Monday, January 27, 2014

A MERE SHADOW OF A QUILT


When last at the V&A in London we were disappointed to discover that the whole textile section had been closed down, along with other familiar areas of this marvellous museum. The story was that the museum was moving the textile section into a new building and was refurbishing other parts of the complex. Sadly we missed out yet again on seeing the quilting wonders that are held in this legendary place. It seemed that it was not a matter of any shortage of space. What was happening? Indeed, as we moved through the spectacular brick and stone building that had been funded by the great exhibition of 1851, we became aware of many changes. There seemed to be large areas that had been closed to the public. Several spaces appeared to have been put aside for private functions: NO PUBLIC ACCESS BEYOND THIS POINT. Were budgets being threatened? Was this hiring out of spaces just another way to raise money?

In Britain, museum entrance is now free. It was a strategy legislated by the government. The idea was to promote tourism. Perhaps other ploys have had to be invented to collect cash? Museums are not cheap to run. Is this why areas were being closed down? We could no longer see even the Frank Lloyd Wright Kauffmann office that had, somewhat surprisingly but pleasingly for our convenience, been relocated here. Regretfully, the museum seemed to have less on display than it had exhibited on our previous visits. Had staff numbers been cut? And there were more special themed displays than before when the exuberance of the collection spread as though it were in a maze – as if it were an Aladdin’s cave - for all to discover. It truly did amaze. The new organisation and  categorisation by topic and concept was a real disappointment. The V&A’s reputation was better than this, grander and more openly inclusive: classically eclectic and committed to this cheeky openness.

Sadly it was slowly becoming more like any other museum. The audacious Ming vase that once stood intrepidly for all to touch had gone in this restructuring. The most obvious change was the relocation of the V&A shop. It had now been given pride of place in the grand central concourse, directly on the path of everyone who approached from the main entry on Cromwell Road. There was no way to avoid it. This was once a majestic, stone-clad foyer dominated by the frenzied Chihuly glass chandelier. Now it was a crowded market place selling expensive souvenirs and nic nacs. It looked as though finances were driving all of the changes here. The opportunity for impulse buying seemed to offer a chance to boost income that was too good to ignore, just as the need for sustenance has been likewise accommodated with numerous cafes and eating-places filling spaces that were previously exhibition areas. It all looked like a good money-spinner with the displays organised for easy consumption too. The rules were that entry into any ‘blockbuster’ or special exhibition could be charged for. The museum seemed to be as cunning and brutal as any government when it comes to developing concepts for raising money, and for saving it too.


Perhaps the circumstance with the disappearing textiles has had a good outcome: the published brochure announced that a selection of V&A quilts was to be put on display in the Queensland Art Gallery. Maybe the V&A was happy to have these items move around while the new building was being prepared for the permanent display? It appeared that this travelling exhibition might solve two problems: it would create an income for the V&A while removing all the problems and costs associated with temporary relocation and storage. It looked like a shrewd move. We went to see the quilts in Brisbane, again leaving this until the last week; but we did get there. At least we would see something of this amazing V&A collection, but there would be no ancient fabrics to discover in old drawers; no smell of the antique; no ‘lost’ items to surprise; and no pieces of original William Morris textiles to marvel at. It would be just quilts - ‘1700 – 1945’ as the marketing defined the scope in time - and untouchable. There is always something unfriendly about the policing of exhibits where one is constantly watched; when even the slightest gesture that might suggest an intent to touch is monitored and reprimanded, leaving one feel like a naughty school child.


The arrangement was that we would meet friends just before opening time. We drove into the underground car park that boasted a $15.00 all day charge in bright neon. “We are going to the gallery for a couple of hours. How much will that be?” “$15.00” was the bland and unmoved response. We had experienced this inconvenience before, see  http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/drawn-out.html , so one just kept quiet, paid and drove in. It was obviously going to be useless to complain or to highlight the issue here when all that the gatekeeper was interested in was to collect the full payment and let you in, leaving one to get out without his supervision. The gallery seemed keen to make money from office workers at the inconvenience of gallery visitors rather than provide a flexible service for its patrons. It all seemed to be just too much trouble to worry about this inconvenience and expense. Are all museums and art galleries becoming money traps? Gosh, one pays enough to get into these exhibitions in Queensland without having the added impertinence of the exorbitant cost of parking. At least entry into the V&A was free and London public transport makes private transport unnecessary, as much as the London levy makes it undesirable.

