Destination Sydney

January 22, 2016
Brett Whiteley, The balcony 2', (1975). AGNSW collection.
Brett Whiteley, The balcony 2', (1975). AGNSW collection.

Destination Sydney is an inelegant title. It may be that Australian audiences only respond to the most banal and descriptive titles but that’s no reason for making shows sound like tourism initiatives. At the risk of coming across as a snob, I can only describe it as vulgar.

Complaint registered, I’m happy to record that this triple exhibition, held at the Manly Museum & Art Gallery, the Mosman Art Gallery and the S.H.Ervin Gallery, is proving popular. When I went along one weekday, all three venues were full of visitors. It’s a testimony to the strength of the art, and the appeal of a simple concept: a celebration of the “unique landscape” of Sydney.

We all become complacent about the place where we live, but Sydney has a habit of taking one by surprise. It’s a mixture of great natural beauty and manmade ugliness, offset by the spectacular landmarks of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. The harbour itself provides most of the city’s epiphanies, its unchanging splendour allowing decades of insensitive urban development to pass unopposed. Sydney could never be spoiled as there was always the singular asset of the harbour. Nevertheless, greedy developers and corrupt, compliant politicians have given it their best shot.

This exhibition has been put together by “luminary curator” Lou Klepac, in collaboration with the three venues, each showing work by three wellknown artists. Manly has Lloyd Rees, Brett Whiteley and Elisabeth Cummings; Mosman are featuring John Olsen, Kevin Connor and Peter Kingston; the S.H.Ervin has two famous moderns in Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston, alongside contemporary artist, Cressida Campbell. To declare a somewhat marginal interest, I’ve written a couple of pieces for the catalogue.

First up is Manly, where Lloyd Rees and Brett Whiteley form a perfect pairing, with Elisabeth Cummings the odd one out. Whiteley often spoke about his admiration for Rees, and the connection is spelled out in this selection, which includes views of the harbour and its surrounds by both artists. Rees is represented by early and late paintings, allowing us to trace his evolution from the precise, neo-classical contours of Spring at Hunter’s Hill (1937), to the abstract haze of The great river (1983-86).

Rees’s artistic integrity and devotion to close observation were legendary – even as the details became blurred. It’s not just a matter of failing eyesight, but a willingness to capture the world exactly as he saw it. It’s the same decision artists such as Turner and Monet made in their old age.

After seeing this show you may want to visit the Museum of Sydney, where Rees’s early pencil drawings are on display until 10 April. The painstaking skill and care in these drawings is phenomenal.

Rees’s self-discipline sits uneasily with Whiteley’s ethic of ‘luxe, calme et volupte’, but there is no downplaying the younger artist’s love affair with Lavender Bay. This show includes two of Whiteley’s most famous harbour views, Self portrait in the studio (1976) and The Balcony 2 (1975), both from the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. In these pictures the influence of Matisse reaches its apogee. Yet Whiteley is always attempting to seduce the viewer, while Matisse had an underlying toughness – almost an indifference to any response but his own.

Whiteley’s neediness is exposed in two kitschified paintings with cut-out photos of birds. In such a tight selection these are an indulgence.

For continuity’s sake it would have made more sense to include Peter Kingston as the third artist in this show rather than Elisabeth Cummings. Kingston’s debt to Whiteley is as obvious as Whiteley’s debt to Rees. The counter argument is that Cummings is the more accomplished artist – a painter who only seems to get better with age.

In terms of sheer bravura and invention, a picture such as Cummings’s Pilbara landscape (2003) loses nothing alongside the work of Rees and Whiteley. But what does a painting of the Pilbara have to do with Sydney? The mystery deepens with Cummings’s paintings of Mount Murchison and the Kimberley; a Rees painting of Tasmania, and a Whiteley view of Cootamundra.

