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Portraits of place and ‘progress’

Review: Tami Xiang, Esther McDowell/Yabini Kickett, Tom Freeman, Lisa Liebetrau, ‘August exhibitions’ ·
Cool Change Contemporary ·
Review by Stephen Bevis ·

The Bon Marché Arcade Building on Barrack Street was once one of the grandest spots in Perth. Built in 1895 by a former convict who made good as a bookseller, its fortunes have reflected the dramatic shifts in commercial, retail and social behaviour over the decades.

In its heyday, it was a popular link from Barrack Street to the now defunct Bon Marché drapery and department store, which ran between Hay and Murray Streets before being sold off to David Jones in 1954 and eventually demolished. Now Bon Marché is an arcade to nowhere. Many of its rooms are empty, although a few small businesses keep its spirit alive. So too does the artist-run initiative Cool Change Contemporary, which is celebrating one year of revitalising this often overlooked premises with its rolling program of residencies, exhibitions, workshops and events.

Bon Marché’s colourful and varied history is a rich well for Cool Change artist-in-residence Lisa Liebetrau to draw from in her site-responsive works and archival ephemera that evoke the stories, memories and characters that inhabit the once-bustling mercantile rooms. Liebetrau reflects on the building’s life cycle from grand openings to bargain-bin discounts, decline and possible renewal led by the artists who now inhabit this space. The Bon Marché story is just one of many in Perth as economic disruption pock-marks the city’s face with empty retail tenancies.

As Liebetrau’s catalogue notes say, “the transitory nature of artist-run initiatives cultivates the opportunity for marginal spaces and neglected buildings to breathe new life into them and allow their past to gain new visibility”.

Occupying the main space at Cool Change, Tami Xiang also considers the impact of shifting currents of economic and social fortunes in her show “Peasantography Lucky 88”. This is the latest in the Chinese-Australian artist’s “Peasantography” series on the disruptive effects of the Chinese economic “miracle” and the Hukou household classification system assigning people rural or urban roles. Many millions have been lifted from poverty in China but this has involved an exodus of working-age people from rural regions to the cities under the Hukou system. The result has been a hollowing out of villages and towns across the Chinese countryside, with children left with grandparents while the parents take up work in the industrial cities.

Last year, Xiang’s “Peasantography Family Portrait” show at UWA’s Cullity Gallery focused on the Chinese families split along generational lines. It was a powerful, dystopian collection of images of “absent” urban parents paired with photographs of their children nestling in the arms of elderly carers.

With “Peasantography Lucky 88”, Xiang has zoomed in on the aging rural poor. Unable to work, their pensions are linked to the ubiquitous two-tier Hukou classification which applies a rural welfare payment of 88 yuan ($18), a rate which until recently was much less than that received by their counterparts in the city.

Xiang has photographed a series of retired peasant farmers against a red studio background with the meagre objects they have purchased with 88 yuan. The number is considered lucky in Chinese numerology and, despite their privations, many of Xiang’s subjects consider themselves fortunate to get a pension at all, having endured the worst extremes of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. There is a poignant nobility about these images, as Xiang’s dislocated subjects stand in dirty footwear on pristine red studio sheets and stare impassively at the viewer while clutching their purchased goods.

Displacement and the significance of objects imbued with meaning also feature in “Kala Koorliny – Going Home” by Esther McDowell/Yabini Kickett. The Balladong Noongar artist has created a series of textiles, hanging installations and works on paper using natural materials collected while moving through country.

Abstract
Esther McDowell/Yabini Kickett, 2019. Dyed linen with Marri leaves and rust. Image courtesy of the artist.

McDowell has incorporated marri leaves, feathers, gum nuts and even a small animal skull in her work, which includes three Moort Boodja dresses created and worn as a salve to homesickness in her own land. This wearable art enables the artist to carry her country with her to offset the on-going disruption to Noongar country. Kata Lines, a series of four drawings on paper using eucalyptus dyes, pastel and ink, represent her family’s passage through the Darling Scarp (Kata Mordo) in flowing compositions of place and knowledge.

Sitting comfortably in a building oozing with history and memory is Tom Freeman’s “Brick”, a playful, layered tribute to the metamorphic qualities of the material which built this city. Freeman incorporates stray bricks retrieved from around Perth and reimagines their qualities, both in form and function.

Referencing the malleable properties of source clay, Freeman introduces sensuous ceramic extrusions, glazes and plastics to create characters and stories for these inanimate building blocks. He experiments in scale and context to dream of alternate states and purposes for these humble, utilitarian objects.

Tom Freeman’s Four Loops, found brick, stonewear clay, glazes. Picture by Bo Wong.

These four exhibition are all highly rewarding in their own right but the connections between them strongly speak of the relationship between “progress” and its impact on the places we inhabit and the people we connect with.

