Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG. Various artists. Canberra Museum + Gallery, Civic Square, Canberra City. Until June 17.
Canberra Museum + Gallery has been collecting art for 20 years and has amassed a collection of more than 6500 items, of which 186 art works are presented in this somewhat crowded exhibition.
I always have a fascination with regional art collections that intentionally set out to collect the art of the area, to see what exactly is collected and what it says about the landscape and people who live there. In the case of CMAG, a number of distorting filters intervene. The first is that the acquisition budget has always been modest and much of the art has entered the collection through donation, for example, the 800 original prints that have entered the collection as a gift that followed the closure of Studio One in 2000.
Another factor is that the collection not only reflects art about the region, but also collects art by artists who have lived in the region, passed through Canberra or have had work editioned at Studio One.
Finally, there is also the question of personalities, with much of the collection formed under the stewardship of Peter Haynes, a director and curator with an exceptional eye, his successor Shane Breynard, who built on the vision and expanded the collection, and of course the curator, Deborah Clark, who selected this exhibition. I also wish to note and pay tribute to Clark, for whom this is her final exhibition before her retirement later this year.
What does Canberra look like through artists' eyes? To some it was the waste of a good paddock, to others (relatively few in this exhibition) it marked the nation's capital, but to most it was home and a place where they could make art, frequently about issues that have nothing to do with Canberra. There are a few historical works in this exhibition, such as Joseph Lycett's 1825 hand-coloured print of a totally unconvincing reinterpretation of someone's sketch of Lake George; Frank Hinder's humorous and engaging lively lithograph of office workers cycling in Canberra in 1942, Ethel Carrick Fox's small oil painting of Civic as viewed in the mid-'40s, as well as an Elioth Gruner painting of 1929 devoted to a landscape around the Canberra region.
Most of the work in this show has been made by artists from the past few decades with a large number in this exhibition stemming from the Studio One gift. Some of it is surprising and may be of interest more from inside the curatorial process than for the general public. For example, Jan Brown's Cellist (1949), a juvenile work made by the artist while still in Britain, Robert Boynes' Paddington lady (1978) and Michael Taylor's Fish and reef (1977). These are all interesting early works that would look great in a survey of an artist's oeuvre, but in a crowded who's who show of Canberra artists, perhaps more representative works would have been more appropriate.
The clenched-fist screenprints of poster collectives from the '80s have lost none of their power or impact in this exhibition. They include Pam Debenham's No nukes in the Pacific (1984), Dianna Wells' First post-graduate show (1983), New Faces (1982) by ACME Ink and the brilliant Julie Church & Alison Alder's True Bird Grit (1982). Printmaking was a traditional strength in Canberra with memorable pieces by Petr Herel, Arone Meeks, Joyce Allen, Udo Sellbach, Robin Wallace-Crabbe and Treahna Hamm, all from the Studio One gift. There are more recent significant prints by Jörg Schmeisser, Meg Buchanan, Dianne Fogwell, Patsy Payne, Alison Alder and John Pratt. The screenprint by Rosalie Gascoigne (1991), is an aberration – little more than a reproduction – and is a poor representation of a major artist's work.
I was surprised by how strongly Ingo Kleinert's Divided land I (1998), a galvanised iron piece, has stood the test of time as has Neil Roberts' Cryonic quintet (1996). Major work by top artists include Alex Asch's Deconstructed guitars (2009), Vivienne Binns' Fifth translation of nylon mat (2006), eX de Medici's watercolour Terra (2005), Mariana del Castilla's Mother's dialogue, Marie Hagerty's Monarch II (2008), and Janene Easton's Creek runner – Hume and Barton Highways (2008-09).
There is a minor but spirited recent John Olsen oil painting, Brindabellas (2015), an immaculate painted steel sculpture by Michael Le Grand, Eclipse (2010), Peter Vandermark's An-ism (2006), Wendy Teakel's effective Wind (2005), a strong untitled oil by Derek O'Connor and Mandy Martin's monumental Break (1988). Glass, ceramics, precious metalwork and wood have been strengths of the Canberra School of Art ever since Udo Sellbach set up these dedicated workshops with porous boundaries. Some of the gems in the exhibition include work by Hiroe Swen, Stephen Proctor, Johannes Kuhnen, Klaus Moje, Ruth Oliphant, Anita McIntyre, Henri Le Grand, Masahiro Asaka, Greg Daly, Janet deBoos, Lyndy Delian, Robert Foster and George Ingham.
If some of my observations read like a catalogue of names, this, at least to some extent, reflects the nature of the exhibition that seeks to be inclusive, rather than thematic or selective. The exhibition does contain some unexpected encounters such as Denise Ferris's haunting untitled print of a grit man from 2005, Janet Dawson's sensitive Echidna, Scribble Rock (2009) and one of my all-time favourites, Toni Robertson's screenprint Canberra beaches no.2 – Parliament House (1984).
At a time when public art institutions are feeling the brunt of budget cuts and contractions, it is good for an institution to celebrate its successes. This exhibition stresses that the achievements over the past 20 years have been considerable, but now the time has arrived for fresh growth and consolidation.
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