Better Off in Adelaide
In a series of essays and talks, champion of local art Ted Snell laments the invisibility of Western Australian artists to national exhibitions and publications.1 Snell blames the tyranny of distance, the way that curators ‘over east’ don’t make the trip to understand what is taking place here. There are also commonly heard complaints that Perth lacks infrastructure, a culture of influence, and an educated public. Of Australia’s state capitals, one needs only to look to Adelaide and Brisbane to understand how cities can have their own artistic souls. The difference between Perth and these cities lies in the way that they have come to terms with their own histories, the way that the cities themselves have soul. To gain an artistic soul and all that comes with it, Perth needs to understand the bigger picture, how the city’s history has inhibited the development of the visual arts, and how it is that artists have also failed the city. Here there are many lessons to be learned from Adelaide and Brisbane.
Let’s turn to Adelaide first, host of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and its pulsing intellectual companion, the Adelaide Festival Visual Arts Program. These events tie together five brilliant galleries that are all a short tram distance across the city, as if AGWA, Curtin, the Lawrence Wilson, PICA and the Fremantle Arts Centre were all bunched into downtown Perth. Adelaide has the advantage of being both a nicely planned city and one that has both the Art Gallery of South Australia and the South Australian Museum, with their close ties to the Pitjantjatjara country to the north. Since Hans Heysen towed his caravan into the Flinders Ranges, and more recently since the exhibition of Pitjantjatjara art at both of its major institutions, South Australia has shown sensitivity to its regions, and to the lived experience of South Australians. The art of Heysen, and today of Pitjantjatjara artists, speaks directly to the region’s history, and of a way of imagining one’s place in this country. Admittedly, South Australia’s colonial history has been a much softer one than here. It was a condition of early pastoral leases that Aboriginal people had access to their lands, and as far back as the 1920s the South Australian parliament did not pass laws that would allow the indiscriminate removal of children.
South Australia proves the point that art and ethical governments go together, that to have an artistic soul, you need to have a soul in the first place.
Brisbane offers a reverse model for artistic development, since Queensland was possibly the worst place to be Aboriginal. And just as the truth of Nazi Germany lies not in Hitler’s charisma but in the suffering of the Jews, so the truth of Queensland’s history lies in the voices of those at the bottom of the pile. From a situation of structural and everyday racism, and from a long history of police violence, grew two generations of rigorous conceptual artists in Brisbane. Their peers were not collectors and sycophants, but Aboriginal activists and punk musicians. Usually the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and the spectacular Gallery of Modern Art are used as indicators of Brisbane’s ascendance but even without them, Brisbane would be the biggest influence on Australian art because of artists like Robert MacPherson, Tracey Moffatt and Gordon Bennett to name a few.
Adelaide and Brisbane prove just how badly Perth missed the boat to having a thriving artworld of its own. This is the result of much larger problems that are endemic to the city.
The first thing that Perth has been missing historically is an intimate and meaningful relationship with its regions.
Much of regional Western Australia might as well be in the Northern Territory, or in Melbourne and Sydney, where you are more likely to see art from the Kimberley. Of course, there are exceptions to this disconnection of the city from its place in the state. While he was Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia in the 1960s, Frank Norton went on painting trips to the Burrup Peninsula, on the north west Pilbara coast. Here he painted the Aboriginal rock art, as if to claim this monument to the longest civilisation in the world for Australian art. More recently, the organisation Form has been building a relationship between Perth and the rest, with a series of exhibitions and complex projects from the Pilbara. These are, however, exceptions to a history in which Western Australia has largely been left to its own devices, as pastoralists and miners have had free reign to reshape the state in their own heroic images.
A second lack is a missing generation of star artists from Perth who engaged in the conceptual art revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s Brian Blanchflower, Guy-Grey Smith and Howard Taylor became the canonical Perth artists in the national art press, but their work was hardly conceptual.2 Struggling with their personal legacies of being imprisoned in wartime, these artists pioneered a conservative post-war modernism that is common throughout the world. Beautiful pictures and sculptures, yes, that look to the local environment, but by the late 1970s the contemporary artworld was no longer interested in pictures or sculptures. At the recent The Undiscovered symposium on Perth art, Ian McLean emphasised the way that the international artworld is no longer interested in identity politics.3 But Perth never struggled with its identity in the first place.
