No gallery’s collection is ever complete, and the Art Gallery of South Australia’s is always growing. Curator Maria Zagala takes us through a handful of the newly acquired works currently on display, from American abstract expressionism to a trove of 19th century South Australian photography.
“Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.” – John Berger, 1972
Ways of Seeing takes its title from the writer and artist John Berger (1926–2017), whose TV series and book of the same name have been widely influential since the early 1970s. His vivid analysis of the function of art within capitalism and its uses in advertising continues to resonate and can be a lens through which to view these works. Indeed, the intensification of consumer culture in the past four decades has made Berger’s critique particularly apposite in contemporary society.
If Berger’s ideas influenced how we see art, it also changed the way in which artists make art. This is evident in the political works of Allora & Calzadilla, Brook Andrew, Peter Drew and Tracey Moffatt, who appropriate the strategies and language of popular culture and advertising to express their progressive political agendas.
With a primary focus on contemporary works, Ways of Seeing highlights over 100 recent acquisitions to the collection and celebrates the generosity of a multitude of donors, whose passion for art enables the Gallery’s collection to continue to grow.
Helen Frankenthaler was a leading exponent of American Abstract Expressionism, the artistic style that came to prominence in the years following the Second World War. Along with Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, she developed a new vocabulary for painting.
Madame Butterfly is the culmination of Frankenthaler’s experimentation in the woodcut medium, and is one of her most outstanding prints. Judith Goldman notes the work is “As delicate as haiku, as fleeting as cherry blossoms, it suggests the fugitive nature of time” (Judith Goldman, Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts, 2002). In the 1990s Frankenthaler sought to translate the spontaneity and gestural qualities of her paintings into her woodcuts. Working closely with master printer Kenneth Tyler, Japanese printer Yasuyuki Shibata, and paper maker Tom Strianese, Frankenthaler developed the image through many trial proofs.
Woodcut, which in the European tradition has been characterised by crisp outlines (for example by Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists), was transformed by Frankenthaler into a medium of delicate, wash-like effects, achieved through allowing colours to bleed.
Allora & Calzadilla
The work of collaborative artistic duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla responds to moments of social, political and environmental crisis. The pair are particularly interested in the role of the military in shaping national narratives. They approach each project through intensive archival research and use a wide range of media from photography, performance to installation, to explore their subject.
This work from 2010 belongs to a series about American soldiers celebrating Halloween in Iraq. The juxtaposition of costume (one wears a skeleton mask, the other a mask of Frankenstein) and uniform draws attention to the vulgarity and violence of the scene.
Ed Rusha is an American artist whose practice combines elements of conceptualism and Pop art. A painter, printmaker, and creator of artist’s books, he is known for his integration of everyday objects into art. Ruscha began his training in commercial art at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in Los Angeles, after moving to LA from Oklahoma City in 1956. Inspired by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, he developed a unique, dead-pan aesthetic. His most-well known works are his seventeen artist’s books (made between 1963 – 1978). This exhibition features five of the artists books, including Every building on the sunset strip, displayed in concertina form.
The unusual book was the result of Ruscha striving for a particular aesthetic, inspired by the bookshops he visited in Paris in 1961. “What I was after was no-style or a non-statement with no-style” (Siri Engberg, Ed Ruscha Editions, 1999).
The ten-metre drawing Conscience of Revolt II 2011 by Locust Jones was created following the Arab Spring. The political instability of that time and the way it was reported in the Western news outlets is the subject of the work. Drawing with an expressive angry line, Jones depicts a tableau of disparate elements ranging from the comical to the brutal. These are presented as they appear on the news – given equal weight no matter how horrific or banal. Jones’s pen and wash re-presents this endless stream of information, and in doing so asks us to consider the way our understanding of the world is constructed through our exposure to the ‘news’.
In Laudanum Moffatt presents the erotically charged power dynamic between a white mistress and her Asian maid. The nineteen photogravure prints present a series of vignettes plucked from a longer narrative. In these Moffatt evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of a mansion, where a maid performs demeaning tasks, presumably at the command of her mistress who is in a state of drug-induced delirium. The title Laudanum refers to the opiate drug widely prescribed to ‘hysterical’ women in the nineteenth century. Moffatt’s imagery is not specific to Australia, but rather can be read across a wide range of contexts where the brutality of colonialism continues to reverberate.
Walter J Anderson, Australia, 1868-1956, Gorge Picnic Place, c. 1890-95, Northern Territory, gelatin-silver photograph 15.0 x 10.8cm (image & sheet), Gift of Darryl Collins 2017 (Image: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide)
Walter J Anderson’s work as a messenger and telegraph operator took him to many parts of South Australia and included extended postings in Kingston (1883-1886), Port Darwin (1889-1890), Katherine (1890-1895), and Adelaide (1895–1927/33). Anderson photographed the landscape and towns in which he lived, leaving a fascinating document of his travels to remote places, such as Katherine and the developing city of Port Darwin. His photographs depict well-known sites and figures and show the built incursions of white settlers on the land. Other photographs depict the domestic life of the photographer and his extended family.
Benjamin Armstrong’s sculpture Crossing and two wash drawings open the exhibition Ways of Seeing. In the sculpture the gaze is given material form and looking is understood as an ordeal, a primal taboo. Armstrong’s placement of the eyeballs on a platform, with six delicate legs, is suggestive of Italian Renaissance representations of St Lucy, a martyr whose eyes were gouged out and who was often depicted holding them on a plate.
In 2015 Adelaide-based Drew created a series Real Australians Say Welcome. Posters from this project were produced in large edition numbers, and pasted up on buildings nationally. Images of the works in situ were shared widely and Drew’s progress around the country was followed by thousands through Facebook and Instagram.
Drew’s recent street poster project AUSSIE 2016 engages with Australia’s social history and highlights racial stereotyping. The works depict people who applied for exemption from the White Australia policy are depicted above the text ‘AUSSIE’, including portraits of Adelaide-born Dorothy Sym Choon and hawker Monga Khan.
Botanical illustration is an important tool for the scientific identification of plants. The six watercolours on display by South Australian artist Ronald Adams were commissioned to illustrate the definitive text, Flowering Plants of Australia, by B.D. Morley and H.R. Toelkan (1983). Adams’ images are essential to the text and conform to the expectations of botanical identification. Despite the widespread use of photography as a visual recording device since the nineteenth century, watercolour drawings remain essential to such books. This is due to the ability of artists to describe detail and texture as well as to distill information in drawn form.
Ways of Seeing
Art Gallery of South Australia
Gallerys 9, 10, 11
February 23 – April 22
Maria Zagala is Acting Curator of International Art, pre-1980 and Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs