Archive for the ‘Art review’ Category

Printmaking, like drawing, is often seen as the poor cousin to painting and sculpture. And I have as yet to work out exactly why that is.

With all its wonderful techniques and the endless richness of its textures and wonderful “surprises” in execution, printmaking has given us some eye-popping artifacts over history. Picasso loved it, so did Míro and Warhol.

‘Agikawa Spinner (33rpm)’ Neilton Clarke

‘Agikawa Spinner (33rpm)’ Neilton Clarke

The current show at Camperdown’s ArtsiteSydney Printmakers Celebrating 55 Years – makes it even harder for me to understand the poor cousin attitude.

As part of the 2016 celebrations of the Australian Print Council’s Year of Print, curator Madeleine Tuckfield-Carrano has put together sixty works by Sydney artists that span the range of printmaking, conceptually and technically.

From Neilton Clarke’s lovely surreal ‘Agikawa Spinner (33rpm)’ through Prue Crabbe’s smoke-fragile ‘Sublunary Diversions II’ to the brusque rust textures of ‘Landfall 1’ and ‘Landfall 2’ by Anthea Bosenburg, the range is breath-taking. It is all I can do to not reach out and touch these works – print has that effect: the colours and textures, although aiming for the relatively flat, have a tactile, almost erotic, attraction. Faint indentations, raised shallow welts, creases and almost imperceptible waves across the surface all draw us in subtly.

‘Peaches and Cream’ Rew Hanks

‘Peaches and Cream’ Rew Hanks

Though, flat is not all ­– Laura Stark’s ‘Totems’ stand as printed paper cylinder’s, tracing paper squares lean out and threaten to fly off the surface of ‘The Space Between’ by Robyn Waghorn. Tuckfield-Carrano’s ‘Autumn Rain’ has fabric stitches across the pigment.

The range of techniques – a couple had me groping for Google – is smartly covered here as well; it is one of the joys of printmaking that its techniques go from roughly stamping the paper with hard woodblocks through to gluing elements across the plate as in a collograph, or the relative caressing it with other approaches, such as aquatint. Rew Hanks’ ‘Peaches and Cream’ (relief print) has that perfect graphic hard edge while the linocut ‘Scratching for Bugs’ by Joanne Gwatkin-Williams shows a charming vaguery of line.

Poor cousin? Bah. These pieces are all as exquisite as you will find, speaking with maybe a quieter poetry that their oil-painted relatives, but powerful poetry nonetheless.

All images courtesy of the artist and Artsite.

 

Published March 2016 on www.sixtoeight.net

 

 

 

 

Sometimes too much Art seems barely enough. Sometimes too much Art is just too much.

After foolhardily taking in the MCA’s Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration and the AGNSW’s POP to POPism within hours of each other, I have been left shellshocked by the sheer scale, size and slammin’ power of the experience.

They don’t call them blockbusters for nothing, Jim.

At the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chuck Close show stand two huge portraits ­– as impassive and monumental as Easter Island moai heads. The two works span time and process: Bob, from 1969 is rendered in greyscale airbrush, cool and smooth; 2012’s portrait of Lou Reed, Lou, is a Jacquard tapestry, bristling with tiny digitally-mapped woven threads.

POP Lou, Chuck Close 2012

The two pictures say a lot about Close: they are pictures of pictures, images of photographs; they also show his restless search for media and process, whatever the material or labour-intensive cost involved. The show is subbed Prints, Process and Collaboration and is curated to reveal the mind-warping amount of planning, prep and plain hard graft involved.

The pictures also raise questions about where Close sits in current Art: he has always been a hard one to place, as his work, once aligned simplistically with photo-realism, actually seems closer to minimalism and conceptual art, based on grids of small cells as it is. He works on these small square cells, and, as they disappear, a monumental (photo-realistic) image is revealed.

