Sydney Morning Herald Column

Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016

Published September 10, 2016
Noel McKenna Animals I have known 2015-16 © Noel McKenna

In its first incarnation the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial concentrated on landscape. For the second Biennial, subtitled Close to Home, curator Anne Ryan has come up with something much cooler, namely “narrative based on memory and experience”. This must be why nobody could tell me the theme of this year’s show when I asked. “It’s um, about memory and stuff,” was as close as I got to a definition.
Well, I suppose it is a Biennial after all, and such shows are renowned for the vagueness of their titles. Picking up her lamp to spread more obscurity, Ryan explains: “Their work exploits the poetic possibilities of drawing to express complex themes of profound personal resonance, coloured by emotion and subjectivity.”
Hemingway would never have allowed that as a “true” sentence. It leaves the door open to almost anything, although the curator has settled on only six artists: Jumaadi, Maria Kontis, Richard Lewer, Noel McKenna, Catherine O’Donnell, and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. This is four fewer than last time, which suggests Ryan knew she was getting a smaller exhibition space. The final display fits into a spacious room on the contemporary level, where one can turn 360 degrees and take in the entire show.

Halfway to the light, halfway through the night 2010-14, by Jumaadi. © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins
Halfway to the light, halfway through the night 2010-14, by Jumaadi. © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

It’s hardly possible to find anything these six artists have in common, so I’ll look at them as individuals. Jumaadi is a good example of the benefits of being in the right place at the right time. With Indonesian contemporary art all the rage at present, the Australian art scene was in need of an Indonesian artist or two, and the versatile Jumaadi is the perfect candidate. He is more playful than our other notable Indonesian import, Dandang Christanto, and less oppressed by recent history. His work may also be seen in Telling Tales at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jumaadi’s Halfway to the light, halfway through the night (2010-14) consists of a sequence of fantastic drawings spread out across 58 sheets of mulberry paper. There are dark ogres with angel’s wings, multiple eyes or nails hammered around their heads. There is an ox with so many humps he resembles a mountain range on legs, and a cow with long pigtails and multiple udders.
These works depict a world of perfect mutability where human beings, animals and landscapes have become combined into new entities. It is the world of the folk tale, a familiar feature of so-called primal cultures, from the Australian desert to the pantheistic religions of Africa and Asia. Jumaadi doesn’t play the shaman in the manner of artists such as Joseph Beuys or Cang Xin. His motifs have grown out of memories of his own childhood, spent in a small village in East Java, and they retain a childlike sense of wonder.
The entire installation reads like a story told in hieroglyphics, but as there is no master key most viewers will have to get their thrills from the Gothic overtones of images that are the visual equivalent of a mysterious noise in a darkened forest.
Icaria 1912, 2016 by Maria Kontis © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins
Icaria 1912, 2016 by Maria Kontis © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

In her fastidious pastel drawings Maria Kontis borrows other people’s memories and gives them a fictional twist. Each of six pieces from the series Private life (2014-16) is a painstaking copy of a found photograph. Kontis knows little or nothing about the people in the photos but by isolating each image against a pale grey-brown field, she conveys the intimacy of a moment caught by the camera. If these pictures feel melancholy it’s not simply because of Kontis’s preference for shades of grey, it’s because we instinctively imagine that everyone in these photos is now dead.
Images such as seagulls in flight, or a swimmer diving into a pool, are instants in time memorialised by the stony gaze of the lens. Yet each of Kontis’s works also insist: ‘This is not a photograph’, but a drawing that has cost the artist many days of labour.
Richard Lewer Studio Install Image, 2016
Richard Lewer Studio Install Image, 2016

Melancholy is the theme of eight portraits and a self-portrait by Richard Lewer, that form a gallery of friends who have suffered from “mental illness”, which almost certainly means ‘depression’. Each figure is captured in a frontal format that resembles a mug shot or a passport photo. A few manage a smile, or the hint of a smile. The tone of each picture is appropriately grey, but viewers will be seduced by the dexterity of Lewer’s pencil work.
Depression is like being imprisoned in one’s own head with only the smallest window onto the world. Sufferers often report a feeling of ‘greyness’ as if the colours have drained out of their lives, and Lewers captures such feelings with no drama or embellishment. As nothing could be simpler than depression, which makes everything seem empty, the cold, objective tone of these portraits speaks eloquently of the nature of the condition.
Untitled 2015-16 from the series Animals I have known by Noel McKenna © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins
Untitled 2015-16 from the series Animals I have known by Noel McKenna © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

The next stop on this lap of the exhibition brings us to Noel McKenna’s Animals I Have Known (2015-16), a characteristic collection of scraps, sketches, and hand-written diary notes that culminates in a menagerie of unremarkable animals. There is an encyclopaedic aspect in the way McKenna obsessively lists every dog, cat, horse, bird or goldfish that has crossed his path. It is as if these creatures take on an historical importance by virtue of being recorded in this way.
As always with McKenna, the work has an insinuating quality. Each element may be no more than a quick sketch – a cartoon rather than a piece of well-rounded draftsmanship – but the accumulation of whimsical fragments lifts the installation onto another plane. We begin to think of all the animals we’ve encountered in our own lives, and their distinctive personalities. The everyday world begins to seem like one long story.
McKenna has written his story and makes us feel it would be just as easy for us to do the same, but it is one of the abiding illusions of art that it must be “easy” to make a picture. When an artist draws in a deliberately de-skilled way it tends to foster this illusion, concealing the fact that the real skill of the work is found in many small features: from the wit and spontaneity of the sketches to the intricate play of images and text, and the way the ensemble generates a sense of empathy.
Inhabited Space 2015-16 by Catherine O'Donnell © the artist
Inhabited Space 2015-16 by Catherine O’Donnell © the artist

Skill is more conspicuous in Catherine O’Donnell’s Inhabited Space (2015-16), but there is an empathic side as well, as many viewers will be familiar with her subject matter. Known for relatively small, precise pencil drawings of buildings, O’Donnell has taken a new turn here, finding a way to make those drawings inhabit an entire wall.
On a scale of almost 1:1 O’Donnell has reproduced the façade of a 1960s fibro bungalow from a western suburbs housing estate. The outlines of the building are mapped out in simple lines like a diagram, while two sets of windows, the front door and screen door, are drawn in hair-splitting detail, complete with shadows and tiny scuff marks. It sets up a contrast between the ideal Platonic form of the ‘dream home’, and the prosaic reality of life on an estate where every house has the same features.
Within these uniform structures, each family plays out its own messy dramas; each child sets his or her course for the future. Some will find the pattern of their lives in the mindset of the housing estate, others will escape at the first opportunity.
Marwat 2014 by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu © AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Marwat 2014 by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu © AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

O’Donnell’s drawings are defined by their rigour, but Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s works are largely a matter of free association. The marks that appear on sheets of paper drift in and out of actual stories associated with the artist’s life, symbols of the indigenous relationship with the land, and spontaneous cross-hatching that she happily decribes as mayilimiriw or “meaningless”.
There may be something lost in translation but it’s hard to imagine many non-indigenous artists using such a term. Even a blank canvas or a monochrome is usually alleged to be a repository of deep meanings. Nyapanyapa is more at home with the idea of drawing for the sake of drawing – an activity with its own special pleasures and rewards. Her enjoyment of the process, and absorption in the work, are palpable. It takes a very rare artist to escape the bounds of self-consciousness and draw with such energy and freedom.
Close to Home:
Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016
Art Gallery of NSW, until 11 December
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10th September, 2016