Sheep bones, glitter and shaving cream: the bold, divergent art of the under-40s

Finalists in Ramsay art prize, which awards $100,000 to a young artist, show the future of Australian art is far more than paintings by white men

Celeste Chandler’s Heroic Painting, a series of self-portraits in which the artist has painted herself with facial hair crafted from shaving foam, emulates our understanding of the form. Her 15 faces are serious and thoughtful, the image of the intelligent and respected artist, the male signature of facial hair sitting slightly oddly against her feminine features. In the work, she asks the viewer to consider whose art has typically been afforded space in our state galleries and in the art world: paintings by white men.

Her work may be the only one of the finalists in the Ramsay art prize, now being exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia, to call out this culture specifically, yet this theme of criticism can be read throughout the exhibition, showing a young Australian art scene that is diverse and multifaceted.

The acquisitive prize for Australian artists under 40 will award $100,000 to the winner every two years in perpetuity, and if this first year is any indication will lead to a wonderful new dimension to the work hanging at AGSA. Billed as a competition that “changes the way we view artists under 40”, the work on display might just be bold enough to change the way we view our state galleries, too.

Several pieces join Chandler’s in placing the female gaze to the forefront of this gallery space. The winning work, Sarah Contos Presents: The Long Kiss Goodbye, brings together pieces from the last four years of Contos’ practice into a rich large-scale tapestry. Women’s topless bodies, claimed in power, are beaded and surrounded by glitter, fireworks and strangely phallic sculptural creations. It’s a loud and invigorating piece, in which Contos not only positions herself as an artist of note by recasting her work into her own retrospective, but also, through the physical scale of the work, boldly claims space on the gallery wall for female Australian artists.

Heroic Painting by Celeste Chandler
One of the self-portraits that make up Heroic Painting by Celeste Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Matthew Stanton

Many of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition play with found objects. With burnt sheep bones from the 2014 South Australian bushfires, James Tylor comments on the loss of knowledge of land management with the displacement of the Ngadjuri people. Keg de Souza’s work invites people into a giant sculpture of tents to read documentation of the Redfern School of Displacement. The wall text for Jason Phu’s installation piece names “Bunnings garden ornaments, Halloween decorations” and “John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ sax solo on a loop” among the materials he has used. These pieces sit against photography, video, pottery, design and painting.

So often, the joy of exhibitions in our state galleries is in what is revealed through curation: the way that placing work together tells a new story. But this exhibition is messy, with different ideas clashing against each other: an animated video of a man in a hat reading “MAKE ART GR8 AGAIN” looks down on an installation work of warm rabbit pelts on a found floral carpet, sitting underneath paintings of blindingly bright pink, next to a wall of pottery.

Unified only by the brief of the competition, there isn’t any singular thread through by these works; they do not easily tell a story as a collection. But that’s precisely what’s exciting about this exhibition: this new group of Australian artists is far from a single, distinct voice.

The Ramsay prize shows us an Australia which is a migrant culture. Julie Fragar looks back to her ancestors who travelled to Australia from Portugal in the 1850s; Pakistan-born Khadim Ali’s painting shows horned bearded creatures wearing the unmistakable orange lifejackets of today’s refuges.

It shows us an Australia with a long Indigenous culture: 60,000 years of history permeating through and influencing artists today. It’s an Australia that is still contending with feminist politics; it’s an Australia that is beginning to contend with “alt-right” politics.

James Tylor, Karrawirra Yerta
James Tylor, Nunga (Kaurna) people, South Australia, Karrawirra Yerta (Ngarritya Hanging tree), 2016, Becqurerel Daguerreotype. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide and Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne

These works are exciting not simply because of what they are, but because of what they’re not: they’re not showing an art world dominated by white men, by one aesthetic interest, by one school of thought. Here, in the mess, perhaps the story is really about how hard it is to make generalisations about the future of Australian art, and how wonderful that is. Hopefully this sort of work will be taking up space in our galleries for a long time yet to come.

• The Ramsay art prize exhibition is showing at Art Gallery of South Australia until 27 August


Jane Howard

The GuardianTramp

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