The range of processes he adopts is staggering – from the (digitally mapped) 19th century Jacquard Loom weave, though plate-etching processes such as Spitbite and Mezzotint, to traditional Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints – the hours of painstaking labour involved suggest a meditative onanism as much as a saintly work-ethic masochism. This is the man who said “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.POP Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat), Chuck Close 2013

The craft element alone can take your breath away, but of course it is the startling beauty of this work that rivets you to the spot. The coloured self-portraits, broken as if seen through facetted glass, the deep rich earth tones of the square grid images, the delicious grays of the pulp-paper pictures are a spiritual experience, beyond craft.

And each face is coolly inscrutable, giving away no secrets apart from their planes, surfaces and shadows. Close’s hours of process seem to have seeped into the very fabric of these pictures, causing time to slow when you are in their presence.

Enough of this cool stuff: time for something hot!

Up the hill to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ POP to POPism to see banners shouting Warhol! Sharp! Lichenstein! Haring! hanging along the front of the old girl.

Inside, we are reminded yet again how well the AGNSW does these things: 200 works (mainly killer, some filler) from over fifty lenders worldwide, have been brought together and divided up into seven themed areas for bite-sized consumption.

We are also reminded how heavily calorific Pop Art is – making each bite-sized chunk a gourmet junk food feast in itself.

‘Swinging London’ has Hockney, Peter Blake (that well-known album cover designer) and Richard Hamilton (that other well-known album cover designer) all in fine form. The art and music that zapped the world from London in the 60’s was unstoppable. That energy is here.

But it was ‘The American Dream’ that set Pop solid in history and stamped its icons into our DNA. Looking at Warhol’s Marilyns, Lichenstein’s comics (with their obsessively hand-drawn half-tone dots) and the super-slick billboard cut-ups of James Rosenquist (originally a pro commercial billboard painter) you are still stunned by their power, electricity and in-your-face sex.

POP In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein 1963

The American works dwarf anything else here. With exceptions such as Martin Sharp, or France’s Niki de Saint Phalle (her 1968 ‘Black Beauty’ raises the smile that good Pop should), the Euro and especially Australian work seems almost timid by comparison and less sharply focussed. The Annandale Imitation Realist work of Australians Colin Lanceley and Mike Brown cloyingly piles junk on junk, where Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of street trash speak with poetry and a dusty grandeur.

Andy Warhol is said to have been “the only artist who truly understood the Twentieth Century”. His work here reinforces that smart idea: his Marilyns are confections of sex and repetition, his electric chair pictures too cool. 1965’s ‘Electric Chair’ has a casual, ill-considered cropping (though of course exquisitely considered) and is rendered in a magenta and lime-yellow colourway. The nearby pictures of Jackie Onassis are black on sky blue. It is all the same. We read of an execution and flip the magazine page to see who Jackie has married now. Our feelings are deadened by repetitive sensation. Warhol’s frustrating interview style – all boyish ‘gee’s and ‘I don’t know’s, often misunderstood as irony – mirrored this. He truly understood that history was rolling over us too fast and he nailed it again and again.POP Electric Chair, Andy Warhol 1965

Other Americans such as Claes Oldenburg – here represented by a huge ‘soft’ cloth electric fan – and the gutsy hot-rodded Ed Kienholz, say the same thing in their own big, bad American way.

Modern Pop – or the Art that continues Pop’s sexy throb down the years – is represented here by reference to ‘Popism’, a brief local movement and 1982 NGV exhibition, the shining light being the hypersexualised Juan Davila who carried the shock element of Pop aloft in his pornographic vistas.

Of course, the spirit of Pop is most alive today in the marketplace that spawned it – the world of advertising and popular entertainment. References are made every day to Pop Art, the movement which referenced mass marketing and junk TV in the first place.

Sometimes too much Art seems barely enough. Sometimes too much Art is just too much. The work of Chuck Close fills you up with beauty, lovingly made, a strand or cell at a time. The blast of Pop Art at POP to POPism fills you up with electric energy, splashed on and plugged in at high voltage.

Sometimes too much Art is just too much. But if you can handle it, it is worth the wild ride.

