Reviews/Visual Art

A coming of age for our State flagship gallery

11 November 2021

The Art Gallery of WA’s transformation is so complete that you might feel like a tourist in your own town, observes Miranda Johnson.

‘The View From Here’, various artists ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) ·

The Art Gallery of Western Australia has reopened with a bang.

After an extended closure for renovations, including the much-vaunted rooftop bar, AGWA’s new exhibition, “The View From Here” is exciting and expansive in every sense.

Generously spread across the new rooftop gallery, the main gallery spaces, foyer and rest areas, are over 400 works by more than 230 artists, from a range of backgrounds, levels of experience and disciplines, including 111 new commissions and several smaller exhibitions-within-the-greater exhibition.

“The View From Here” reads as a statement of AGWA’s refreshed and renewed focus on showcasing the stories and experiences of WA artists. Any lingering sense of parochialism or cultural cringe are rejected; instead the creativity and vibrancy of the WA arts sector is celebrated and promoted.

Visiting the newly renovated gallery on the first day it opened to the public felt exciting and a little like being a tourist. This sense of enthusiasm was shared by artists and arts sector colleagues I bumped into (a very Perth experience in itself).

Though the exhibition as a whole is vast it feels easy to navigate, and whilst I imagine it will reward repeat visits, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Each gallery space is beautifully considered, including new commissions alongside works from the State Art Collection, often thoughtfully placed together to comment on one another or provide a nuanced perspective.

A 2-D sculpture of a cat stretching in the downward dog position. The cat is neon pink and bright yellow and wears a black Adidas-style sweater with white stripes on the forearms
Bruno Booth, ‘Feline good, HBU?: Warhawk 2021’, cats: powder and clear coated paint on laser-cut aluminium; tracksuits: polyester fleece and ribbon, cotton ribbing and cotton thread, plastic and steel zips, 44.3 x 55.9 x 1 cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the John and Linda Bond Fund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2021.

Bruno Booth’s 34 sculptural cats, dotted throughout the gallery in sometimes unexpected places, provide a common thread through which to navigate the exhibition. Comically clad in Adidas activewear, they are also a more serious reminder of the ways in which our bodies negotiate and traverse gallery spaces to view artworks, and the way in which these spaces make welcome, or don’t, people across the ability spectrum.

Other works evoke a sense of familiarity and sense of shared recent history of this place, including Kevin Robertson’s Studio Allegory (1997), painted from the window of Gotham Studios just around the corner, looking over the William and James Street intersection. Gotham is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year and continues to foster and support artists working in this city.

Meanwhile Wade Taylor’s that explains the sirens (2021) sparks a similar sense of recognition, depicting the Bunnings fire in Inglewood back in 2018, a suburban incident that might have otherwise faded from people’s minds, recreated here in high drama and bursting flames.

Wade Taylor, ‘that explains the sirens’ 2021, oil and acrylic on wood, 162 x 488 cm (overall) 4 parts

Upstairs the exhibition “Collective Ground”, curated by Tui Raven, is a superb and moving collection of First Nations artworks by artists working across WA. Presented across a darkened, circular space, each artwork is dramatically spot-lit, allowing the colours and patterns of Country to shine.

“Collective Ground” is an entreaty to consider the ground upon which we walk and the space we occupy. This curatorial approach underpins the exhibition, with the works organised and separated according to their subject matter, such as women’s and men’s Creation stories.

Jakayu Biljabu’s Minyipuru (Seven Sisters) (2015) and Minyipuru (Jakukyukulyu, Seven Sisters) (2015) both depict the important tale of the seven sisters, who run away from a lustful old man. The sisters travel through Martu country singing, camping and dancing. Biljabu captures this rich narrative through acrylic paints, startlingly vibrant, depicting the beautiful country and exciting journey of these sisters.

Alongside this are works showing the breadth and size of the state of Western Australia, such as Japali by Nancy Chapman, Alysha Taylor and Wendy Nanji, an expansive work demonstrating the vast distances of this place and the importance of cultural knowledge to travel safely across it.

Tamisha Williams, ‘Chilling out Ngurra’ 2020. Photographic print on cotton rag paper, 80.0 x 120.0 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: COVID-19 Arts Stimulus Package, 2020.

The exhibition extends to include contemporary works by artists at the beginning of their careers, including textile and photography works by artists Yabini Kickett and Tamisha Williams, which showcase the diversity of practice and strength of storytelling amongst First Nations artists. Together with “Balancing Act”, curated by Carly Lane, “Collective Ground” also centres First Nations people and artists as the first storytellers of this place.

Sadly “Collective Ground” only has a brief season in 2021, but will be back next year for those who don’t make it to AGWA before it closes (see below for details).

Artist Tommy May sits in a wheelchair behind his work which includes wire outlines of golden clouds and trails of gold chains that end in a pile of red dirt and rocks.
Balancing Act’, Art Gallery of Western Australia installation view, November 2021. Ngarralja Tommy May Warla, Flat Country 2021. Brass, aluminium, stone and soil, dimensions variable. Courtesy Tommy May and Mangkaja Art Centre. © Ngarralja Tommy May 2021. Photo by Jessica Wyld.

On a sunny and bright day Tim Meakins’ exhibition “Muscle Beach” feels particularly fitting to the light-filled new rooftop gallery. Meakins presents a series of 3D-printed anthorpomophic shapes, pleasingly cylindrical and colourful, variously lifting weights, preening, or sunbathing. Some of them are clearly human, and others embody the equipment and other apparatus of the cult of bodybuilding; all of them maintain a sunny demeanour. Their easy relatability speaks to the ubiquity of the pursuit of the “ideal” body in contemporary Western culture.

A person made of orange tubes, with a cartoon face, lies on its side, flexing its biceps.
Tim Meakins ‘Lay’ 2021, 3D printed PLA plastic, expanding foam, cut acrylic, automotive paint, 90 x 360 x 45 cm, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Variously humorous and light-hearted, deeply considered, dark and dramatic, “The View From Here” surveys Western Australian art works from the past and present, to reflect our state back to us. With this exhibition AGWA shows us that it is freshly aware of its role as a repository of history, of the pathos, the dispossession and colonisation of recent history, but also of the interesting peccadillos and local legends that define WA.

Taken together it feels like a coming-of-age for AGWA and a much-needed shift in focus, and I am excited to see what follows.

“The View From Here” continues until 31 January 2022.
“Collective Ground” closes Sunday 14 November but will return in 2022 for a longer period (date to be confirmed).

Listen to AGWA Director Colin Walker guide you around the revamped AGWA.

Pictured top: Yabini KickettI want to go home but they killed her‘ 2020. Eco/rust dyed cotton, emu feather, opal, white ochre, charcoal, spray paint, Pycnoporus coccineus and Eremophlia staining and photographic print, 54 x 50 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: Covid-19 Arts Stimulus Package, 2020.

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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