RUS­SIANS TAR­GET THE EAST COAST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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