Here in Brisbane it all seemed to be a moneymaking enterprise at every turn, like an airport where necessity creates and accommodates the urge to strip dollars off patrons without apology or care, much to the glee of the monopoly enterprises that milk every possible opportunity: gouging. Even cabs leaving the local airport are hit with a levy. The street parking at this time of the day was already congested. There really was no choice. We drove in over the squealing painted floor to a vacant parking area and walked to the gallery. This was no straightforward path. It was a matter of dodging vehicles in this lower level, both parked and moving; getting to the vehicular entry of the car park; crossing the underground road; following one’s nose until there seemed to be the likelihood of an exit stair or lift ahead; discovering the lift; guessing the level; and arriving at the gallery entrance zone. Why do potentially simple paths become quixotic detours? Does anyone care? Does anyone think? There is a clear lack of empathy in design today that seems to concentrate only on style and personal preferences.

We were early. We waited for our friends in the cool of the café shade. The day was already hot. They arrived just as the doors opened. Folk were already gathering for this exhibition, such was its popularity. We paid and entered into a large, high brightly painted yellow space - van Gogh? The quilts were hung on the walls; smaller items were arrayed in glass showcases. The crowds gathered around the texts that sought to explain things. One description per item caused strife when two might have been useful. Why are easy solutions neglected? Why are folk encouraged to stop directly at the entrance to read introductory words on a wall exactly where people movements were most intense? Are museums so blind to the necessity of displays and their demands?


The colours of the display areas varied. Only one space was sunny yellow. The other memorable colour was, sadly, black. The second space had a central black structure that seemed to have patterns in its openings that were being reused from a Chinese exhibition. The configurations of the perforations were not those of quilting. Black is an awkward colour to use in a display area, especially as a centrepiece. It deadens hues with its bland depressing mass. Dark blue has more life and depth. It is rich, mysteriously vibrant like a night sky. The yellow dominated its space, but surprisingly the quilts were of such authority that they survived this challenge. Why yellow? Did the designers really know that old interiors did in fact once have bright walls, or was it a ‘design’ colour - to be different? Bright yellow, pink and sky blue have all been discovered in the paint scrapings taken from the interiors of the grand old homes of the 1700’s in the Shetland Islands.

As one ambled deeper into the exhibition, it didn’t take long for the same old problems to arise yet again. All the lighting was physically high-level, the norm in this flexible ‘special exhibits’ space, but it provided only a low level, non-specific illuminance. The space seemed to be in an unnecessary haze of height and depth, experienced as the frustration of poor quality of illumination when one attempted to study an item in detail. Looking became a real task. The stitches were tiny and numerous. It seemed to be a careless height for light that appeared to be there just because it was. This elevation added naught to the display. There had been nothing done to either use it in any way or to adapt this massive void to establish a sensible scale and place for the cosy quilts that occupied only the lower one third of the walls at best. It looked like the classic cliché “She’ll be right” attitude had been given to this display: “We’ll just have to make do with what we have.”


Light had to traverse this void to achieve its outcome. When one leaned over to read a text, one discovered one was staring at an array of overlapping shadows of one’s own head, some five of six of them overlayed in parts to create their own multiple fragmented shades of nuisance patterning. Moving aside to avoid this irritant only revealed another problem - the full glare of the light above blinding the eyes as a reflection. Why oh why does this occur? It seemed that the display had been the cheapest possible arrangement so as to maximise profit - like the car parking arrangements. There had been little effort made to adapt the spaces for the benefit of the quilts or the visitors. One knows how fabrics, especially old fabrics, are sensitive to light, but why not spend money and install quality low-level lighting that can be at the appropriate location and angle to highlight the other much mentioned matter: the quilting itself, the texturing of the whole assembly with patterned stitches that hold the layers together. Why oh why is this core item ignored too? This detail was flattened by the direct blaze of high light that failed to highlight the contours, making them invisible. Only occasionally was the quilting accentuated, as if by happenstance.


