Redlands Art Awards 2012

Open, peaceful and elegant, The Redland Art Gallery is the perfect, welcoming venue in which to view the fiftieth anniversary exhibition of the Redlands Art Awards. Leaving the bright outdoor sunlight behind, a viewer first notices the incredible variety of painting styles and approaches evident within this skillfully presented show. One is faced with the delicious decision of where to begin within such a wide-ranging survey of current Australian painting. Entries this year totalled 390, coming from every state except the ACT.

Paint is such a wonderfully plastic medium. Any two artists will never physically manipulate it in the same way. It’s the singularity of purpose expressed through the paint that is so important, especially in a world in which experience is increasingly mediated by a pixelated screen. In short, painting – particularly in this exhibition – is a physical, intimate form of one-on-one communication between artist and viewer, and should be savoured.

Directly ahead, in a corner framed in by a short wall, is a trio of works that couldn’t be more disparate in terms of style, subject matter or relationship to the viewer. Yet each painting embodies an aspect of Australian life: The Beach, The Dreamtime, and The Innocence of Childhood. Alan Young’s Interaction at the Beach (2011) is painted in a vibrant art brut style that knowingly plays with formal flatness, text and the open sexuality of beach culture. With this slightly provocative, teasing painting, done largely in straight-from-the-tube, highly saturated hues, what we see is what we get.

Gladdy Kemarre’s  Anwekety (Bush Plum) (2012), winner of Second Prize, is painted with aqua, bright scarlet and white on a black ground in the Utopian Desert style. Truly breathtaking in its veil-like simplicity and ability to fold, unfold and ripple surface and space, it has the ability to speak universally as well as to remain in some ways obdurately obscure to non-aboriginal viewers, and this is part of its allure. We bring to the painting our own search for meaning, whether this be for an understanding of the cosmos or how the eye reads texture, pattern and colour.

Be Our Guest Have a Rest (2012) painted by Grace Huang, is strictly representational, picturing a young girl sitting on a bench - waiting, daydreaming. Her small dog is tethered to a lead, and avidly peers to the right, hoping to see a returning adult. At first glance this painting might seem merely earnest and cute, but it’s a very sophisticated composition. The girl’s dreamy, distracted gaze travels out from the picture, passing by the viewer. In contrast, the dog’s glance to the right is very intent and on the cusp of action. Indeed, when the viewer does make eye contact, it’s with the girl’s Mickey Mouse doll seated next to her on the bench. The three gazes’ vectors combine to place the viewer at a particular spot, creating a distance from the girl that protects her and keeps her safe.

Moving on into the gallery, Mostyn Bramley-Moore’s Noisy Dusk (Bolivia Hill) (2011) is a bravura, spontaneous display of mark making and juicy, rich, abstract painting passages in muted blue-greys and blacks. On occasion, the ground painting of sky blue is allowed to slip through and coexist with soft pink and chromium oxide green. Notational in feeling, loops and scratches pile up to create a layered, stratified landscape of rhythmic durations, mimicking birds and insects at twilight.

Immediately to the left is Robert Malherbe’s The Conversation (2011), also executed in sensuous, glossy and even thicker paint. But here the palette is based on the soft carmines, siennas and naples yellow of the model’s skin. She is caught speaking, mid-sentence, immediate and active – like the fluid movement of the paint itself. In this show there are quite a few explorations of wet-into-wet, thickly painted surfaces such as Eunkyoung Moon-Back’s White Corner #35 (2011); Sally West’s Yellow Car at Bluey’s Shops (2012); and Ashley Frost’s Airport Study 2 (2012). These works’ application of oil paint ranges from raw, calligraphic finger painting (Moon-Back) to frosting-like dips, swirls and drippy curlicues (West), to a luminous, uncanny depth of space achieved in a very small, tactile work (Frost).

The gallery’s back room brings together three canvases notable for their opposing intentions and strong dedication to craft, namely, Schmid Stefen’s A Secret (2011) Christopher McVinish’s The Beauty of Strangeness (2012) and Vicki Sangster’s, Resting on the Rusty Ladder (2012).

A Secret’s square format and oversized, planar depiction of a yellow-haired, serenely smiling woman is painted in glowing pinks, yellows and alizarin crimson. The image calls up the frontality and ‘primitivism’ of Cycladic sculpture, but it also assumes a playful, outsider’s take on the Mona Lisa.

McVinish’s hyper-real rendering of a goat’s skull set against a sepia-toned background is a bit macabre. However, its loving treatment of light passing through the thinnest bone of the skull is, indeed, beautiful, and the painting references thousands of years of naturalism and momento mori in the history of art.

Finally, Resting on the Rusty Ladder successfully combines photorealism with painterliness. We see a cormorant perched on an almost anthropomorphic, aging piece of marine equipment (complete with a guano-encrusted solar panel), surrounded by choppy seas painted in bold, patchy primaries. The painting’s success rests on its technical expertise balanced with an idiosyncratic mixture of observation of the everyday with wry humour.

In the words of finalist judge David Burnett (Curator of International Art, QAGOMA), Claudine Marzik’s piece, Limestone Walls (2012) was, “quite simply, First Prize.” This painting, with its layered, sanded and hatched-over synthetic polymer paint, echoes the building up and tearing down of geological incident upon the walls of the Chillagoe Caves – the inspiration for Marzik’s work. A poetics of paint, how paint feels, conceals, creates movement, abstracts into meaning without words, is built into Marzik’s process. With its roots in Pollack, Tàpies and perhaps, Anselm Kiefer, this painting works to stand outside of time and narrative.

Mark Stewart has garnered Third Prize for his softly rendered Flight over Fitzroy River (2012). In a spacious birds’ eye view, the artist has overlaid a fuzzy grid as if to further parcel out modern man’s incursion into the landscape. Depicted in muted ochres, gumtree greens and steely blues, this geometry of receding roads, agricultural boundaries, dams and deforestation draws a counterpane over the land, and, possibly, a connection between domestication and loss.
On the whole, the exhibition presents a very high level of craft and intent. Judges Emma Bain (Director, Redland Art Gallery) and Dr Laini Burton (Lecturer, Digital Media, QCA, Griffiths University) along with Burnett, deserve ultimate kudos for sorting through the original 390 entries to shortlist an engaging and impressive group of 45.

This writer’s personal favorite is the high-spirited, obsessive Bob Wobbly Lost at Sea Amongst a Battle of Tin Cans (2012) by Franky Howell, yet there’s not a painting in the show undeserving of discussion and careful consideration. The Meredith Foxton People’s Choice Award has gone to Judy Rogers for her expertly accomplished Daniel (2011). Looking forward to the future, one is certain that based on this current exhibition, the Redlands Art Awards will continue to shape our vision of contemporary Australian painting.

Carol Schwarzman
November 2012