The Psychological Landscape of the Artist – Linda Adair reviews ‘Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul’

Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul Curated by Barry Pearce. National Art School, 10 January – 9 March 2019.

Rochford Street Review caught Barry Pearce’s curatorial introduction to the premier showing at the National Art School of the travelling exhibition Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul which he has curated for the Bundanon Trust. An intimate survey of Boyd’s journey as an artist, the show will travel from 8 June 2019 through to September 2021 to regional galleries before returning to Bundanon. It is hoped it will return to a new purpose-built gallery which is to be constructed at the 1,100 hectare property that Yvonne and Arthur Boyd gifted to the Australian people in 1993. Twenty six years on from this generous bequest, Bundanon continues to operate as a centre for creative arts, education, scientific and environmental research and artist residencies.

Emeritus Curator of Australian Art at AGNSW, Pearce, began his talk playfully remarking “Don McLean nails it for Arthur Boyd” – a tongue in cheek  reference to The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh foregrounding that whilst still an adolescent Boyd was channelling the same spirit of the master, striving to create luminosity and light in paint  as evidenced in the Pastoral landscape,1936.

Pastoral landscape, 1936.

Lightness was interspersed with both painterly and spiritual darkness throughout  Boyd’s creative life, and he readily mastered the painterly techniques required to move from major to minor keys, as his imagination was triggered by the mythology he had heart discussed in his parents salon, and the classical albums he loved to play whilst painting.  As a young man, tone and light continued be abiding preoccupations, along with mythical figures and biblical scenes which figure in masterworks such as Nebuchadnezzar series and The Expulsion.

Red Nebuchadnezzar fallen in a forest with lion, 1968-69, oil on canvas.

Pearce curated the 1993 Art Gallery of NSW’s retrospective of Arthur Boyd’s astonishingly extensive oeuvre. By that time,  thousands upon thousands of works had been created, and Boyd kept suggesting more works to be included. In 1992, Pearce eventually explained to the artist that an exhibition was rather like a suitcase – only so much could be packed into if it were to work! If the 1993 show was, to use a musical analogy, an orchestrated complexity,  the current exhibition was more like a chamber concert.  And central to that sense of intimacy, the works chosen are exemplars of the major concerns of one of Australia’s most revered landscape artists.
In the catalogue Pearce writes:

‘And so we follow the progression of his landscape imagery from Mornington Peninsula, through bleached blonde reaches of Wimmera and Central Australia, to the tangled darkness of Gaffney’s Creek and verdant woods of Suffolk, to the final decades of his life at Shoalhaven, witnessing oscillations between night and day woven with disturbing glimpses of the human condition, this exhibition takes on the shape f an odyssey in which the protagonist finishes where he began, in the truth-giving glare of daylight.’

The passion, speed and sheer volume of Boyd’s paintings – many shrouded in darkness and focusing on mythic figures – may have been a kind of self-therapy to erase or “unsee” images which had troubled him since childhood. Boyd grew up in a family of prodigious artistic talent — his grandparents were accomplished painters, his uncle a celebrated author but his father, Merric, although a well-respected potter, suffered debilitating epileptic seizures in a time when the condition was little understood, barely managed and probably demonised.

Despite his unparalleled knowledge of Boyd’s work, Landscape of the Soul proved to be something of a revelation for Pearce who worked with the Bundanon Trust curators and conservators. As conservation drawers containing works were opened, he discovered treasures from Boyd’s youth that the artist had kept, but never shown him. These overlooked works yielded the impetus for Pearce’s exploration of the artistic lineage and the turning points in Boyd’s career.  Pearce also foregrounds the little known work of Doris Boyd, Arthur’s beloved mother, whose artistic drive was perhaps sublimated into her five children as she juggled her household, whilst supporting a husband with major health issues and managing the family’s pottery business at Open Country.

Pearce’s empathetic selection of 60 key works that Boyd painted over more than half a century, strives to tease out the psychological landscape of the artist as much as the painted topography. The works on display range from recognised masterpieces on loan from major state art museums to the above-mentioned early works, as well as some 20 works on paper, letters and documents that reveal a very personal profile of the man behind some of the most iconic Australian landscape paintings.  The works are grouped around four distinct phases of Boyd’s life:

  • Inheritance (in the exhibition this is Prelude: works by Boyd’s parents and grandparents);
  • Genesis and inflexion – outlining the influences and experiences from when he began to paint as an adolescent until he left Australia in 1959 to live and work in England
  • Between Worlds – Boyd’s work in England during the 1960s
  • The Shoalhaven Years – from 1971, whenBoyd was again working with the Australian light,– until his death