 

Published December 2014 on megaphoneoz.com

 

 

 

Once again, the Biennale has taken over Sydney – adding hyper-excitement, colour and zing to a number of venues around our already zinging, parti-coloured city.

2014 Biennale curator, Juliana Engberg has situated what she terms the Festival’s more “liminal, libidinous and liquious” artworks at Circular Quay’s Museum of Contemporary Art, recognising that the works use “the psychological language and semiotics of Surrealism…

Douglas Gordon Phantom

The 2014 Biennale’s rallying cry “YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE” already has more than a whiff of Surrealism’s dreamy erotic perfume about it, and a surprising number of the MCA works, directly or indirectly, pay homage to Surrealism.

Much of post-war Art has been the spiritual spawn of DADA, Surrealism’s ADHD, glue-sniffing sister. Late 20th Century and current political realities, corporate barbarism and historical brutalities often call for that tougher-edged and punked-up response. But, away from the barricades people still dream, and people still love dreamily and there will always be a place in Art’s heart for Surrealism.

Its poetry has been accused of being too often escapist, but the paradox of Surrealism is that its escapism seems to drive further into our human reality than away from it. The best of it gets us right where we live, in our subconscious.

john stezaker mask XXXVThe works at the MCA of British artist John Stezaker achieve this mysterious soft shock with the barest of means. Taking nothing more than two photographs – usually a publicity still of a forgotten actor and a holiday postcard – and combining them at just the right point, Stezaker sets up some stunning dissonances of repulsion/attraction, beauty/horror, dream/reality.

They are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s early 20th Century surreal collage novels such as The Hundred Headless Woman. However, where Ernst created complex, densely detailed images, Stezaker’s works seem almost randomly applied, as if one photo came to rest on another in a pile, in the kind of ‘accident’ the Surrealists loved.

Collage pops up again in the collaborative cut-and-pastes of Gerda Steiner and Jórg Lenzlinger in their series Souls. Images of flight – birds, insects, wings, propellor-like flower petals – float in cluster over pastoral landscapes. The images have been cut from natural history books and are illustrations; the backgrounds are landscape photographs: the effect is dislocating and dreamlike. Eroticism pants from the wings; Ernst et al would be well pleased.Gerda Steiner and Jórg Lenzlinger Souls_

The Surrealists also loved madness and extreme eccentricity. One god of their swirling Pantheon was Le Facteur Cheval. This postman built his ‘Ideal Palace’ in his garden over 33 years (completed 1912) from odd-shaped volcanic rocks, wire, wood and other junk. The aesthetic was old-world glory – places, tombs, mosques, minarets – the effect was a swirling mash-up of styles and architectural references so incongruous it could only be beautiful.

Belgian photographer Aurélien Froment, in his series Tombeau de Ferdinand Cheval has chosen not to shoot wide shots of the postman’s palace, instead concentrating on small elements – a face, an animal head, some lettering – often separated out by draping black cloth around the object. It’s a smart move, as, in toto, it gives you an insight into Cheval’s view as he built this edifice one stone at a time.

Other works here may be less intentionally – even accidentally – Surreal but their dreamlike nature and alien/familiar dissonance evokes a similar sense of reality shift.

As in a dream, the burned remains of a Steinway on a stage side by side with an intact grand piano in Douglas Gordon’s “Phantom” installation seem quite natural. A huge, heavily mascara’d eye beams down upon the whole operatic scene like the slit eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

Belgian artist David Claerbout’s “The Quiet Shore” – a series of black and white images projected in a darkened room – is so deeply nostalgic it seems you are dreaming someone else’s sad seaside childhood holidays. The highly polished floor – like wet seashore sand – both reflects the images and, since you are standing on it, puts you in the picture, draws you into the dream.

These waking dreams, of course, are not all the Biennale has to offer, yet it is gratifying to see Surrealism’s milky poetry, draperies and moonlight return to the conversation of Art. And interpreted with a contemporary twist, these artists show it still packs the same lovers’ punch it always did.