Walking back down the narrow stairs from the ARI into the arcade and streetscape below, and beginning to reflect on the exhibitions above, I found myself reaching out to touch the textured brickwork and thinking, “If only these walls could talk”. In a way, they have – thanks to the artists of Cool Change.

These exhibitions run at Cool Change Contemporary, upstairs in the Bon Marché Arcade Building, 74-84 Barrack Street.

Picture above: Tami Xiang’s “Peasantography: Lucky 88” at Cool Change Contemporary.

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Abstract with human form amongst large dots
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A galaxy of ideas in sci-fi show

Review: Erin Coates and Jack Sargeant, ‘Other Suns: Cult Sci-Fi Cinema and Art’  ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Embracing the non-human, the historical, the retro-futurist and the impossible, “Other Suns” imagines alternative futures through an examination of the science-fiction genre.

An expansive exhibition featuring works from 20 local, national and international artists, “Other Suns” is curated by Erin Coates and Jack Sargeant, and continues as part of Revelation Perth International Film Festival’s 2019 program, which otherwise wrapped up last month.

With a particular focus on the alternative, undiscovered or unfamiliar narratives of science fiction, “Other Suns” places the limitless bounds of artists’ individual imaginations at the centre. This shines through in the exhibition, with a broad range of different worlds created through each artwork that feel exciting, fresh and accessible, regardless of the viewer’s knowledge or interest in sci-fi.

Jess Day and Joanne Richardson’s geodesic half-dome is a playful examination of what space exploration might mean, and who it might be for. Expanding notions of space travel beyond masculine tropes of conquering other worlds, the work is filled with thoughtful eccentric details and embellishments regarding the pleasure of exploration for its own sake. Revelling in the excitement of the unknown without needing to possess the outcome, the journey and the experience are pushed to the fore, rather than the navigators’ glory or personal gain.

Soda_Jerk’s 4-channel video installation ‘Astro Black’.

In a similar manner, Sydney art duo Soda_Jerk’s Astro Black interrogates who and what space exploration, science fiction, and other futures might encompass. Their video cycle samples a diverse range of video and music sources, pointing to an Afro-futurist world. Elsewhere, Dan Bourke’s work presents sentences from cyborg scholar Donna Haraway printed on T-shirts, propagandist slogans that sit alongside the works of key sci-fi writers from curator Jack Sargeant’s personal collection. The personal, private worlds of these books is writ large across objects made for bodies, a literal embodying of the possibilities of alternative ways of living, or of being in the world.

Alongside the range of other works in the exhibition, including the hand-decorated rocks of Oliver Hull – remnants of the natural world reframed as alien beings – and the large-scale installation of Lisa Sammut, whose work A Monumental Echo leverages planetary exploration to remind us of the hubris of anthropocentric thought, the “Other Suns”‘ revolutionary possibilities become clear.

Whilst some people may not feel that sci-fi is for them, everyone can understand the exciting horizons of new worlds, alternative systems, and different futures. When these prospects are harnessed to critique, re-imagine, or simply enjoy, the possibilities are endless.

Also on show at FAC is Stuart Elliott’s new solo exhibition, whose centrepiece, Fremantle 1988, is an imposing cabinet of horrors which takes visitors on a “fakeological dig” through 200 years of recent WA history. Fremantle 1988 was recently donated to the City of Fremantle Art Collection by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.

“Other Suns” and “Fremantle 1988” are showing until September 14.

Pictured top: James Doohan & Bianca Sharkey, ‘Ascension’ (from ‘Astro Morphs’), 2018, single channel video, 11:50.

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Object lessons in memory and meaning

Review: Agatha Gothe-Snape, ‘Trying to Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair’ & Nicholas Mangan, ‘Termite Economies (Phase One)’ ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·
Review by Claudia Minutillo ·

Forming a deep and rich understanding of the recent past can be difficult. Our ability for retrospection often improves as we travel a greater temporal distance. The two latest exhibitions from Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, however, turn this notion on its head.

Spanning PICA’s Ground Floor Galleries, “Trying to find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair” is the culmination of a research project into the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art led by Australian contemporary artist Agatha Gothe-Snape.

A rare gem, the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art is Australia’s only public women’s art collection. This exhibition signifies its first public return to PICA since 1995 and creatively re-examines some of the collection’s foundational narratives of domesticity, still-life and self-representation.

The show includes artworks from the Cruthers Collection and new works produced by Gothe-Snape in response, giving the collection breathing room as if it were a living, conscious being. Cruthers Collection curator Gemma Weston, who collaborated with Gothe-Snape on this project, aptly describes the exhibition as “a dream the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art itself might have, if it were able to”.

