Various artists: Flow Line: Abstraction from the CMAG collection. Canberra Museum and Gallery. Until November 7, 2020.
Since the early 1900s, abstract art has been a mainstream development in modern art. Its central premise is that art should not seek an accurate representation of a visual reality, but should create an alternative reality based on colours, shapes, lines, forms and gestural marks. Early in the 20th century it faced stiff opposition, especially in countries like Australia, but after World War II its triumph was complete and that art that did not follow its strictures was frequently demonised in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the past half-century we have enjoyed a much more pluralistic art scene that has accommodated various orthodoxies. This survey of abstraction from the CMAG collection is a gem of a show - intelligent, visually challenging and full of surprises. The curator of the exhibition, Virginia Rigney, realising that the pandemic crippled the museum's scheduled exhibition program and that the major loans would not penetrate quarantined borders, took the opportunity to assemble this show.
Structurally she divided the abstraction spectrum into four categories with porous borders - Place, time, expression; Electric edge; Rhythm, sweep, slippage and hold; and Gesture and mark making - and allotted three "local" painters to each category. The surprises arise from the juxtaposition of work, unexpected connections and unanticipated discoveries. Many of the artists included would be surprised to be called abstract and even more astonished by the company that they find themselves in. It is also an interesting observation about the depth of the CMAG collection that it is possible to mount an exhibition of this calibre without being shy of the local product.
The 12 artists involved are, in alphabetical order, Vivienne Binns, Ham Darroch, George Foxhill, Thomas Gleghorn, Marie Hagerty, Richard Larter, Peter Maloney, Derek O'Connor, Michael Taylor, Rover Thomas, Ruth Waller and Guy Warren.
Guy Warren, who will turn 100 next year, is a Goulburn boy with strong links to Canberra. He is represented by a powerful brooding painting titled Prisoner II (1962) where form is woven, rather than constructed, and what at first glance may appear as mechanical parts seem to hint at organic forms. It is a remarkably compact and concentrated painting with a bold visual impact.
Warren's work is juxtaposed with a large painting by the Austrian-Australian artist George Foxhill who, like Warren, was born in 1921. His Bright day for cricket (1978) is a remarkably energetic work with a clever play of overlapping planes and wonderful breathing spaces. If Warren was a visitor to Canberra, Foxhill was a settler who spent the final 55 years of his life living in the Canberra suburb of Dickson. Coming from very different directions, both artists sought out and achieved an art that could bypass the verbal to deliver a powerful and memorable visual impact.
In the next grouping, Electric edge, the standout painting, for me, is Vivienne Binns' huge Fifth translation of nylon mat (2006). As in all of Binns' work there is an ideological agenda, in this case giving voice to women's labour that is often overlooked, but the whole exacting, time-consuming precision of the piece maintained on such a scale gives a power to the painting that far exceeds any simple didactic message. It is the sort of painting that strikes you in the eye as you pass by and then draws you in and seduces you.
The exhibition is full of interesting dialogues, such as that between the paintings of Marie Hagerty and those of Peter Maloney or the prints of Michael Taylor with those by Rover Thomas.
Although poorly advertised, this abstraction show should not be missed.