Artists on Art – and why you should take part

Clarice Beckett, 'Evening light, Beaumaris' (c. 1925) [detail]. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

On 28 May 2017, the Victorian College of the Arts and the National Gallery of Victoria will present a series of floor talks by eminent VCA Art staff, including VCA Director Su Baker, Jon Cattapan, Elizabeth Gower, Stieg Persson, Raafat Ishak, Kate Daw, Lou Hubbard, Bernhard Sachs, Cate Consandine and Jon Campbell, as part of the VCA's ART150 celebrations in 2017.

As both practising artists and teachers, the speakers will provide new insights and share their thoughts on iconic Australian works of art by National Gallery School and VCA Art alumni that are held in the NGV collection. Artists include Fred Williams, Howard Arkley, Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston, John Brack, Noel Counihan, Rosslynd Piggott, Bertram Mackennal, Peter Booth and Clarice Beckett, among others. Here, some of the VCA artists explain their choices.

Fred Williams, ‘Upwey Landscape’ (1965). © National Gallery of Victoria.
Fred Williams, ‘Upwey Landscape’ (1965). © National Gallery of Victoria.

VCA artist Stieg Persson on NGV artist Fred Williams, Upwey landscape (1965).

“As an art student, the paintings of Fred Williams cast a large shadow but it was a generational one. Landscape painting appearing to my cohort, rightly or wrongly as antediluvian. Consequently, we gave little thought to his work. Leaving art school and in need of money, I applied for and got a job at the National Gallery Victoria with their heavy cleaning crew. In those days, it was a public service job and all the clichés were true: clock on, clock off, smoko at ten, 40-minute lunch … We were supervised by an ex Victorian Railway’s foreman who allocated a job or two at the start of week and made it clear he didn’t want to see us until Friday afternoon. So it was that I was given the job of stripping, sealing and polishing the parquetry floor in Contemporary Australian Art Galleries, a job that would take two weeks.

“Some of the paintings that I thought I had an affinity with started to be dull and boring and to my surprise I kept coming back to the Fred Williams. I would glance over and a shaft of light might be highlighting a patch of violet I hadn’t previously noticed or I would find myself musing on the equilibrium of the simple composition. It taught me a lesson that I now pass on to students. Paintings are deceptive. You think your got it in the first few seconds but the good ones are notoriously slow-release.”

VCA artist Su Baker on NGV artist Noel Counihan, of whom she painted a portrait which was hung in the 1981 Archibald Prize.

“My affinity with Noel Counihan was through my father’s [Allan Baker's] history and personal commitment to the social role of art. My father was a student at the Galley school in the immediate post-war period along with John Brack, Fred Williams, Douglas Green and Peter Miller, and many others. His work was part of the Socialist Realist’s group of artists.

“While my own artistic influences have been different, and from a vastly different and safer world experience, it was the dedication to critique and contestation in the political process, so much part of the generation of artists that grew up in the depression, fought in the second world war against Fascism and were active in the political left in the 1950s, that resonated with me as I came of age in the early 1970s. Those artists were a vocal and prescient part of Australia’s history. I will talk about the second-hand but persistent influence of the work of Noel Counihan on my father and by extension my own attitudes to art and art-making.”

Bertram Mackennel, 'Circe' (1893). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Bertram Mackennel, 'Circe' (1893). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

VCA artist Cate Consandine will discuss NGV artist Bertram Mackennel, Circe (1893).

“At the tip of her fingers the enchantress Circe holds us in a taut interface. Cast into bronze, her figure stands erect and transfixing. I will seek to unravel the compelling spell of this sculptural work by Bertram Mackennal, and speak to the complexities and constructions of desire that permeate her portrayal as mythological subject.”

VCA artist Lou Hubbard will discuss NGV artist Rosslyn Piggott, Tattoo (1986/87).

"Piggott’s painting Tattoo shows a woman bare, theatrical and risen. She hangs from a high bar, her body bled and drawn with hearts as organs, not love tokens of indelible ink. Piggott’s painted hearts are meat: cut adrift and lifeless. Inside one of them is a small curtain parted, like the cinched arras in Baroque red that frames the stage that is the painting. Tattoo was painted 30 years ago, when I could hang from a high bar. But recently when I tried this, my organs slumped like a balloon full of water. A painting can do that to me."