In this dream-like mode, a viewer can (and should) navigate the space intuitively, first entering through Gothe-Snape’s installation Certain Situations/ EXPRESSION CURTAIN (2013). Previously acquired by the Cruthers Collection, the work is comprised of a large makeshift wall with a cut-out doorway in which a patterned yellow curtain hangs. Among other things, the installation draws attention to the performative nature of engaging with art objects in the show.

Some artists featured from the Cruthers Collection include Elise Blumann, Penny Bovell, Susanna Castleden, Penny Coss, Rosalie Gascoigne, Eveline Kotai, Ann Newmarch, Miriam Stannage and Mei Swan Lim. Their work spans across painting, textiles, print, drawing, sound and media. Within this myriad of expression, layers upon layers of meaning accrue which regrettably cannot be expressed in full here. However, the central feature which must be mentioned is the work from which the exhibition takes its title, and one of Gothe-Snape’s new responsive works.

In the centre of the space, a large platform displays a number of chairs loaned from exhibiting artists – the chair chosen had to be one in which the artist has found comfort. Some torn and frayed, some splattered with paint or just a skeleton of what once was, the borrowed chairs so beautifully manifest the artist’s presence through the object alone. Accompanied by Gothe-Snape’s letters to the artists requesting the chairs, we are invited to see the objects as a symptom of all their experiences. Through this, we immerse ourselves in one large connective web of shared feeling, experience and memory across time and space.

Upstairs, Nicholas Mangan’s “Termite Economies (Phase One)” brings the viewer back down to earth with a less whimsical aesthetic of insects and brown dirt. Mangan’s work is also the culmination of a research project. In this case, the Australian science agency CSIRO investigated termite behaviour in the hope their industrious methods might assist humans in their pursuit of gold.

Nicholas Mangan’s ‘Termite Economies (Phase One)’ re-imagines termite mounds using a 3D printer, plaster and soil. Picture by Bo Wong.

Occupying a much smaller and contained space, nightmarish rather than dream-like, the dimly lit room accentuates the stark artificiality of the bay lights which illuminate Mangan’s earthy termite sculptures from above. The organic forms have been rendered by a 3D printing process and are cross-sectioned to reveal inner passages; human innovation and research meets animal instinct.

These sculptures provide an access point to thinking about recent capitalist pursuit, economic viability and its reflection on society’s behavior and motivation. We may well imagine ourselves as these little termite colonies and speculate on possible futures. Accompanying the sculptures, retro monitors play archival and recorded footage of termite activity, showing the termites at work and also at a cellular level. The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary objects and visuals position the ideas explored as trans-historical, looking at the past in less rigid and more speculative, all-encompassing ways.

Perhaps the resounding point over all is that a focus on the embodied experience of objects and the contested ideas they encompass may provide a deeper understanding the recent past and present moment. These two exhibitions are not to be rushed through and are made all the more meaningful if the viewer is committed to their own participation, thinking and research into the objects before them.

“Trying to Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair” & “Termite Economies (Phase One)” are showing until 6 October.

Pictured above: Agatha Gothe-Snape’s installation ‘Trying To Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair’ in the PICA main gallery. Photo by Bo Wong.

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Eva Fernandez Flora obscura 14 (detail), 2013 digital print on Hahnemuhle fine art paper 32 x 21 cm On loan from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection
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Seeds of life and destruction

Review: ‘The Botanical: Beauty and Peril’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

This incredibly diverse exhibition guides the viewer on a journey through more than 200 works that progressively instill a sense of wonder at the richness of the natural world.

This wonderment is used as a vehicle to gently remind us of the threat and peril of the exhibition’s title – a doubling of hope and danger, two sides of a single coin.

Merrick Belyea, ‘Lesmurdie’, 2019, oil on board, 123 x 146.5 cm, On loan from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection.

Traversing historical and contemporary attitudes towards our natural world, “The Botanical: Beauty and Peril” seeks to address the progressively increasing sense of despair, loss and anxiety related to environmental destruction. It positions our current ecological circumstances within a historical context to help understand how we came to be facing a climate emergency.

The exhibition is drawn from the State gallery and from that of its chair, Janet Holmes à Court, and is co-curated by AGWA’s Melissa Harpley and the Janet Holmes à Court Collection’s Laetitia Wilson and Megan Schlipalius.

It takes a narrative form, allowing the viewer to walk through sections dedicated to different periods of human investment, impact and relationship with the botanical world. Beginning with European botanical illustrations by artists including Margaret Forrest and Florence Hildegarde Bassett alongside Aboriginal  representations of Country by Emily Kam Kngwarreye, this rich, immersive show drives home the importance of representing the natural world as a way to understand, experience, and find one’s place within it.

Walking clockwise through the exhibition, the narrative shifts from human representation of the landscape to our effect upon it. We see works reflecting the impact of logging, the politics of Aboriginal land rights and ongoing European settlement expressed in such works as brightly illustrated posters advertising Western Australia as a desirable place to travel and live.