It was beautiful to see these important works in the NAS Gallery space and intriguing to consider them in the context of the tale of Boyd’s journey to live with, and through, his art,which has been articulated by a personal and venerating friend, who understood well the residual traumas that plagued the artist. The result is part memoir by a personal friend and part incisive assessment of the work by an expert art curator who understands the influences and techniques that Boyd conjured with. This humanistic, common sense tone is fair enough given Arthur Boyd was born in 1920, when the meta-narratives of Modernism were in their ascendancy. The story Pearce tells embraces a lineal progression of the artist as an individual subject expressing and integrating the inner conflicts and joys of his life via the medium of painting. For this reviewer, the four sections used to convey the theme and sub-themes of the exhibition recall the classic essay structure of introduction/ thesis/antithesis/synthesis. Certainly, there is little problematising of the relationship between the writer and his subject.

And so, whilst Boyd passed away in 1999, his spirit is foregrounded in this concise exhibition. It is almost as if  the artist and curator (author) are two actors conversing in this exhibition’s (tale) until a third protagonist appears saviour-like in the last act and that saviour is the genius loci of  Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River; a landscape made iconic and hauntingly familiar to many Australians by way of the Shoalhaven series. According to Pearce, Boyd attained peace at the healing place of Bundanon, returning to plein air landscape and the luminous light which he excelled at rendering, and consolidating the tonal virtuosity he had precociously demonstrated as an innocent boy.

Peter’s fish and crucifixion, 1993, oil on canvas

At Bundanon, Boyd recalibrated after living in Britain where he had taken in the wealth of art and music available but had also wrestled for more than a decade with dark imagery and tragic archetypes following the death of Merric in 1959. To Pearce, the final act was a time of integrating these innermost struggles and shadowy elements with the artistry of capturing light that had inspired him since his boyhood. Interestingly, we were told, the artist wrote the cryptic words “I am held” on the back of each work he painted. The answer however as to who  — or what — held Boyd is something that not even Barry Pearce has dared answer despite its insights into his psyche.

 

 

 – Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Blue Mountains-based writer and critic and one half of Rochford Press.

Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul will be to touring to the following galleries: Ipswich Art Gallery, Ipswich QLD  8 June – 1 August, 2019. Shepparton Art Museum, Shepparton VIC, 12 August – 24 November, 2019. Cairns Regional Art Gallery, Cairns QLD 3 April – 21 June, 2020. Glasshouse Regional Gallery Port Macquarie, NSW 3 July – 13 September, 2020. Tweed Regional Gallery Mullwillimbah, NSW, 11 December, 2020 – 28 February, 2021. Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba, NSW 12 March 2021 – 2 May 2021. Lake Macquarie Art Gallery, Lake Macquarie, NSW, 24 July – 26 September, 2021

For further information on the exhibition visit https://bundanon.com.au/whats-on/arthur-boyd-landscape-of-the-soul/

Defiant gaze: Linda Adair reviews ‘Not an animal or a plant’ an exhibition by Vernon Ah Kee

NOT AN ANIMAL OR A PLANT an exhibition of work by Vernon Ah Kee at the National Art School Gallery, Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, from 7 January to 11 March 2017

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant , installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Bris bane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, co urtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane Photo: Peter Morgan

  Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Brisbane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Peter Morgan

Rochford Street Review attended the media preview of Not an animal or a plant, conceptual artist Vernon Ah Kee’s solo exhibition that includes more than a decades’ work in various mediums, and which opened as part of the Sydney Festival on 7 January. Ah Kee’s first solo project in Sydney since 2008, the title declares the artist’s uncompromising critique of the often covert, or blatantly casual yet nonetheless caustic, racism that is part of the day-to-day lived experience for Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

Co-presented by the Nation Art School (NAS) in association with the Sydney Festival, and displayed in what was the former cell block of the infamous Darlinghurst Gaol, it is a stunning and provocative exhibition. At the time of the artist’s birth — just under 50 years ago — his parents were not counted as Australian citizens, hence the defiant text-based installation ‘not an animal or a plant’ in the ground floor gallery which showcases fine charcoal portraits on paper of members of his family who lived under that regime.  In an out-of-the-way alcove on the ground floor, one can also find the provocative ‘Born in the skin’, the found graffiti on doors from a Cockatoo Island toilet block that caused a stir around the Biennale of 2008; presumably because by presenting them, Ah Kee held up a mirror that mainstream Australia would prefer not to face  — articulated in ugly, racist, sexist, homophobic and functionally illiterate language.

