Reviews/Visual Art

A panacea for our times

26 August 2020

Curated by André Lipscombe and Ric Spencer, ‘Panacea’ is an exhibition that offers the solace we all need right now, observes Craig McKeough.

‘Panacea’, Various artists ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·

In the dark days of COVID-19 when its venues were closed and most staff were stood down, Fremantle Arts Centre’s curators were already hatching a plan for the other end of the crisis.

No-one knew how long the shutdown would last but it was obvious then that people’s psychological damage, caused by an extended period of isolation and uncertainty, would not dissipate easily or immediately.

The exhibition “Panacea” — a snapshot of this time drawn entirely from the City of Fremantle collection — was born from that realisation, and it was designed deliberately as a salve, using art to try to make sense of the crisis and express what the community has had to endure.

The 150 items in “Panacea” are just a fragment of the City’s 1500-strong collection, and curators André Lipscombe and Ric Spencer have done a mighty job selecting and displaying them to produce a coherent and, at times, quite profound viewing experience. This is an example of what art can be, well beyond the visual aesthetic — expressing emotions and telling stories about the human experience.

This is an example of what art can be, well beyond the visual aesthetic — expressing emotions and telling stories about the human experience.

The exhibition provides a convincing narrative of our community’s collective COVID experience. It tells a Fremantle story, but one that applies to, and reflects on, all of us.

Physical access to “Panacea” is like wandering through an IKEA showroom; it is one-way traffic, following arrows on the floor. There are constant reminders of the “new normal” of COVID with signs as you enter each space dictating the capacity of each.

It starts in the main gallery under the theme of Home. Here are works with a domestic flavour — groups of photographic portraits by Brad Rimmer and Tom Gibbons of artists at home and in the Fremantle environs, still life scenes — including two Kathleen O’Connor floral oils from the 1930s and 40s juxtaposed with more recent bold colourful paintings by Robert Birch (The Egyptians) and Chris Capper (Kitchen Painting) — and a pair of domestic exteriors with a strong Freo flavour by George Haynes (Outback, South Fremantle) and Jane Martin (House and Garden).

Through a glass display cabinet of teapots we can see brightly coloured paintings on either side of a corridor.
A powerful element of the Home room is a fine collection of ceramic pieces, including tea pots and other vessels for domestic use, emphasising the focus on home and hearth.

A powerful element of the Home room is a fine collection of ceramic pieces, including tea pots and other vessels for domestic use, emphasising the focus on home and hearth. Ceramic works feature in every gallery in “Panacea”, but this is where they are most prominent and poignant.

From Home, we head into Lockdown, where the images are of physical and emotional distance and an unmistakeable sense of separation. The room is dominated by a striking Bevan Honey drypoint etching, Memory of Location, with its frenetic and complex mark-making a wonderful contrast to the simple but evocative lines of the adjacent Helicopter Tjungurrayi etching Jupiter Well. Graham MIller’s large black and white photos in this gallery add a sense of foreboding and suburban dislocation, while Marcus Beilby’s masked self-portrait (pictured top) painted in 1978 seems remarkably prescient.

Laurel Nannup, ‘The Long Road’, 2002, aquatint, 57 x 57cm

The Isolation corridor features some unsettling depictions of separation and emptiness, including Laurel Nannup’s aquatint print The Long Road, with its Stolen Generation theme, and the turmoil of Edgar Karabanovs’s Time Tunnel.

Sharyn Egan’s Walyalup Dreaming, with its story of Aboriginal loss and strength, and the 9/11-themed pairing of photographic work by Christine Gosfield and video art by Elvis Richardson continue the dark theme, but they also offer a glimmer of hope, setting the scene for the Panacea room where we witness a return to normality of sorts.

Here were are greeted by David Dare Parker’s joyful photographs of drinkers and dancers in workers clubs, beach life in Marcus Beilby’s The Art of Beach Etiquette and cappuccino culture in Mandy Browne’s delightful large oil painting, Perving in a Multicultural Society. This is the anti-pandemic room, presenting Fremantle and the wider community as places of gathering and celebration, of holding on to hope and to each other.

It all reaches a satisfying end point with another fine Beilby work, a large realistic oil painting The Kiss, showing a young couple embracing at North Fremantle train station against a magnificent colour-streaked sky as the sun sets over the ocean.

It offers an important reminder that this too shall pass. The sun sets and it will rise again tomorrow.

“Panacea” continues until Sunday 20 September.

Pictured top is Marcus Beilby’s remarkably prescient ‘Portrait of the artist as a young man’, 1978, acrylic paint on canvas, 51.5 x 71.5cm. no. 7

Mandy Browne, ‘Perving in a Multicultural Society’.

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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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