Brian Robinson, ‘…and meanwhile back on earth the blooms continue to flourish’, 2013,
wood, plastic, steel, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, plant fibre and shell, 200 x 350 x 50 cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Leah Jane Cohen Bequest, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2014, © Brian Robinson, 2013.

A particular highlight are the 18 hanging batik fabrics by Utopia women artists in the 1980s, an injection of joyful colour and pattern displaying important plants and vegetables used for food and medicine. Here, the joy of making aligns with the love of country and an understanding of the connection between human survival and a bountiful land.

Although the exhibition follows a theme of the destructive effects of human intervention on the landscape, the works themselves are not presented chronologically. Alongside botanical illustrations from the 19th century, Eva Fernandez’s Flora Obscura series (2013) seeks to replicate the look of these early studies of WA flora. This makes for thoughtful juxtapositions of contemporary and historical works that speak to one another across the decades.

A B Webb, ‘Felling a Karri tree’, Western Australia 1929, lithograph, 102 x 151 cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Sir Claude Hotchin Art Foundation, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 1993.

“The Botanical” does not shy away from stark reminders of our uncertain future, its strength lying it its focus on the double-sided nature of nature itself, as something beautiful yet also dangerous. Through subtle revelations of the dark side of the natural world, including extinction and bushfires, the exhibition hints towards danger and destruction, but stops short of paralysing viewers with fear, leading to inaction.

In its balance of light and dark, beauty and danger, as well as the associated series of public programs aiming to stimulate conversation and education around climate change, the exhibition is successful in its gentle push towards consideration of and care for our natural world, with just enough of a hint of a threat to encourage you into action.

“The Botanical: Beauty and Peril” runs until November 4.

Pictured top: Eva Fernandez’s digital print Flora obscura 14 (detail).
On loan from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection.

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Photography in a new light

Review: Michael Reid (curator), ‘Light Years’/Sandra Murray (curator), ‘Abstracted’ ·
Perth Centre for Photography, FLUX Gallery ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

When I visited the Perth Centre for Photography in 2017 to view the Iris Award finalists, I remember questioning the suitability of its Subiaco location. Hay Street was a shadow of itself. Among shopfronts for lease and cafes with no patrons, I half expected a tumbleweed to come rolling past.

However, with upgrades at its previous West Perth gallery, PCP had at least taken up the invitation to relocate temporarily to The Colonnade – an option surely better than a hiatus. In doing so, the centre demonstrated its ongoing commitment to showcasing and promoting the best of the State’s photography.

Two years later, ahead of the 2019 Iris Award, we see PCP relocated to a central location at the King Street Arts Centre, in the gallery previously occupied by FORM. FLUX Gallery is described as a ‘new, seasonal gallery initiative’. In what appears to be a realistic response to the economic realities of supporting the arts, FLUX will also exhibit non-photographic work in an effort to operate sustainably and attract more stakeholder support of the initiative.

FLUX has commenced its program with two exhibitions. Michael Reid’s inaugural lightbox exhibition ‘Light Years: 1999-2019’ showcases works by Narelle Autio, Nici Cumpston, Marian Drew, Derek Henderson, Petrina Hicks, Joseph McGlennon, Fabian Muir, Catherine Nelson, Polixini Papapetrou, Trente Parke, Joan Ross, Luke Shadboldt and Christian Thompson.

Diverse and colourful, the exhibition illuminates the wonder and refinement that comes with technological progress in this artform. Lightboxes were once hot and clunky, and contemporary photography held only a small share of the art market. Now LED-enabled boxes present images with a magical quality, enriching colour and creating a vibrant, immersive experience that will make the viewer almost forget the prints are two-dimensional.

In a world where social media users play with filters and light to create the perfect Insta-worthy image, this exhibition is highly accessible and reminds us why contemporary photography is in such high demand.

Also on show at FLUX is ‘Abstracted’, curated by Sandra Murray and featuring works from Jennifer Cochrane, Tom Freeman, Chris Hopewell, Ian Williams and Gera Woltjer. These works are striking in a different way to the Technicolour-effect of ‘Light Years’.

The artists use colour at times but delight us with a variety of mediums and techniques. Cochrane’s impressive geometric structure in primary blue is a deserving centrepiece, beautiful in its angles and scale. Hopewell’s paintings feature a wet-look effect from his use of black resin; these fluid formations have surprising depth. Williams’ oil paintings are playful with shape, colour and shadow. His slices of gold, deep purples and pale peach are a real highlight in the white gallery space. Freeman’s glazed stoneware sculptures are curiosities with curves and coils that will prompt you to circle the plinths for a range of views. Woltjer’s installation piece is another winner: swimming pool lanes recreated on a wall and extending down to the floor.

