Fair’s Fare

Art Life , Reviews Dec 03, 2007 No Comments

From Isobel Johnston

Fare’s Fair, or the confessions of…

While the debate rages in arts magazines and at art institutions on the value, benefit, critical appraisal and proliferation of art fairs around the world, I took what I must confess was my first visit to an art fair and led a couple of walking tours entitled “Locations” at Art Sydney 07.

ART 07 bought together in one place 80 different galleries from Sydney, Victoria, and Queensland and from as far afield at the Apollo Gallery in Dublin. As such it provided a unique location to view art and to see new and familiar works in the context of a broader contemporary art world and allowed the viewer to judge and assess artists’ works in the immediate context of their peers.

ART 07 catered for audiences who were already avid collectors yet also provided a perfect entrée into the art world and collecting for new collectors. Although, as one gallery dealer pointed out, the idea of a market meant that newly initiated weren’t too sure of the conventions, and at the end of the event tried bargaining for a reduced priced because they were packing up – just as you might at the fruit market.

The ‘Belle Off the Wall’ component reflected the art world’s choice of exciting new emerging artists. The judges included Rachel Kent (Senior Curator from the MCA), Barry Keldoulis (Gallery Barry Keldoulis) and the Archibald winning artist Adam Cullen, among others.

The reasons why we buy art are many and varied and are all as valid as each other. We may just fall in love with the work because it makes a connection with us, or presents the world to us in ways we haven’t considered, it might because there is the opportunity to buy work by an artist whose career we have been following, it might be because we find it new or shocking or that it goes with our furnishings.

Whatever the reason, being informed about the work adds to our enjoyment of it. And the benefit of collecting the art of living artists are also varied but some of the benefits include an ability to develop a relationship with the artist over time. This may be by meeting them at their openings or it could be by following their careers and the shifts and changes in their practice as these unfold in real time, our time and more often than not provides us new perspective into our own age*. Locating us in a way that language alone does not always do.

“What you really collect is always yourself”(2) And given this insight together with the advice offered by Barbara Gladstone from Gladstone Gallery in New York collecting is pretty much summed up: “Art is an intellectual pursuit. It is not a handbag, it is not a chair, it is something else. So it is necessary to think, to ask questions and to understand” (3)

The inference isn’t that it has to be done in a dry or academic way. The parallels are closer to the way we collect and are informed about contemporary music. We know the music’s histories, its context and its relationships, and make connection between the various styles and artists and understand how this maps and informs our choices.

The idea of using Location as a theme was to provide both a link to the history of the figure within landscape in the history of Australian art and also to open up the field to look at how younger artists use location to reflect our contemporary experiences.

Within the history of Australian painting, the space in which the figure has been located has played a crucial role in our apprehension of cultural identity. We only have to think of the works of Arthur Boyd, Sydney Nolan etc to see how this subject has provided a means of conveying both a physical and a psychological experience of its time. Or for example, Brett Whiteley whose sensual nudes reflected on a more hedonistic Sydney of the 70s and 80s.

At ART Sydney 07, many of the artists presented a new take on figuration and a particular space (with many alluding to fictional and real journeys, recollections, nostalgia and as well as real places). Unlike portraiture in which a specific identity is represented, the figures in these works often allow the viewer to project themselves into these locations just as landscape traditionally has done – giving a sense of the experiential above a more voyeuristic mode of looking.

Mclean Edwards is represented by Martin Browne Gallery. The gallery itself has an interesting location occupying what was the Yellow House and you can still see a residual trace of the Yellow House at the end of the hall as you enter the gallery. (4)

Edward’s portraits have been included in the Archibald Prize over recent years – particularly memorable was his portrait of Cate Blanchett and her family. The Algerian is a portrait (although by the title it seems to me suggest a shift from specific to the generic) occupying an undefined location he is accompanied by dogs that embody the qualities of cartoon characters. The dating of Edward’s the work from the period of The Algerian is baffling until you know he actually locates the work by his own age rather then the calendar year- that explains why so many works from this period bear a large number 35 in the right-hand corner with an occasional 35/36.

