Art Inclusion Zone: Mildura Revisited

Mildura Revisited: sculptures exhibited 1961-1978

Mildura is in a Fruit Fly Exclusion Zone. No big deal. Just eat those apples before you cross the line. Years ago, back in the 60s and 70s, it was once a real Art Inclusion Zone. It was also, for some, an Art Exclusion Zone. It all depended on whether you swallowed the idea that anything might be art, or more particularly, sculpture. We’re talking about the extraordinary phenomena of the Mildura Sculpture Triennials that from 1961 until 1978 captured the imagination of a cross generation of artists, galvanised a local community and in cultural terms put Mildura on the map. The project grew from an observation of Eric Westbrook, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (1956-73) that the expansive lawns in front of the Chaffey family’s historic Rio Vista House would make an excellent site for a small open-air exhibition of sculpture. As Director of the Mildura Art Gallery (1958-65) Ernst Van Hattum ran with the idea and instituted, from 1961, a series of modern exhibitions to contemporary Australian sculpture that eventually became known as the Mildura Triennials. Local art teacher, then Director of the Mildura Art Gallery, Tom McCullough, consolidated and extended the MT franchise and in five Mildura Triennials, in addition to his 1976 Biennale in Sydney and The First Australian Sculpture Biennial, Melbourne 1981, effectively put contemporary sculpture front and centre on the national art scene. That a regional centre like Mildura could create and sustain such a defining enterprise is a lesson in how vision and perseverance can achieve greatness. Make no mistake, the Triennials, particularly McCullough’s Sculpturescape 73, were high-risk ventures that prevailed, often in the face of entrenched local hostility. Imagine the response of some of the good folk of Mildura being confronted with John Davis’ Arte Povera-inspired wrapped trees, Les Kossatz’s Spent Heap/Segment – some Foster’s Lager beer cans piled into a corner – and Kevin Mortensen’s Delicatessen – a vacant shop in Mildura’s main street occupied by some objects made from dried out ‘carcasses’ and an actor employed to be the proprietor. Little wonder these same good folk were prepared to listen to Councillor Burr (Chairman of the Arts Centre Advisory Board) who was unrelenting in his criticism of the Triennials’ moral and aesthetic shortcomings. Mildura Revisited surveys this remarkable enterprise. The steady hand of project curator Ken Scarlett is at the helm and evident in the insight that informs the catalogue essay and interpretive materials within the exhibition. It is also there in his curatorial eye, which has stamped visual order and coherency on a very diverse assembly of sculptural objects. This era today presents as a kind of fault line that buckled and lifted under pressure of competing ideologies and ideas. Leaving aside the debates about the ‘Death of Painting’ nowhere else was this rupturing more evident than in the field of sculpture or what Rosalind Krauss came to call “sculpture in the expanded field”. Mildura Revisited presents as a series of core samples of how this process unfolded. One of these is the transition from figuration to abstraction. British modern influences of post war sculptors Kenneth Armitage, Eduardo Paolozzi and Reg Butler inform early works by Inge King, Bert Flugelman and Lenton Parr. But the lead given by a later generation of artists (Anthony Caro – under the influence of American sculptor David Smith), the ‘non-relational’ work of Don Judd, among others, and a trend to moving away from the vertical/pedestal unit to constructions than occupied horizontal space obviously caught the imagination of emerging Australian sculptors. McCullough’s circuit-breaking 73 Triennial reflected an international trend to art making in dialogue with nature – or simply beyond the museum. Given the fugitive nature of much of this work, it was clearly a challenge to represent it adequately in the exhibition. This space has been filled successfully by photographic documentation. Images of John Davis’ tree installation, Kevin Mortensen’s Delicatessen at work and Paula Dawson’s exploded sheets of corrugated iron are reminders of the radical, risky dynamics of art making that occurred. Mildura Revisited is a significant contribution to the unfolding narrative of how Australian artists responded to uncertainties of the day by challenging and reimagining what art might be. It is also a reminder of how far the Triennials were well ahead of the game in catapulting sculpture into prominence, opening horizons for established and emerging sculptors and injecting vigour and occasionally a healthy streak of anarchism into sculpture’s leap from pedestal to expanded space. Yes it’s about sculpture (and a number of remarkably good ones at that) but the subtexts run deep and wide. More power to Scarlett and the Mildura Arts team for honouring the artists and visionaries and Mildura’s role in making it all happen. The story is all there in the catalogue but to fully appreciate it you’ll need to go down by the riverside. Mildura Revisited: sculptures exhibited 1961-1978 Mildura Arts Centre Continues until Monday, January 26

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