Going into the Brenda May Gallery nearly always feels like an obligation. Until a few years ago, Brenda May Gallery (formerly known as Access Contemporary Art Gallery) was housed in an architect-designed concrete battleship in Surry Hills. It was a serious place for serious artists and you felt special when you went in there. The next thing we knew, May had shut up shop and considered her options for awhile before reopening in Dank Street as BMG. Now, when we go to the gallery, it’s a lot like going to visit friends who were once rich but are now living in much reduced circumstances.
But given enough time, Brenda May Gallery may expand back to its original size and take over all of Danks Street as we discovered, since our last visit, that the gallery has expanded into a new space and can host two shows at the same time. The show that caught our eyes was Shadows Under The Stairs by Sybil Curtis and is remarkable for two reasons – one reason is that it’s a show of oil paintings on canvas and that’s pretty rare these days, and the other reason is that Curtis’s paintings remind us a lot of Jeffrey Smart – another astoundingly unique factor.
The pictures are mostly industrial landscapes like gas works or junk yards and rubbish tips. Despite the incredible demands on technique by choosing such minutely detailed landscapes, we couldn’t fault the execution of Curtis’s paintings. Giles Auty once remarked that Jeffery Smart wasn’t all that great a painter because his skies looked like flat areas of paint, an anti-illusionistic faux pas that worked against the De Chirico-inspired landscapes. As much as we hated to admit it, Auty was right. Curtis has avoided this, although the colours seem to go a bit flat as well at times – with an odd suggestion of John Brack in the choice of colours – but that’s hardly the point. The surprise in these works is the choice of image, angle and juxtaposition. We acknowledge that that is what painting is supposed to do, but you hardly ever see it these days.
Speaking of not seeing things, we missed James Guppy’s last show at Brenda May but happily a selection of works were hanging on the sliding wire frame in the gallery that doubles as moving stock room. How wonderful it was to see Guppy’s pornographic image boxes, wooden constructions with beveled mirrors on the fronts and side so you really have to make the effort to see what is going on inside. Guppy is one of the country’s only decent Surrealist-inspired artists working and what a joy it was to see a selection of images from a truly warped mind. We imagine you could make a truly amazing show out of works by Guppy, McLean Edwards, Ashley Hempsall and Lucinda Chambers. But you’d have to serve devils on horseback and a really heavy cabernet sauvignon, of course. But that’s just an idea.