Elegant, democratic, intellectual: a review of The National: New Australian Art 2019

The National: New Australian Art 2019, Curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham (Carriageworks), Isobel Parker Phillip (AGNSW), Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis (MCA), Sydney, March 29 - June 23 (Carriageworks and MCA) and July 21 (AGNSW) 2019

Since opening on March 29, the second iteration of The National: New Australian Art has been considered by many a resounding success. Critic Andrew Frost has acknowledged that issues of cohesion in The National’s inaugural expose have been adequately addressed to allow Carriageworks, The Museum of Contemporary Art and The Art Gallery of New South Wales to present a seamlessly interrelated survey without appearing as though one institution is trying to prevail over the next. Likewise, Andy Butler has declared that there is ‘true vitality’ to the selection and emphasis of artists this year, a statement to which I must agree. However, there is one detractor whose cries must be addressed. Critic and cultural cynic John McDonald surmises that this iteration of The National is ‘just as hard to love as its predecessor,’ suggesting that the curators have embraced too many artworks with ‘self-consciousness slipping precipitously into self-indulgence.’ He gestures that works curated into The National ‘to do with gender or sexual identity, race, colonialism or popular culture’ are mere ‘box tickers’ and are ‘utterly superficial.’

With respect, there is no greater misstatement as to the role and importance of contemporary art than what is suggested by John McDonald. Nuance is lost on him. The inter-institutional rigour of Daniel Mudie Cunningham (Carriageworks), Isobel Parker Phillip (AGNSW), Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis (MCA) demonstrates a progressive shift in curating that is borne from a politics of inclusion and of entrenching new perspectives to question timeworn tropes. While it is obvious to say contemporary art is self-defining perhaps it is necessary to repeat it once more: contemporary art is referential to the contemporary. Put simply, it is a form of expression where artists grapple with issues of the now. It is by necessity, then, that different dimensions of identity are expounded and given adequate treatment in our institutions which play vital roles in shaping cultural narratives for Australia’s mainstream. To suggest that works in The National ‘use identity as a prop’ is to fall victim to a particular brand of conservatism that is irrationally afraid of confronting issues of Australia’s present, which suggests a longing for decorative surfaces that are apolitical and speak nothing of the now.

To me, elegance, democracy and intellect typify the curatorial outcomes at Carriageworks, The Museum of Contemporary Art and The Art Gallery of New South Wales. While various shortcomings are present, as a survey, the four curators have managed to present distinct and focussed programs at their home institutions while also contributing to the parallel visions of their colleagues, crystallising in a unified exhibition.

At Carriageworks, Daniel Mudie Cunningham deploys the postcard as a motif to inform his curatorial position. At first glance, the postcard is a rather lacklustre metaphor, but cynicism dissipates as we enter the gallery and see Tony Albert’s imposing structure House of Discards (2019); an enormous house of cards made of steel panels. Here, Albert expertly blurs the distinction between the robust material of steel and the house of cards as an inherently fragile structure; the work being at once sturdy yet precarious. House of Discards is stark, and perhaps deliberately so, given Albert’s continued critique of politicians who frame Australian and Indigenous cultures as being diametrically opposed. In this way, House of Discards is a clever representation of how the embedded political discourse of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Australia is flimsy when issues of race and representation are brought to the surface.

If the postcard is meant to stir within us ideas of journey and place, then the poetry of Albert’s work undoubtedly succeeds in doing so; a feeling which is further enhanced by Sean Rafferty’s Cartonography (2019). Rafferty presents a feature wall of fruit cartons which originate from Far North Queensland, mounted like rock climbing holds which protrude from another dimension. The artwork sings with colours that feel referential to Pop Art: vibrant pinks, yellows and oranges imbued with a Warhol-esque quality. When I stand in front of Cartonography I begin to imagine the social landscape of Australian agriculture and the stories of community which underlie the industry. It is a sentimental work but not overbearing so, and I am most impressed with how Rafferty has aestheticised rural life in a tasteful and reverent way. His arrangement of these cartons and their inscriptions allows each individual object a space to present their own stories, with Rafferty’s own role as artist becoming deliberately suppressed. His generosity in doing so makes me think of him more as a curator than an artist: presenting a work that exists as a thoughtful collection of vignettes without impressing upon us the feeling that he is the celebrity that made it all happen.