At times, surviving in the arts must seem like a constant effort: a swimmer in a perpetual training session, propelling themselves, completing stroke after stroke, lap after lap, the tiled T-mark denoting the end of a lane, a cue to tumble-turn and do it all over again.

PCP’s renewed effort to garner support for creative industries and to find a way to keep swimming, whether there appears to be light or not, is particularly encouraging and worthy of commendation. With the benefit of a central location and exciting exhibitions, FLUX Gallery will hopefully be here for many years to come.

Light Years and Abstracted run until August 3 at FLUX Gallery (Wednesday to Saturday, 11am-3pm), 357 Murray Street, Perth.

Pictured top: Catherine Nelson’s Mission I (detail) is among the  works displayed with a touch of magic through LED-enabled boxes at FLUX Gallery.

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Intuition links three WA greats

Review: Kyle Hughes-Odgers, ‘Between the Earth and the Moon’/ Theo Koning, ‘The Latest Issue’/ Cathy Blanchflower, ‘Recent Paintings’ ·
Turner Galleries ·
Review by Claudia Minutillo ·

Floating somewhere amid the built and natural world or lived experience and inner subconscious, Turner Galleries presents three exhibitions which encourage the viewer to inhabit a space between these oppositions.

Curator Allison Archer thoughtfully brings together three celebrated Western Australian artists, Kyle Hughes-Odgers, Theo Koning and Cathy Blanchflower. To some extent, each artist’s practice materialises from a point of raw intuition and communicates with a well-developed, idiosyncratic artistic language.

Installed in the main gallery is Kyle Hughes-Odgers’s “Between the Earth and the Moon”, which is the Perth artist’s fifth exhibition at Turner Galleries. Widely known and loved for his large-scale street art locally and abroad, Hughes-Odgers’ work translates beautifully from the outside world to the inner sanctuary of the white-walled gallery. The Hughes-Odgers world is surreal, built on clear geometric patterning and cool colour combinations. Having recently returned from a residency in Iceland, this body of work seems to project a cool Scandinavian flare.

Hughes-Odgers’ large acrylic-on-canvas paintings collectively explore the way humans relate to each other and their environments, striking a balance between figuration and abstraction. The artist’s small Paper Studies series, 20 to 60, are a nice inclusion; a subconscious layering of colour and pattern, these works show freeing process which allows him to test colour and composition before they might be translated to larger works.

The exhibition also offers some 3D forms. Hughes-Odgers’ quirky sculpture Girl hints towards the artist’s interest in animation, lifting his characters out of the canvas and into life. The installation Feverdream brings a touch of light-hearted fun with shadow play and reflection.

Kyle Hughes-Odgers’ Girl, acrylic on board sculpture.

In engine room 1, Theo Koning’s “The Latest Issue” heightens this sense of play with his experimental practice led by pure intuition. This is suggested in the way the artist assembles, stacks, and (re)arranges his work on the floor and wall. Koning’s artist’s statement comes in the form of a home-made style zine. In it he asks, “How do you talk about your work when mostly it arrives intuitively?” For Koning, words come after the visual and how the sculptures are organised is like stringing together a sentence.

The artist’s sculptural forms are often dictated by the material itself; using found objects he then injects them with new life and energy by re-purposing or altering them with range of mediums such as acrylic, gesso, paper maché, and silicone. The sculptures are suggestive, spirited and mischievous, and play with spatial balance and informed movement, for example Olive or Tilted are tethered in a way that suggests they might fall – the space requires the viewer to be conscious of their physical relationship to the work.

Theo Koning’s works at Turner Galleries.

Cathy Blanchflower’s “Recent Paintings” in engine room 2 also forges a physical connection between viewer and work. It is perhaps the most visually stimulating show out of the three. Blanchflower’s medium to large-scale oil paintings are composed of opaque layers of paint in patterns that float over each other. Blues, greens, purples, and orange being the predominant colour palate, each vibrates with energy. Each painting shifts between a macro and micro world (they are almost cellular) but remain untethered to either orientation.

Significantly, Blanchflower’s painting Archz III marks a turn towards fluid organic patterning, reflecting her move from city living to the Blue Mountains. Previously, her paintings had reflected the density and energy of the city with grid-like structures, mathematical measurement and design. However, having been surrounded by nature, as Archz III shows, it becomes a way of life and a way of thinking through things. Blanchflower’s work is a direct response to her environment.

This set of exhibitions call attention to the ways we interact with our natural and urban world – a very timely subject in an age of environmental crisis. There is always room for art which encourages a shared ecological consciousness, makes us slow down and takes us away from the business of life.

The exhibition runs at Turner Galleries until August 10.

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Trio play out of their skins

Review: University of Western Australia & Tura New Music, Armadillo ·
University of Western Australia, 16 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

A percussion trio led by American Robyn Schulkowsky has performed one of the concerts of the year as part of the international Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference at the University of West Australia.

