Destination Sydney re-imagined

January 31, 2019
Jeffrey Smart, 'Central Station II' (1974-75)

In summer 2015 three of the city’s leading public galleries combined forces to stage an exhibition called Destination Sydney, bringing together work by nine prominent local artists, past and present. Although it would be hard to think of a less inspiring title the show seemed to work. At the very least it worked well enough to allow for a reprise of the idea three years later.

Like its predecessor, Destination Sydney re-imagined has been organised by independent curator, Lou Klepac, for the same three venues. At the S.H.Ervin Gallery we can see the work of Nicholas Harding, Wendy Sharpe and Jeffrey Smart; the Mosman Art Gallery is featuring Roy De Maistre, Michael Johnson and Robert Klippel; while the Manly Art Gallery and Museum has Ethel Carrick Fox, Ken Done and Adrian Feint.

Destination Sydney re-imagined is best approached with an open mind. For a hardened professional like myself it was a bumpy ride.

The combinations of artists feel a little strange but I’m sure Lou Klepac has a rationale for everything. The chief problem lies with the selection of work which feels depressingly arbitrary. One imagines Lou doing a quick ring-around to see if anybody had a painting by one of the selected artists. There are good individual works but I’m not convinced anyone is seen at their best.

Wendy Sharpe, ‘Waiting, Sydney Harbour’ (2014)

The S.H.Ervin Gallery might be considered the flagship venue (partly because people on the CBD side of the bridge tend to view the North Shore as a foreign country) and Jeffrey Smart is easily the most celebrated artist in the show. Smart’s Central Station II (1974-75), reproduced on the cover of the catalogue, records an epiphany the artist had when he saw a figure running away between two rows of hoardings covered in posters. With his usual judicious editing Smart made this humdrum moment into a metaphysical mystery.

Everything about this painting is precisely planned and measured. The same might be said for the most iconic work in the show, The Cahill Expressway (1962), on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria. This image of a fat, bald, one-armed man, standing at the entrance of a concrete tunnel, has passed into Australian popular culture. It may be the only time you’ll see the Cahill Expressway without a single car.

Most of Smart’s other contributions are early works that show the same abiding concern for composition and craftsmanship. This sits awkwardly with the loose, expressionistic works of Wendy Sharpe, and the thick impasto of Nicholas Harding’s paintings. Smart is the least spontaneous of artists, but this quality is part of Sharpe’s creative DNA. When it succeeds her paintings have an infectious verve and energy, when it fails they look ragged and half-baked. Too many of her pictures in this selection fall into the latter category, with her best moments coming in a series of small vignettes of Sydney night life.

Nicholas Harding, ‘Central Hall’ (2007)

Harding also suffers in the juxtaposition with Smart. While his large drawings have a wonderful gritty texture, the paintings rely on surface effects to compensate for the slightly leaden nature of compositions which can feel like snapshots covered with great dollops of paint, with people reduced to subsidiary lumps of colour. Harding’s early works make no attempt to disguise their debt to British artists Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, but they are more convincing in their monumentality than some of the later paintings such as Parramatta Road Bus Stop (2007) in which detail is smeared and fudged.

I’ve got a lot of respect for both Sharpe and Harding, but alongside Smart I found myself dwelling on their vices rather than their virtues. This is not a congenial grouping.

Mosman fares better in terms of combinations, as Roy De Maistre, Michael Johnson and Robert Klippel are all exponents of abstraction. De Maistre was a pioneer with his Colour in Art show of 1919, but he never severed ties with forms of figuration. The Mosman selection of mostly small works is broadly indicative of the shifting patterns of the artist’s career.

Michael Johnson, ‘Emperor’ (1965)

Johnson and Klippel are leading figures in modern Australian art, but once again I’m bamboozled by the choice of work. With Johnson there are three hard-edged canvases from the 1960s, but nothing from 1991 to 2014. It gives the misleading impression that this period was devoid of interest. The 1980s, when Johnson made some of the most powerful abstract paintings ever seen in this country, is represented by relatively minor pictures.

Klippel too, is portrayed as a maker of miniature sculptures and abstract gouaches. To sustain the usual hyperbole about him being Australia’s greatest sculptor the show badly needs a larger work or two. The fields of table top miniatures such as Opus No. 363 (1980), or the 87 small polychrome pieces from the collection of Art Gallery of NSW (1995), are feats of sustained virtuosity, but they still feel like models for more ambitious installations.

Robert Klippel, ‘Opus 363’ (detail) (1980)

Part of the problem is the configuration of the Mosman Art Gallery, which doesn’t lend itself to the display of large-scale work. Johnson’s paintings, from Emperor (1965) to Oceania high low (2014), seem vast in this cramped space. Klippel’s works may have been chosen with an eye to squeezing a greater number of pieces into the upstairs gallery.

Finally at Manly we have another discordant combination, with the vibrant, large-scale paintings of Ken Done set against the small-scale works of Ethel Carrick Fox and Adrian Feint. It’s a real blow to Feint that his works are not reproduced in the catalogue because of a copyright dispute. This was an opportunity to draw attention to a body of work widely viewed as consistent but irredeemably minor. If Feint were ever going to have a revival in his art historical fortunes this would have been it. His works in this exhibition are painted with skill and care, but still reveal an academic sensibility flirting with a small, thrilling frisson of modernism.

Ethel Carrick Fox, ‘Manly Beach – Summer is here’ (1913)

Ethel Carrick Fox was more adventurous in her embrace of Post-Impressionism during a highly conservative era in Australian art. Over the past couple of decades she has emerged out of the shadow of her husband, Emanuel Phillips Fox, and in many quarters is even more admired. Her most famous picture in the show is Manly Beach – summer is here (1913), which is part of Manly’s permanent collection. It’s as raw as a Wendy Sharpe painting, but flooded with sunlight and touches of bright colour.

Ken Done, ‘The cabin studio’ (1980)

Feint and Carrick Fox are overpowered in this show by Done’s large, boisterious paintings. He may be routinely sneered at by the art crowd, but Done is a logical inclusion in any exhibition about Sydney, a city he has celebrated for decades. His works are full of joie-de-vivre but are all surface. When he tries to dig a little deeper, with nocturnes, or paintings about the Japanese midget subs that entered Sydney Harbour in 1942, it feels slightly forced. The real Ken Done is the DJ of Sydney’s perpetual dance party. Like a pop star known for a few big hits he may get tired of singing the same old tune, over and over, but he’s well aware that he needs to keep giving his audience what they want. In Sydney it’s not depth that’s most valued, it’s instant gratification.

Destination Sydney re-imagined
S.H.Ervin Gallery, Mosman Art Gallery,
Manly Art Gallery & Museum
7 December, 2018 – 17 March, 2019

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February, 2019