Sydney Morning Herald Column

Fearless & Parlour Parlëur

Published October 10, 2023
Makinti Napanangka, 'Untitled' (2008).

There are lots of people who acquire a few trendy works and call themselves “art collectors”. To all those aspirationals, who may well go on to greater things, I would ask them to take a look at Fearless: Contemporary Indigenous Women in the Hassall Milson Collection, at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, to see what can be achieved by a truly dedicated collector.

Mantua Nangala

If, as it has been said many times, collecting is less of a hobby than a condition, then Geoff Hassall is a chronic case. Along with the late Colin Laverty, a pathologist well aware of his own collecting mania, Hassall was the best customer Watters Gallery ever had. Over the years his repeated purchases of works by artists such as Robert Klippel, Tony Tuckson, Ken Whisson and John Peart, helped keep this legendary Sydney gallery in business.

Discrete, purposeful and low-profile, Hassall always gave the impression he’d prefer to acquire works invisibly, perhaps through a natural sense of reserve, but possibly because he didn’t want to encourage competition. It’s only recently that he has started to exhibit his holdings – at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra in 2019; at the Union University and & Schools Club; and now the S.H. Ervin, in collaboration with his spouse, Virginia Milson.

The Hassall Milson collection has grown so large it may be divided into different departments, with the abstract paintings and sculptures that made up the bulk of Hassall’s acquisitions overshadowed by the works of Indigenous artists. This exhibition concentrates solely on Aboriginal women and is by no means comprehensive. It is, nonetheless, a breathtaking display, featuring celebrated painters such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Eubena Nampitjin, and talented newcomers such as Dhalmula Burranwanga.

Katjarra Butler Ngamurru

More impressive than the range of artists is the quality of individual pieces. Hassall buys early and decisively, usually getting in ahead of the institutional collections, most of them notoriously slow to commit. Emily’s State of my Country (1990) is a museum-quality example of her style at a time when she was adding layer upon layer of coloured dots to the canvas. Two paintings by Mantua Nangala underline her significance as one of the most accomplished Indigenous painters at work today.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, ‘State of My Country’ (1990)

The works by Doris Bush Nungarrayi and Katjarra Butler are as good as anything I’ve seen by these artists, and Makinti Napanangka’s Untitled painting of 2008, is a classic. Western desert artists such as Yukultji Nagangati, Naata Nungarrayi and Doreen Reid Nakamarra are represented by typical, high-quality works.

I could go on, but it would only sound like a rave. There’s nothing unusual about anything in this exhibition. Like most paintings from Aboriginal communities they are celebrations of country – a subject that inspires an endless variety of creative expressions. This is partly because these works are not ‘landscapes’ in the western sense, but storied pictures that view the land as the creation of ancestral beings who still live within and through these places. Almost every painting contains a cosmology the artist has absorbed from childhood that exists in their minds as a kind of second nature. The artists have no need to explain something that has always been a part of their lives. Indeed, something so intrinsic probably cannot be explained.

One of the reasons we are compelled to look at works of art is the feeling they contain some essential mystery or puzzle that can’t be solved. This happens with the best abstract art, and it happens constantly with Aboriginal paintings, so full of power and confidence but forever closed to those who have not lived on country or grown up with the same understanding of the world – the same Umwelt, as the Germans call it.

This is also one of the underlying psychological motivations for collecting – the sense that one is perpetually creeping closer to the answer to some great mystery, adding to one’s store of insights – all the time knowing that the goal will never be reached.

Late last week I went out west to see the immersive installation, Parlour Parlëurby the ArtHitects – namely Gary Carsley and Renjie Teoh – at the Penrith Regional Gallery (PRG). This ongoing, transnational collaboration between a Sydney artist and a Singaporean architect has been a fruitful one, with Carsley and Teoh producing a series of large-scale environments over the past five years in their respective countries.

Installation view of ‘Parlour Parlëur’

The idea is to blend art and architecture to create a work that relates to the physical space of a building, the history of the venue and the community. The audience is invited to travel in time, starting with a bust of Sarah Wentworth, the wife of William Charles Wentworth, who, along with Blaxland and Lawson, would be the first colonist to cross the Blue Mountains. The expedition set off from Emu Plains, the site of the PRG, in 1813.

Installation view of ‘Parlour Parlëur’

The Georgian-era bust is matched with modern furniture and artefacts owned by artists, Gerald and Margo Lewers, whose home was transformed into the Penrith gallery. A variety of interior scenes are displayed as fragments on the gallery walls, as if torn from one massive wraparound. The artists have used 4,000 sheets of A4 paper to get this effect. Attached to these fragments are works by Outer Western Lacemakers Sydney (OWLS), creating a link with the present day.

On a table one finds a jigsaw puzzle of Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, The Corinthian Maid (1782-84), in which Dibutades traces the outline of her sleeping lover on the wall. According to the Greek myth, her father would fill the outline with clay and create the first relief sculpture. The picture was commissioned by Josiah Wedgwood, whose own pots incorporated relief images drawn from classical times.

Installation view of ‘Parlour Parlëur’

There are also glimpses of contemporary couples, such as the Udanis, who donated the organs of their deceased child so others might live; and a pair of flamboyant young women, re-enacting Dibutades’s feat,

Along with these images, furniture and artefacts, the installation incorporates music, video, a woven suit that hangs on the wall, and an invitation to sit at a desk and write a letter. Did they miss anything?

Installation view of ‘Parlour Parlëur’

As the title, Parlour Parlëur, suggests, the work is intended as a dialogue between different places and times that remain linked by common elements. The underlying conceit is that this public gallery began life as a private home, bridging the two realms. The word “parlour” is paired with the French verb, “parler” – to speak or talk, because this was the part of the house (or monastery) where one held conversations with visitors. The umlaut in “parlëur”, is too tricky for me.

As you can see, it takes a long time simply to explain what’s going on with an installation that tries to cover every possible base. One can admire the artists’ ambition and hard work, but the degree of planning involved means there’s not an iota of spontaneity to be discovered. Parlour Parlëur will impress some spectators and leave others feeling exluded from the party. Carsley and Teoh have left nothing to chance, but that thoroughness can minimise the contributions of our own imaginations. With architecture it’s important to be precise, but art can be most effective when the details are blurred.



Fearless: Contemporary Indigenous Women in the Hassall Milson Collection

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 16 September – 29 October, 2023


The ArtHitects: Parlour Parlëur

Penrith Regional Gallery, 9 September – 10 December, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7  October, 2023