When one could finally read the texts after appropriate physical adjustments, it was frequently noted that the information was simply descriptive, e.g., that the item was made of such and such materials, and was of such and such a size. Sometimes there was a story to identify possible provenance. Often the backing was referred to with an equally detailed description; but these reverse sides were never ever seen. Why oh why? Anyone who knows anything about quilts knows how important the back of the quilt is as well as the front. It helps determine the rigour of the intent, to confirm the commitment to the main design and its making. Alas, there were no backs to be seen, even though they were a talking point in the texts. Why are museums so deaf to the cry for ordinary informative, creative presentations? Is just ‘cheap and easy’ enough? I recalled our last visit - Matisse at GOMA - that looked as though it had used an anonymous space with leftover elements of another display: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/drawn-out.html  Surely this has not happened again? Frustratingly there was one text in a corner that one could never get to read. It suffered from the corner syndrome that those designing displays never seem to understand. Why oh why? Wouldn’t you think . . . ? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html Is it so difficult to display both sides of a quilt, just too difficult to think about the ordinary functioning of information and display - of how people need to see things nonchalantly, without performing or parading to suit the style of the display, or to be seen as ‘arty’ or ‘artful.’?


QR Codes were used in various locations. These interesting diagrams are useful but they never seem to be published to allow one to read and see more at home, in one’s own space and time. Why make people stare at their mobiles in public? Isn’t there enough of this now? A visit to the gallery should be a social event, not an event for the perpetuation of personal indulgences. Why not encourage engagement otherwise when there might be an opportunity to achieve this involvement? There is enough introspection as it is in just about every other place already. Watching folk in the café prior to the gallery opening showed an assortment of individuals singularly engrossed with their small screens, sitting alone, silently, unsocially. Unbelievably, one couple were sitting side by side, each with eyes only for their own little instrument. The world is becoming overly self-interested in things other than the present, let alone what tradition sees as the ‘eternal present.’ One always hears in exhibitions: “I like this; I don’t like that; I would have . . ; it seems . . to me.” Why is it always about ‘me’? QR Codes only encourage this ‘look at me’ indulgence. How can these folk ever learn anything when the exercise seems to be one of personal assessment - how I feel and think? Then I suppose, one is lucky that these folk are even talking about the display. Many gabble on about everything else with conversations that would be better carried out in the café outside. “Did you hear about . . .?” Of course, the fashion for electronic information plug-ins that can be rented to patrons only further encourages this stance, and orchestrates how one has to see the display.

The other distraction in these exhibitions is the tour guides. They always speak loudly, irrespective of anyone else, and have the skill to convert things of beauty into an endless string of domineering facts with just too much certainty, a little like the head phones do in other circumstances. One must move on quickly to avoid not only the noise, but also the ever escalating, self-centred bustle: the avalanche of the group that has its own rude necessities and priorities.


The quilts were stunning. Tiny stitches holding thousands of pieces together to create large decorative surfaces of fabric, while others are wonderfully shaped to create an image or delineate its finer characteristics. The work had an enigmatic quality. Things naïve and crude up very close became subtle and distinctively grand from a distance that was surprisingly small. The display of time and patience, skill and craft was simply mesmerising. Do we live with just too much haste today? The exhibition did allow folk to pause. Various bentwood chairs had been artfully placed for folk to sit; but it looked as though more thought had been given to appearance than to personal place, space and comfort. This apparent self-conscious neglect of matters of feeling and function seemed to be a common fault here at the Queensland Art Gallery. Is this the fate of all art today?


