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Contemporary Australian art

This year I have been lucky enough to write commissions for some of my favourite artists, such as Adriane Strampp, whose work I have been a long admirer of. I first saw her paintings on display at the S.H. Ervin Gallery Salon des Refusés exhibition Wynne Prize selection in 2014. I have called myself a fan girl ever since. The manner in which Strampp layers landscape to create a sense of mystery and haunting intrigue captured my imagination straight away and hasn’t stopped drawing me in since.

When Adriane contacted me and asked me to write about her works with Hill Smith Gallery at the 2017 Hong Kong art fair, I said yes! and started scribbling drafts straight away. This suite of works included coloured monochrome works in addition to her class grey-scale pieces and I delighted in observing the developments in her signature style.

You can read my introduction and see a full catalogue of Strampp’s works for the 2017 Hong Kong Art Fair here. Or, head to her website to see her current exhibitions and details of her representation. Read my catalogue entry below:

Adriane Strampp is a Melbourne-based artist whose work challenges perceptions through her unique monochromatic palette, materials, and light. Strampp’s works search for a spatial connection, creating barriers between viewers and the relationship they have to their environment. As an artist who grew up as a nomadic child, Strampp is fascinated with creating a sense of place and connection. These themes run strongly like a thread through each of her paintings.

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A. Strampp, Daybreak, oil on linen with wax, 2017 

It is not unusual for artists to be inspired by the beauty and scale of their environment. Like most traditional landscape paintings, Strampp’s works retain a focus on natural light. However, while other artists are concerned with brightening their renditions of place, Strampp seeks to dim the dial on sunlight by using monotones. In doing so she playfully renders scenes that are withdrawn from the light as a device to lure viewers in to her work and decide what is real and what is not. In her practice, Strampp can spend long periods of time colour-mixing, claiming that if the tone is not exactly right it is difficult for her to connect to the piece.

An example of this is Daybreak. In this particular work half the canvas is shroud in dark shadows while the other is dimly lit by a murky sky. The scene is unclear: that is the point. Strampp’s painting is a metaphorical mirror being held up to her viewers. What connections do they make here? What is their connection to this inverted world? As in all Strampp’s works, the viewers eye cannot help but travel through the painting. Viewers must search behind the visual barrier’s Strampp creates, through reflections and past shadows to piece the vision of a landscape together.

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A. Strampp, Shimmer, oil on linen with wax, 2013

Strampp’s practice involves layering oil and wax to control reflections and monochrome shades. It is difficult to see a suite of Strampp’s works and not be struck by her clever use of gradient tones to create a sense of atmosphere and evoke connections from viewers. The effect of this is an intense moodiness that shifts depending on the viewers standpoint and levels of natural light. Employing a monochromatic palette is hugely important in this process and is imperative to achieving a sense of stillness in her works. The overall effect of this in both the pink and grey works, is soothing and calming.

Adriane Strampp is a talented artist committed to the exploration of connections and spatial perspectives. By exploring these themes in her pink and grey works, Strampp creates a sense of place and connection for viewers to explore. ♦

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A. Strampp, Diversion, oil on linen with wax, 2017

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I am forever dumbfounded by conversations I have with smart, intelligent people about art. Not because they don’t have insightful interpretations to share or clever observations to point out, rather, because they do not trust their own opinions and are paralysed by the fear of ‘getting it wrong’, as if interpreting art is the creative version of writing a linear equation. The fear of making a mistake and incorrectly judging the meaning or purpose behind a work is so overwhelming that they would rather not comment on it at all, or meekly comment on it ‘being nice’ before muttering something about themselves not really ‘getting’ it. As far as I see it, if you are curious about the world and have managed to draw together a thoughtful understanding of the art at hand, no matter what your opinion is, it is impossible to get it wrong.

In an effort to foster confidence and encourage intellectual debate, I wrote about this topic for Junkee media site, The Cusp. Check out the full text:

One of the most fun parts of adult-ing is filling up your social calendar with fancy parties and events like gallery openings and art fairs. It’s all fun and games during the eating and drinking portion of the evening, but what about the cultural engagement element?

Sorry, what? Maybe you’ve already ghosted it by this stage. Or maybe you’re brave and have decided to fake it ’til you make it only to breathe a sigh of relief when the full blown grown-up next to you mutters I don’t get it. Aside from T-Swifts current extended-performance with faux-beaux Tom Hiddleston, understanding art doesn’t have to be as hard as it has the rep for.

With a little confidence, an open mind, and a teeny-tiny amount of general knowledge that you most definitely already have, you can shake off imposter syndrome and read art like the free spirited animal that you are.

#1 You can never be wrong
Let’s start out with this one because once you have a solid relationship with the fact that you can never be wrong in your interpretations, all the rest falls seamlessly into place like an Alexandar Calder mobile. Take comfort in the knowledge that there is never any right or wrong answer.

Art history is riddled with critics, curators, and artists sharing their varied opinions. Different points of view makes the whole reading and writing of art that much more exciting and when you think about it, it’s kinda the whole point of the arts industry.

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Alexander Calder, Maripose (1960)

#2 Go with your gut
Listen to your immediate gut reaction and ask yourself how it makes you feel. This is powerful right here. This exercise of asking yourself what it means. It is the emotional equivalent of a Christo Jeanne-Claude wrapped Lake Iseo in Italy. Ask yourself what the work reminds you of? What is it that you like about it? Take some time to process your thoughts before verbalising them. This gives you an opportunity to construct a thoughtful and intelligent sentence while appearing to be lost in the work.

#3 Learn a few key terms
Sure, you can tell the difference between a portrait painting and a landscape, but what about the rest? Learn the difference between a sculpture and an installation and you will go far in this world. It is easy to learn about an artist if you aren’t familiar with their work but make sure you know a few terms to talk about the medium of a piece confidently. An installation is a site specific work, a performance is usually a one off, and a conceptual piece is, well, conceptual. Arm yourself with some buzzwords and the rest will follow organically.

#4 You do not have to know everything
The great thing about art is that no one is expected to know the history of everything. There are no fact checkers standing behind you in a gallery or bugging your conversation at an opening. Where does the horizon expansion element of the exercise come in if we all know everything already? Don’t over exhaust yourself finding the connection between James Turrell’s ‘Breathing light’ and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ if you don’t already know it. Think about what you do know and start drawing connections from there.

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James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

Art is basically an amalgamation of everything that you already know or that is happening in the world around you from the Single Ladies dance to the Apple logo presented in a way that is either decidedly different from anything the world has ever seen before, or a same-same-but-different reworking of past concepts. But can you tell which is which? Does it matter? What? No, no, what did you say? OK I’ll go: art inspires, it has a lifespan, it is copied or disregarded, and the cycle goes on.

#5 Support the artists you like
This one is easy. And kinda potentially the most important because without the artists there would be no art. If you discover an artist whose work you particularly like and feel a connection with, read more about what they do and where they show. You might find that they have more shows coming up or a latest series of works about to be exhibited. Maybe, just maybe, you will find something and someone who is able to communicate something that you feel or believe but cannot articulate.

#6 Cut the crap and have fun
Being a full time adult can be a drag and comes with a price tag. Engaging with art isn’t like signing up for private health insurance when you’re 30. In fact, I think you will find that most art is free and has no age limit. Art should be enjoyed, not be an obligation. Remember that you are not expected to like everything so only make time for the stuff you really enjoy and want to see. Like a Clarke Beaumont performance, reading art that you find interesting will make you feel like you’ve connected with something beyond your world and expanded out into something bigger. ♦

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The Trappings 2020, 2017, oil on linen, 112 × 122 cm Image courtesy the artist

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Young Man South or the First Summer, 2017, oil on linen, 112 × 122 cm, Image courtesy the artist

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of writing about Craig Handley’s latest exhibition, The Trappings. If you know me at all you will know that I have been a long admirer of Handley’s pastel snapshots of Australian suburbia.

To me, his paintings effortlessly portray the many contradictions and iconic moments of suburban life. In Handley’s paintings, it is possible for a happy space to feel a little bittersweet, for a discarded piece of furniture to brim with potential, and for a sparkly new billboard to seem haggard and wan.

Craig Handley displayed The Trappings at Piermarq Gallery, Sydney. In case you missed it and are dying to see some of this pastel magic, Craig is currently on display as part of the 2017 Salon des Refusés exhibition at the fab S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney.

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Funland 2017, 2017, oil on linen, 153 × 168 cm, image courtesy the artist

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The Trappings 2018, 2017, oil on linen, 56 × 92 cm, Image courtesy the artist

Read the full commission below:

Craig Handley is a Sydney based artist renowned for his images of suburban Australian life that playfully challenge the nuance of narrative. Handley’s works are at once vibrant and subdued, busy and quiet, which is where their intrigue lies. Handley’s pieces depict a dichotomy between what is known and what is unknown, as well as what is normal and what is bizarre. The space between these places has come to be synonymous with his washed back pastel palette. Paired together these elements certify his status as a master storyteller through painting.

The iconic traits of Craig Handley’s works are clearly visible in his latest exhibition, The Trappings. In this collection the narrative focal point retains its ambiguity in a present and future context. Handley conveys this clearly in The Trappings 2018. Viewers see a house perched on a sandy beach with a couch placed outside and a set of stairs that stretch out beyond the confines of the canvas, leading to a place we cannot see. The stairs seem foreboding, however one cannot help but be curious as to where they might lead. Similarly, the ocean waves in the background are inviting as much as they are ominous. By skewing perspective in this way, Handley’s paintings successfully create a subtle and deceptive sense of mystery that crosses the borders of time.