For the purposes of this show it seems sufficient that an artist has once had a Sydney postcode. The Mosman component cleaves more closely to the theme, although John Olsen’s marvellous Clarendon Spring, Make sure the sun wipes its feet (1984), dates from his time in South Australia. There are also works on paper by Kevin Connor, that were probably painted in Paris.

Peter Kingston sticks to the harbour like a barnacle, with every painting featuring that recognisable expanse of water complete with ferries and landmarks. Yet Kingston’s simple, descriptive style is overshadowed by Olsen’s ebullience, and Connor’s uncompromising spikiness. Where Olsen lays on the paint like a virtuoso, and Connor grapples with a canvas until he has eliminated any trace of superficial attractiveness, Kingston is happy to float along on the tide. In the large painting, Passing ferries (1999), which features on the cover of the catalogue, he has applied the paint in a perfunctory manner, simply dragging the brush across the canvas.

Kingston’s works may be more appealing than Connor’s, but there is more to admire in the latter’s unruly mark-making. The motif is always important to Connor, but each painting devolves into a ferocious, internal struggle. His strangest piece is probably Town Hall crowd (2004), which depicts this Sydney landmark in grubby shades of red, with a sky carved up into equally dirty planes of blue. The work is both dingy and weirdly cheerful. Its very lack of formality compels the viewer to look hard, trying to find a line between beauty and ugliness.

Olsen’s paintings are characterised by an intense, sensual pleasure, or an affecting melancholy. There’s a facility in his best work that translates into tension and energy, whereas Whiteley’s line often becomes languid. Olsen sets out to charm the viewer, but not in an insinuating way. He wants us to be swept off our feet, to join him in a great adventure.

In paintings such as Entrance to the seaport of desire (1964) Olsen captures the louche vitality of Sydney. His studied informality echoes the way many Sydney people go through life, indifferent to the big issues but alert to the pleasures of the moment. If Melbourne worries about its image in the eyes of the world, Sydney’s self-perception can be summed in the phrase: “What’s not to like?”

The S.H.Ervin is by far the biggest part of Destination Sydney, roughly twice the size of the shows at Manly or Mosman. Half of that display is given over to Cressida Campbell, who dominates her more famous co-exhibitors. I’ve often wanted to see a show in which Campbell and Preston are hung side-by-side, but one couldn’t draw any conclusions from this juxtaposition. It feels as if the works by Preston and Cossington Smith have been chosen almost at random, while Campbell – as one would expect – has made a careful, thoughtful selection.

There is a tremendous consistency in Campbell’s work, which consists of either single prints, or watercolour-painted blocks. By contrast, Preston’s works are stylistically diverse, a mixture of paintings and various forms of print. Cossington Smith’s pictures are of all shapes and sizes, covering almost 40 years of her career.

Within this mix there are excellent pieces by Preston and Cossington Smith, but Campbell steals the show. She reveals herself as a dedicated Sydney landscapist, with views of Bondi, Paddington, Tamarama, Avalon, Parsley Bay, the Botanic Gardens and the Harbour – not bad for an artist usually thought of as a still life specialist.

Cressida Campbell, 'West of Observatory Hill', (detail), 1989, woodblock print, 60 x 121cm

Cressida Campbell, ‘West of Observatory Hill’, (detail), 1989, woodblock print, 60 x 121cm

The stand-outs may be large-scale pieces such as Sydney Harbour triptych (1998) and West of Observatory Hill (1989) – brilliant panoramas that look at Sydney as a Ukiyo-e printmaker might have seen it. These meticulously composed works are coming from a different planet to the more lyrical or expressionistic pictures shown in Manly and Mosman. There is nothing casual or flashy about these images which eschew all the Sydney stereotypes but capture the essence of the city – making us look again at something we feel we already know. Campbell may be the youngest artist in the show, but she is also one of the very best.

Destination Sydney
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, until 14 February.
Mosman Art Gallery, until 7 February
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 21 February

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 23rd January, 2016