blogs

An exploration of the art world in Sydney

By Ian Smith

But what constitutes art, really?

We were off to Sydney, that city that’s still so unsure of itself it continually has to put down its main rival Melbourne because it knows, deep down, that it’s still lacking in some quarters.

Lorraine was off to have a discourse with some noted textile artist in order to complete an assignment in her textile art judging course while I, footloose and fancy free, could wander the streets at will. I’d decided on the State Art Gallery and Dymocks Book Store, in that order because, once before, I’d made the horrible mistake of getting the books first and then having to lug them all around the streets, an act that my legs had constantly reminded me they were not happy with.

Bidding farewell to my damsel at Central Station, I opted to then alight at Circular Quay, in order to stroll through the Botanical Gardens en route to the gallery. I managed to come in through a seldom-used entrance, past the “Memory Is Creation Without End” by Kimio Tsuchiya, created in 2000 as part of a sculpture walk program. It consists of architectural remnants of the 1924 YMCA. building and others that now lie scattered across the lawn just beyond an overpass. They’re so reminiscent of Roman and Greek ruins I can’t help but gaze upon their irregularity.

o (6).jpg

Alas, for me, there are all manner of distractions once inside the gardens, be it the latest sculpture or some exotic plant I’d overlooked before and, even though there don’t appear to be all that many trails, I always seem to find one I’d never walked before, here and there distracted by views across the rocking surface of that gorgeous body of water, aka Sydney Harbour, forever rippled by the passage of a thousand craft.

o (8).jpg

There are wonderful patterns made by the leaf structure of bromeliads, ferns and others I don’t even recognise but I can’t help but feel a little saddened at the thriving bamboo. Once upon a time someone decided to scratch their name on a trunk and that’s started a plethora of such vandalism, despoiling the natural attraction of such things.

o (7).jpg

I relax for a chai latte at the café before continuing on over a small bridge where I spot some dragonflies that want to have their picture taken and then it’s the green houses which, sadly, are closed, so I head across the road past Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” and into the impressive foyer of the NSW Art Gallery with its ionic columns and advertising of the Great Dutch Masters.

o (2).jpg

I sort of think I’d like to go but know Lorraine would be upset if I did it without her and, besides that, there’s a queue of off-putting proportion so I head downstairs because photography is mentioned, amongst other things.

o (3).jpg

Some of the first pieces I view are actually synthetic polymer paint on canvas…..and that’s all. A Scottish artist called William Turnbull has somehow conned a company called Edron to actually buy this piece of canvas covered with blue paint, and nothing else. Worse, he conned them into buy the same thing only in different colours – three times. Worse still, the curator at the art gallery thought them worthy of hanging! Personally, I thought other things should have been hung. The only thing I could find redeeming was the banner under which the paintings were listed – the exhibition is labelled “Un Painting”.

Here is a description from one of the works in the exhibition – “The works collapse mechanically reproduced ‘reproductions’ of painting with painting itself – enticing the viewer to disentangle one from the other. In this way, any prejudices concerning the relative status of these two modes of image-making are called into question.” Either the author is on some substance that I’ve never partaken in or they just want to maintain the exclusivity of the art world to a tiny few. That’s my take on it. I mean, it was school holidays for heaven’s sake, imagine trying to explain that to your young ones when you haven’t got a clue what it means either!

o (11).jpg

The whole lower floor was summed up for me by one of the attendants nodding off to sleep whilst sitting on a stool. The photographs that were on show were barely worth a side glance either, only marginally better than the absolute rubbish that they show at the Contemporary Art Museum at Circular Quay. There were a few works worthy of viewing such as Arlene Shechet and Dale Frank but, after that, I quickly repaired upstairs to the “normal” gallery, on the way passing by a recent sculptural acquisition called “The English Channel” by Michael Parekowhal, a Maori artist from, you guessed it.

o (14).JPG

The work is arresting; it’s a seated Captain Cook in flowing robes all done in dazzling chrome and you cannot ignore it. He’s seated on a sculptor’s working table with downcast gaze, seemingly contemplating something or other.

I could feel a sense of relief coming over me, washing over like the water from a cool mountain stream on a hot day as I entered the main showrooms. Here were works I understood as the classics of Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Rupert Bunny came into view. There’s even a quality Picasso that looked positively normal after what I’d viewed downstairs.

o (12).jpg

I glanced at Streeton’s “Blue Mountains Tunnel”, ever fascinated that some of the dirt from the blasting is actually stuck in the paint and I dallied over E Phillips Fox’s excursion into France and his lauded work “The Ferry”, painted at Trouville in the Modernist style. There are seven figures in the frame boarding a craft yet none are facing the painter. His wife, Ethel Carrick, has a fine work here also, that of pleasure seekers of St Malo, Brittany, just before WWI.

o (5).jpg

Roland Wakelin’s “Syncromy in Orange Major”s similarity to the Cezanne at the other end of the room you couldn’t help but notice and I was quite taken by Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo’s work “The Strike’s Aftermath” and David Davies “From a Distant Land”, both of which reflect the loneliness of the 19th century with solitary seated figures resigned to their fate.

Eduoard Detaille’s Vive L’Empereur, that enormous canvas of the charge of the 4th Hussars, beckoned me from another room though I resisted today but reflected that, when first on show, there were queues all the way out to the street just waiting to cast their eyes on this powerful vision. I had to leave, time being of the essence, but I stopped at WC Piguenit’s “Flood of the Darling 1890” and admired the skill in depicting this significant event and the capture of the prevailing light between white fluffy clouds, cascading onto the still waters of the outback flood.

o (4).jpg

The heat outside was slowly increasing as I made a beeline for Dymocks, double-checking with my GPS for the shortest route, except that some of the way was blocked off because installations for the great New Year’s bash were being removed.

Thus it was I found myself walking between buildings where I’d never trod before and a blast of cool air bade me turn my head and notice a doorway to a café, but, on closer inspection, it was actually one of the entrances into the Mitchell Library, a place I’d always wanted to have a peek into but never got around to. I deemed that now was the time and broached the doorway into the lovely cool premises. A nearby staircase indicated that there was a gallery upstairs. What the heck, I had a few minutes.

o (15).jpg

At the top I stumbled into a showing of the best of the Fairfax photographers. Nirvana at last! Here was art I could readily recognise without having to make excuses. It reeked of class and my only criticism was that there weren’t enough of them.

o (10).jpg

There was also another show of interest, that of Ferdinand Bauer, wonderful illustrator of the early 1800’s. He travelled with Flinders when Australia was being mapped, among other interesting wanderings that he was involved in. Finally I felt satisfied and could head off to purchase some books feeling sated.

o (1).jpg

Ian Smith
Are you an art lover?