Lots of fun

Surprisingly I made it back from Sydney, despite inclement weather. I arrived at the airport to come home in plenty of time, only to find that my flight was already being called. It turned out that the thunder clouds were building over Sydney and they were packing people onto planes in anticipation of the departure schedule being thrown into disarray. It’s funny how used I am now to the idea of hopping on a plane to go down there, but I do still feel a thrill at being in an airport – they are (non)places of such possibility!

Anyway, I had a fabulous time. It wasn’t just the fact that I could spend hours in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the MCA, or that I could wander the shops without a small person tugging at my hand asking for me to buy things, or that I could walk around the Botanic Gardens picking up interesting seedheads in the sunshine… what was loveliest of all was walking into the Australian Bookbinders artists’ books exhibition at the Pine Street Gallery and seeing friends, meeting new people, talking about their work and my work, and having a wonderfully sociable evening which was rounded off by staying with Sue Anderson who, in addition to being a truly talented bookbinder and a very generous person is just lovely. So I’ve come away feeling inspired and energised and happy – and tired, if that makes sense.

I did have fun at the AGNSW. I’m a Country Member now (my Christmas present from M last year, and one that I have made good use of), which means discounts on entry to special exhibitions and access to the Members’ Lounge on one of the lower floors, which has a library, comfy chairs and its own little cafe. It’s a very civilised place to spend an hour, catching up on art magazines while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. I’d forgotten that Wednesday is late opening, so I was able to make full use of the facilities, see both the ‘Lost Buddhas’ exhibition and the Monet exhibition, grab a coffee, have a general look around and use the very nice ladies’ loo to get changed without the usual rush to see everything before 5pm.

I’d been looking forward to the Monet, but you know, this time I was disappointed. One reason is that having lived in the UK for 40 years, travelled in Europe and visited the Museum of Fine Art in Boston I’ve actually seen most of Monet’s work, and that of his fellow Impressionists, in the flesh before now, and so my overwhelming feeling about the exhibition was to do with the lack of good Impressionist paintings. So I probably come across as a bit of a cultural snob here when I say that it is fantastic that so many paintings came to Australia, but very sad that the most spectacular pictures such as Monet’s huge ‘waterlilly’ series didn’t make it. The inclusion of one of the larger, later, more colourful and famous Monet waterlilly paintings would have made the show. Instead I came away with the feeling that I’d seen a survey exhibition of paintings that showed the development of Impressionism and how it both sprang from and differed from earlier themes and traditions in (mainly) French art. Where were Cezanne and Degas? Sadly only one early piece from each, and intriguing hints about their personal relationships with fellow Impressionists and the divisions and unravelling that happened. I thought that could have been expanded upon, but perhaps that is really another show.

What I did like were two quotes, the first from Monet:

I am not a great painter, neither am I a great poet. I only know that I do what I can to convey my experience before nature and, most often, to succeed in conveying what I feel I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting – if they exist, that is”

The other quote I liked was from James M Millar, the rather enlightened CEO of Ernst & Young Australia, who were the exhibition’s main sponsors. He summed up rather beautifully the value of art in the modern world:

“Art feeds the soul. It uplifts, inspires and enlightens us. And in this fast-paced life, it offers us moments of stillness and reflection”. Exactly.

Ho hum.

The exhibition of The Lost Buddhas was, to my mind, much more inspiring. In brief, Chinese workmen were levelling a school playing field in Shandong Province in 1996 when they came across a pit full of 6th century statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that had been buried for some unknown reason in the 12th century. The whole thing is shrouded in mystery: where are the statues from? What happened to them between their making and their burial? Why were they buried? And how on earth did they survive so beautifully…? The statues are amazing: carved from limestone, in the main, they have retained the delicate sketch marks incised on the stone to show the painters where to paint, and they are exquisitely colourful. Traces of deep reds and gold leaf adorn the statues’ carved robes and jewels. I have to say that part of the enjoyment of the exhibition comes from the air of tranquillity in the gallery, achieved largely by the wonderful lighting. It is dark, but somehow not gloomy, in there, and the statues loom gracefully out of the blackness, which softens the stonework. Delicate shadows outline the planes of their faces and the fall of their robes. Such peace! Such serenity! Such uncharitably smug expressions in the shadows! I loved it, and sat there drawing for half an hour or so, oblivious to everything.

