Fleurieu Biennale Art Prize heads home

This year sees the Fleurieu Biennale back ‘home’ on the Peninsula where it started 20 years ago.

Its 2016 iteration saw a prestigious line-up of national talents at the Samstag Museum of Art. With the Biennale’s departure from the city and a much larger cohort of artists now crowding the walls, the conceptual/political edginess of 2016 as exploited by Tony Albert, Alex Seton, Tim Silver, Ian North and others, along with the visual heft that large-scale mixed-media works deliver, has largely disappeared.

Is this a bad thing?

That depends on what future the organisers of the Biennale envisage for the project. While it remained closely aligned to the desirable image of the Peninsula as a place of distinctive natural beauty, with a rich heritage, superb food and wine, and so on then it is on solid ground. The various thematic sections adopted over the years such as Fleurieu Vistas, Food and Wine, consolidated this feeling of the Biennale being a celebration of the region’s blessings – and a tangible expression of art’s role in celebrating these in various ways. The Adelaide excursion appears to have reshaped perspectives.

The artists for 2018 have been asked to respond to the theme of ‘a sense of place’. All works are now presented in three venues: Stump Hill Gallery and Fleurieu Arthouse in McLaren Vale and Signal Point Gallery, Goolwa. There are no category subdivisions.

To be frank, I miss the smaller shows scattered across several wineries, along with their various thematics. There was a sense of homeliness attached to it which consolidation can never replace. But the decision to hang the finalists in three venues does allow the full field to be experienced and weighed in the balance.

The winning entry, Hidden Landscape, Kangaroo Island, a collaboration between James Tylor and Laura Wills, presents as one of the more visually and conceptually complex images in the Biennale. It doesn’t tick the usual boxes for major prize winners being modest in scale and subtle in its propositions. But its strength is that it references an important story about the problematic Indigenous/whaling history of Kangaroo Island and does so in a visually intriguing manner. It’s a puzzle picture that relies heavily on the viewer joining the dots. The longer you look, the more you see – which is essentially its message. Think of it as an opening sentence in what could and, indeed, should become, a long conversation. These artists are not alone in giving expression to the idea of place as a notional or cultural space.

Margaret Worth’s Searching the Map: Red Centre casts mineral powders front and centre in an ongoing exploration of the origins of life on earth. Renate Nisi has fused tree branches and found emu legs (Graft) which suggest some coalescence of altered states or alternative place. Ed Douglas uses the metaphor of the drawing board (On My Father’s Drawing Board: My Studio/ My Mind) to allude to the workings of an inner space, the engine room of an artist’s imagination. The tight editing of David Russell’s photographic image (The Spare Room) encourages the viewer to imagine occupying another’s space and to recall domestic interiors of one’s childhood. Odette England’s strategy of sand papering photographs and rephotographing the result (Neither Here Nor There) leaves these images with an unstable identity – places that float somewhere in between – a characteristic shared with Lucy Bonnin’s Storm after Stanfield with its mock homage to Clarkson Stanfield’s Mount Saint Michael, Cornwall (1830) complete with plastic bottles polluting the billows.

Alongside this type of exploration of place as something sensed, imagined or reconstructed are works that declare a deep sense of personal connection to sometimes a particular locale or a type of place in which to reflect. I’m thinking for example of Celia Morgan’s diminutive and finely calibrated Coco Street, the bare-boned capture of intersection between sea and sky in Alison Binks’ Sea, the muted symbolism in Robert Hannaford’s House and Studio (with an empty frame on the verandah of the old milking shed at Peters Hill leading the eye to the brilliance of light beyond) the immensity of night sky captured in Liz Butler’s Bonded to Terra Firma, the push pull poetics of Louise Feneley’s The Wanderer’s Lament, the Venetian glow of fading light in Tricia Ross’ Seascape (The Light Between #1), the crystalline stillness of Ken Smith’s view across the bay (Sunshine), Amy Joy Watson’s shimmering rendition of Flinders hillscapes (Arkaroola) and, one of the most powerful images in the show, Margaret Ambridge’s Sellicks, an anticipation of life’s end set in a simple rock pool.

So, lots of room for reflection, plenty of landscapes of pleasure, technical bravura aplenty and the occasional gem of an image that should remind everyone of how difficult it is to make, not just accomplished, biennale-fit-for-purpose, but exceptional art.

Fleurieu Biennale Art Prize 2018
McLaren Vale & Fleurieu Visitors Centre and Fleurieu Arthouse, McLaren Vale and Signal Point Gallery, Goolwa
Until Sunday, July 22
artprize.com.au

Header image: James Tylor and Laura Wills, Hidden landscapes: Kangaroo Island, pencil, pastel and pigment ink on paper, 138cm x 112cm. 

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