Laverty 2, Newcastle Region Art Gallery

May 28, 2011
William Robinson, The sand ziggurat, Kingscliff (1995) 137.5 x 183.0 cm oil on canvas
William Robinson, The sand ziggurat, Kingscliff (1995) 137.5 x 183.0 cm oil on canvas

All the talk this week has been about the Kaldor collection. This high-profile donation has prompted a massive operation on the belly of the Art Gallery of NSW, with architect, Andrew Andersens, playing a familiar role as the leading cosmetic surgeon of Australian museums. The makeover has transformed a dingy storage area into an elegant, spacious showcase for the international contemporary art holdings of John and Naomi Milgrom Kaldor.

One significant aspect of this bequest is that it has the capacity to shift the centre of gravity at the AGNSW, putting contemporary art at the forefront of collecting and exhibition policies. Already the signs are there, in an exhausting succession of dinners and events that director, Edmund Capon has been hosting, with an eye to encouraging others to emulate the Kaldor model.

The shift is also evident in the appointment of Wayne Tunnicliffe as new Curator of Australian Art, following Barry Pearce’s retirement. Youthful, trendy Wayne is the boy with the wheelbarrow: he has the job ahead of him. He will quickly have to show the skeptics that he has an understanding of Australian art history that extends beyond the past six months.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Capon is trying to steal a march on the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has just announced that it will open its new wing in March 2012. All of a sudden, the AGNSW is more contemporary than thou, with the driving force being a collection that was stored and cared for by the MCA while John Kaldor was on their board of trustees.

The MCA is in no position to retaliate by having shows of Australian Impressionists or terracotta warriors, even though this might improve their attendance figures. Director, Liz Ann MacGregor, will take some solace from the fact that the Australia Council has just given her an award of $10,000. Even more bizarrely, the Council has given $40,000 to Terry Smith, now a tenured professor in the United States. When tax payers’ money is gifted to salaried professionals it sends a very clear message that the Visual Arts Board has lost all interest in scruffy, impecunious artists.

There is nothing scruffy about the Kaldor collection, which will be on display at the AGNSW for the next year. This allows me the opportunity to come back in a few weeks with some more considered reflections. In the meantime, I’m going to look further north, to the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, which is hosting Laverty 2 – a second installment of the collection of Elizabeth and Colin Laverty, following a successful showing of the couple’s indigenous art holdings in 2008.

Director, Ron Ramsey, points out that the previous Laverty exhibition had tremendous benefits for the collection, inspiring others to donate works of Aboriginal art. These items have been included in a supplementary show called Speaking in Colour, which shares the downstairs galleries with a survey of the work of Newcastle-born abstract artist, William Rose.

Both of these exhibitions are worthy of a review, but the real action is upstairs. While the earlier Laverty show was devoted solely to Aboriginal art, the current selection combines indigenous and non-indigenous works to startling effect. This is a hobby-horse for Colin Laverty, a retired pathologist who has pursued contemporary art with the same dedication he brought to science and medicine. Laverty denies that he and his wife are only interested in Aboriginal art nowadays, feeling strongly that everything must be judged as one continuum, not in separate categories.

The tendency to consign Aboriginal artists to an anthropological ghetto may have played a role in the way the booming indigenous art market has recently taken a dive. Too much second rate art has been acquired by non-discriminating customers, eager for a slice of the action. But it is not enough that art is “Aboriginal”, it must also be good, and like every other art form, great Aboriginal artists are few while the also-rans are legion.

Anybody genuinely interested in indigenous art should take a look at the works the Lavertys have gathered together, both in this show, and in a new edition of their book, Beyond Sacred. In juxtaposition with pieces by artists such as William Robinson, Ildiko Kovacs, Richard Larter, Ken Whisson, Aida Tomescu, and others, one can only see the works in the Newcastle show as the creations of talented individuals, not as representative of different communities.

There is not an arbitrary moment in this display. Artists are shown in depth, with works are arranged in such a manner that each seems to relate meaningfully to its neighbours. It is a huge advance on the way part of the collection was shown at the MCA in 1998, with most artists represented by a single piece and no apparent logic in the selection. It’s telling that one has to travel to Newcastle to find a job done really well.

Those who have seen these works in the Lavertys’ house will hardly recognise them in Newcastle. This is a museum-quality show, chosen strictly on the basis of personal taste. One can hardly avoid comparisons with the Kaldor collection, where the emphasis seems to have been on choosing artists rather than particular works. Where the Kaldors might feel it was important to have something by artist X in their collection, the Lavertys would pinpoint a particular work by artist X.

The most interesting collectors, although not necessarily the richest ones, always seek out works rather than names. I’m sure John Kaldor would say this is exactly his approach, but the Laverty collection feels altogether more intimate, more idiosyncratic, more focused. There is a warmth in this collection that is entirely absent from those splendid new rooms at the AGNSW. This is most probably because of a lesser reliance on consultants, advisors, curators and art dealers.

The Lavertys have tended to form relationships with artists whose work they have purchased. Look for instance at Ildiko Kovacs, currently the subject of a survey at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery. Over the years the Lavertys have helped Kovacs out and acquired many of her best paintings. The two small pictures from her Roadworks series shown in Newcastle, are superior to the ones in the Hazelhurst show. Both exhibitions feature large-scale pieces from the collection.

Kovacs, whose work has been strongly influenced by Aboriginal art, is an ideal representative of the Laverty world-view, in which there are no firm dividing lines between black and white artists. This is demonstrated in one corner of the Newcastle survey where we encounter an abstract painting by Tony Tuckson; a series of raw, colour paintings by Sally Gabori; and three powerful, thickly painted canvases by Aida Tomescu. It is a brilliant sequence. Tuckson is a pioneering artist influenced by Aboriginal art and Abstract Expressionism; Gabori, a late-blooming indigenous painter, whose best work would cow most abstractionists into submission. Tomescu has developed a highly individual style of abstract art, full of tragic, operatic overtones.

Nearby there is a sequence of five early Pop paintings by Richard Larter; five arresting Ken Whissons that span the period from 1971 to 1992, and five awesome landscapes by William Robinson. The immensely overproductive Emily Kame Kngwarreye, is represented by a set of works that do justice to her many variations. One wall is densely clustered with small pictures by Noel McKenna, another has a luminous sequence of oils by Louise Hearman. Paintings by artists such as Tommy Watson and Alma Webou Kalaju, show a command of colour that recognises no rules and no boundaries.

An unusual touch is the addition of four nineteenth century pictures by Frederick Woodhouse, senior and junior. This is a discreet acknowledgement of Colin Laverty’s earlier love of colonial art, chiefly paintings of racehorses and livestock, where he became an expert in the field.

In this context, the Woodhouses are almost a comic touch, a way of dissipating the air of high seriousness associated with so many contemporary collections. A good rule of thumb is that the overall seriousness of a work of art is inversely proportional to the claims made of its behalf. An artwork may strike a chord with the viewer for many reasons, sometimes purely humorous ones. Contemporary works charged with high moral purpose are rarely of any visual interest, but deeper meanings may emerge unexpectedly from the most unassuming arrangement of forms and colours.

Taste is not a science, it is more a matter of intuition, although the best collectors have refined that faculty to a point of great acuity. Yet it is only on rare occasions when the work leaves the house and appears on the walls of a museum, that the Lavertys can feel assured their hunches have been correct.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 28, 2011

Laverty 2
Newcastle Region Art Gallery, until 14 August.