Perhaps the only suspect choice in Mudie Cunningham’s program is Tom Muller’s Ghost Line – a twice-a-day eruption of fog that references the boilermakers who historically occupied Carriageworks. As it rolls towards us in one billowing wave, Ghost Line has the translucent quality of semen but the density of cigarette smoke. And, should you arrive as the work decides to spout, you must walk through it to enter the actual gallery space. While Ghost Line feels a bit obvious, the works contained within the actual gallery are resolved and impactful, with Mudie Cunningham’s vision (as a whole) being successful.

At the MCA, Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis have taken The National’s remit to heart, assembling a show that is representative of the national and the politics which comprise it. In particular, the Bullen-Davis program is noted for its thoughtful inclusion of artists who question the social contract of whiteness which regulates participation in everyday Australian society. A standout is The Unbound Collective’s Sovereign Acts IV: Object (2019), a performance piece which occurred on opening day at AGNSW. Here, the collective moved through the gallery’s colonial art collection, dimming lights and beaming projections onto walls which read truths such as ‘in this space is evidence of crime’ and ‘now and into the future we are on Gadigal land.’ The collision between AGNSW as a colonial edifice and the critical interventions of The Unbound Collective direct our attention towards understanding Australian architecture as symbolic of the ongoingness that is European invasion. The gallery’s ionic columns and white walls are put into issue; with the performance stirring within us ideas surrounding cultural amnesia and mainstream Australia’s failure to reckon with its Indigenous past, present and future.

Similarly, Eugenia Lim uses mid-century architecture as a focal point to unpack the poetic yet fraught sense of belonging Asian-Australians face in a settler-colonial landscape. The Australian Ugliness is a three-channel video installation embedded inside a yellow geodesic fishbowl, and we watch as Lim presents herself as a bowl cut hero – ‘The Ambassador’ – interacting with modernist buildings across rural and urban Australia. Her gold lamé Mao suit is shrill and piercing against the muted palette of these structures, the contrast allowing Lim to spotlight the disconnect between Asian bodies and their movement across a landscape so forcefully loaded with white histories. Interestingly, before we enter Lim’s fishbowl, she requires us to remove our shoes in the same way that one is required to before entering an Asian household. This is a particularly clever interplay of Eastern and Western semiotics: one must participate in a typically Asian practice before entering a structure that evokes the melancholy of mid-century, white Australia. Entering The Australian Ugliness, then, is in itself a political act. Our submission to Lim’s rules before entering the dome becomes a subversion of Australia’s embedded fear of the ‘Yellow Peril’, as Lim cajoles us to embrace a certain nuance in Asian culture often missed by white Australia. And, while Lim frames mid-century buildings as aestheticised repositories of Australia’s racist past, they also remind us of our present. To grapple with the concerns The Australian Ugliness presents us with is to emerge with a fuller understanding of the complex fears concerning migration that remain fixed in our cultural psyche.

The selection of artists at AGNSW felt more academic than those at Carriageworks or MCA. In this context, ‘academic’ should be read as meaning artworks heavily influenced by critical theory or other philosophical schools of thought. This is neither inherently good nor bad. Theory is a valid and potent means of surveying the contemporary, but it too is a body of knowledge which is class-based and exclusionary. Many of the works curated by Isobel Parker Phillip are beautiful and clever, yes, but without access to the ivory tower an abundance of nuance is lost. At times, I felt these artworks could have been framed better (through clearer wall text or otherwise) to have maximum impact on the broad audience expected of a survey such as The National. Without these manoeuvres, I was left questioning the true intended audience of Parker Phillip’s exhibition.

