Parallel Visions - Reviewed

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Published Friday, April 5, 2002

In Parallel Visions, currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 250 works by 22 significant Australian artists have been moved out of storage to the public gallery walls via the conservation lab.
The addition of 250 beautifully restored objects, makes a priceless addition to the pool of Australian art from the first half of last century that can once again be enjoyed by the public. The first half of the 20th century was a period that saw rapid changes in artistic styles from plein air impressionism to abstraction and was driven by a broad diversification in artistic intent, which is brilliantly captured with the range of works in this show.

In order to draw the viewer into the exhibition, works have been grouped by the curators so that they enter into a dialogue with other works by one or two other selected artists. For example we see the works of Gruner, Heysen and Trenerry hung side by side so we can reflect upon and draw comparisons between the works. But the grounds for inclusion in each group differs across the exhibition, which makes it difficult to appreciate just what the curators were hoping to elicit from the exhibition as a whole. A hang based on separating genres might have generated a better understanding of the contribution each artist made to Australian art.

What this exhibition reveals most clearly is the evolving interests of Australian artists from entertaining the bug eyed audiences looking for affirmation of their value systems and the artists’ willingness to indulge it. The erotic and the landscape seem to come across as the chosen themes time and again as artists painted works for the bourgeois tastes of the time as exemplified by Gruner and Heysen’s idyllic pastorals or Ollie’s interiors. The early practitioners of painting arid landscapes by Murch and Heysen reveal our artists’ return to the reality of life on the land, away from the fantastic land populated by cavorting nymphs and fauns and here a thought arises. Why not group the classicist inspired imagery of Bunny, Murch and Norman Lindsay and separate the evolving view of the bush and landscape? Walk around the exhibition and see for yourself.

With the shift to non-representational work the search was on for art leading us away from the dissolute values that elevated subjects of nymphs and fauns as subjects of high art toward the resolute and spiritual and much of the theoretical underpinning of these works from de Maistre through to Roger Kemp represents the quest for moral elevation through substantive art and artistic practice rather than via representational and bourgeois ambitions. Of course, we know that this is precisely what the expressionist and social realist movements as exemplified by Danila Vassilieff or Noel Counihan (neither of whom is in this exhibition) fought so hard for, while not sacrificing the power of representational forms.

Stills from Amelie

By its self-referential focus Parallel Visions elicits a dialogue between works but at a basic level and more complex themes and relationships borne through the modernist movement last century in Australia is not possible because the works were not selected for a thematic exhibition but primarily on each work’s merit for conservation. The most fundamental shift in art over the last 100 years has been to move the object off the wall and into our life which is precisely the realisation that this exhibition fails to elicit in the viewer. By its nature, Parallel Visions reaffirms the object in a traditional modernist context, with beautiful and seductive images which have been returned to the public space – however, the thematic grouping is quite pointless and if anything a nostalgic rather than a critical hang.

By Martin Shub April 4 2002

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