One can look at a million artworks on-line but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It may sound obvious but it’s a point worth emphasising in a world in which the COVID-19 lockdown has transformed public and private galleries into digital showcases. Last week many of the commercial galleries began opening their doors again, with only the obligatory bottles of hand sanitizer serving as mementos of the strictures of the past couple of months.
I went back to the galleries expecting to find an atmosphere of grim resignation at the economic horrors ahead, but instead there was a remarkable degree of optimism. It’s partly the fact that one would have to be a natural optimist to run an art gallery in the first place – a business that is first to suffer when times are hard and slowest to recover when things pick-up. Some of those who do it are independently wealthy, but the majority need to make sales in order to pay their bills. A more immediate reason to be cheerful is that clients have been quick to come back – and buy. Some of the wealthy collectors who had got out of the habit of frequenting the local galleries seem ready to return now the temptations of international art fairs have been temporarily eliminated. Before the virus the rampant globalisation of the art market saw many Australian collectors preferring to visit the big overseas fairs and spend money with leading international galleries. That’s no longer an option in a world of closed borders.
To mark the resurrection of the art business in Sydney, I’m going to devote a one-off column to a speedy wrap-up of what I saw in a day’s gallery-going. Although I prefer the ‘slow art’ model, today is a sprint.
There was no sign of a downturn at Arthouse, Rushcutters Bay, where Robyn Sweaney’s paintings of houses were proving incredibly popular. The appeal may lie in the sense of familiarity one finds in these neat, precise images which echo scenes in towns and suburbs across the country. We’ve all seen thousands of homes like these, in which a no-nonsense approach to design and materials is offset by dozens of small details that denote a feeling of domestic pride, or at least a comforting suggestion of order. Looking at a painting such as Signs of Life, one notes the care with which trees and other plants have been selected and maintained; the variety of gates and the iconic Hills Hoist. The composition is a play of horizontals and verticals, with the dark line of the road acting like a frame within the frame. The pinky-grey sky hints at the presence of bushfires, adding a touch of danger to this seemingly uneventful scene.
At the other end of McLachlan Avenue, Sally Dan-Cuthbert was showing constructed paintings by Heidi Melamed, that use perspex and spray paint to create conspicuously energetic spirals projecting from the panel into the space of the gallery. These works are so in-your-face and design-oriented they require buyers with a very particular sense of interior décor. It’s difficult to imagine one of Melamed’s pieces on a wall next to a suburban house by Robyn Sweaney.
On the opposite side of the same street, the Dominik Mersch Gallery has an exhibition of small paintings by German artist (and psychoanalyst!) Clemens Krauss. This is a show partly dictated by COVID-19 obstacles, in which Krauss has taken the expedient option of producing works that can be packaged and shipped without too much fuss. The pictures are minimal in style, with figures crafted from thick globs and swirls of acryic paint. The images are fragmentary and ambiguous – stories in need of an ending that the viewer is invited to supply.
My next stop was Defiance Gallery at Mary Place for new sculptures by David Wilson – a prolific but underrated artist, as is so often the case with sculptors. The show consists of relatively small works, each a kind of frozen landscape. Wilson has made maquettes from diverse materials, including stone and wax, casting the results in bronze and painting them. One could be looking at a vignette of mountains taken from a Chinese scroll painting, in which rocks, clouds and strands of rain have been translated into three dimensions.
At the bottom of Paddington near Trumper Park, I visited four more galleries: Martin Browne Contemporary, Australian Galleries, Roslyn Oxley9 and Wagner Contemporary. Not one of the featured exhibitions could be usefully compared with another.
Martin Browne is showing large flower paintings by Tim Maguire – a tried and true product that always seems to find buyers. These works have been nice little earners for the artist and the dealer, but no matter how one spins them – and Maguire makes an excellent attempt in a catalogue essay – they are essentially large decorations. As an artist of no small ambition, Maguire keeps trying other things, but seems fated to keep returning to those big, expensive flowers. It’s the sort of problem most artists would envy.
Roslyn Oxley9 has three large sculptural pieces by Callum Morton, made to resemble windows in the Sirius building – the apartment complex in the Rocks whose proposed demolition has proven so controversial. Morton has added light, colour and audio to create a kind of meditation on the ‘end times’ we appear to be living through. To draw the parallels even tighter he has included a series of coloured pencil drawings featuring figures such as Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and a hand holding a pece of coal. Does that sound like anyone of significance?
The pencil drawings are for private buyers but the three window pieces could only be pitched at a museum. I can’t imagine anyone wanting all that lurid light and noise in their lounge room, even if they had the space. Australian Galleries has two shows – Camie Lyons, a sculptor and graphic artist, who abstracts from linear forms found in nature, and Clary Akon, ceramicist and satirist. Akon steals the show, as his works are genuinely funny, and that’s rare quality. Perhaps it appeals to me because I tend to share his views on the NSW Government.
My odyssey ended at Wagner Contemporary, where abstract painter, Al Poulet, is having a debut exhibition. Al is the son of Peter Poulet, who showed with Watters gallery for many years, and there is a family resemblance in the paintings, which are raw and vigorous, with layers of loose repetitive grids. For a young artist today gestural abstract painting feels strangely old-fashioned, although for anybody who is beginning to tire of the contemporary obsession with issue-based art, it might also be refreshing.
Robyn Sweaney: Hidden in Plain Sight, Arthouse Gallery, 2 – 20 June, 2020
Heidi Melamed: Light/Interplay, Gallery Sally Dann-Cuthbert, 14 May – 7 June, 2020
Clemens Krauss: 2020, Dominik Mersch Gallery, 5 – 21 June, 2020
David Wilson: Fragments from Another Time and Place, Defiance Gallery, 8 April – 19 June, 2020
Tim Maguire: Small Worlds Martin Browne Contemporary, 28 May – 21 June, 2020
Callum Morton: View From a Bridge, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 4 June – 4 July, 2020
Camie Lyons: A Physical Response Clary Akon: Cultural Capital 3 (Wowser Nation 2)
Australian Galleries, 1 – 17 June, 2020
Al Poulet: Untitled (W) Wagner Contemporary, 6 – 24 June, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June, 2020