As an older artist, Robert Dickerson – (Dickerson Gallery) spans the generations belonging as much to the 1960’s as to the present. His figurative painting presents aspects of our culture often through members of society seen more as archetypes; allowing us to transplant more particular and personal identities and histories upon them.

Kendal Murray’s work on display at ARTHOUSE Gallery’s bay offered miniature figures and vignettes built upon everyday objects that act as the platforms for these various actions and locations. She transforms a coin purse into a pastoral scene and her mirrored powder compacts are inhabited with tiny figures- involved in various activities from playing tennis to scaling walls. They are both humorous and melancholic with a nostalgia, which locates them as much in present but as the past. Martine Emdur’s beautifully rendered oil paintings of underwater figures which might at first be mistaken for photographs locate us below the water, reflecting a quintessentially Australian experience. Interestingly it was theme that taken up by number of artists in ART O7 using both photography and painting.

Paula Talbert is a photographer whose work (on show at United Galleries) also deals with the figure under water, but in this case the splashing about in the sea seems to have more fatal consequences. Not waving but drowning, her women in historical costume carry poetic connections to drowned and shipwreck Victorians a long way from home.

Bernard Ollis offers us inner city Sydney. His work reflects an inner Sydney experience – the life of the artist and his friends and neighbours. The viewer is invited into his world from the bedroom, to the park to reading the Sunday papers. His studio in St Peter’s is shared with his partner, artist Wendy Sharpe. Ollis’ bedroom paintings seem to reference Sharpe’s boudoir works and provide a glimpse of the connections and the dialogue that exists between artists who are also partners. His work was represented by NG Gallery which is located in an old church with the Mission restaurant downstairs. They join forces on a regular basis to host art and food events.

As I mentioned already, The Belle Off the Wall component reflected the choice made by a panel of art experts of work they found most exciting by new and emerging artists. Many of the artist’s in this section addressed the idea of location and in the case of Skye Andrews and Cornelia Burless also the idea of nostalgia.

Burless spoke about the influence European childrens’ stories had on this series of her work and how they could inform contemporary cultural experience (both as morality and cautionary tales). It is often only as adults when we to read these stories to our children that we see them in another light. They are often deeply disturbing and violent which as children we simply accept as part of the narrative. Here they open up a Pandora’s box for us sandwiching two realities the lived and the fictional on a single surface.

Alan Jones’ work was on show at both at James Makin and at the Legge Gallery. Makin is his Melbourne gallery and Legge represents his work in Sydney. Their spaces were located directly behind one and other. It might just have been chance but it worked nicely, opening up a dialogue between his works as well as echoing the double-headed figures often occur in paintings. (5) Two of his enormous portrait busts were also on show one at each gallery.

David Bromley’s well known work with the flavour of Boys and Girl’s Own Annuals present nostalgic view of childhood. They appeal because of the formal painting qualities as much as for their iconography. The idea of the ‘original’ is interestingly maintained in the screen prints which although editioned are each in an individual colour and the machined tapestries worked on painted ground to his stencils, each with individual colour variations locating them as the same but different- in fact unique.

I came away a convert- everything is on show. The wonderful thing about ART 07, and I guess art fairs generally, (because as I have already confessed this was my first time at such an event) is not only the chance to see the good, the bad and the downright awful but the gallery staff and quite often the artists are there to talk to you without any of the usual distractions of daily business and as such art fairs provide a wonderful opportunity to make connections with the artists and the galleries. Sydney Art 07 might be more upfront about the commercial side of the art business but I would argue that the same exchange is undertaken on every other platform from the cool white wall galleries to the museum, only here it was more transparent.


(1) Art Monthly UK November 07 and the ICA forum “Fair’s fair” December 07

(2) Louisa Buck & Judith Greer, Owning Art, The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook, London 2006

(3) ibid.

(4) A collective of artists including Martin Sharp, George Gittoes and many notable others who paid homage to the great artists of the past and the cultural legacy of Australia’s own visionaries.

(5) These double-headed figures has been linked to the idea of the JANUS figure- the indo-european deity with two faces associated with past/future- a transitional figure.

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