Why were the techniques not made explicit? Why were quilters not working there? Why were the displays so poor? Why display quilts on fake bed masses stuck into blind corners such that they can only be seen in part at the overhanging edge and otherwise flattened obliquely? The comment made seemed true: “This show has been designed by someone who knows nothing about quilts and quilting.” One could add: and very little about the design of displays too. Now I have to admit to being wrong about the lack of exposure of the rear of any quilt. There was one display that showed the unfinished back of a quilt through holes in the wall it was mounted on, but this was useful only to those who could understand the technique involved. Many stood gawking at things they could not comprehend. “Why did they leave the stitches there?” was one question that was overheard. Surely it is the task of the display to explain this before it is asked?


Museums and art galleries must be better than this. They never fail to understand how to make money. Why do they not care about displays? Gosh, do they really care for anything but profit? The catalogue for the show that was titled Quilts 1700 – 1945 had sold out in this last week. No, they were not going to reprint it. The art gallery did offer to take an order for the V&A publication that had been used in part for the catalogue – V&A Quilts 1700 – 2010 Hidden histories; untold stories - cost $55.00! We checked the Book Depository: cost delivered to your door - $38.00. Then we perused other items in the shop: a small Indian cotton bag - $32.00. “We made ninety of these for charity yesterday,” the stunned voice said. The small ring made from plasticine and tape - $30.00; the tiny tape folded into a flower-shaped broach with a central button - $45.00. Astonishing! Should it not be $4.50? Why does art always seem to overvalue itself, its significance and its importance? Does it think that it will be devalued as ‘art’ if it is cheaper? It was all very alarming and reminded us of our parking costs. Oh, time had passed. We had to leave, to go to our ‘all day’ parking location that we had occupied for less than three hours. Now, there’s a good profit for you. Gallery success! It could collect at least $45.00 for this space in one day at this rate.

So, in summary: amazing quilts in a shockingly cheap, careless display, a mere shadow of what it might have been. After many critiques of displays in art galleries, see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html  and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/surprizes.html  and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/drawn-out.html , it seems that no one cares. Sadly the art is just the medium for profit. There is no understanding of the biblical text: “For what should it profit a man ..”  Soul is what is being ignored here. Such values are not easily converted into cash.


The exit from the art gallery gave one time to recall that from the V&A. We moved out to the side street into the London traffic and strolled down to the main entrance on Cromwell Road where we had arranged to meet friends who had visited the Natural History Museum opposite. On the large stones at the base of the V&A building one could see the impacts of WW2 bombing of London, the scars of other times. History was there in the fabric itself. In Brisbane, history had been obliterated when this new gallery was built some years ago. There were no markings here to remind anyone of anything but the squealing wheels on the painted floor. Such is this colony that carries its convict history in its genes  see -http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/conviction.html

The grand quilt sewn by the convict women for the ‘ladies’ was placed at the end of the display, almost as an aside. It was locked up in its own shop window - the only large quilt to be so displayed, spread out at an angle. Was this meaningful? One supposes that it had to take its correct place amongst the quilts from the old country, now venerated as V&A exhibits. The cringe is alive and well! The colony knows how it must act when the British are nearby. Why was this convict quilt not the centrepiece of this exhibition? It did not even fit into the chronology of the arrangement of the V&A items. It was a mere aside, a quaint local touch: a poor apology to the ‘home country.’

Are we still trying to prove ourselves like the female convicts who recorded in sad threads the hope that their enterprise might show that they had taken the advice of the ‘ladies’ not to waste their time on the voyage out to Australia? When will we ever learn? It seems we will not.


