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Reviews/Visual Art

Partying with colour and nostalgia

12 December 2019

Robert Cook (curator), ‘Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete’; ‘That Seventies Feeling … the Late Modern’ ·
Art Gallery of WA ·
Review by Craig McKeough ·

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On one level, the staging of “Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete” to mark the 40th anniversary of the Art Gallery of WA is an exercise in nostalgia.

It does a competent and thorough job of revisiting the 1970s and uses never-displayed architectural plans, photos, proposals and correspondence to recall the political and artistic machinations that led to the opening in 1979 of the building which is now an integral part of the Perth Cultural Centre.

But at the same time it is hard not to view those events through the prism of current thinking and wonder at the boldness — maybe even audacity — of a conservative State government in small-town Perth agreeing to plonk a concrete monolith in a prime city location next to the heritage jewels of the Battye Library and WA Museum.

Would such a decision be made today or would community outrage drown out any such progressive idea?

Western Australian Art Gallery concept sketch c1971.

I wonder this because it is hard to defend the AGWA building on its outward appearance alone. Brutalism, with its flat planes of concrete and stark, utilitarian forms, is a divisive aesthetic.

Yet at the same time, it is the perfect design to house a major and diverse art collection.

This exhibition makes the case that the building’s design should primarily reflect what is going on inside. The cavernous spaces and expansive walls within a multi-level hexagonal structure provide a blank canvas for the artworks to shine free of distraction.

This is brought home at “Perth Brutal’s” companion exhibition, “That Seventies Feeling … the Late Modern”, in the adjacent gallery. It continues the 40th anniversary party by bringing together the best of AGWA’s collection produced in that pivotal decade.

Miriam Stannage, "The rock" 1974, oil on canvas, 147.7 x 147.7cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Gift of Sue and Ian Bernadt, 1990
Miriam Stannage, “The rock” 1974, oil on canvas, 147.7 x 147.7cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Gift of Sue and Ian Bernadt, 1990.

Diversity is the real theme of this collection, which features nods to decades past with spectacular Pollock-inspired expressionism by Dick Watkins and Sydney Ball and clever pop art echoes from Miriam Stannage and Jenny Watson. There are minimalist and colour field works alongside timeless bark paintings by David Malangi and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula.

But it is the colourful geometric patterned compositions by Brian McKay and Virginia Cuppaidge that seem to be most obviously of this time — they just scream 1970s.

Although many of the works wear their influences heavily, they all seem to build on what has come before with an eye to the future.

And in the case of the considerable number of West Australian artists represented, they offer a local response to events or movements in the wider world.

Brian McKay, “Fathom” 1970, oil on canvas on hardboard, 105 x 105 cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Purchased 1970.

Some are intensely local in their focus. One of the most intriguing is Brian Blanchflower’s photographic record of an area of bush in Leederville which was in the path of the Mitchell Freeway extension. The series depicts the meditative act of pouring honey over large boulders in a process that captures the spirit of the place and of the time.

This moment finds Perth at a point of great change; a new freeway is an obvious sign of progress, even if something will be lost along the way.

The WA artists shown here were bold enough to take what they could from those who came before them and use it to frame their own view of the world. This confidence carried across to the political and civic leadership as the city considered radical plans for a major step in its cultural growth — a new purpose-built state gallery.

It was evident that sleepy Perth was waking up and reaching out to the world.

“Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete” continues until February 17; “That Seventies Feeling … the Late Modern” runs until March 9.

Pictured top: Jenny Watson, ‘Horse series painting no. 9: with yellow rug’ 1974, oil, synthetic polymer paint and lead pencil on canvas, 177.4 x 243.9 cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, purchased 1988.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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