In May the National Gallery of Australia launched a campaign called Know My Name, which aims to raise awareness of the work of Australian women artists. Call me a cynic, but when a leading institution takes up the cause of a supposedly neglected minority, one may assume the battle is already over.
Historically-speaking there’s no denying that women artists have struggled to achieve the recognition granted their male counterparts. This is true not just of the visual arts but of most professions. I doubt, however, that many contemporary curators would consider putting together a group exhibition today without some semblance of gender balance. To do so would be to invite derision.
We have entered a phase in which a lot of prominent female artists do not wish to be indentified as “female” artists, a distinction that implies special pleading. Barbara McKay (b.1939) is one of those, although she has more reason than most to see herself as someone whose career has suffered because of her gender.
Sacred at the New England Regional Art Gallery and Museum is McKay’s first retrospective. I’ve written a catalogue essay for the show, but that’s where my involvement ends. The reason the exhibition is being held at a regional gallery is that McKay has resided in Uralla since 2003. The reason she has had to wait until her 80thyear for a proper survey may be partially attributed to her marginal status in an era of heroic abstraction dominated by the blokes.
There are other factors too, the foremost being McKay’s reluctance to push herself forward, as she has always been preoccupied with the work itself rather than the career profile. Another reason is that she works spontaneously – a method that invites inconsistency.
Unlike the methodical Charlie Sheard, the subject of last week’s column, who might take 10 years to complete an abstract painting, McKay will create a work in a single session. When the Dionysian frenzy has subsided she may be left with something marvellous, or something ragged and incoherent.
For the purposes of a retrospective only the palpable hits need be considered, and by those standards McKay deserves a place in the pantheon of Australian abstractionists.
Like many abstract painters she is a landscapist at one remove who responds to the sights and feelings generated by a particular place. The earliest work in the show, Summer Landscape (1970), is also the closest to a recognisable scene, albeit one constructed from bright, thinly-painted swathes of colour.
By the time of Red Centre in 1993, McKay has adopted an aerial perspective, looking down upon a vast expanse of desert animated by shifting sands, salt pans, rocks and waterholes – or so it seems. It would be more accurate to call this painting an abstraction inspired by the artist’s observations of Central Australia from the window of a plane.
Dunville Loop (2001) is different again, being an imaginary circuit around an area of ancient forest, featuring an unusual palette of mauve, brown and yellow. Standing in front of this work one sees the form of some strange, primordial beast materialising in bursts of cloudy colour. It’s an incidental association, but a powerful one.
Other paintings are purely elemental, such as Autumn(1985), with its layers of seductive green; or Wattle (1974), an intense yellow monochrome that attempts to capture the very essence of “wattleness”. The first thing one notices about this show is how different each painting is from its neighbour. Not only does McKay refuse to paint in series, she takes the bold and reckless step of taking every canvas as an individual proposition.
The great defining moment in McKay’s career came with her 1979 meeting with the all-powerful American critic, Clement Greenberg, who singled her out for praise during a talk at Sydney’s Central Street Gallery. McKay kept up a friendship with Greenberg for years, both by correspondence, and in person, when she and her then-husband, the sculptor Ian McKay, spent time in New York.
It’s a very curious story, especially as McKay’s version of Greenberg is so very different from the bad press he has received over the past two decades. Whether or not her view remains too rosey, the time in America had a formative influence on her work and fostered an acquaintance with notable artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Larry Poons. The most impressive painting from that time is Millerton (1982), which conveys a vivid impression of a snow-tossed landscape with the outlines of rocky outcrops picked out by staccato bursts of blue and green.
I can’t think of a similar work by any other Australian artist – which perhaps testifies to the powerful sense of place that runs through McKay’s oeuvre. To fully appreciate her achievements it’s time we stopped thinking about abstraction as a period style or an ideology. Landscape may be a vital stimulus for McKay, but the final form of each picture springs from some deep part of the psyche where our love of classification exists only as the faintest of whispers.
McKay’s co-exhibitor at NERAM could be from another planet so different are these two shows. Hadyn Wilson’s An Historical Novel is the work of a talented antiquarian who has delved deeply into local art history in both his current role as Artist-in-Residence at the State Library of NSW, and in response to the Howard Hinton Collection, which is NERAM’s pride and joy.
For the past few years the Hinton Collection of Australian art has been featured in an excellent permanent display engineered by the gallery’s previous director, Robert Heather. Wilson’s show is the perfect complement to this showcase, as he has drawn on the Hinton works to produce a series of brilliant vignettes that restage historical paintings with small but significant alterations.
Percy Leason’s c. 1920 portrait of his wife Marjory in the studio now shows Marjory staring at an iPad. Girolamo Nerli’s strollers in A Wet Evening (1898), have to cope with a “light rail inconvenience”. Isobel McDonald, in Tom Roberts portrait of 1895, has got herself a nose ring. In an 1892 picture of Sirius Cove by Arthur Streeton, a rock bears the graffiti tag, “Smike” (the artist’s nickname).
There are 82 small works in the series – and counting. It’s a prodigious feat of artistic mimickry and sustained wit that should inspire a renewed focus on the Hinton Collection. If Hadyn Wilson has always been an underrated artist we can now see why: he’s far too clever for his own good.
Barbara McKay: Sacred
5 July – 15 September, 2019
Hadyn Wilson: An Historical Novel
5 July- 13 October, 2019
New England Museum & Art Gallery, Armidale
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August, 2019