The National review – contemporary art from the uncanny to the inviting

Carriageworks, Art Gallery of NSW and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

It’s a challenge to take in the work of 58 artists over three major galleries. But sometimes the effort pays off

For those of you who came in late, The National: New Australian Art is a major survey exhibition featuring 58 artists, duos and groups, and is staged across three major Sydney art galleries: the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Carriageworks. After launching in 2017, and with a final iteration planned for 2021, its remit is to present a snapshot of Australian contemporary art.

That seems both ambitious and problematic. Whose contemporary art are we talking about? And is it really a true indication of what’s going on?

To answer that first question, let’s take a wider view.

Contemporary art started to make a lot more sense to me when I realised it’s a genre of art making. It uses a familiar range of media, typically photography, video, installation, sculpture, painting, performance, or any combination of these things. But more importantly, it also tends to engage with a fairly limited range of themes and subjects.

Although the contemporary art world likes to think of itself as the visual art equivalent of literary fiction, or art cinema – serious, highbrow and thinking about meaningful things – it has, from the point of view of genre, just as much in common with graphic novels or Marvel films.

The popularity of contemporary art is based on the familiarity its audience has with its tropes. In 2017, 50% of exhibition visitation across the venues was from people under 35. If you grew up with contemporary art, it all seems pretty familiar.

This is not a criticism of contemporary art per se. It’s simply the way it is, and accepting it as a genre is a way to open the door to appreciating it for what it is, not what it isn’t, or whatever you think it should be.

What I’m looking for are works that, while they’re very much generic contemporary art, have an ability to transcend their familiarity of form and idea and do something engaging. On that basis, The National 2019 is an enjoyable show, with a number of highlights, and some deftly curated selections of artists and work.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah Pretty Beach 2019 Installation view, The National 2019
Pretty Beach (2019) by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

In 2017 I was willing to give the first outing of the show the benefit of the doubt. Although there were engaging works, there were also a few problems. The three segments of the show felt largely cut off from each other, with a big and obvious thumbprint of each of the curators at each venue, and in some cases, such as the installation of art at Carriageworks, the show was just too crowded.

In 2019, those issues have been addressed. At Carriageworks, the experienced hand of curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham has turned the white walls and high ceilings of the former Anna Schwartz Gallery space into a warm and inviting environment, and a judicious use of separating walls and curtained rooms creates a dynamic space for the audience to explore.

Key works at Carriageworks include Sean Rafferty’s Cartonography (FNQ), a wall of cardboard fruit boxes, everyday objects given a monumental treatment that highlights the surreal oddity of their design, and in Coming Attractions (2017-19) there’s another use of found objects. Tara Marynowsky takes 35mm feature film trailers sourced from eBay and scratches out key figures from the image, such as Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman. The result is amusing but pointed – the pretty woman is erased.

A similar sense of the uncanny haunts Amala Groom’s performance video The Union (2019) where we see the artist dressed in a wedding gown and struggling through the bush. Of all of contemporary art’s recent trends, performance video has been the mainstay of biennales and museum shows the world over. But like most genres, contemporary art can be reinvented from familiar parts. Groom’s work has an undeniable hypnotic strangeness, an immediately accessible idea served by the sophistication of its production.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, curators Clothilde Bullen and Anna Davis have gathered together work they felt had some element of experimental practice, with an equal emphasis on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous art.

Martuwarra (2018) by Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins, Ms Uhl
Martuwarra (2018) by Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins, Ms Uhl. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Lucas Abela’s Fort Thunder (2018) is an example of what many people might consider “experimental art”, being an interactive installation of sound and noises and what looks like a collection of chrome stripper poles in the centre of a curtained, red-lit room. The squawks and squalls and crazy sounds that emanate when you touch metal – and experiment with how your body can stretch and contort to affect the sound – is probably more fun than most art is supposed to be, while defeating the expectation of some po-faced seriousness.

Elsewhere in the MCA, experimentation is perhaps less obvious, but no less intriguing. Martuwarra (2018) by Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins and Ms Uhl, artists from Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia, have painted traditional motifs, patterns and lines on sheets of Perspex, which have been hung from the gallery ceiling, and mounted concertina-style on the wall. Optically dazzling, the sheen of the plastic gives the work a technological gloss and makes you look again at Indigenous painting.

The curator of the show’s iteration at the Art Gallery of NSW, Isobel Parker Philip, had her own unifying mini-theme: art that speaks to the unease of the world. The entry to the exhibition is flanked by, on one side, Tom Polo’s monumental painting installation When windows are walls (2019), and on the other, Izabela Pluta’s Baroque-influenced tromp l’oeil, Apparent Distance (2019). Both works play with depth and perspective, Polo’s painted-on-walls theatre curtains echoing Pluta’s photographic fake curtains, but both oddly askew in the otherwise perfectly symmetrical gallery. This pairing of works, along with Andrew Hazewinkel’s elegant sculptural busts that are spread through the space, are perfect introductions to the AGNSW’s offering.

Apparent Distance (2019) by Izabela Pluta.
Apparent Distance (2019) by Izabela Pluta. Photograph: Diana Panuccio/AGNSW

So is the show a true snapshot of contemporary art? Given the enclosed nature of contemporary art, and its generic qualities, this is perhaps inevitable. It certainly looks like art we know. But where the show really succeeds is where it creates a dialogue between works.

In more than a few instances I found myself wandering through the galleries and picking up on the thread of ideas between pieces such as Teo Treloar’s intense, detailed and ambiguous drawings and Kylie Banyard’s paintings of imagined utopias at the MCA, or the downstairs gallery at the AGNSW housing tactile sculptures by Fayen d’Evie, Koji Ryui’s delicate and madly installed ceramic sculptures, and Sandra Selig’s geometric wall drawing.

The curatorial approaches are loose enough for the show to work as a survey, but focused enough to reflect the artist’s intentions, while producing an intriguing resonance between often-disparate practices.

Here’s hoping that The National in 2021 can rise to the challenge of this year’s outing.

The National: New Australian Art is showing at Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until 23 June, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 21 July


Andrew Frost

The GuardianTramp

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