Warrnambool: art defying logic

Estelle Barrett

Carolyn Rundell, Shadowlands Virtual Skies

Carolyn Rundell, Shadowlands Virtual Skies

It’s often said that innovation and dynamism occur not at the centre of systems, but at the periphery. Try applying this notion to metropolitan and regional art scenes and you’ll often find an uneasy silence. At least that’s been my experience since arriving in Warrnambool, 3 hours south west of Melbourne.

Logic in these parts deems the distance from Melbourne to Warrnambool at least twice that of the reverse journey so that much of what occurs in terms of the visual arts in this region remains unremarked or, at worst, invisible to those elsewhere.

So, what is happening on this strip of English landscape transposed to the shores of the Southern Ocean? The town of Warrnambool boasts a Deakin University campus nestled between river and paddock. Graduates from the Visual Arts school here are regularly represented in the National Art exhibition, Hatched, hosted by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Warrnambool Gallery’s permanent collection contains turn of the century European salon paintings, colonial landscapes including works of Eugene von Geurhard and Louis Buvelot, and other historic images of the Shipwreck Coast region. What may surprise is the collection’s strong representation of works of avant-garde Modernism including artists Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman and Joy Hester as well as those of contemporary artists Juan Davila, Barbara Hanrahan and Ray Arnold. In addition, 2 temporary spaces host works from leading artists as well as touring exhibitions. Monash University’s Telling Tales: The Child in Contemporary Photography (see RT39 p9) is a recent example of the latter, featuring Anne Ferran’s series Carnal Knowledge, Ronnie Van Hout ‘s Mephitis and Bill Henson’s Untitled 1983/1984.

The gallery deviates from the conventional white cube in its encouragement of community and emerging artists through the availability (at a small fee) of a temporary exhibition space, the Alan Lane Community Gallery. Though risky in many ways, this generative move unearths some interesting contemporary practices and talent.

Evidence of this was seen in October, with Tate Plozza Radford’s exhibition Junk Food, a raw but coherent body of works. Using spray paint, Radford uses a process of marking and layering to produce a palimpsest effect or visual overlays evoking ancient cave paintings and alleyway graffiti. Temporal and spatial boundaries are blurred formally and thematically, through a superimposition of pristine dinosaur terrains, urban bleakscapes and the clutter of contemporary existence. This body of work may be viewed as an allegory of the planet’s progressive/regressive occupation by human and other forms of life.

Showing at the same time in the larger gallery was the Deakin University annual exhibition (by design or chance) entitled Regula Fries. The show displays an interesting intersection between fine art, photography and graphic design forged through Deakin University’s Visual Arts program that allows students to work across these areas throughout their undergraduate studies.

Another recent exhibition/event Slessar’s/4 Works (which deserves more space than can be given here) suggests the attribute of dogged tenacity is not lacking amongst local artists Adam Harding, Amanda Fewell, Chelsey Reis and Carolyn Rundell. The initiative culminated in a body of site-specific works interrogating the role of the gallery system as arbiter, and allowing the makers and audience to explore emergent relationships between art practice, space/place and community.

Slessar’s Motor Electric Shop, built in Koroit Street at the turn of the century—dark, begrimed and somewhat decrepit—was up for lease with no takers. With persistence the artists were able to secure the building free of charge for 6 weeks.

Works produced by Fewell and Reis emerge as a direct response to the nature of the building as a place of male labour, and demonstrate how craft can operate simultaneously as aesthetic conceptual and critical practice. Fewell’s intricately woven rolls of cash register dockets allude to the commercial history of the site. The alchemical visual transformation of waste paper into rich and delicate fabric is a validation of women’s labour where once only men toiled.

Reis took inspiration from discarded oil-stained T-shirts and fragments of texts—graffiti and notes—left by workmen, converting them into finely embroidered garments. Producing the work from and in the space, Reis questions the logic of Western attitudes to work and applies what she terms a “low-tech, hand-made approach, linking the aesthetics of craft to meaningful work practice.”

Rundell, known for her monolithic sculptural works woven from barbed wire, continues the dialogue with Shadow Lands Virtual Skies, a massive quilt woven from barbed wire and suspended from the ceiling over a bed within a darkened space. She views domestic space and landscape as strong influences on our psyche and comments, “The work attempts to illustrate the paradox of love and control in both domestic space and the wider Australian landscape.”

Harding (remembered for prior interventions through his Black Cats and other projects in Geelong) is new to the town and, without a car, is bemused by the proliferation of roundabouts and traffic barriers thwarting walkers and drivers. Assuming ownership of the roundabout as a front yard, the first phase of his work involved knitting a pastel-coloured mohair cover for steel barriers at the nearby corner—a performance which amused passers-by. Other responses included some suspicion from the local constabulary, discomforted by interference with civic infrastructure and a strong belief that knitting is not a blokey thing to do. The mohair tubing was later filled with white wadding and installed in the building as a precarious railing, producing comic contrast to an unyielding mechanical darkness.

The Slessar’s project afforded a new connection with the building’s history and its departed community. For some, it seemed to satisfy a yearning for something rough, gritty and perhaps bohemian. The makeshift bar and kitchen offered a place for artists and curious visitors to linger for a yarn and ponder anew the notion of change, transformation and this business called art.

Interest and activity around the site has led a local restaurateur to take up a lease to convert Slessar’s Electric Motor Shop into a bistro restaurant—art slipping, almost seamlessly, into life?

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 30

© Estelle Barrett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001