RUSSIANS TARGET THE EAST COAST
AS you approach the National Gallery of Victoria building on St Kilda Road from the Princes Bridge, you are greeted by an enormous colourful panel attached to its northern wall. It is a content-free decorative abstraction, and we were informed by press releases that it was executed with paint sprayed on to the wall with fire extinguishers. So, depending on your point of view, we are facing an object that is either experimental, gimmicky, playful, derisive or merely bland, but in any case wilfully spectacular.
The sense of spectacle is carried on as you approach the entrance, with a low wall of brilliant coloured panels that continues into the interior; inside, you face a dome of plastic buckets with plants growing out of them, and beyond that, beside the cafe, is a space where families can play ping-pong. There is a Tony Ellwood stamp to this populist approach, and one can’t help recalling the slippery dips in the foyer of the 21st Century exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2010-11.
We should not perhaps reduce Ellwood’s vision for the gallery — which is yet to be revealed in the programming of serious exhibitions — to the rambling Melbourne Now, although this is a rather worrying start. No doubt his main intention is to make contemporary art accessible, but even this has its risks. For there is much subtle, thoughtful and sophisticated contemporary art, but this is obscured by selling it to a mass audience as a series of surprising and wildly disparate things — in other words, the kind of freak show the public is all too willing to consider it.
The presentation of contemporary art is also compromised by the uncritical groupthink that reigns today. The dramatic contests and oppositions that characterised the era of modernism, from perhaps the 1870s, and impressionism to the dissolution of high modernism into fractious splinter groups in the 1970s, have been replaced by a flaccid anything-goes attitude — laziness rather than genuine openness, since much remains excluded from the self-defining domain of the fashionable.
In this regard, anyone who missed it should look up the important piece written by my colleague Nicolas Rothwell ( The Australian, December 6), discussing the critical response to the unhappy blockbuster Australia, which has just closed at the Royal Academy in London. I read this, coincidentally, a few days after a conversation with an old Australian friend who is now a professor at Cambridge and who spontaneously had told me how appalled he had been by the exhibition.
Rothwell shows my Australian friend’s view was very much that of the most important British critics as well. He also reminds us, significantly, that this cannot be dismissed as British condescension, for previous Australian exhibitions in London such as Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, and others in ensuing decades, were well received. He asks what has changed since then, and it is perhaps not just that the British critics have become more demanding, but that we have become more self-indulgent. Significantly, Rothwell points out some of the most serious criticism was levelled at the Aboriginal art included in the show. One objection was something I have raised on several occasions here: the absurdity of hanging Aboriginal painting with contemporary art, when — among other things — one ostensibly stands for continuity and tradition and the other all