Howard Arkley, 'Muzak Mural – chair tableaux' (1980-81). © Courtesy of the artist's estate and Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art.
Howard Arkley, 'Muzak Mural – chair tableaux' (1980-81). © Courtesy of the artist's estate and Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art.

VCA artist Elizabeth Gower will discuss NGV artist Howard Arkley, Muzak Mural – chair tableaux (1980–81).

"Between 1973 and 1983, Howard and I worked in adjacent studios or one block away from each other. The ‘decorative’ elements in his works evolved from stockpiles of reference material that we both collected for our practices, including photographs of ornate architraves, floor-tiles and wrought iron work while overseas, and fly-wire doors in Melbourne, as well as fabric, wallpaper, Laminex and lino samples.

Howard was aware of that era's feminist re-appraisals of the ‘decorative’ and the gridded sprayed dot paintings that form the backdrop to the tableau were initially inspired by embroidery and knitting patterns, found computer punch cards, and a direct response to the art he liked. In a 1979 sketchbook he wrote a note to himself: ‘Spray dots like Chuck Close in each square’.”

Clarice Beckett, 'Evening light, Beaumaris' (c. 1925). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.
Clarice Beckett, 'Evening light, Beaumaris' (c. 1925). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

VCA artist Jon Cattapan will discuss NGV artist Clarice Beckett, Evening light, Beaumaris (c. 1925)

"I have always felt a personal connection to Clarice Beckett, having grown up not so far from her painting haunts in Beaumaris and Sandringham. I find her tremulous use of colour and tone and the quiet painterly passages in her pale local landscapes mesmerising. Her representations of the bay and bayside suburbs I know well, live right at the collapse point of figuration and abstraction. They have an exquisite stillness that draws us in – they form a wonderfully contemplative body of works."

John Brack, The Bar
John Brack, 'The Bar' (1954). © National Gallery of Victoria.

VCA artist Jon Campbell will discuss NGV artist John Brack, The Bar (1954).

Jon Campbell has been a lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts since 1999. He has exhibited widely in both group and solo shows at commercial galleries, public galleries, art schools, artist-run spaces and museums. He has been awarded several prizes and grants including, Basil Sellers Art Prize, Melbourne Art Foundation Commission, Greene St Studio, NYC (Australia Council), Development Grant (Australia Council), New Work grant (Arts Victoria), the Herald Sun Art Prize and the Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship.

VCA artist Kate Daw will discuss NGV artist Margaret Preston, Flannel Flowers (1938).

“I wanted to acknowledge the work and life of Margaret Preston, most particularly as a strong woman painter, with an abiding interest and commitment to modernist principals. Margaret had an unwavering commitment to her work, and elevated the often ordinary, everyday subject matter of flowers, domestic arrangements and décor to fine, structural examinations of material and form, allowing us to always glimpse the strength and discipline in her vision of painting and printmaking.

“At a time in history when it was difficult as a woman to be seen and heard, and indeed, taken seriously, Margaret Preston persisted with her work, and indeed, called for a vision of a new understanding of national identity. The painting I will discuss, Flannel Flowers, is a strong example of her work, with its multifaceted, excessive bunch of the small, humble daisy.”

Sidney Nolan, 'Railway guard, Dimboola' (1943). © Sidney Nolan Estate. Image courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library.
Sidney Nolan, 'Railway guard, Dimboola' (1943). © Sidney Nolan Estate. Image courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library.

VCA artist Raafat Ishak will discuss NGV artist Sidney Nolan, Railway guard, Dimboola (1943)

"I first saw Nolan's works in the late 1980s while I was a TAFE art student and, as a matter of course, I got to know them really well while studying for a BA in painting at VCA. I remember how well they reflected a particular Melbourne mood. Even though they were created years earlier, they seemed still relevant. There was a suggested drabness and a loneliness that was, I think, still visible in the late 1980s. In retrospect, I believe that was perhaps more cultural than observational or political. If there was a song for these works, then surely it was the Birthday Party's Sonny's Burning with its famous first line: "hands up who wants to die".

Artists on Art is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, Melbourne, on 28 May 2017, 1pm–3pm, free admission. See the VCA events listing for more information.

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