The Australian premiere of Schulkowsky’s 30-year-old work Armadillo is the first of three evening performances over the four-day conference  this week, in addition to a wide range of academic discussions about historic female artists, contemporary queer music, and feminist sound art.

Two more concerts round out the conference performance program at the the UWA Conservatorium of Music, presented by UWA and Tura New Music. Decibel new music ensemble, led by Cat Hope, offers a survey of compositions by contemporary Australian female composers as part of its 10th anniversary (Decibel 10 at 10) on July 18. Queensland percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson closes the conference with a performance in the UWA Tropical Garden on July 19.

Schulkowsky is a veteran of the US and German experimental scene, having worked with Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, and many others, principally in the role of performer/interpreter. In devising Armadillo, she was inspired partly by Mayan calendrical cycles and numerological groupings.

As performed by Schulkowsky with Tomlinson and UWA head of percussion Louise Devenish, Armadillo is a mercurial, endlessly surprising work. Small, semi-detached rhythmical items rest within other inconsistent, larger groupings, which intermittently break out, or cause the piece to morph in time signature and/or sonic texture.

Although peppered with extended, cumulative agitations of the cymbals and tam-tam (or gong), it is first and foremost a piece for drums. It is amazing the amount of sonic variation that Schulkowsky, especially, coaxes from these instruments as the piece develops in time.

There is a brief passage of Brazilian batucada-style drumming, with sharply-attacked bongos leading, but this is soon dispersed into a more effervescent set of motifs. Steve Reich’s highly repetitive, minimalist drumming is evoked when the three performers settle into a groove which feels like it could last all night. But on the whole, the shimmering effects and phasing so loved of Reich is absent here.

Armadillo is therefore more properly called a work which at times settles into a minimalistic lockstep, as rhythmic patterns are lovingly repeated. The highly asymmetric time signatures required Schulkowsky in particular to, very comfortably it seemed, pump out one rhythm with her foot on the cymbal hi-hat pedal, and an entirely different one with her sticks in her hands on the toms. This puts Armadillo ultimately within another musical and stylistic space to Reich or Latin percussion, although Schulkowsky is clearly influenced by both.

Another striking element of the performance is the rise and fall of intensity which is modulated through how the drums are approached. Schulkowsky and her collaborators however often combine a strike to the drum with a kind of dampening or pressing effect. When performing as a trilogy, the usual mode is to come together for several minutes, then one performer drops away, the others continue, and then the first returns before another drops out. In this turn taking, volume and textural density rise and fall. One needs a careful ear to attend to the very subtle layering of material.

Schulkowsky definitely loves her instruments. I have never seen a performer with such a deft touch on the skins of the drums. While Tomlinson and Devenish are also superb, Schulkowsky all but strokes her instruments. She bashes, coaxes, rubs, caresses and finger-thunks these items. As she rocks gently back and forth, or looks off in absorption upwards and to one side, we in the audience also move to another place with her; a place of objects, surfaces, drum-skins, and musical sublimity.

This was one of the most extravagantly wonderful and awe-inspiring Perth concerts of the last few years: please bring Schulkowsky back!

The Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference ends on July 19.

Pictured at top: Vanessa Tomlinson, Robyn Schulkowsky and Louise Devenish. Photo by Tristen Parr.

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Body language speaks on many levels

Various Artists, ‘I See You, I hear You’ ·
Gallery Central, North Metro TAFE ·
Review: Stephen Bevis ·

A Noongar man, his body painted for ceremony, adopts a formal stance as if posing for a Neo-classical artist besotted by the exotic “noble savage”.

His otherness is confirmed by the accompanying flora and fauna in the painting, species examined, classified and indexed by the artist-naturalists who accompanied the 18th and 19th century voyages of “discovery” and colonisation.

Except here also are rabbits, foxes and sheep, true exotic fauna introduced to Australia by the Europeans. And the artist is not a Neo-classical English or French painter but Minang/Noongar contemporary artist Christopher Pease.

Pease embeds his body of work in the western figurative tradition, turning its techniques against itself to question, undermine and recalibrate its assumptions from the indigenous perspective. Here, his subjects reflect the widespread treatment of indigenous people as akin to native fauna, not counted in the population census until as recently as 1967.

Two works from Pease’s 2014 Flora & Fauna series feature in ‘I See You, I hear You’, a group exhibition of emerging and established artists which opened at Central Gallery as part of NAIDOC Week. The NAIDOC theme this year is “Voice Treaty Truth” and this show, running until the end of July, takes the idea of storytelling and communication without using or even having a voice at all.

The body and its non-verbal expressiveness through dance, adornment and gesture is foregrounded in just about all the works, which range across video, photography, painting and fashion and design. Visual arts, of course, is another non-verbal articulation of our humanity, giving a simple, clear curatorial thread for Gallery Central curator Thelma Johns to plot the flow of the exhibition.

Entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted with three photographic prints by Brenda L Croft. A black and white 1960s childhood image of Croft with her father outside the Perth GPO is reproduced twice as negatives. All three pictures are then overlaid by racist text taken from regulations restricting Aboriginal life in Perth at the time. Relatively fair-skinned and holding the hand of her darker Guringji father, Croft inverts their skin tones through the effect of the negative images  and upends assumed stereotypes being reinforced by the negative racial descriptions.

Dennis Golding, a TAFE and PICA artist-in-residence for 2019 Hatched, also uses photography to examine identity, power and confidence in Beings I and Beings II. The Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist gives us an enigmatic self-portrait, wearing a superhero cape emblazoned with a target and standing back-to-camera looking out to sea on a cliff at Sydney’s Little Bay.

Dennis Golding’s Beings I uses pop culture and place to examine identity.

Among other works by Kylie Graham, Debra Miller, Pantjiti Mary Mclean, Darren Stockwell and Katie West are two stunning archival images from the State Library. These two photographs from around 1900-10, taken by an unknown photographer, show Wadjuk elder Joobaitch and several other Noongar men in ceremonial dress and body paint in Kalamunda bushland.

Contemporary artists, including Christopher Pease, have used these historical images as important reference material for their own work and they are compelling and powerful inclusions in this show. The photographs of Joobaitch, born in the early days of the Swan River Colony, also inspired the body-painting designs used in a collaborative video work of animation and filmed dance involving, among others, Darryl Bellotti, Nigel Wilkes, Kirk Garlett and dancers from the Northam Clontarf Academy for the Bilya Koort Boodja Centre for Nyoongar Culture and Environmental Knowledge in Northam.

Another video, by director-performer Karla Hart and the Yokayi girls from Girrawheen Senior High School, also celebrates the ongoing strength of traditional Noongar culture. Because of Her, We Can was made for NAIDOC 2018 and is a joyous expression of identity, community and culture told primarily through dance.

Though compromised by the lack of a darkened space to highlight their qualities, these two videos of the students of Clontarf and Girrawheen, affirm the exhibition’s commitment to telling a story of standing strong and proud, sharing and celebrating indigenous heritage and culture.

I See You, I Hear You is at Central Gallery, Aberdeen Street, Northbridge, until July 27.

Pictured above: Christopher Pease’s Flora & Fauna I and III, oil on linen paintings, 2014. Photo courtesy courtesy of Gallerysmith, Melbourne.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Theatre

Sweeney sets the blood racing

Review: WA Opera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ·
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 13 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

It is the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Sweeney Todd,  prompting revivals of the musical thriller around the world. Composer Stephen Sondheim also collaborated with Hugh Wheeler on the musical’s lyrics and scenario to produce a truly unified piece.

Based on Christopher Bond’s ghoulish 1973 play and a 19th century British melodrama, Sondheim’s version follows Todd’s quest for vengeance upon his return to London from an Australian penal colony. Todd is seeking the corrupt Judge Turpin, who had Todd transported, raped his wife and stole his daughter Johanna as a “ward” to be groomed to fulfill Turpin’s desires in marriage.

Todd teams up with failed pie-maker Mrs Lovett to kill unsuspecting patrons to his barbershop, whilst awaiting Turpin. The bodies provide the irresistible ingredient for Lovett’s now booming trade.

Director Hal Prince’s 1979 Broadway production was both epic and gothic, featuring a highly flexible stage with dynamic set elements. Few comparable venues exist in Australia, and director Theresa Borg’s current Sydney production is hampered by the poorly designed if spacious Darling Harbour Theatre.

The West Australian Opera has the opposite challenge with His Majesty’s Theatre, which dates back to the halcyon days of melodrama. Sound designer Jim Atkins works the acoustics well, and director Stuart Maunder and designer Roger Kirk retain almost all of the elements from Prince’s 1979 production but have responded to the narrow stage by compacting them. They have divided the original expanse of gantries into distinct banks left and right so that the effect is more of a columnar, crisscrossed set of points, than of Prince’s wide swirling maelstrom.

The performers, led by Ben Mingay as Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett, are fantastic, and so is the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the music direction of Brett Weymark. But while the spatial compromises largely work, there are points where the performances seem cramped.

Todd’s trunk, in which he hides the bodies, all but destroys the sightlines in his barbershop, where it should act as a significant but peripheral object. The chute connected to Todd’s mechanical chair for disposing of bodies is rather clunky, lacking the smooth efficiency which produces so much irony as he sings of his love for Johanna. The final scene where the waif Tobias (Joshua Reckless) goes mad at the sight of the bloodshed, and then surprises both the audience and Todd with use of the cut-throat razor, is anticlimactic given that Tobias must first sidle along a narrow band at the back of the set.