 

Published March 2014 on megaphoneoz.com

 

 

Conceptual art divides people as fiercely and clearly as it divided the Old from the New early in the 20th Century. Art that can be an idea, or a mere instruction or a thought – often independent of a material resolution or form – is anathema to many.

And all too often, conceptual art is itself to blame. By creating impenetrable layers of obscure meaning or by expressing an ultra-personal iconography (as in the work of Joseph Beuys) it can lose people, who can see it as coldly intellectual, its poetry alien.

The work of Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono is different. Although highly conceptual and loaded with many layers of meaning, Ono’s art has always carried a very human message. Almost everything she creates can be immediately felt on some flesh-and-blood level, which can be a doorway to the deeper storeys of stories within. Ono’s work is outwardly simple, but it is as loaded as a bear-trap.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece,1965

War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono recently opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It gives us a unique and wide-ranging look into Ono’s world (and through it, our own). The title comes from massive billboard posters that Ono and her husband, Beatle John Lennon placed across the world’s cities in Christmas 1969 as a message and gesture of peace.

Peace is a theme deeply associated with John and Yoko and many of Ono’s pieces express a yearning for peace, both on universal and personal levels. Her ‘Play It By Trust’ (1966) is a chess set where all the pieces are white as are their squares. As the players play, they lose track of which pieces are theirs and which are those of their opponent, and soon the idea of ‘sides’ is blurred – we realise, just as fraternising trench troops during World War I realised, we are really all the same. The simplicity, the whiteness, the life-affirmation of this piece are pure Ono – her emotional palette as well as her colour palette is white, water, clouds, dreams, love, peace. Blurred edges of personality that connect us all in a universality.

This universality of humanity is equally expressed in her 2006 piece ‘We’re All Water’, a row of identical bottles containing identical amounts of water, but all with a name attached – Groucho Marx, John Coltrane, James Joyce, John Lennon – different names, identical containers and contents. A simple idea but one which grows many thoughts, like branches, upon reflection.Yoko Ono, We're All Water 2008

But it is not all sweetness, love and light. Ono’s meditations on sexual politics – especially as they relate to women – can be disturbing in their power. Footage of her famous ‘Cut Piece’ from 1964 – where audience members are invited to cut away the clothes of a passive, kneeling Ono with sharp scissors – is shown on a wall here, adjacent to a more recent performance from 2003, where the piece is carried our on the artist, now 70 years old. Aside from the power of the obvious sexual and political connotations here, it is remarkable that the piece takes on even greater depth and raises new questions when ‘Cut Piece’ is now applied to the artist as an elderly woman.

‘Touch Me III’ from 2008 is a series of boxes, each containing a silicone replica of an erogenous part of a female body – lips, breasts, pubis. We are asked to wet our fingers in a bowl of water and touch the flesh-like silicone. The sense of violence here is inescapable, even though all is dark and still. When ‘Touch Me III’ was first shown in New York, the silicone was left with so many cuts and gouges by visitors that the gallery decided to remove it. Ono declined the idea, leaving the damaged ‘flesh’ in view of all.

Ono has created a specific artwork for Sydney – ‘Wish Tree for Sydney’ – six lemon-scented eucalypts on the Sculpture Terrace with materials to write and attach their dreams and wishes to the tree. Inspired by Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood in Japan, these Wish Trees (the first was made in1998) are a simple, heartfelt emblem of positive human aspiration.

And it is this desire for a better world, a better future, that runs through all of this work. Ono lived through the nuclear devastation of Japan during WWII; she has starved and known the dreadful suffering of the vanquished side. So this yearning for peace is not an abstract tissue of lip-service, as it is in too many artists, but her gift to us and her gift to the future.

 

Published November 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Australia and America share many similarities historically. Both are young countries, both are built on a pioneering spirit, both countries were quick to create their own mythologies, royalties and national characters from the very start.

Taking in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current blockbuster, America: Painting a Nation, I was struck though, how different the view of their early painters was to ours. And it is a difference, in one form or another, that flows right through to today.