Friday, January 10, 2014

QUILTY & HARDING AT TWEED GALLERY



The catalogue folder and some promotional cards were on the coffee table, so this scattering was browsed while we waited for our friends to get organised. Once matters had been arranged, everyone could settle down with a drink. We had been invited to dinner. The discussion soon came around to the Tweed Gallery.
“We went the other day.”
“There are some interesting shows on.”
We were told that the Quilty Afghanistan drawings and paintings were on display; and Nicholas Harding’s drawings and paintings of Margaret Olley were being exhibited too.
“The Quilty images were confronting, but still remarkable. The Olley drawings and paintings were excellent.”
Reference was then made to another show, one that was described vaguely as a re-assemblage of bits and pieces to make fantasy objects.
“It included strange vacuum cleaners and steam engines made from the most unlikely of found things.”


It reminded me of Mark Trotter’s work, his marvellous kangaroos and pelicans that come into being without diminishing the identity of the origins and functions of the various parts that now embody a different energy.
We had heard only recently from another friend that the caterers in the café had changed. Hopefully things were even going to get better at the gallery. We had to visit again: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/tweed-art-gallery-not-too-twee.html



A few days later the opportunity to go to the gallery arose, so we travelled over the border into northern New South Wales to Murwillumbah. It is a short trip from Burleigh Heads through classic Gold Coast clutter into some very pretty countryside dominated by Mount Warning, a peak aptly named by Cook on his coastal voyage of discovery, mapping, naming and claiming nearly 250 years ago. The high scenic rim, a rugged perimeter escarpment that spreads from Springbrook to Lamington National Park and beyond, frames this landscape. It marks the edge of the crater of the volcano of which Mount Warning is the centrepiece. These cliffs also define the border between Queensland and New South Wales that makes specific graphic detours on the maps as it approaches the coast at Coolangatta/Tweed Heads.



We squeezed into the parking area that had its access rearranged to accommodate the building works for the new Margaret Olley gallery. Construction work had just begun on this new extension that was to house Olley’s relocated studio, complete with what now seems to be only a selection of her shambles. There was a news report earlier in the week that told of the auction of many of her items. They all apparently sold well. One wonders just what criteria might be used to itemise the objects that will become a part of the permanent display that she envisaged and funded. Why has there been a cull? The idea of relocating a studio that Olley spoke about nicely in terms of its changing light throughout the day and its special relationship to the garden seemed odd.


The architectural drawings of the proposal seemed to follow the same pattern of display as was chosen for the relocated Bacon studio in Dublin: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/bacons-sacrambled-studio-francis.html  Here a separate space that could be peered into through sundry openings was embalmed in the gallery space as a time capsule, standing in a foreign place, isolated and separated like a mausoleum. One might have expected to see Lenin laid out on display, such was the alienation of this studio interior in Dublin. Bacon’s space was ghost-like; glimmering; glum; in a vague, surreal haze of artificial light that gave it a theatrical mystery. What commitment can there be to the real sense of place that this Olley studio must have held when it is being put into a different light, in a different region, in a remote and alternative context, with the objects all being very specially chosen to be scattered on display as though the self-conscious dispersal might be the real, authentic thing? These strategies of relocation for convenient exhibition truly have a significant problem that makes a mockery of origins by turning these work areas into a theatrical setting for gawking tourists. Intimate and real connections to the artist are strained and stressed into a new oblivion: but it is only ‘something different and entertaining’ that tourists are seeking, isn’t it? - see: http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html



After moving up to the entry level from the car park in the lift, we entered the gallery directly into the shop sales area. People were milling here as though it was more important than the gallery display zone. The front door was covered with signs, well, three signs that seemed to promote the worst of any ‘nanny’ state: PLEASE CLOSE DOORS; PLEASE USE THIS DOOR; CAFÉ OPENING HOURS. It was a strange welcome that was repeated in the toilet areas that unbelievably had signs advising one how was to wash one’s hands. Gosh, one was left wondering what other signs might be discovered in the smaller, more private toilet spaces! Do we really need these directions, this information?



One is advised to be careful when walking, perhaps because of the extensive use of tactile warning markers?