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

The vast upper gallery of the former cell block has allowed NAS Gallery curator Judith Blackall and team to work with Ah Kee to present his recent large-scale works. These include paintings, portraits and text-based works inspired by the Palm Island Riot and the stunning 3D installation of competition surfboards, adorned with traditional combat shield designs from North Cairns on the face and excerpts from a James Baldwin’s article (‘Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes’, 1966 ) on the obverse,  through to two extraordinary and enormous drawings ‘Lynching I’ and ‘Lynching II’ which, placed either side of the large picture window, eloquently emphasise the dark side of Sydney’s pre-eminence as the starting point of colonisation in this country.

The view over the school’s grounds summons other layers of meaning over time, as this ridge-top site would have provided the Cadigal people, the traditional owners, a place to survey the harbour and the wetlands and witness ‘a world changing around them’ to quote Wesley Enoch who spoke at the launch as the first indigenous director of the Sydney Festival. Now the view also references the fact that, as it approaches its centenary on the site, NAS is struggling against forces which would resume the land for other purposes.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary in May of the 1967 referendum, this exhibition contributes to contemporary debate — among those willing to participate — about contemporary racism, our problematic history and the need for a way forward for rapprochement to occur.  Politically, it gives the lie to the mainstream pretense that Australia is not really a racist society whilst providing a masterful portrayal of individual Aboriginal subjects who gaze with defiance at the viewer, resilient in the face of a litany of structural oppression that has included, but is not limited to, the stolen generations, skyrocketing rates of incarceration and continuing paternalistic policies of successive governments. Aesthetically, the works provides a master-class in drawing and shift paradigms via exquisitely executed three-dimensional works that communicate at many levels. This is quite simply, a must-see exhibition.

 – Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based writer and critic and a founding editor of Rochford Street Review.

Not an Animal or a Plant runs from 7 January to 11 March 2017 at the NAS Gallery  https://www.nas.edu.au/place/gallery/current-exhibition/

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Standing for Something – the raison d’etre of Julia Gillard: Linda Adair & Lucinda Adair-Roberts reflect on a conversation

The Sydney Writers’ Festival sometimes feels like an election campaign because, just as political parties these days seem to deliver their policy launches a week or so out from the election, there already appears to be a month’s worth of Festival events stretching through May even though Mohsin Hamid is not due to deliver the Opening Address until 19 May. It is probably fitting then that an ex-Prime Minister kicked off events on May Day 2015. Linda Adair and Lucinda Adair-Roberts look back on Julia Gillard’s conversation with Jamila Rizvi.

Julia Gillard SWF images Prudence Upton

Julia Gillard at the City Recital Hall – Photograph Prudence Upton Sydney Writers Festival

The wet weather and long cloakroom queue to check umbrellas could not dampen the enthusiasm of those assembling at the City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney on Friday 1 May 2015 to hear Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard converse with Jamila Rizvi. Editor in Chief of the Mamamia Women’s Network websites,  on the theme of “Standing for Something”. Director of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jemma Birrell presided as MC to this sold out ‘premier event’, to ‘pre-launch’ the festival which runs Monday 18 to Sunday 24 May 2015.

Through the conversational style that the interview took, and the scope for the audience to ask questions, one was left with a sense of knowing the author on a more personal and relaxed level. This appeared to stem from Gillard’s personal desire to show her more emotionally adept personality than she was unable to share with the public during her time as PM, due to the stigma associated with women in power showing too much emotion. We listened for one and half hours to her speak very genuinely on topics ranging from pop culture, to education, and gender, strength of purpose, ethics and the kind of world we want to shape. Without a tough and feisty interviewer in the style of Leigh Sales, Jamila guided a conversation among two friends with approximately 1000 “wannabe friends” appreciatively listening in. The audience clapped, and cheered and, at appropriate moments, laughed. Her keen sense of humour and incisive words cut through in a way that, with the exception of The Misogyny Speech on 9 October 2012, we rarely saw reported by the press.

The three warm-up questions related to the typical office kitchen chit chat of TV. The second was delightfully tongue in cheek. When Jamila asked: “Is working in Canberra more like:

  1. House of Cards,
  2. The West Wing
  3. The Hollow Men

Julia’s cheeky reply was that whilst she enjoyed House of Cards, she felt that the idea that someone with Frank Underwood’s public profile could to go down to a station, unobserved, and throw a journalist under the train, no matter how attractive the idea might be,  was  rather implausible! She said that The Hollow Men was fun but extreme, which meant that the West Wing, in the romantic Bartlett era, while portrayed by “impossibly good looking people”, best captured the sense of purpose that, for Julia’s money, should drive people to enter politics. She cited the character CJ’s work for Emily’s List prior to joining Jed Bartlett’s staff as an example, noting that Emily’s List is a real foundation which Labor supports in this country.

