Beyond the blockbusters: five remarkable art exhibitions in 2019

John Forrester Clack, <i>He himself was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light</i>, 2016, (detail) in <i>Drawings</i> at Belconnen Arts Centre. 
 Photo: Supplied

John Forrester Clack, He himself was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light, 2016, (detail) in Drawings at Belconnen Arts Centre.  Photo: Supplied

It is a curious thing to think of a year in review – one that is of such recent memory. 2018 has been a year of changes in our institutional galleries – the National Gallery of Australia has a new director, Nick Mitzevich, and the National Portrait Gallery also has a new head, Karen Quinlan – both promising to take their institutions in new directions. In other art institutional news, late in 2018 Mathew Trinca was reappointed for a second five-year term as director of the National Museum of Australia.

In 2018, I have reviewed more than 50 exhibitions in Canberra art galleries and have visited at least another 50, which, for various reasons, I have chosen not to review. It is difficult to isolate five exhibitions as being the most noteworthy, as any of the other 45 would be worthwhile candidates. Generally, the national art institutions hold nationally significant exhibitions and have appropriate media budgets to match. I do find the media policy of the National Gallery disappointing, where all efforts are placed on marketing the large ticketed "blockbuster exhibitions" and very little attention is paid to more significant, less expensive free admission exhibitions. Take, for example, the wonderful Arthur Streeton: The Art of War exhibition or the brilliant Picasso: The Vollard suite show.

Rather than revisit the well-publicised exhibitions held in the major institutions, I will use this opportunity to draw attention to some remarkable shows that may have slipped by, almost unnoticed.

Early in the year at the Belconnen Arts Centre was a stunning exhibition of Drawings by John Forrester Clack. London-trained Clack is a rare maverick figure in Australian art – his art practice is unusual, deeply personal, timeless and profoundly moving.

The exhibition consisted of a selection of 20 drawings from his past seven years of intense practice. Clack has the rare ability in his art to capture the moment of emergence of form: the moment of metamorphosis or transformation, when out of a mass of vigorous, energetic and explosive lines a form starts to emerge. The form is not fully graspable or completely defined but appears like a head shape loaded with fecund power. In his drawings, Clack says just enough but not too much. The surfaces are heavily worked with a mass of lines and expressive gestural marks, leaving you to fill in the details in your imagination.

Tony Ameneiro, <i>Head Over Head #2</i>, 2016 in <i>Head over head</i> at Megalo Print Gallery Photo: Supplied

Tony Ameneiro, Head Over Head #2, 2016 in Head over head at Megalo Print Gallery Photo: Supplied

Another curious but very memorable exhibition was Tony Ameneiro’s Head over head show at the Megalo Print Gallery back in March. Ameneiro is based in the Southern Highlands and is a nationally significant printmaker. Several years ago, Ameneiro undertook a research project at the JT Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy and the JL Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy at Sydney University, examining their extensive collection of human anatomical specimens.

In his exhibition, which included various printmaking technologies, he juxtaposed studies of the dead with sketches of the living as an exploration of a whole philosophy of boundaries between life and death. The prints are exceptionally memorable and are powerful, deeply moving and imply a philosophy of a continuum of being, where life and death can be interpreted as two states within a singular process.

Peter Boggs, <i>View of the Seine, late autumn </i>(detail) in <i>Lux</i> at Beaver Galleries. Photo: Supplied

Peter Boggs, View of the Seine, late autumn (detail) in Lux at Beaver Galleries. Photo: Supplied

At about the same time was a superb celebration of slow art at the Beaver Galleries, Peter Boggs’s Lux. Over the past few decades Boggs has been attracting national acclaim for his strange, metaphysical paintings. His paintings are on a relatively small scale, but not miniatures, his palette is restrained, tonal, but not monochromatic, and the subject matter consists of landscapes (mainly parks and bridges in this exhibition) or room interiors set in Australia and Europe, but not immediately recognisable or internationally famous landmarks.

Viewing Boggs’s paintings is like catching elements of a narrative or a floating conversation, which is intriguing, engaging, but ultimately never completely knowable. Part of the viewing process is the attempt on behalf of the viewer to complete and own the mystery of the work.

In a strong calendar of exhibitions mounted this year by the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, the show that stuck in my mind was a major survey exhibition of the work of Sydney-based artist Hilarie Mais.

Hilarie Mais , <i>Reflection Blue Angel</i> 2007-11 in  <i>Hilarie Mais</i> at ANU Drill Hall Gallery. Photo: Jessica Maurer

Hilarie Mais , Reflection Blue Angel 2007-11 in Hilarie Mais at ANU Drill Hall Gallery. Photo: Jessica Maurer

Whereas for many artists the grid has become a rather sterile formalist strategy, almost a straitjacket that imprisons the individual elements, for Mais the grid represents liberation. It opens the path to a form of art that bypasses narrative and her ingenious constructions communicate through pure feeling, engaging the viewer on a sensory and spiritual level. Notions of access and denial, entrances, the maze, veils and barriers all play a role, as Mais creates very beautiful, elegant and sensual objects, which evoke an immediate emotive response from the beholder.

In Mais’s art, the grid is stripped of its mechanical nature and geometric austerity. By adopting deliberate strategies such as leaving the marks of the screws that bolt the pieces of wood together and retaining strong brushstrokes as well as imperfections in the materials, she humanises and personalises her objects. They become objects for contemplation and meditation that communicate on an individual level.

The final of the five exhibitions is a rare treat, an exquisite and spiritually challenging show, Andrew Christofides’s Reason and Intuition, held at the Nancy Sever Gallery. The exhibition is a collection of quiet meditations on themes close to the artist’s heart. Although he works in acrylics, he applies his colour in thin glazes, so that there is an inner radiance and depth in the resonance of colour. The palette is rich, but subdued, while the compositional balance and structure is painstakingly and exactly calculated.

Andrew Christofides, <i>Iconostasis</i> 2016 (detail) in <i>Reason and Intuition</i> at Nancy Sever Gallery. Photo: Supplied

Andrew Christofides, Iconostasis 2016 (detail) in Reason and Intuition at Nancy Sever Gallery. Photo: Supplied

One of the paintings that has engraved itself on my memory is Iconostasis (2016), which took its title from icon-screens found in Orthodox churches that separate the sacred area of the altar and the apsidal conch from the rest of the church. The screen is like a visual parable, where the individual elements symbolically allude to the mysteries of the church ceremony found behind them. The structure is opaque but can be penetrated through prayer and meditation. It would be wrong to try to figuratively decipher the individual elements in the composition as icons placed on a screen or the layout of the church, but an atmosphere of peace and sanctity prevails within the work. The darkened squares with luminous ovals inside them concentrate the gaze as the geometric elements dominate the asymmetric compositional structure. You are spiritually and visually absorbed into the painting and then travel into another realm.

One of the beauties of Christofides’ paintings is that unlike much of geometric abstraction, in them the cerebral aspect and clinical conceptual objectivity are tempered with a profoundly personal spiritual and emotional content.

To some extent this selection is relatively arbitrary and another five shows could easily take their place, but enough has been said that the art scene in Canberra is lively and art of the highest merit is shown in our galleries.