The turn into the gallery area took one into the first display of paintings on paper, complete with texts over images of persons and rabbits and sundry big forms. Was the spelling intentionally incorrect? Was this all part of the intrigue of the ‘art’? Why does art struggle to be different in such a mundane manner? The work was interesting but seemed to lack energy, to lack a certain vigour and rigour of commitment, honesty, even though the texts tried to suggest a link to meaningful, personal concerns. Sometimes meaning can try to grasp matters that are just too personal to be anything but an awkward embarrassment to others, creating a forced intimacy that estranges.

One moved on into the core display space. Here the Quilty paintings had replaced the usual portraiture display that the gallery is renowned for. This time it was portraits of soldiers in Afghanistan. Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley had been seen as the winner in the Archibald exhibition in Sydney: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/surprizes.html  It was a stunning piece. Now these larger and grimmer pieces were on display. Something of Quilty’s time in Afghanistan was known from the Australian Story programme that had been played on the ABC TV a short time ago. Now the works could be seen in the original. There is nothing better than the eye seeing the paint and the surface it is on rather than merely the sheen of the fine dots of printer’s ink on gloss paper, or the glow of precise pixels on the slick screen. One needs to see original depth, gesture, texture and colour: to see the paint in its place.



The first work that caught the eye was an odd one. It held the introductory location of this exhibition, possibly because of its text that could be seen as a 'title' piece. What looked like a Streeton painting had high mountains on its horizon with a crudely lettered ‘Afghanistan’ roughed out across the lower hills in what looked like whiteout. What on earth was this? Had Quilty painted a piece ‘after Streeton’ or had he mutilated one? The text on the wall had to be read. Yes, it was declared as being ‘after Arthur Streeton.’ Quilty had painted the foreground in the delicate style of Streeton, with the high mountains of Afghanistan in the distance likewise, and then scrawled the letters ‘Afghanistan’ across these coloured slopes. Why? It seemed a very strange act: almost naïve. The lettering was messy with coarse, stuttering brush strokes that seemed to defy the flow that text needs. Why would one choose to paint after Streeton and illustrate the mountains of Afghanistan where the Australian Blue Mountains should have been? Why create this self-conscious collage in, as the text recorded, ‘oil and liquid paper’? The argument appeared to be that Quilty was establishing or referring to a connection between the countries: but did the liquid paper have any meaning other than its colour white - block out? Little wonder that the lettering was so rough. Liquid paper is difficult to control with its volatile solvent base. The idea of the juxtaposition and naming seemed too contrived to work with any emotive substance, symbolism, relevance or inherent meaning. ‘Crude’ seemed to sum up the idea and the feeling involved as well as the outcome, when it sought something more subtle and sublime.



Just whacking two things together in order to make a link appeared just too literal, as crass as the scrawling of ‘Afghanistan’ across the large mountains, in case one might not notice the change? Did this little painting say something about Quilty’s mental state? The TV programme told of his concerns with Afghanistan. This attempt to capture symbolic meaning and a feeling of nationalism in such a pedantic manner left one thinking that Quilty wasn’t bad as a creator of a fake Streeton, but was hopeless at symbolic references that could tear one’s guts apart, like Munch’s The Scream does; or make one shiver with emotional understanding as one might in front of a Goya or a Hogarth.



The concerns again became obvious in the other works that were not portraits. Quilty had attempted to display feelings in abstractions, illustrated as masses of dark blobs. There appeared to be a similar, self-conscious contrivance here, where Quilty seemed to seek out meaning in dark ‘black holes’ that were illustrated as such. Dark forms; and tortured feelings were documented as distorted, tortured oozings of murky paint in spreading blobs of coloured mess on mass. There was an armoured car hit by a bomb that had been illustrated as an abstraction of a shambles, an ad hoc swirling and pushing of grimly disturbed, gloomy oil paint. The work was barely articulate. These paintings all seemed to be searching for a way to express very complex feelings, but seemed to be just too literal to be as ‘gut-wrenching’ as Goya’s comments on war or even a Nash landscape documenting the outcome of conflict. Quilty was having problems here, in much the same way as his helicopter sketches were childlike scribbles struggling to achieve a match between line, form and perception. One could remember seeing better drawings by children. Have we been trained to accept nearly anything in art by abstraction?

