This goes with that: Elder Wing’s new hang

John Neylon continues his exploration of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) new Elder Wing hang.

Perhaps you’ve gone back for a second look at AGSA’s rebooted Elder Wing? This reviewer made a start last month and ran out of road after one wall in one gallery. It is that kind of hang – complex, at times contradictory, capricious and, let it be said, conceptual.

Things have changed. The state-by-state ‘silo’ structure has been replaced by overarching narrative themes even if the story of Australian art is still held together by a daisy chain of familiar names and works. Paintings, which traditionally dominated the Australian hang, are now jostling for attention in the company of lots more sculpture and set-piece scenarios in which paintings are contextualised with other mediums (drawing and printmaking) and decorative arts items. There are many examples. The bridge in Tom Roberts’ Gardiner’s Creek painting has its aesthetic credentials amplified by the nearby presence of a drawing and etching, which reflect the fashionable influence of Japanese art and design. In the same area, ukiyo-e woodcuts prints provide insights into Charles Conder’s youthful foray into the subdivision of compositional space, as evident in Holiday at Mentone.

Elder Wing installation view (Photo: Saul Steed)
Elder Wing installation view (Photo: Saul Steed)

The inspired insertion of a Ragnar Hansen, late 1970s scent bottle into a company of late 1890s pictorial works depicting young women in varying states of reverie, adds a dash of smelling salts to shake viewers out of nostalgic stupor. The ominous presence of a headless woman in black alongside prompts the question, ‘Has someone been sipping laudanum?’ That’s what this kind of hang does – allude, invite speculation, tap into the imagination.

At this point I encountered someone close to tears such was the emotional tug of implied narratives. So perhaps this more free-wheeling association of artefacts is working as intended and those themes are reaching hearts and minds. Then again, a few minutes earlier, I’d encountered another visitor complaining that he couldn’t read or see things that were displayed too high on the wall. The objects in question were some ceremonial trowels but there were other examples easily observed with a pair of opera glasses. On the adjoining wall, John Glover’s arcadian Artist’s House and Garden is about to be rained on by paintings of tears and fears – migrants setting off on a journey to a new land, perhaps Australia. The concept of ‘Down Under’ has been dramatically overplayed by the physical gap between the two works. The emotional distress on the faces of the migrants is lost on high.

In the adjoining gallery, this strategy of dramatic spacing of works to metaphoric (or simply visually dramatic) ends is taken to another level as a ‘waterfall’ of waterfall paintings cascades down towards Tom Roberts’ A break away! Too bad if you want to appreciate the delicacy of Louis Buvelot’s brushwork but great for visitors who want to vibe on the ironies of European romantic sentiment having its nose rubbed in the mud of a dam.

This same scatter-aesthetic strategy works when festooning works by the Australian Impressionists, Rupert Bunny and company, plus levitating crockery – like loosening the stays or abandoning corsetry altogether like Rupert Bunny’s willowy maidens. The only victims of this wallpapered frolic are the little dark ones like Conder’s Teatime and some other ‘9 x 5s’, which are clearly missing the tonal coziness that warm red walls once provided.

Elder Wing installation view (Photo: Saul Steed)
Elder Wing installation view (Photo: Saul Steed)

Gallery 4 delivers, as mid-war modernism always does, a reassuring dose of visual rigour. Gallery 5 (the final chapter of the Elder Wing rehang) takes its energy from the Marek brothers and the outrageous wonderwall tribute to European Surrealism’s pan-cultural world view. It also has the advantage of the kind of in-your-face art to work with in amplifying the ‘six degrees of separation’ dynamic that has been exploited so successfully in the new, modern hang (Gallery 6). This highlights the difficulty of getting smaller, darker Colonial and Federation art to not act their age. Installing a mint green stub wall to talk to a yellow ochre wall at the other end of the wing – thus eliminating the Elder’s best asset, that sweeping view that takes the eye and imagination on a journey – is a distraction. So too is the heavy colonnades section from Rajasthan that guards an intriguing collection of Oriental-themed works. They won’t bite.

The Elder rehang is in a ‘running-in’ stage. Full credit for the curatorial courage and flair shown to freshen up options for engaging with the collection. New works have been introduced. Little and bigger stories are sprouting green leaves. But visual coherency is a challenge. Okay, so I get the semiotics of the studio bench/plinths but not the weird oil rig pyramidal structures. And then there’s interpretation. Those thematic link-ups are so hard to sell – like, sure, Roberts and Rodin were into movement, look at those legs – like ‘Wow. Huh?’ And those crumbling cliffs in von Guérard’s Castle Rock, Cape Schank – like that’s slow mo’ deep time, right?

Perhaps (or if) Adelaide Contemporary gets up, the imperative of co-opting the permanent collection into contemporary narratives will be eased and the Gallery might dream of one day having its equivalent to the South Australian Museum’s much loved 1939 Ancient Egyptian Gallery.

Header image:
Art Gallery of South Australia / Saul Steed

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