The legacy of conceptual art was to use language to free artists from the picture. The most successful conceptual artist from Perth is Stuart Ringholt, whose performance and installation work came to an end here after a local gallery that represented him simply couldn’t grasp what he was doing. They thought his exhibition called Love, constituting a pile of detritus from his period of mental illness, was ‘a bit Fremantle’.4 One of Snell’s arguments is that locals are being neglected by interstate curators but it is also possible to argue that they are being left out because those who had something to offer the national picture have already left. Those who remain often lack the kind of content that the national artworld thrives on. If you are an artist who pursues painting for its own sake, you will remain irrelevant to the larger discussions taking place in the country today. If your art is essentially about installing grey statues or sheet metal cut-outs on Perth streets, you will also remain irrelevant to the broader nation.
If Ringholt stands for the missing conceptual artists of Perth, the Carrolup school stands for Perth’s neglect of its own region. While Grey-Smith and Taylor were comfortably pursuing their art, the stolen generations of Perth were homeless, impoverished and imprisoned, often on the streets and struggling with alcohol addictions. In spite of this, in spite of Perth, these painters mobilised art as a way of getting ‘out of some scrapes’.5 These works, produced over many decades in prison, sold door to door in Willagee, and traded for food on the outskirts of town, visualise an identity of the south west of the state whose story is of both local and national interest. The Carrolup artists have content to their work that conveys its own necessity.
If these artists have something in common with that of Grey-Smith and Taylor, it lies in the trauma of living here, as the forests were being razed by a resettlement program for war veterans, and Aboriginal children were being taken from their families. While the truth of Perth’s history remains invisible, its artists will have little to work with, little to do, but to make art for art’s sake. Artists are not going to be supported simply because they make art. They will be supported, as they are in Adelaide and Brisbane, when they create work that speaks to the deeper traumas and knowledges of the place in which they are made. Ironically, it is this emplacement that also makes art relevant both nationally and internationally. The Carrolup artists exhibited on Charing Cross Road in London in 1951, a decade before the much historicised Recent Australian Painting because their work is pertinent to the history of the world itself, as they picture the clash of civilisations.
So it is that the conversation around the representation of Perth artists is symptomatic of a city that has not grasped the opportunities it might have had. One opportunity lies in the city’s relationship to the region at large, whether it be the Noongar country of the south west or the state itself. This state is full of art, from the rock art of the north west to the Antony Gormley sculptures on Lake Ballard. A second missed opportunity lies in being a part of the conversation that arose after conceptualism. Ringholt is symptomatic of a lost generation of artists, whose work was not as well supported as it might have been. Let’s hope that Perth can come to terms with its history so that artists are able to make work that finds a more convivial environment. Yet it is also up to artists to create this environment by demonstrating their capacity to change the way that Perth thinks about itself, to make work that speaks to the very malaise that confronts the city.
The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork was generously donated for educational and research purposes by Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, United States of America.
1 ‘Why are Western Australian art and artists invisible?’, The Conversation 1 April 2014; ‘Don’t forget the west: mid-century modern and David Foulkes Taylor’, The Conversation 25 August 2014; ‘Western Australian Art is excluded from the national conversation’, The Conversation 17 October 2014 at; ‘The tyranny of myopia: What do we mean when we say ‘Australian’ or ‘National’ in the context of contemporary art in Australia’, talk at The Undiscovered: A National Focus on Western Australian Art, Perth, 20 October, 2014.
2 Here I am relying on a survey of Australian art journals made by Ian McLean in the decades to 2000.
3 Ian McLean, Post-National Futures, talk at The Undiscovered: A National Focus on Western Australian Art, Perth, 20 October, 2014.
4 Stuart Ringholt, Hashish Psychosis: What it’s like to be mentally ill and recover. Melbourne: c2006, p. 95.
5 Tjyllyungoo (Lance Chadd) interviewed in Show us a Light: The Artistic History of Carrolup. Dir. Nancy Sokil. Melbourne: Perth: Blue Moon Film and Video, 1989.
Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history at the University of Western Australia. His most recent essays on West Australian art and exhibitions are in the book, Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction and Arena magazine.
This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Summer 2014/15