The largest work in the series, Funland 2017 echoes The Trappings 2018 in symbolism and storytelling techniques. In this work Handley uses a flat washed back pastel palette to reveal part of a story whilst allowing viewers to decide which direction the story takes. In this piece the wall of an amusement park fill the foreground. The sheer scale of the wall is exaggerated by a small figure at the base of a ladder jutted against it. Glimpses of the rides and attractions sit closely behind the wall whilst aluminium balloons merge with large fluffy clouds set in the background. The effect of Handley’s flat perspective and imagery draws viewers into the piece and creates a sense of mystery. Viewers cannot help but wonder what the full picture is behind the wall: what can the birds see from their vantage point above? What awaits at the base of the slide in the paintings centre?

The Trappings cements Craig Handley’s ability to conjure the relationship between the present and the future in it’s beauty and uncertainty. Using his celebrated technique of revealing fragments of a tale through a washed out palette, The Trappings showcases Handley’s creative skill and unquestionable talent at recreating the world we live in with a dystopian twist. ♦

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The Trappings Late 2017, the Rethink, 2017, oil on linen, 112 × 122 cm, image courtesy the artist

It is almost time for Block Universe 2017 performing arts festival to launch and I personally cannot wait. This is Block Universe’s third year on the London arts scene. Their program includes newly commissioned performances as well as talks and workshops taking place around town at renowned institutions such as the Royal Academy of Arts and Somerset House, plus a range of unique locations around town.

I love performance art for a number of reasons. First of all, it is unique. Totally and completely one-off. Sure, you can re-create performances and if you are as iconic as Tino Sehgal you can sell a script to the Guggenheim to keep in their collection. But each time a piece is re-performed, it is destined to be different to the first, second, or third time it has been performed.

Having studied art history for my undergraduate degree and spending time in New York after I graduated, performance art was on always on my radar. I understood the premise of it and of course understood how groundbreaking the performance movement was in the 1970s, but I never felt like I really ~got it~. This all changed though when I saw my favourite performance of all time, Coexisting, by Clark Beaumont. I can’t think about it without getting chills. This work, as part of Kaldor Public Art Projects:27, 13 Rooms, completely captivated me.

 Two people (Sarah Clark & Nicole Beaumont) occupy a plinth that can barely hold the two of them. The figures constantly shift in the struggle to find a comfortable position. The performance calls for negotiation and compromise, vital to the existence of artistic collaboration. The pair were constantly moving and re-positioning themselves on a tiny surface area, and it was utterly captivating. A simple concept that spoke volumes about how we communicate, collaborate, and exactly as the title of the performance states, co-exist.

I couldn’t help it, something in me shifted and I suddenly realised that performance art = life.

Hence why I have already filled my diary with the dates of Block Universe’s programme, which runs from 29 May – 4 June this year.

I am particularly interested in experiencing Shapes of States, performance by Stina Nyberg. This intention of this particular performance is to connect political and historical writing of the body to public health ideals of Sweden in the 1920s. The body is a malleable form – how is it to be sculpted? How do we sculpt it? How do the responses to these questions impact our social identity? Shapes of States aims to consider these themes through dance sequences.

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Enter aImages courtesy Block Universe site.
Image credit: Stina Nyberg, Shapes of States, 2016. © José Figueroa

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Images courtesy Block Universe site.
Image credit: Stina Nyberg, Shapes of States, 2016. © José Figueroa

Check out the full Block Universe programme online

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front because I have been super busy gallivanting around the world (Europe). I have had a ton of fun and am so inspired by all that I have seen. Europe is flooded with good art. It pours out of museums, is littered across streets and pops up in all kinds of tiny creative hubs buried in each town. Usually when I see good-art I immediately put on my curator’s hat and thinking about everything critically: what does it mean? And is this an effective display? Instead I have allowed myself space to simply enjoy it on this trip. It feels nice to get back to the basics and greedily consume without thinking much about the effect. That said, I have at least three draft posts waiting to be polished and posted.

Recently I had the luxury of hopping on a cheap flight from London to Berlin. The flight itself wasn’t exactly luxurious but buying a cheap ticket and being ‘overseas’ in less than 2 hours? Yas please. I had visited Berlin before, but it was a quick trip and I had to navigate my way around the city in snow-fall and icy streets. For an Aussie who grew up in South East Asia it’s a pretty tricky thing to do. This time I had a bit longer to explore the city and take it all in.