Paul Nash 





The portraits worked much better. One was left wondering if Quilty’s style of brushing thick gestures of colour onto a naked canvas only works when one can recognise the eyes, the nose, and the mouth as a primordial response: the innate power of seeing things ‘as.’ Does the technique only come to life when the viewer is able to bring such intimate, native recognition into the understanding? It is known just how basic, primitive, the reading of a face is when one sees experiments with animals and babies. Do the Quilty brushed marks need this understanding and comprehension of the raw perception of ordinary existence to ‘work’? Is it like seeing a face or a form in a cloud? Whatever it might be, Quilty is a master of painting faces: yes, faces; he struggles with bodies too, those of people, planes and trucks. Hands are not his forte either. These turn out as messy fumbles. The eye does not seem to be as kind to bodies and hands as it is with faces.




Edvard Munch

Francis Bacon


Whatever might be the reason for this, one has to acknowledge that the portraits are marvellous. One sensed a Bacon at times; then a Munch: truly alive with feeling and being - inner presence. Perhaps these references were as contrived as the landscape and the blobs, for the distorted body poses and the wavy marks extending from the forehead did assist in the reading of these associations. But the faces told a story, as did the other more conventional poses. What is always astonishing with the Quilty boldness is how one can see the beautiful colours as unrecognisable paint marks close up, creating an abstraction of marking that is astonishingly reshaped and recognised with distance, not just as a face, but as a person, an individual, an identity. Just what distance is needed for this transformation to take effect requires some experimentation, but as soon as one achieves the right separation, the image congeals into presence, feeling, meaning and character. It is here that Quilty captures the feelings about war and the reflections on battle. Yet, in spite of their size, no portrait here came close to the power of the Margaret Olley representation that won the Archibald. This painting was a masterful array of minimal brushed paint marks applied with a knowing immediacy that completely captured Miss Olley’s being on blank canvas. Did these new works suffer from too much thinking? Was it the white painted canvas that changed the sense of the nonchalant gesture? Was there too much touching up; too much reverie; revision; reworking?





Nicholas Harding




One thought that one would come back to browse here as one strolled out into the corridor and into the Margaret Olley images by Harding. The rugged Olley face was so familiar one almost went away, but the interesting circumstance that held one’s attention was how each image was the same but entirely different, capturing a subtle change in feeling to highlight yet another aspect of Margaret’s character. The paintings had a ‘Quilty’ touch, but with a much more conventionally managed thickness and application. The drawings displayed a beautiful freedom of hand movement, a casual gesturing that the blobs of colour, inks and oils only exaggerated - a carelessness with the ‘art’ of these sketches. It was refreshing to see this attribute, but sad to see it managed, trimmed, mounted and framed for the art world. It seemed that mess might be part of the Harding work generally. One oil portrait of Olley was labelled as being ‘oil and cigarette ash.’ Was this Olley’s or Hardfing’s - both? Harding had sketched the Olley hand complete with ‘ciggy’ as well as her shoed feet. His was an interesting mind and eye, and a clever hand too.



All the work was of substance, but the visitor’s eye was caught by three pieces in particular - the two ink on paper interiors and the palette table painting. The ink on paper interiors were stunning. Quilty-like, they were a mess up close as one sought to determine the artist’s technique. Was the paper really rough or did the artist apply the ink and then scrape and/or rub the paper to give it a heaving, heavy texture? That such detail could be illustrated in such crude roughness was amazing; and that Harding could do this twice was even more astonishing!




The palette table was so thick with paint that one initially saw only masses of muddy thick ooze over the canvas: more than on a Quilty. This became the palette table when one moved away and looked back indifferently. It was as though the image itself was replicating the thick mass and mess of paint that the palette might have accumulated over time. Generally the Harding work was a surprise and displayed the broad skill the artist had in a variety of techniques. It was a refreshingly modest and intimate exhibition that showed the love and care between these two artists.


