- up. It is con­cep­tual art with a hu­man pulse and it never fails to de­light.


MAWURND­JUL’S bark paint­ings of the rain­bow ser­pent Nga­lyod and, more re­cently, the Mar­dayin cer­e­mony are im­pos­si­ble to for­get. They re­late the drama of rit­ual to vis­ual forms and pat­terns that seem to squirm across the sur­face of the al­ready un­du­lat­ing bark he pre­pares and paints on. The best of them are spell­bind­ing images — some­times fig­u­ra­tive, some­times ab­stract — that flicker with light and syn­co­pated vis­ual rhythms.


AD­MIRED across the coun­try, Cum­mings has yet to be given a large ret­ro­spec­tive at one of our state or na­tional gal­leries. Her achieve­ment has been to bring the in­timiste lan­guage of Pierre Bon­nard to bear on the open­ness and ex­panse of the Aus­tralian land­scape. She is an orig­i­nal colourist and her paint­ings rip­ple with ev­i­dence of all her de­ci­sions. They are gor­geously alive.


HAR­RIS is an artist who com­bines hu­mour with the abil­ity to dis­turb. His images com­bine the sim­plifed graphic lan­guage of car­toon­ing — usu­ally mag­ni­fied and cropped — with ab­strac­tion. The over­all ef­fect is sur­real and openly sex­ual. But the im­agery of­ten works only as a lure. More com­pelling is Har­ris’s sub­tle and of­ten scin­til­lat­ing feel­ing for colour.


THERE are many Aus­tralian ab­stract painters near­ing the twi­light of their ca­reers who de­serve to be much bet­ter known. Ge­of­frey de Groen, from Tar­alga, NSW, is one of them; so is Melbourne’s Al­lan Mitel­man. West­ern Aus­tralia’s Blanch­flower is yet an­other. His large, hes­sian can­vases pinned to the wall are un­canny in their abil­ity to chan­nel and dis­til the vast­ness of sky and earth. Hung in pairs or trip­ty­chs, their exquisitely re­fined fields of colour seem to want to melt into each other, but they re­main tan­ta­lis­ingly, achingly apart.


FUR­LONGER is breath­tak­ingly pro­lific and much of his out­put can seem un­re­mark­able. But a good eye could eas­ily com­pile a Fur­longer ret­ro­spec­tive that would in­stantly put him in the first rank of Aus­tralian land­scape painters, up there with Olsen, Nolan and Wil­liams. His work has drawn on all th­ese artists, es­pe­cially Ian Fair­weather. But he ar­rived long ago at an id­iom — so gor­geously breezy — that is his own.

For the long haul: Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left, John Mawurnd­jul’s bark paint­ing ti­tled Milmil­ngkan ; Un­der­storey by Fiona Hall; Bor­rowed Plumage # 3 ( To the River) by Brent Har­ris. This page, Un­ti­tled , a pho­to­graph by Bill Hen­son

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