Mingay triumphs as Todd. While not a dynamically nuanced or varied delivery, his almost continuous basso profundo, launched feet apart and shoulders squared, makes for a wonderfully demonic barber. As an avenging angel come to punish the rich, the powerful and the whole of venal humanity, he recalls Rod Steiger’s Judd in the film Oklahoma! and it comes as no surprise that this is a role Mingay has played on stage.

James Clayton is a rather perverse Turpin, whipping himself like a penitent as he rationalises his wicked lust for Johanna. Fiona Campbell portrays the mad beggar who takes a strong interest in Todd’s shop, nailing the ranting song “City on Fire”. Emma Pettemerides as Johanna and Nathan Stark as her beau Anthony are rather more randy than in the original, making the repeated, interrupted refrain of “Kiss Me” more comedic than touching.

For all of Mingay’s brooding presence, the production is all but stolen by Halloran as Lovett. The role was famously written for Angela Lansbury, who produced a wonderfully blousy, pragmatic character whose true wish was a domestic, well-to-do life. Halloran by contrast is explicitly sexual and is clearly after Todd for his erotic allure rather than just his ability to secure her prosperity. She is constantly amused, flirtatious and suggestive: I lost count of how many times she rubbed her behind against Todd. Halloran  provides a live wire of electricity and sass running throughout this otherwise dark and unredeemed narrative.

Although WA Opera’s production does not establish any significant new precedents, it is a triumph of effective and affecting staging.

Sweeney Todd continues on July 16, 18 and 20. 

Picture above: Ben Mingay as Sweeney Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett. Photo by James Rogers.

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News, Visual arts

Desert colours bloom at Goods Shed

Martu artist Bugai Whyoulter brings her first solo show in eight years to FORM in Claremont, writes Stephen Bevis.

As the grey winter rain beats down on The Goods Shed’s tin roof, vivid colours radiate in rhythmic harmony from the white walls of FORM’s gallery inside.

The western desert art of Bugai Whyoulter has come to brighten up the bleak depths of a Perth winter, the first solo show by this acclaimed Martu artist in eight years.

Many of the 40 dynamic acrylic-on-canvas works at FORM’s Claremont art space spring from a prolific burst of painting inspired by Whyoulter’s recent return to Country, the undulating red sands and waterholes around Wantili (Well 25 along the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert).

This important ceremonial site is where Whyoulter, now about 80, first encountered Europeans for the first time as a teenager. It’s where she and her grandson Cyril Whyoulter, who also paints with the esteemed Martumili Artists group, spent time painting together last year in an important act of cultural transmission between generations.

A joint finalist in next month’s annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Whyoulter is among a declining number of ‘pujiman’ or desert-born Martu artists who maintained an entirely independent, nomadic desert lifestyle until the 1950s and 1960s.

“Bugai always tells about Wantili,” Cyril Whyoulter says of his grandmother, a Warnman and Kartujarra speaker whose dynamic paintings pulsate with power across languages and cultures. “She saw whitefellas there for the first time. . . Canning mob travelling up and down the stock route with their bullocks . . . (her people) ran away from the whitefellas, watching them from a long distance.”

Her family eventually settled at Parrngurr on the edge of the Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park and then Jigalong until 2002 when the Martu’s successful land claim initiated her return to her homeland and the community of Kunawarritji near Well 33.

She took to painting relatively late in 2007, working her creative practice initially in textiles (a wall installation of 22 eye-popping minarri grass and wool baskets dazzles against a black background at the rear of the gallery).  She adapted to painting under the influence of the Two Noras, the late renowned Martumili matriarchs Nora Nungabar and Nora Wompi with whom she shared a house for many years.

Bound by kinship and country, the three women embodied the Martu approach to painting, ‘kutjanka’, which translates in desert language as “together as one”. Surrounded by grandchildren and their favourite dogs, their art-making was social, collaborative, prolific and pleasurable.

In Whyoulter’s case, she extends this legacy as a meditative practice through rhythmic, gestural patterns and adventurous combinations of colour that give joyous expression to stories of kinship, culture and country.

The result is art that has an immediacy that resonates on its own terms with audiences, regardless of context, says Martumili Artists Gallery Coordinator Amy Mukherjee. Her work is held by major Australian collections, including the National Museum of Australia, which toured her work to Japan with FORM’s Canning Stock Route Project.

“People don’t need to feel they have to be qualified to decode her work,” Mukherjee says. “They can look at it and feel something that is usually connected to how she was feeling at the time. Her appeal crosses borders and generations. Lots of people from all over the world feel really connected to her work without any wider contextual understanding of Aboriginal art history or her own history.”

Bugai  runs until 15 September.

Pictured top: Bugai Whyoulter with four works in her 2018 Wantili series at The Goods Shed. Photo: Taryn Hays, FORM.

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