News, Reviews, Visual arts

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
August 19, Calendar, Visual arts

Visual Arts: August Exhibitions at Cool Change Contemporary

2 – 24 August @ Cool Change Contemporary ·
Presented by Cool Change Contemporary ·

Please join us for the opening night of three new exhibitions and welcome  our July artist in residence on Friday 2 August, 6-8pm.

Gallery 1:  Tami Xiang: Peasantography: Lucky 88
Gallery 2:  Esther McDowell / Yabini Kickett: Kala Koorliny – Going Home
Gallery 3:  Tom Freeman: Brick (Supported by the Australia Council for the
Arts and the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries).
Project Space Residency: Lisa Liebetrau: A Form Close to that Originally Intended

Exhibition Continues: Saturday 3 August – Saturday 24 August.
Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm

More info:
www.coolchange.net.au/

Pictured: Esther McDowell, 2019. Dyed Linen with Marri leaves and rust.
Image courtesy of the artist.

 

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

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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