After my last visit I was careful to make sure I went to look at what was on display in the “Collections Focus Room”, and this time it was a print by Frank Hodgkinson called Inside the Landscape, an etching/aquatint/drypoint from 1971. Just my sort of thing: an asymmetric image of a hillside, deeply bitten and irregularly textured in a way that suggested the use of open biting on the plate, which I love. And there was ambiguity in the image too: the fissures and cracks and texture in the image could have been leaves/roots/growing things as much as they could have depicted a cross-section of the hillside, as is perhaps suggested by the title.

This isn’t the print I saw, but one from the same series and it’s part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection in Canberra. In fact, when looking for the image on-line I came across the NGA’s website page on Frank Hodgkinson and now I understand why I like him! Of course… he met people who had been to Atelier 17 in Paris, learned about viscosity printing and started making prints in series! A man after my own heart.

My schedule for this trip was: arrive in Sydney; march quickly up Pitt Street stopping only to buy 600 Williamson & Magor Earl Grey tea bags in the David Jones Food Hall for Michael, the Christmas stocking chocolates from Haigh’s in the Strand Arcade, and a belt for me (by the way, have you noticed that I haven’t mentioned visiting any of the MANY clothes shops I like to look at in Sydney, ALL of which had super sales on? Dedication to the cause, say I!) before ditching everything in the AGNSW cloakroom; see the various special exhibitions described above; grab a coffee in the members’ lounge; change; grab taxi to Chippendale to attend the artists’ books show opening; stay with Sue Anderson in Mosman; visit MCA on Circular Quay; return to Coffs Harbour; collapse.

While at the MCA I was able to go and see two shows: Primavera ’08 and Yinka Shonibare MBE, the largest show of his work to date. Fascinating, both of them. I went to Primavera ’07 last year (surprisingly enough), and enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over by anything in particular. This year there was one artists whose work I really liked, namely Mark Hilton. He showed several double-sided lightboxes which hung down from the ceiling on wires. I couldn’t see any electrical connections so I presume the lights in the boxes were battery-powered. On either side of the box were large lambda duratrans prints, depicting what were clearly interpretations of real, contemporary events in styles that referenced Indian miniature painting or Chinese tomb carvings. I didn’t ‘get’ the references to the Melbourne ‘Salt Nightclub Massacre’ or the 2004 St. Kilda football club sex-scandal, but I did ‘get’ the use of imagery to examine how we stereotype cultural groups. The imagery in the indian-miniature-style pictures was exquisitely executed – and I presume the methods used were digital manipulations of Mughal patterns and the like, but placed together with digitised images of Hilton’s own painting techniques which added the contemporary references of footballers’ faces, modern gestures and athletic/club logos.

I read on a wall inscription that “in the series Collective Autonomy Mark Hilton critiques the activities of group behaviour – particularly sporting and peer groups – and the way in which society and the media respond to tragedies perpetrated by these groups”. I enjoyed the deliberate and self-knowing appropriation of a received way of painting to say something new, but I also found myself asking whether this critique could happen anywhere other than Australia, with its cultural dependence on sport? Whatever the answer, the results were both aesthetically beautiful and culturally intelligent and I spent a long time looking, which is always the mark of a good show, for me. You can read an on-line article about Mark Hilton in Art & Australia, HERE.

What else? Not much, really. I need to follow-up some contacts I made (more to the point, I need to find the business cards I squirreled away and haven’t yet located!), thank Sue profusely for her hospitality, and get on with a load of stuff at home. The programme for this weekend? Making cup cakes, biscuits and Christmas presents with Ella, taking Ella ice-skating, finishing off some felt we made the other week (it’s a bit wrinkly and needs some more fulling, I think), making some more felt on Sunday with friends and… oh yes, making the family Christmas cards for this year! Whoops – I’d better get on with it all.

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