Jackson Pollock No 22, 1950

The early landscape artists of Australia tellingly depicted this new, alien landscape in English tones – our ochres and dun-olives became blacksoil and Sherwood green on canvas. The yearning to create as much of Mother England here in this dry, frightening colony was strong – so strong it meant distorting in the mind that which the artists actually saw with their eye.

Early American landscape artists, on the other hand, also distorted – but the other way: their America was bigger, better, more promising, almost every painting suffused with a golden Arcadian glow of richness and glory. These are visions not of fear but of swelling pride and pioneering thrust.

Henry Inman, No-Tin, a Chippewa Chief, 1832There are academic portraits too, but soon, with revolutionary energy, they too reject the British style and replace pictures of noblemen and women with Indians (Henry Inman’s 1832 portrait of No-Tin, a Chippewa chief, is dazzling) and African-American sailors. Revolutionary leader, John Adams noted in 1775 that the British flavour of ‘taste and politeness’ was being pushed aside by the new republican virtue of ‘fortitude and enterprise’. A lovely anonymous naïve farm scene of 1850 is entitled ‘He that tileth the land shall be satisfied’.

Smartly arranged both chronologically and geographically – from the early Atlantic coast colonies of the early 1800s to the Pacific coast of the mid 20th century  – America: Painting a Nation is part of the 2013-14 Sydney International Art Series. Being in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Terra Foundation for American Art allows a wide scope across over 90 works.

Once the initial – and uniquely American – pioneering thrust dominated the land, its energy created cities and, in them, a society that had never known such freedom of individual ambition before. Artists again glorified this energy. Images changed from naïve and homespun images of country and village life – many proto-Norman Rockwell icons of health, harvest and home – to expressions of urban dynamism, the blast of business and cosmopolitan sophistication.

James Whistler, John Singer Sargent and others, in a strange reversal, became the toast of London and Paris. Mary Cassatt’s ‘A Woman and Girl Driving’ shows a proto-feminist view of a capable, strong mother, that reflects this attractive American energy. It was the Gilded Age, an age of new opulence – money was everything, gentility and display threatened to subsume that uniquely American energy.

Europe fed many artists of the early 20th century with new palettes to express their cities – Fauve colours, futurism (the angles, machinery and roar of which fitted America like a race-car driver’s glove), the dizzy 360 degree spin of cubism. But as well as painting the wonders of their vaulting cities, many artists also began reacting to the negative pressures of urban life. Edward Hopper’s ‘House at Dusk’, painted in 1935, is as dislocated as any of the works of this master of dislocation – its odd cropping further deepening its mysteries and shadows.

There was also a sagging sadness for the loss of the Old West – hugely popular frontier artist Frederic Remington set out to capture this dying breed and their images. He is represented here by one of his most transfixing images, ‘The Herd Boy’ of 1905: a windblown Indian boy on a starving horse in a white-out landscape of snowy scrub, an image reminiscent of the cover of The Beach Boys’ 1971 album, Surf’s Up – where it is used to symbolise a similar loss of innocence, albeit several generations later.

The remarkable Georgia O’Keefe went at it at a different, more positive and spiritual level than Remington, creating works that drew on nature and America’s pre-invasion cultures – in a sense, linking her with the nation’s 19th century nature-worshipping painters. Her ‘Horse’s skull with pink rose’ of 1931 is as timeless and deep as it is not of modern America at all.Georgia-O_Keeffe-Horses-Skull-With-Pink-Rose-1931-large-1339813589

By the 1950s, American art had its own, supposedly entirely indigenous Style – Abstract Expressionism. Whether this was truly an important style, or just America once again constructing its own mythology, it made New York the new centre of the world of Art. Lee Krasner’s 1951 ‘Blue and Black’ and Ashile Gorky’s ‘Dark Green Painting’, while introspective and dark, have that hot blade of American manifest destiny in their bold execution.

