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?
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.
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?
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?