Why is the National Trust SH Ervin Gallery at the top of a very big hill? If it was at the bottom of a hill, perhaps in a dingly dell surrounded by flannel flowers and babbling brooks, we might be in a better frame of mind when we get there. But it is at the top of Observatory Hill and we are invariably in a bad mood when we arrive. Another thing that sticks in our collective craw is that you must pay $6 for the privilege of going inside. We know, it’s the velvet rope syndrome – you want to get in to see what’s on offer and the $6 makes you think that there’s a value-for-money equation going on – but like the velvet rope, once you’re inside it’s nothing special, just people standing a round looking depressed.
The SH Ervin Gallery is named after the man who, in 1754, created the concept of the ‘group show’ (which in those days was called a ‘salon’) and the National Trust uses the place for worthy competitions, overflow shows and carefully curated exhibitions that go on to become “important”. That’s all good and we have no problem with that aspect of the gallery, but we do have a problem with the excessively crappy way the gallery exhibits art. The cheap and tacky hanging, the placement of paintings on curved walls next to windows, the discovery of blind alley ways where you find a lonely painting hung on what looks like an office divider, cluttered sight lines, indistinct lighting, the chatter of idiotic gallery guides – the SH Ervin is like an artist’s run space for grown ups. However, instead of the sheer chutzpah of real artist run stuff, the Ervin is all Devonshire teas, ABC Classic FM and people talking about their recent operations. Artists should think long and hard before they agree to show their work in a gallery as badly compromised but as heavily promoted as this.
We went to the Ervin for the third annual The Year in Art exhibition and discovered that the show is the result of a concept:
“The concept for this exhibition is to present a selection of works from exhibitions that have been held in art galleries throughout 2004. The invited arts writers and curators, to view exhibitions throughout the year and nominate works that they believed represented the scope of contemporary practice. The artists that have been selected for this exhibition demonstrate the dynamic contemporary arts scene and include both emerging artists and established practitioners. The exhibition aims to promote living Australian artists working in any discipline and bring their work to the attention of a wider audience.”
Perhaps we were foolish for thinking that a statement of intent should actually reflect what is in the show, but if you can’t trust the National Trust, who can you trust? No one, that’s who! If the arts scene in Sydney is evenly divided between painting and drawing with a bit of sculpture and photography on the side, then this show is indeed representative of the “scope of contemporary practice”. But where is a representative sampling of all the video work that’s going on? Where is the installation work and the conceptual stuff you see in artist run galleries? The sexiest this show gets is with a few photographs and an inflatable sculpture. Wooh! But as far as a true sampling, this show falls at the first hurdle. The key word in that statement is “believe” which is a good get out clause – they believe and thus it is so.
This show is a trawl through exhibitions at commercial galleries around town and as such is not representative of the ‘scope’ of anything, but more a demonstration of how the art world is divided between old school modernists and the slightly frayed generation of avant gardists. And forget the business about a “wider audience” – the only people who are seeing this show like scones, Richard Clayderman and are in bed by 9pm.
Perhaps the most apposite example of the show is the inclusion of a work by William Kentridge called Office Love, a mohair tapestry measuring an impressive 350x460cms. It looks a lot like the work of Sally Smart, cut out shapes against a background map of Johannesburg and is so deadly dull and worthy it sends you into paroxysms of admiration – Oh William Kentridge! You are a master of your craft! We admire your Phaidon volume and your dogged devotion to heavy charcoal lines! You are indeed the modernist father figure we have been hungering for! Actually, to be perfectly blunt, piss off – we cannot tell you how sick we are of this kind of tedious display of artistic merit. It’s art for the leather-lounge-and-whisky-after-dinner set.
On a similarly duff note is an example of John Beard‘s Headland show from Liverpool Street Gallery which, to be fair, looks quite good on its own. Rick Amor‘s work Path to The Sea is quite similar to Beard’s art its blatant foregrounding of its attempts at being artistic, but unlike Beard and Kentridge, Amor manages to pull it off, partly due to the eccentricity of his vision and partly the deftness of his technique. It’s still a bit of a yawn, but it’s a quality yawn.
There is a lot of that kind of art in this show – high quality, high concept, unreconstructed modernism, technique-will-save-the-day stuff that’s pretty much bereft of anything but the artist’s own blind belief in their talent and importance. The shock is that there is so much of it. (We don’t know who the arts writers and critics were who nominated these shows but we have our suspicions…)
In this kind of tepid environment, Wendy Sharpe can’t help but stand out – she’s not here to save the world from heathen post modernity, just to record it. Her six panel A Night In The City is a wondrous thing, even if it’s hung so badly. Actually the prize for the worst hung painting in the show goes to the person who decided to hang Jon Plapp‘s black and white geometric abstraction next to a gallery air conditioning vent, which looks rather like Plapp’s painting. You’re fired!
A lot of works look exceptionally ordinary in this exhibition – works by artists Anne Wallace, Peter Atkins and Susan Andrews do not benefit at all from being hung in the Ervin, while the pieces by severely over-rated artists like Guan Wei, Polixeni Papapetrou and Cherine Fahd are like the HSC works of mildly talented students. What a great leveller it is to have all this work hung on shit brown walls. It makes everything look equally bad.
That anything looks good at all in this show is a minor miracle. Brook Andrew‘s Ignoratia (kookaburra) photographic work looks at home here – perhaps because of its faux-museum stylings. Philip George‘s The Affliction of The Protestant, a photograph of a ghostly green building floating in a desert calls to everyone who sees it. Anne Nobel‘s Ruby’s Room #23 is a large photograph of a strand of hair on a girl’s face and we kept going back to it.
We know, it seems like we just liked the photographic works, and looking over the catalogue, perhaps that’s true. Certain paintings did look good, but they were always let down by the hang. At first glance, two large drawings looked great and we resisted going up and have a gander until the end – sort of like saving the dessert ’til last so you walk away with a sweet taste. eX de Medici had two drawings, Skull (Willow) and Skull (Camo). They are big, clean and are meticulously done. Then we discovered something kind of crap – there was a written explanation of the works hanging next to the two pieces. What a package – pretentious name and an explanation that makes sure that you walk away with what the artist thinks you should know. To paraphrase Tony Montana, we don’t need that shit in our lives.