Pollock and Mark Rothko are represented here by startling, genius works that jump off the walls with the power of their vision – Pollock’s ‘No 22’ from 1950 virtually drags you across the room. By the time you are through to the end America: Painting a Nation has, like American history itself, blown your mind with the energy compressed into less that three centuries.

But is American painting a voice that speaks unequivocably of America and its people? I wish I could say – but I will leave that to perhaps the most American of American painters, Jackson Pollock, who said in 1944:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: An American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by the fact, whether he wills or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country…”

Published November 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Drawing has often been seen as the poor cousin of painting. Smaller, more spindly, less colourful – drawing and graphic arts such as printmaking, by their nature, can lack painting’s drama and spectacle.

But graphic art has its own power and charm. The art of the line can – despite its smaller size and restricted palette, or because of it – pack a   punch.

And drawing is where most paintings start – as a sketch, a study or cartoon. Drawing can be the artist thinking with a pencil.

The Art Gallery of NSW is currently showing over 130 graphic works from the collection of The British Museum under the title Renaissance To Goya, Prints and Drawings from Spain.

Francisco de Goya, 'What courage'

Francisco de Goya, ‘What courage’

It is one of the finest collections of Spanish drawings in the world and Sydney’s AGNSW is the only Australian gallery to display these works on their world tour – a tour which, in a case of carrying coals to Newcastle, also takes in Madrid’s Prado.

The exhibition spans time – mid-16th century to the 1800s – and space – the major regions of Spain as well as, in the case of José de Ribera, Naples and of Goya, Bordeaux where the Spanish artists lived and worked.

Renaissance To Goya is stunning, packing that unique graphic punch across themes of religion, daily life, myth and – in the case of Goya – social commentary and insanity. Peter Raissis, co-curator says it is an “exhibition about an unknown and untold story” as many of these works have not been seen before. Experiencing the richness of the works on display, that is surprising to hear.

Curator Mark McDonald has taken great pains to mix and match unknown artists with the superstars of the age, such as Velázquez, and artists with artisans – many of these drawings are working design sketches for altar pieces and church furnishings.

Religious expression and function dominate the earlier objects here – as they did the art of the time – and yet there is great humanity and deep feeling amongst them. Francisco de Zurburán’s ‘Head of A Monk’ from 1635 is a beautifully meditative study of spiritual peace and aescetism – the gray chalk lines and shading reflecting the simplicity of the monk’s life in a way a painting could not.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Head of a monk c1635-55

Francisco de Zurbarán, Head of a monk c1635-55

Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (‘Golden Age’) of the 17th century is represented by star artists such as Diego Velázquez, Vicente Carducho and Alonso Cano in Madrid, Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco de Zubarán in Seville, and José de Ribera in Spanish Naples. Ribera’s prints in particular stand out for their drama and deep psychological interplays – ‘The Drunken Silenius’, with the drunken demi-god having his glass filled by a satyr as Pan cradles his head, is a wicked little short story, masterfully rendered in drypoint.

In the case of Francisco de Goya – the ‘first modern artist’ – McDonald has smartly placed his works among the works of his contemporaries. This serves to show in high relief how singular Goya’s vision was. As his fellow artists continued to present religious themes and works flattering to the royal house (as of course, Goya did – he had to eat), he presented works that held up a clear-eyed and acid-etched mirror to his world.

The works shown here are drawn from Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ and ‘Caprichos’ series. The ‘Disasters of War’ prints show harrowing visions of the butchery and lawless savagery of war, their horrors scratched into the etching plate like so many tiny knife cuts. The ‘Caprichos’ are Goya’s sardonic and merciless lampoons of Spanish society – hilarious but the laughter is bitter. What cannot be denied is the power and graphic mastery of these pieces – a power that arguably he never achieved in the fuller colour and more spectacular scale of his paintings.

Renaissance To Goya, Prints and Drawings from Spain is a spectacular bringing together of a form of art that often slips under the radar – it is spectacular but spectacular at a human-scale. The experience is quiet, meditative and full of hushed ‘wow’-moments. We have enough noise and colour battering us hourly, daily. A quiet hour or so spent among these calming, gray blue and ochre works is a precious hour.