The stroll out into the corridor took one past glass box displays. A casual glimpse at these only intrigued. One had to pause, look, read, explore. The displays were wonderful, exhibiting the research on the various subjects that interested the artist. The display based on the thylacine clarified everything. One saw the relationship between the beautifully delicate drawings and the displays. The thylacine’s markings had been the inspiration for the works on the walls that were drawn Durer-like, with every hair on the skin carefully delineated. These works were wonderful in a careful and organised manner. They managed a delicacy within their self-conscious determination that one could only admire more and more as one looked more and more in disbelief. Returning to the boxed displays only gave added sense and satisfaction to both the drawings and the various collected items. This was a wonderful surprise that our friends had not mentioned.

A glimpse out of the end windows revealed the early construction works for the new gallery. The location of the columns had been marked on the road in blue. So the new gallery was to be here, twisting east over the road. A turn left took one into a space full of gadgets. The entry displayed a small box with handles that spun images. These sexually explicit illustrations alluded to the old Victorian penny perve boxes that had flip cards of ladies leaving their bath or undressing. It was a strange experience to see these images in such a public place, especially as one handle was very squeaky. That one might be carefully perusing every image in detail became explicit to everyone who could hear the noise of the turning that could only attract attention, such was the audibility of its nuisance squeak.





Moving on took one to an array of sundry items. The idea was simple - make images of gadgets, and stories too, out of sundry collected items. They all held their own intrigue. Some costume works were illustrated as photographs, models and the actual garments. Other pieces were old objects from another era that were examples of the sought-after style. It was as though the idea was to capture the feeling of this old design in new and quaintly interesting ways. The game was ‘to see the thing as’ in a very Wittgenstein-esque way: seeing as. The cutting of the books – a Jules Verne and the Scientific American - showed a clever technique of making a three- dimensional image out of texts merely by careful trimming, all the time maintaining the integrity of the leaves of the book, albeit hollowed-out leaves.




Back to the corridor and out to the café. It was lunch time. The experience did not start well. The table that we had booked was occupied by another. No attempt was made to remedy this mess up. We were told that another table had been held for us as the waitress covered the nameplate that said ‘Jones.’ Still, we stayed, and ate. While the staff had accents that Australians like to link with some mysterious quality perhaps because of the difference and deference involved, the service was poor. One was not impressed with the meal that was delivered not as described in the menu. We asked why. “We have run out of gas.” The kitchen had already run out of one meal listed for lunch, and now gas - at 12:30pm!

Well, one might only hope that the service and food might get better. Being offered a ‘salad’ that was a collection of six miniature lettuce leaves with oil dribbled on seems to be stretching the definition of this word. The explanation that this was “organic salad” seemed a very weak excuse for poor food and emphasised the carelessly rude service. The hope assumed in the early report from our friend, of change for the better, faded quickly. More things would have to change here if the gallery wanted to deliver a better quality of food and service than that one had previously experienced at earlier times.


It was a shame that the café did not live up to the reputation of the gallery. The exhibitions were excellent. Why can the café not be better? Gosh, even the shop was a pleasure to browse through. It had a variety of interesting publications and sundry items, and good information on the local art scene too. So, will one return? Of course, but maybe not to the café. Why is Australian service so poor? Is it that any complaint immediately turns one into a ‘winger’ - go away you bludger? Why should anyone offering a service be happy to have bookings disrupted and meals served in any ad hoc manner? One might have thought that the provider might be more than apologetic, and humbled; but it seems not to be so. One is expected to accept just any behaviour that suits the one who wants to be paid for the service without complaint. It is a real Australian mess. Is one expected to kow-tow to the accent?

That such a good gallery that has such quality exhibitions in such a density offers such a poor service with food in its leased café needs attention. One is not always going to accept this mismatch in quality in a forgiving way, accents or not. Do our immigrants rely on the “I know no-o-o-thing!” cry that we saw in Fawlty Towers? The café could only remind one of the farce in this comedy, but there was really nothing to laugh about here.