AGNSW: A new hang

June 23, 2012
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A new hang of a gallery’s permanent collection was once a routine affair, but nowadays it has taken on the status of an event. This is partly because the rising costs of doing exhibitions combined with the dwindling budgets of public galleries have forced all institutions to draw more heavily on the works they already own.

In the case of the Art Gallery of NSW there is an added incentive, with the retirement of long-term director, Edmund Capon and Senior Curator of Australian Art, Barry Pearce, marking the end of an era.

The new era is off to a precipitous start, with incoming director, Michael Brand, due to take up his appointment this month. In the twilight of the Capon regime and the interregnum, during which Anne Flanagan has acted as caretaker, quite a lot has occurred. Most controversial of all have been the staff changes. It may have been more appropriate to wait until a new director was in place before making significant appointments, but indecent haste prevailed.

The two most controversial moves have the departure of Terence Maloon, the curator who organised a string of successful international shows for the AGNSW, and the appointment of Wayne Tunnicliffe to Barry Pearce’s vacated post, as Head curator of Australian art.

Maloon will be missed, as there is nobody in the gallery with his ability to craft a coherent exhibition of modern, international art. As for the other appointment, Tunnicliffe has a lot to prove. With solid retrospectives by major Australian artists such as Robert Klippel, Margaret Preston, Godfrey Miller and Bertram Mackennal to her credit, Deborah Edwards was the logical choice to replace Pearce. Her apparent snubbing has been one of the most discussed topics in the Sydney art world this year.

One can only assume that by giving Tunnicliffe the job, the gallery’s interim management was indicating that contemporary art takes precedence over the historical aspect of the collection. The main problem with this is that contemporary art requires little scholarship. One can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no-one will notice the difference. The best contemporary curators are also scholars, but it is foolish to downplay the value of art history in a field that ranges from first settlement to the present day.

The entire centre of gravity at the AGNSW began to shift on 21 May last year when the John Kaldor Family Gallery was opened in the former storage area. Tunnicliffe’s appointment a fortnight later was a confirmation of this change of direction.

Almost a year later the comprehensive rehang of the Australian collection provides a first opportunity of evaluating the new regime. In brief: it could be a lot worse.

The first thing that has to be said is that a re-hang – any re-hang – is a very good thing. It freshens our perceptions, raises new questions about works and artists; and generally restores a little excitement to rooms that had become overly familiar. Not only have these galleries been rehung, they have been expanded and refurbished in the wake of the recent Picasso exhibition. Much of the credit for these revitalised spaces belongs to architect, Richard Johnson.

The Grand Courts, on the right as one enters, have also been freshened up. The gallery has avoided the cliché of ‘heritage colours’, painting the walls a pale off-white. This allows a much clearer view of the colonial-era works, even though everything has been hung in the manner of a 19th century Salon, with walls covered from top to bottom.

When it comes to the twentieth century galleries there are positives and negatives. There is a lot of pleasure to be had in looking at a broader selection of paintings by artists such as George Lambert and Roy De Maistre, but one also becomes aware of the shortcomings of the collection. For instance, Lambert may be well represented, but others such as John Brack and Ian Fairweather are not. This is one of the reasons why the AGNSW should have thought twice about selling off Patrick White’s gift, Gethsemane, two years ago. There is also a case for including an early work from Fairweather’s China years, to give a greater sense of depth.

It’s a mystery as to why we see two similar Tony Tuckson works (both 1970-73) rather than pictures that show the progressive development of his style. There is a 1960s painting by Ron Robertson-Swann, but not a sculpture, even though the artist is arguably this country’s senior living sculptor.

Why bother with a pedestrian work by Arthur Streeton such as Boulogne (1918), when it is atypical of his abiding interest in Australian landscape, and of little interest as a war painting?

Drysdale is one of the best represented artists in the AGNSW collection, but it is a strange decision to leave out The Walls of China (Gol Gol) (1945), which is one of his iconic pictures. Sections devoted to Cubism and Surrealism are welcome, but they also serve to underline the fact that these are minor byways in Australian art.

I was interested to see Joie de vivre, a work by that forgotten disciple of abstract art, Mary Webb. It’s a shame it was so shapeless and lacklustre. This raises the intractable debate as to the merits of collecting mediocre pieces, if only to ensure an artist’s representation in the collection. There is a good argument for buying only works of quality, regardless of the artist’s fame or notoriety.

Although some figures, such as Nolan, Boyd and Cossington Smith are shown in depth, in many cases entire careers are summed up by one or two works, or represented by unusual examples. There is a bad curatorial habit that consigns artists to different decades and acts as if they did nothing of value, before or after. Dull works are included because they represent various tendencies or movements, while there is no room for more impressive, individualistic pieces.

Ultimately this creates a distorted picture of an era, as if everyone retired after his or her moment in the sun. To take only one example: an artist such as Michael Johnson, is represented only by a Colour-Field painting from 1968, although he went on to create large-scale works in a far more original, more expressive idiom.

There are so many artists who have been excluded from this hang altogether that it would be onerous to start listing them. Yet this is probably better than trying to cram in something by everyone, giving an impression of shallow variety. The most contemporary part of the hang is also the most disappointing. It’s embarrassing to think that the works in the foyer by artists such as Jenny Watson, Tony Clark and Stephen Bush are supposed to represent the most up-to-date Australian painting.

One might raise questions in every room, but piecemeal arguments about which works are included or excluded are ultimately of less significance than the way the hang is structured. Omissions may be corrected in future hangs, but the design of the show creates an overarching narrative. There are at least two notable talking points.

Firstly, the new hang integrates Aboriginal art with non-indigenous work. This is a necessary step in the recognition that indigenous art should be accepted as part of the wide domain of Australian art, not relegated to a sub-category. Beyond this it’s hard to get excited about this manoeuvre because every other gallery in the country has been doing it for years.

Secondly, examples of contemporary work have been integrated within the historical collection, creating new associations and disjunctions. Once again, this is not especially original, as it echoes a policy that Tate Modern pioneered more than a decade ago. The more important question concerns whether or not these interruptions have been well chosen.

It feels a little silly to have a room full of Elioth Gruner landscapes facing a gigantic installation by Janet Laurence that features the standard array of dead animals, dried plants and test tubes. It’s not sufficient to say both artists deal with “nature”, and imply that one is merely a contemporary extension of the other. Gruner’s paintings and Laurence’s installation inhabit completely different registers. It is a caricature to put them into such a false relationship.

With the portraits of Margaret Olley by William Dobell and Ben Quilty the juxtaposition is much more effective. The Dobell portrait of 1948 is one of the gallery’s icons, but the Quilty stands up extremely well. Here one gets a sense of continuity, with the young Olley painted in a more traditional style, and the old Olley getting a contemporary treatment. Apparently there’s no reason why the old and the new can’t live happily on the same gallery walls, but there’s plenty of room for fine tuning.

 

The Australian Art Collection: Art Gallery of NSW

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 23, 2012