6 Artists, 7 Days: The AWC Newhaven Exhibition

September 20, 2018
Joe Furlonger's 'Wallaby'

Cute kittens and puppies have been used to sell all sorts of products, but the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is testing whether small marsupials can sell contemporary art. Check out the AWC website and you’ll find pictures of the Mala, AKA. the Rufus Hare-wallaby, a miniature fur-ball with dark eyes, big ears, whiskers and tiny forepaws. It looks like it was designed for children to cuddle.

The Mala were once commonplace all over central and western Australia but it’s estimated there are now as few as 400 in existence. Its decline is due to the depredations of feral cats, of which there are at least 4 million prowling around the countryside, although some estimates are much higher. Each of these predators is known to kill 4-5 native creatures per night.

Do the math as to how many casualties this means every day, every month, every year, and it seems miraculous there are any small marsupials left. I used to laugh at the abundance of wildlife Nicholas Roeg included in the desert scenes of Walkabout (1971), but in the past 47 years it’s possible that 34.3 trillion animals have been killed!

The AWC is the country’s most cutting-edge conservation group. It has 27 sanctuaries spread throughout the continent, covering more than 4.6 million hectares. With almost 80 percent of staff based in the field it’s a lean and efficient operation.

Meet the Mala

Each of the AWC sanctuaries has been fenced off and subjected to an ecological audit that determines which species are in danger, and what level of damage has been sustained by ferals. In cases like that of the Mala emergency measures are taken to transfer animals to safe areas where they can breed in peace.

In Newhaven, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, the AWC has fenced off 9,390 hectares, making it the nation’s largest cat-free area. Here the Mala and other species are flourishing, but the price of success is constant monitoring and gathering of data. A major contribution comes from indigenous cat-trackers such as Christine Ellis, who has become famous for her skills and perseverance.

It’s an expensive operation for a non-governmental organisation and the AWC is always needing to raise funds. One of the most innovative schemes has been to fly a group of artists to a property and let them absorb that environment for a week in the company of scientists. A year later there is an exhibition in which each artist contributes up to $40,000 to AWC coffers through sales of work.

The first exhibition, in 2013, focused on Mornington in the Kimberley. The second, in 2015, looked at Pungalina in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This year the chosen destination was Newhaven. The previous exhibitions have been runaway successes and there’s no reason the current one should fare any differently. There seems to be an extra incentive to buy art when the money is helping small furry animals, birds and lizards.

Ann Thomson, ‘Newhaven IV’

6 Artists, 7 Days: The AWC Newhaven Exhibition is being held at 270 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. The five principals are Dan Kyle, Joe Furlonger, Paul Hopmeier, Kevin Lincoln and Ann Thomson. The sixth artist is photographer, Jason Capobianco, who has documented all three AWC shows. As in previous years, Capobianco has put together a documentary in which I’ve acted as interviewer (on an unpaid basis).

Some will note that with the exception of Lincoln, the artists all show with Defiance Gallery. This is because Defiance took on the organisational role at the beginning, knowing it was not a money-making opportunity. Dealer, Campbell Robertson-Swann, swears that he does it because he believes in the AWC’s work.

One might imagine artists would be queuing up to visit remote sanctuaries but most are reluctant to agree to a deal whereby they donate a substantial share of their sales. Robertson-Swann has had more luck finding enthusiasts within his own stable, although the commissions he is forgoing means Defiance is acting as a charity rather than a commercial enterprise. By way of compensation there’s a lot of positive publicity but that’s not much help when paying bills.

Dan Kyle, ‘Looking back at Homerange II’

Of the five artists, Joe Furlonger has been the most prolific, making a prodigious number of studies in gouache and ink. Most are landscapes, but there are also animal pictures such as Wallaby, that would look right at home on the walls of the best prehistoric caves. I can’t pretend all Furlonger’s paintings are masterpieces but his energy and commitment are astonishing.

The same goes for Ann Thomson, the senior artist in the group, who has concentrated on small, spontaneous gouaches in which forms are set down with sharp swipes of the brush. Thomson’s works are more spacious than Furlonger’s, with colours standing out brightly against the white of the paper. A series of larger acrylics completed in the studio have a greater density of imagery.

Kevin Lincoln, ‘Untitled V’

The youngest artist, Dan Kyle, has chosen to emphasise only one part of the varied, Newhaven landscape, in a row of oil paintings in which pale ghost gums stand out against sky and sandy ground bleached by relentless sunshine. For Kyle these are breakthrough works.

By contrast, Kevin Lincoln has created a sequence of atmospheric nocturnes in oils in which the reddish bulk of a mountain range is muted by a grey sky, or tinged with the pink of evening. Lincoln is the opposite of spontaneous, and has contributed fewer works than his peers, but each painting is immaculate. The mastery of tone is breathtaking, with the tiniest details making crucial contributions to the impact of an image.

Paul Hopmeier, ‘Benedict’

If one had to nominate Australia’s most underrated artist Lincoln has very little competition, although the closest contender mght be his travelling companion, Paul Hopmeier. Whatever the challenges for an painter in making a body of work from an unfamilar environment, those problems are doubled for a sculptor who depends on the tools and materials used in the studio. Hopmeier, the master of any material, has created a set of abstract bas reliefs from steel that improvise upon aspects of the landscape while also suggesting plant forms.

By way of variety Hopmeier has made three figurative pieces including a still life called Breakfast Tray. Another work, Benedict, shows one of the AWC’s indigenous employees with his arms outstretched, looking like Moses greeting the red desert rather than the Red Sea. In a striking vignette we recognise the sense of wonder inspired by a stark, arid landscape that humans have never managed to despoil.

6 Artists, 7 Days: The AWC Newhaven Exhibition
270 Devonshire St, Surry Hills

23 September – 19 October, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September, 2018