One of my absolute highlights was the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. It’s facade is grand and a little ostentatious for what seems like a small building. Do not be fooled though. This building houses an incredible collection of art across modern Romantic, Impressionist and Expressionist movements. It also maintains a collection focus on German art from famed German sculptors and painters such as Caspar David Freidrich and Adolph Menzel (#newfave).

The foyer is an ode to classical art, formed entirely from marble. Sitting peacefully at the base of a grand marble staircase is the sculpture  Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) by German sculptor Louis Sussmann-Hellborn. The figure in Dornröschen sleeps peacefully and the work itself is a delightful sight when you first enter the gallery. It feels as though you are officially in the land of the Brothers Grimm and classical folklore.

photo: Claire DalgleishAs mentioned above, I fell in love with the art of Adolph Menzel. I had glimpsed Menzel’s work before in glossy art books but never in real life, at least to my memory. The museum is dedicated to displaying a world-class collection of Menzel works, lucky for us visitors. Menzel’s ability to capture a mood was awe-inspiring.

Menzel’s Horse study was my favourite. Let’s look at three of them in a row so we get the idea. The space around the horse draws the viewer into the image and their gaze is held by the horse’s velvet texture. The work almost seems to move off the page and there is the sense that the horse is snuffing out a nearby carrot, am I right?!

All in all – if you find yourself in Berlin, visit the Alte Nationalgalerie then go for a pretzel after. ▪️

The art world calendar is punctuated each year by the Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman Prize presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Artists from around the country try their luck, pay $50 and cover the cost of freight to the gallery in order to enter their work into the prize. With over 1000 entries coming through the packing room doors it is a competitive process for all artists involved, but you have to be in it to win it!

Given the sheer scale and competition of the prize, it is unsurprising that the final selection and overall winners are always a talking point that not everyone agrees on. But, this is my blog and I decide what goes to print. Although the winners are yet to be released, here is a list of some favourites from each selection with commentary for your reading pleasure.

SOME ARCHIBALD PRIZE FINALISTS FAVES: 

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I’ve long admired Clara’s work. Her paintings make me feel quiet and reflective, like I have travelled to a different time and place that is simpler, somewhere with less social media. I especially loved her 2015 series that showed at MiCK Gallery.

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Natasha Bieniek took the 2015 Wynne Prize AND the 2015 Portia Geach Memorial Award. Get it, gurl. Natasha creates miniature works inspired from time spent in Japan post finishing her degree in painting at the VCA.

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Nick Stathopoulos paints beautiful, mesmerising portraits. His work has been in the Archibald Prize many times, as well as the Salon des Refusés, and the prestigious BP Portrait Awards.

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Mirra Whale is a talented,  talented artist. She has the unique ability to paint expressively in an incredibly nuanced way. Her works have a true ‘likeness’ to the sitter. Often looking away from the viewers gaze, her sitters seem to be captured in a moment of thought, unaware of being watched.

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Imants Tillers. Praise. Bow down.

From top to bottom:
Clara Adolphs Terry Seiro oil on canvas, Natasha Bieniek Wendy Whiteley oil on board, Prudence Flint Shower oil on linen, Nick Stathopolous Deng oil on canvas, Mirra Whale Philip Nitschke oil on canvas, Imants Tillers Double reality self portrait acrylic, gouache, on 64 canvas boards

SOME WYNNE PRIZE FINALIST FAVES: 

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Craig Handley I have always loved and probably always will. Do you also want to go to this house and drink tea in the kitchen and then jump off the cliff into the ocean and have a bonfire in that front yard? How can you not? His paintings are the Raymond Carver short stories of paintings.

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Stuart Watters; a gentleman and a scholar. Stuart’s works stand out as different from the rest. They can’t be hemmed in by labels. It’s abstract, but it’s also kind of contained and composed. What does this mean for artistic representation of the Australian landscape? Where do we even go from here? I’m not sure but I’m excited.

Top to bottom:
Craig Handley The banker (or the kind of comedy) oil on linen, Stuart Watters Kultureland oil on canvas

SOME SULMAN PRIZE FINALIST FAVES: 

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Liberal MP Craig Kelly felt the wrath of Twitter last year when he tweeted a picture of this #fabulous work by famed artist Wendy Sharpe with something along the daft lines of ‘Do you really think this is suitable for Parliament House?’ What’s another arse in Parliament, eh Craig? I think it’s outrageously fantastic that is has been included in the Sulman Selection, a well deserved accolade.

Top to bottom:
Esther Stewart Flatland dreaming acrylic on board, Wendy Sharpe The witches oil on linen

Prize winners will be announced Friday 15 July, exhibition opens Saturday 16 July. The best of the rest, the alternative Archibald and Wynne selection is on display at
S.H. Ervin Gallery Salon des Refuses exhibition from Saturday 16 July