No Hugging, No Learning

Reviews Feb 24, 2009 No Comments

Pepe Le Pew writes…

Artexpress 2009 opened the Art Gallery of NSW. It was a gala affair despite an earlier midday starting time replete with new Ministers and special guests Ben Quilty and Del Kathryn Barton who offered pragmatic and heartfelt advice about ‘keepin’ it real and keepin’ it going’ in the art world.

If you are one of the few in NSW who aren’t familiar with this show it’s a curated exhibition of graduating High School Visual Arts students. Culled from over 9000 artworks the AGNSW choose about 60 from a lucky 500 or so preselected candidates. They get the first pick so the Art Gallery show always seems to carry a little more weight despite the high quality of the other exhibitions.

It’s almost obligatory at this point to mention the vast numbers of people who walk through the door of the gallery to visit the exhibition, an impressive statistic by any standard but one that has always made me a little bit uncomfortable. I guess it’s because I have never been completely sure who the information is aimed at persuading. It’s certainly not the twenty thousand plus people who flood through the doors of the exhibition. For some it’s their only annual visit to the AGNSW, who in turn claim it as one of their biggest shows of the year. And whilst I concede it is possible to argue that the vast numbers could merely be a case of collective proud parenting, I think there is something else going on here.

Strip away the direct friends and relatives and the artists themselves and there is still a fair whack of people wandering around. Their motives must vary but I suspect many of them end up there to learn.

Rose Ayers, I Want, 2008.

Much is made of the “amazing talent” and “raw energy” of the kids and Artexpress can sometimes be touted as almost a freak show of savant-like ability by the media. This is possibly as a way to make up for all the negative press they pile on about scary and dangerous teens throwing parties on your street the rest of the year. I am sure many people do come to the show to be impressed with our “Talented Aussie Champions”, and the formal fine art skills they present but as many of the works have become significantly more conceptual in the past few years the audience is often exposed to a much broader spectrum of art practice.

It’s a mediated experience of contemporary art practice without the pressure because it is student work and that means it’s ok to put up your hand and ask. Indeed you don’t have to ask because the answers are provided by an extensive support system of artist’s statements, diaries and prep sketches and now even a podcast of interviews with its exhibitors guaranteeing even the most timid visitor walks out well informed about the work and the process of creating it. It’s a very satisfying experience for many.

The perceived role of the education people at the AGNSW may be to guide the kiddies round the gallery and give them worksheets to colour in, but Artexpress demonstrates the much more complex and considered role education plays in the institution. Additionally Artexpress has a resultant function in that it enhances the experience for the general public who can use Artexpress as a conduit to access or at least get exposure to art practices which they may find otherwise intimidating.

So who’s not buying?

Well certainly some people are, literally. A side effect of the growing presence of Artexpress in the exhibition calendar has been the market interest in selected exhibitors. In the same way that Primavera has become a speculative investors shopping list, some buyers are getting in at the ground floor and snapping up potential art stars at bargain prices. The legend of artists like Jasper Knight, and Ben Quilty who were both Artexpress stars, bait the hook for these long-line fishermen. To say nothing of the folly this concept, it’s tragic to think that these personally significant works are being seduced away from young people for mediocre returns and an unrealistic sense of material success. It also puts significant pressure on young artists to get in lest they experience the sort of disappointment that artists aren’t supposed to feel until they turn 35 and can’t get any of those travel grants anymore.

Ironically many of the students who make the cut at Artexpress have no intention of pursuing art as a primary career goal, choosing instead more pragmatic paths into regular paid employment like prime mortgage lending and insurance.

So who’s not with the program?

Well possibly it’s us. By us I mean the art literate practitioner’s writers and consumers of contemporary art. Having perhaps adopted the Seinfeld credo of “no hugging and no learning” many avoid Artexpress with enthusiasm.

This I think is a bit of a pity since I think there is value in the experience for us too.

Like what you hear?

Student art is largely a direct response to the perceived state of current art practice. Its interesting to those of us who care at all what the audience might be thinking to be able to see physically manifested responses to the work they do. One artist I spoke to recently bemoaned an uncredited and blatant rip off of their work, perhaps failing to consider that this meant they had effectively made the grade and crossed over into a wider awareness of their practice. Remember all those Brett Whitley paintings you did in High School, the Salvador Dali’s and that crying Lichtenstein chick? Today’s students are just as likely to be ripping off Lionel Bawden and Todd McMillan.

As an exhibition how does Art Express fare?

A multi themed, multi discipline group show is going to be a tough hang at the best of times But Tristan Sharp the exhibitions curator avoids over-sentimentalising with a tightly curated and carefully considered layout. There is more space this year allowing for a greater distance between the pieces which allows a separation of ideas but also the opportunity for the interconnections to come together more subtly.

The use of boldly coloured walls at different points effectively serves to guide and as well as providing some functional support such as the black alcove portals for the video work. Sharp has deftly balanced works ranging from those that explore traditional skills and materials with more contemporary conceptual work in such as way as that they also inform each other. The colour scheme despite its striking hue serves as a gentle arm to the elbow rather than a twist and shove in any particular thematic direction.

The result is a complex show that avoids completely giving in to patronising head patting whilst also allowing and acknowledging the budding nature of the artists work at this early point in their development.

And of course there are always a few works that will surprise you with their conceptual strength. Take Luis Tapia’s moving tribute to his late father or Christine Kim’s miniature robots made from of broken computer parts that draw for their artist. Benjamin Wilson’s award winning Michel Gondry tribute scored him a scholarship to the Sydney international film school at the Robin Anderson awards last year.

These works would not look out of place at an arts degree graduation show or local film festival screening.

HSC Visual Arts students work in a structured, pressured and restrictive environment unlike anything outside High School. Despite this some of the work holds up pretty well in any context and deserves to be acknowledged, not just by proud mums, dads, Teachers and bestest buddies but by the agencies of the art world that some students aspire to. And in the process we have an opportunity to learn more about our own practice along the way.

Oops I said “learn” then didn’t I…

Andrew Frost

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