Whilst the three years and three days of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership was the locus of the conversation, it comprised a cool listing of achievements and at times a, refreshingly humble, critical self-awareness of political missteps such as the “real Julia” which she described as a “clumsy lunge at the reset button” in the face of the two contending narratives put forward by the media about Labor’s 2010 election campaign. Illogically, her government’s election campaign was simultaneously criticised by the media as being “too tightly scripted” and “out of control”.

Julia Gillard SWF images Prudence Upton 065

Julia Gillard in conversation with Jamila Rizvi – Photograph Prudence Upton, Sydney Writers Festival

Although the “F word” – Feminism – was not uttered by Julia until it came up in questions from the floor, it was implicit as when she said, as is foregrounded in My Story, that she was always aware that if she showed emotion in the role of the first female prime minister, she would labelled “psychologically fragile” and the threat was that all women in future would be left with that stigma. She declares in the first page of the book that even after losing the prime ministership “I was not going to let anyone conclude that a woman could not take it”. The definition of Feminism she prefers is one where roles are not constrained  according to stereotypical norms for either gender, because if women benefit from wider choices as to the paths they can follow, so do men. Her contention being that, given merit is based equally among the sexes, until there is equality of representation, with equal numbers of men and women in senior roles at all levels of society, we are selling our country short because, necessarily, we do not have the best people in important roles.

During the conversation Julia referred to the dichotomy of archetypes highlighted in 1975 by Anne Summer’s Damned Whores and God’s Police and how, in the media to this day, male leadership collocates with likeable whereas the same qualities for women will be recast as unlikeable; possibly because women leaders are in the minority. Gillard’s observation that with the same characteristics in a leader being interpreted through the prism of gender and gender stereotypes, there is an oppositional relation of a Likeable Male Leader to an Unlikeable Female Leader. This says much about the culture we live in and flags a debate that needs to be had.

Binary classification necessarily privileges the first “A” term at the expense of the second, “not A”, term which is characterised as the absence of,  or “Other” to,  the characteristics of the first term. This is central to the phallocentric logic that has sustained patriarchal institutions since Plato. As a contemporary to Julia, and the first person in a family to finish school and attend university, one of the co-authors of this piece stands in respectful awe of her achievement and applauds the resilience that allowed her to do extraordinary things in spite of formidable obstacles. The other co-author is of the generation that seeks to redress the imbalances. Together, we lament that Julia had to gain this awareness the hard way; empirically. Doubtless as she was working in a domain where women were the minority, with a work load so enormous, on issues so big that by comparison theoretical awareness seemed irrelevant, we consider such analysis and strategy is key to what positive change demands. Whereas Arts undergraduates studying feminist theory would likely be familiar with the structuralist critique discussed above, vocationally specific degrees such as law may not provide the chance for reading feminist theory and, as we know many parliamentarians have cut their teeth working in law. Volumes of theoretical analysis have interrogated the supposedly value-free, common-sense view of the world that privileges male identity and normalises it, but applying theory to developing some enabling practical strategies for the future would prevent a repeat of the negative labelling that hounded Julia Gillard’s tenure. It is a project for progressive men and women be they academics, parliamentarians, activists or simply fellow travellers to engage in, before our next female prime minister is elected only to face the same battles.

As the experience of our first female prime minister attests, it is through practice that things do change. However, best practice would be informed by theory and full of reflection and advice to educate and protect the next generation of women who willl strive to find a path to change the world so that they also look after their own wellbeing. Resilience of the sort that Juliaso doggedly demonstrated, needs to be more than a personal characteristic; it needs to be something that is embedded into the strategy and practices of feminist politics. Thus, devising, evaluating and creating an alternative paradigm for what goes by the label of political leadership is the other legacy of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. Whilst she continues to work to make the world a better place, through her global and teaching roles, Julia has graciously left the political stage for those who follow in her wake. However, her book and this wonderful conversation provide valuable foundations for those seeking to build a framework for the next generation of politically engaged women, forewarning them of some of the pitfalls awaiting them public life, to stand for something positive for those without representation and lacking choices.

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– Linda Adair and Lucinda Adair-Roberts

My Story by Julia Gillard, Randon House 2014, is available from  http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/julia-gillard/my-story-9780857983992.aspx

Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.
Lucinda Adair-Roberts is studying at Macquarie University and is a Publishing Assistant on Rochford Street Review

The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from 18 to 24 May (though there are a handful of events before the 18th). For more information and a detailed list of events go to http://www.swf.org.au/

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