If, like your Iconophile, you missed last Friday’s opening of Deborah Clark and Mark (aka Marcel) Van Veen’s show Something in the Air: Collage and Assemblage in Canberra Region Art at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, readers within striking distance of the capital should make the effort to see it. Arguably, collage and its sibling inventions of assemblage and photomontage were the significant innovations of early 20th century modernism. In Canberra it happened a little later. This exhibition of 132 works by 40 artists is drawn from the collections of CMAG, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, other public galleries, private collections, and the artists’ own studios. In broad terms, it describes three (overlapping) generations of assemblage artists dating from the 1970s, plus a grouping of significant Australian and international art historical precedents borrowed from the collection of the NGA. These include Nolans from the 30s, the Annandale Imitation Realists, and some Rauschenberg prints. Without these loans (and yes, the Cornell, and the Duchamp, Hoch and Schwitters illustrated in the catalogue would have augmented this frame of reference considerably) one of the curators’ key theses would not be made so explicitly. That is, that it is the presence and accessibility of the NGA’s collection since the 1970s that has paved the way for successive generations of Canberra artists to scrounge the detritus from the streets and environs of Tidy Town as the raw materials of their art. If Canberra art has a style, this is it.
Rosalie Gascoigne, (1917-99), Pink Window, 1975, (Gascoigne Family Collection, Canberra).
Of course the senior figure of significance to this aspect of the local scene is the late Rosalie Gascoigne. As the curators point out, her recognition rocketed from emergence to the Venice Biennale in just a decade or so. It’s arguable that her career as an artist also was a product of the NGA effect – given the strong support and mentorship of its first director, James Mollison. She is represented here by four works, the selection of which more than compensates for the absence of the Cornell and Duchamp – her Parrot Morning 1976 from the NGV is just one of many bicycle references in the show. But it is the work above, one of the great works of her middle phase, which captures the spirit of this show, perfectly combining the urban and the rural, the domestic and the outdoors, which is a characteristic of so many of the works in the show.
Neil Roberts (1954-2002) Cryonic Quintet 1994 (Collection CMAG)
There’s another distinction that could be made in this exhibition between those artists for whom assemblage is the core of their practice, and those for whom it is a means to an end. Neil Roberts and Rosalie Gascoigne were of the former category, and it is mindboggling to consider the time and effort that went into the searching and discovery of the myriad of elements from which their work emerged. At this level collecting materials with the potential to become art is purely instinctive. You can’t go out looking for a cardboard box with a parrot on it – rather, it comes to you, if you’re in the right receptive frame of mind. And so this mesmerising set of totem poles made of cast glass objects on Duchampian stools is the result of years of accumulation, until they coalesced into their final form. And, of course, any work of art which employs collage and assemblage to create new forms and meanings carries the implication of its possible dissolution, as if the poetry of the conjunction of materials always remains essentially tenuous. It is as if the work retains an ephemeral quality, and could just as easily come apart, undoing the creative process in the same manner as it was done.
David Sequeira (1966-) Zen Picnic (1998-2006) (Collection of the artist)
How could you not but be impressed by David Sequeira’s capacity to assemble his materials – here trays, plates and dishes in various (vulgar) plastic materials and colours? These flattened totem poles employ the same process as Roberts – a cumulative building of a final form – and similarly convey a nostalgic familiarity with the historical origins of the building blocks of the work. But here, like Roberts, their mode of assemblage transcends the mundane origins of the materials of the work, and challenges the viewer’s expectations – in this instance in a pictorial rather than a sculptural sense.
Hamilton Darroch (1972-) Resurface 1, 2008 (collection of the artist)
The majority of works in the show have been made in the last decade. Most of the artists are graduates of the ANU School of Art. And yet assemblage is not in any sense a “house style” of the School, or even the core of their teachers’ practice. Ham Darroch now works in London (once as studio assistant to Bridget Riley), and the ancient elements of these works were recovered from the Thames at low tide. He took his Canberra Style with him. And yes, people still stroll along the mudflats on summer evenings! But what caught your Iconophile’s eye in this case (along with many other such elements to be discovered in other works in the exhibition) was the delicate, elegant manner in which Ham has painted the (new) handles of his shovel, gaff hook and plumb bob sculptures. Perhaps the London light had something to do with it?
With a show like this, you could write such stories five times over. Don’t miss. Read the excellent catalogue. And P.S. There’s a link to the Neil Roberts website in this previous post on ArtWranglers.