In any case, Tom Polo’s The Most Elaborate Disguise (15) consists of forty masterful paintings where faces melt into pools of pastel rivers, each flowing from one canvas to the next until what we have is not so much a discrete collection of work but a continuous and graceful sequence of portraits. Polo’s understanding of colour and composition is perhaps the most exciting thing to emerge from a medium which, in recent times, has been known in contemporary art as tired and worn down. Yet, it is not so much that Polo departs from the conventions of representational painting that gives his work power and intrigue (if we look closely these tropes are still there). Rather, in twisting faces and building new forms that we can only just recognise as human, Polo’s work takes control of the Australian painting tradition cemented by the likes of Whiteley and Nolan, telling us to embrace another that is more humorous, less contrived yet just as serious.

The National attempts to bridge the gap between the rigid conventions of institutional curating and a generation of artists in search of something more. While visual culture and culture more generally is known to progress at a slower pace in Australia, if this year’s survey can be seen as a metric of possibility then there is much to remain positive about. Put simply, the quality of contemporary Australian art is good. And, while themes of identity are yet to accord with the Australian establishment, the tenacity and drive of these artists affords me the belief that this mindset will inevitably vanish into the annals of history.

 

[1] Andrew Frost, ‘The National review – contemporary art from the uncanny to the inviting’, The Guardian, 29 March 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/29/the-national-review-contemporary-art-from-the-uncanny-to-the-inviting

[2] Andy Butler, ‘The National 2019’, The Saturday Paper, 13 April 2019, https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2019/04/13/the-national-2019/15550776007974

[3] John McDonald, ‘The National: New Australian Art’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2019, https://www.johnmcdonald.net.au/2019/the-national-2019-new-australian-art/

[4] John McDonald, ‘The National: New Australian Art’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2019, https://www.johnmcdonald.net.au/2019/the-national-2019-new-australian-art/

[5] The skirts worn during this performance are on display at the MCA.

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Tony Albert, House of Discards, The National 2019, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley.jpg

Tony Albert, House of Discards, The National 2019, Carriageworks.

Zan Wimberley

Sean Rafferty, Cartonography (FNQ), The National 2019, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley.jpg

Sean Rafferty, Cartonography (FNQ), The National 2019, Carriageworks.

Zan Wimberley

Tom Mùller, Ghost Line, The National 2019, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley (2).jpg

Tom Mùller, Ghost Line, The National 2019, Carriageworks.

Zan Wimberley

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The Unbound Collective (Ali Gumillya Baker, Natalie Harkin, Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch), Sovereign Acts IV: Object, 2019, image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney © the artists.

Tristan Deratz

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The Unbound Collective (Ali Gumillya Baker, Natalie Harkin, Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch), Sovereign Acts IV: Object, 2019, image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney © the artists.

Tristan Deratz

MCA_TheNational_Install_270319_credit_JacquieManning-36.jpg

Eugenia Lim, The Australian Ugliness, 2018, installation view, The National 2019: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 3-channel high-definition video, colour, audio, carpet, steel, ply, MDF, fleece, beanbags, inflatable, image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist.

Zan Wimberley

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Eugenia Lim, The Australian Ugliness, 2018, installation view, The National 2019: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 3-channel high-definition video, colour, audio, carpet, steel, ply, MDF, fleece, beanbags, inflatable, image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist.

Zan Wimberley

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Tom Polo, when windows are walls, 2019, Site-responsive wall painting, acrylic on canvas, timber, 976 x 3155 cm, image courtesy the artist and STATION, Melbourne, and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney © the artist.

AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

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Tom Polo, when windows are walls, 2019, Site-responsive wall painting, acrylic on canvas, timber, 976 x 3155 cm, image courtesy the artist and STATION, Melbourne, and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney © the artist.

AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

2019NAT_337.jpg

Tom Polo, The Most Elaborate Disguise, 2016/19, Mixed media works on paper, acrylic wall painting, 40 works on paper: each 48 x 36 cm, overall 352.5 x 1199.5 cm, image courtesy the artist and STATION, Melbourne © the artist

AGNSW, Mim Stirling

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic based in Sydney. His writing has featured in both print and online publications such as Art Collector Magazine and The Saturday Paper. Eugene currently works as a gallery manager whilst completing his Bachelor of Laws at The University of Sydney.

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