In its second “edition”, The National: New Australian Art, is just as hard to love as its predecessor of 2017. A collaboration between the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks, the show is intended as an overview of the best and the brightest work being produced in Australia today. It’s an exercise that makes one think of that old proverb about good intentions.
Looking at the art, then wading my way through the catalogue essays, I was struck by the disparity between the actual experience of the work and the lengthy explanations. With most large surveys of contemporary art this is nothing new, in fact it’s depressingly old-fashioned. For all the talk of new art and new experiences I felt I’d entered a time tunnel back to the 1990s, when every show came with a bundle of self-consciously ‘clever’ essays.
The trouble with so much cleverness was that the work itself begins to feel as if it were merely an excuse for a piece of creative writing; for a self-reflection on behalf of the essayist, or a display of political or theoretical belonging.
The National has far too much of this, with self-consciousness slipping precipitously into self-indulgence. Faced with the bare objects it’s hard to know what all the fuss is about. A large percentage of inclusions are one-liners which may be absorbed in a single glance. Quite a few felt broadly derivative, hardly more than a variation on themes already picked over by other artists. I’m not talking about plagiarism but about a lack of imagination and creative will.
It’s far too easy for an artist – particularly a young, emerging artist – to simply tick the right boxes and be included in a would-be ‘cutting edge’ exhibition. We all know the correct paradigms: anything to do with gender or sexual identity, race, colonialism or popular culture. Climate change seems to be inexplicably missing. Lots of works in The National tick multiple boxes but are utterly superficial. I’m not going to name names as it would be unfair to single out individuals from such a crowd.
I’ve often wondered why curators of contemporary art get so excited about stuff that is guaranteed to leave the majority of humanity stone cold. Are they wired differently to the rest of us? Is there some deep-rooted insecurity that is soothed by bringing together quantities of one-dimensional art?
The curators this time are Isobel Parker Philip from the AGNSW, Daniel Mudie Cunningham of Carriageworks, and the MCA’s Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis. The lone guru curator can be a problematic figure – just look at most of the Sydney Biennales – but curatorship by committee has its own dangers. It has worked well enough with the Asia-Pacific Triennial, in which curators are assigned to different parts of the region, but put four curators together in a room and they rapidly achieve an ideological consensus.
They are proud that over 60% of the 65 artists they have selected are female, while one third are indigenous. These statistics confer a halo of moral purity but tell us nothing about the quality of the art. One presumes there was no conscious effort to include more women or more indigenous artists, it simply reflects the curators’ preoccupations.
Each curator has a hobby horse. Philip is keen on a “black box” metaphor, Cunningham prefers “postcards”. Bullen thinks of herself as primarily an “activist”, while Davis stresses the value of experimentation. It all adds up to an art stew. The cooks have convinced themselves that it tastes great, and they’d like you to agree.
I’d like to agree as well, but in the age of social media “liking” has taken the place of looking – or even thinking. If having the right values made one into a talented artist, The Nationalwould be a brilliant display, but all those claims about the challenging, subversive nature of the work are undone by the simple fact that it is being exhibited in three major public venues.
The artists are not undermining social norms, they are receiving institutional accreditation. The museum is a safe space in which supposedly outrageous ideas may be freely expressed. It’s a place for conversation between like-minded souls on which the public is invited to eavesdrop.
The most engaging works in the show are those that refuse to use identity as a prop. Take for instance, Tom Polo’s huge, cack-handed paintings in the main foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW. One can only speculate about what’s going on in the artist’s mind, but it’s probably nothing more than a spontaneous, semi-conscious response to the events of everyday life encoded into a gallery of giant, freakish faces. The only other work at the AGNSW with a similarly commanding presence is Rushdi Anwar’s Irhal, a towering assemblage of burnt furniture that warns there is only a fine line separating domesticity from disaster.
At the other end of the spectrum at the AGNSW are Sandra Selig’s severe, minimal ‘poems’, made by clipping most of the words from a page of text, leaving only an enigmatic phrase. Or Fayen d’Evie’s tactile sculptures that invite refections on language and blindness. Nicholas Folland’s suspended mountains of cut glass make for a suggestive installation, although it’s one of a series that’s becoming a bit too familiar.
At the MCA, Janet Fieldhouse’s ceramic and mixed-media works were highlights, in their peculiar blending of cultures. Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s floating stingrays also managed to escape the siren call of ‘issues’ in favour of more poetic associations. I enjoyed Kylie Banyard’s carefully painted scenes from Black Mountain College, based on archival photos – partly because nothing could be more foreign to the legendary ‘zen’ spirit of the place.
Carriageworks is the venue of choice for large-scale pieces but in most instances the strength of the idea didn’t live up to the scale of the work. Sean Rafferty’s wall of Queenland fruit and vegetable cartons is an amusing spectacle, but it’s the work of a cultural anthropologist. The most intriguing inclusion was a multi-coloured, multi-layered robe by Claire Peake, which conveys a convincing sense of creative obsession.
With a few exceptions the indigenous work across all three venues was disappointing, given the power and variety of art one sees every year in Darwin during awards season. In seeking unusual, grassroots expressions the curators seem to have wilfully ignored a host of more accomplished artists. This was their prerogative, but it underlnes how foolish it would be to see The Nationalas being truly representative of the state of contemporary art in Australia. Despite all the blather it’s a bunch of disparate things chosen by a few privileged individuals: a public monument to private taste.
The National: New Australian Art
Art Gallery of NSW, 29 March – 21 July, 2019
Museum of Contemporary Art, 29 March – 23 June, 2019
Carriageworks, 29 March – 23 June, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, 2019