 

Published September 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

 

The current major exhibition at The Art Gallery of New South Wales is Sydney Moderns. It has the subtitle Art for a New World, and the pictures shown – over 180 works by many of Australia’s most significant artists of the 1920s and 30s – express the excitement and fear that the rapid urbanisation of Sydney engendered in them.

The excitement was obvious. Technological and engineering advances (ironically, many rapidly advanced by the carnage of the First World War) were changing the face and the pace of the city. From its inception in 1923 till its completion in 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge loomed over the city as a symbol of modernisation and a technology that had been a dream only half a generation before. Artists painted the bridge from many angles – literal and philosophical – a God-like rainbow of steel, a symbol of the triumph of man. Grace Cossington-Smith’s The Bridge In Curve from 1930 is a thrusting thing of beauty, actually changing the fabric of the very sky around it.

sydney moderns1

Grace Cossington-Smith – The Bridge In Curve

But there were others who saw it as something that dwarfed the humanity that scurried ever-faster beneath it. And here is the fear. It was all going too fast: Grace Cossington-Smith’s Rush and Crowd, both show a panic at the new pace of Sydney life. The brutality of it was anathema to the sensibilities of artists such as Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.

Whereas Cossington-Smith seemed to react with a Cezanne-like analysis of the new shapes being built daily before her, others reflected the New World they saw in different ways.

Margaret Preston applied a cool graphicity to her pictures – hard edges, flat planar colours. Her Flapper of 1925 is a work of graphic sang-froid – it was only logical that she moved soon into a woodcut style (hand-coloured) that was only line and fill. The Bridge didn’t frighten her; her Sydney Bridge woodcut of 1932 has the steel icon knitted firmly into the cool lattice of lines and colours, safely in the middle distance.

Margaret Preston - Flapper

Margaret Preston – Flapper

Others reacted differently in trying to understand the shock of the New. Roy De Maistre – a highly skilled technician who easily straddled academic rigour and abstract adventure – leapt at it all, as the Italian Futurists had done earlier. Together with Roland Wakelin and others, he developed colour theories and colour keyboards and made synanthesic images of music. He is credited as the first Australian artist to use pure abstraction, and it is the experiments of the over-heated 20s that led him there.

However, the abstract works shown in Sydney Moderns are not as successful as the figurative works, as they seem to be in thrall to Kandinsky and Sonia Delaunay and chiefly European innovations. But the light in the figurative works can only be Australian – just like Roberts and Streeton before them, this new generation knew their Antipodean light and it is everywhere in these works – bright, white and dry-hot.

Another unique aspect of the times was the brief marriage of high Art and commerce. Max Dupain created photography for Hoover ads, Margaret Preston and Adrian Feint illustrated covers for The Home Magazine (‘The Australian Journal of Quality’) and Roy De Maistre designed colour schemes for interior decorators. For a while it all blurred – before Art alienated everyone and Commerce dumbed down again. It was the time of Art Deco, where decoration – a blasphemy to any modern cap-A Artist – was for a time held as a high goal.

It is telling that even an artist as visionary as Margaret Preston would write (to the artist Norman Carter): “I was very interested to hear of your decorative work – it’s the only thing worth aiming for this century – it’s really the keynote of everything – I’m trying all I know to reduce my still lifes to decorations and I find it fearfully difficult.”

Sydney Moderns curators Deborah Edwards and Denise Mimmocchi have smartly organised the enormous number of works into five broad categories: Colour, light and colour-music; Modern life, modern city; Still life as laboratory table; Landscapes of modernity; and Paths to Australian abstraction. As an exhibition, it is a superb telling of a time when Australian Art looked forward with some trepidation, but mainly excitement, to a future that was truly a New World.

Sydney ModernsArt for a New World runs until 7 October 2013.

Published July 2013 on megaphoneoz.com