What scope is there today for Australia’s sedate and well-established regional galleries, in an ever more modish and metropolitan art world, when blockbuster shows and the cult of manufactured celebrity direct all eyes to national exhibition spaces, when local traditions are so neglected they seem to lose their living force? What is the place and role of art institutions in provincial towns and cities, with cultural power and prestige being increasingly concentrated in state capitals? Do regional galleries still preserve a capacity to experiment and innovate? To highlight their particular history and heritage, or bring attention to new work being made in their surrounds?
Two of the most distinctive and successful such galleries in the country lie in north Queensland, close to each other, and linked by well-established co-operative bonds: the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville and the Cairns Regional Art Gallery, a half day’s drive up the coast. Both occupy majestic townhouses: the Perc Tucker gallery, sheltered by its balustraded verandas, has the air of a small-scale Florentine palazzo magically transported to the bustling corner of Flinders and Denham streets; the Cairns Gallery stands in the former Public Office building, an elegant affair with columned frontage on the crossroads at the city’s heart.
Both have elegant display spaces and run strong public programs. The exhibitions they have commissioned in recent years prove the crucial value of a regional perspective, and the need for art history carried out by specialists informed by local understanding and sense of place.
The key event in the evolution of the Cairns gallery was one of its first large-scale shows, the much-admired Escape Artists: Modernists in the Tropics, assembled in 1998 by the free-thinking independent curator Gavin Wilson. It made a strong case for the idea of the North as haven and inspiration for the city-educated Bohemians and artistic radicals of the mid-20th century. Drysdale, Nolan, Tuckson, Williams, Olsen — the list of frontline artists who were dazzled by the sky and country of the north was well-known, but the exhibition set out in detail the way the landscape worked on these incomers, and above all on those who stayed: Ray Crooke, Ian Fairweather, Noel Wood and Valerie Albiston among them. Escape Artists toured nationally, and was also shown at regional centres in Queensland, including the Townsville gallery.
Indeed, Cairns and Townsville were exploring common themes in art: the way painters worked in the bush, the impact of the Torres Strait on outsiders, the traditions of the islanders themselves, and the rebirth of those traditions through the new medium of print-making. The Perc Tucker gallery mounted the key retrospective of the works painted by the Cairns-based Ray Crooke during his many trips to Thursday Island and the deserted mining settlements of Cape York.
This show, North of Capricorn, which also toured nationally, conveyed the distinctiveness of an art made through immersion in the tropics. It dovetailed beautifully with Escape Artists, and from today’s perspective, two decades on, the cascade of exhibitions and art projects that have come in the wake of these two pioneer initiatives stand out clear. As the present director of the Cairns Gallery, Andrea May Churcher, makes plain, her team is committed to building on Wilson’s research for his initial exhibition “in order to delve more deeply into the lives and works of these artists and their special relationships with the people and places of our region.”
Some of the most lyrical works in Escape Artists were painted by Donald Friend, whose protracted love affair with the tropics began in the louche Cairns district of Malaytown in the early 1930s: “An easy-going, tomorrow-or-next-day world,” wrote his contemporary, the author Vance Palmer. “Girls with berry-dark eyes and full busts leaned over the paling fences, exchanging gossip with friends forty yards away, youngsters scrambled with prawning-tins amongst the mangroves, young men sang as they dried their nets along the banks. At night there was a firefly glimmering of lights behind trellises, a thin fret of ukuleles on the warm, still air.”
This was the lush atmosphere Friend captured, and went on to make his constant subject: the life of the senses in the languid north. A lovely exhibition staged in the later months of last year at the Cairns Gallery explored this theme in Friend through a series of his North Queensland paintings and drawings, and through excerpts from the artist’s famous, richly illustrated diaries.
One of the most charming pieces in the show was a sketch for The Tropics, a now-vanished mural that once decorated the Tartan Room in Lennon’s Hotel on George Street, Brisbane. Latticed houses, palm fronds, leaf tendrils winding everywhere, a young man nestling a brush-tailed possum in his lap — all is sinuous lines and soft coloured pastels. Cairns and its back country became a theatre of experiment for Friend. Life portraits, street scenes, cane farm houses, the cloud-mantled hills behind Atherton: he captured them all with his quick pen or brush.
The exhibition at the Regional Gallery was rather more than a cameo of a painter in a place. It was an assemblage of little masterpieces — unsurprisingly, since it was curated by Ross Searle, the doyen of Australian tropical art scholarship, author of the definitive study on the subject and director of the Townsville gallery in its growth years. Connection between artist and subject stood at the show’s heart. Friend had drawn particularly close to an islander family, who gave him entree into their world. He soon found himself transfixed by the colours of the tropics: “The sun’s brilliant light does not, as in the South, bleach the colour out of earth and leaves: they retain their heavy lush colours. The land resolves itself into shimmering swathes of primary colour, great areas of cadmium yellow, glittering greens, lines of purple, pink, heliotrope and blue. The strange designs of large leaves are big enough to register in the general scene, as though in a tapestry or carpet.”
Colour was the surface, the entry point, the means of organising what one saw: but it was not the sole avenue the artist needed to make a milieu his own. Friend wished to go much deeper. He recorded faces and figures as much as he depicted scenes of land and sea. “It is never,” he wrote, “enough to simply be in a place, admire its many beauties, paint them, and then go home, eat and sleep. Some more intimate contact is needed with the natives, to convey the meaning of the hills and trees, to give them hints of life and usage.”
It was Friend’s repeated sojourns in north Queensland that set him on his lifelong quest for the veils and revelations of the tropics. As for his fellow “escape artists” — what desires and dissatisfactions drove them to the remote corners of the continent? Gavin Wilson’s account of this movement or tendency in Australian art offered up a sketch of a secret yearning within Australian culture — a yearning that was in quest of several goals: immediacy, authenticity, the novelty of the wilderness.
“The genuine escape artist,” he suggested in his catalogue essay of 1998, “is a curious questing being in search of new stimuli.” In the new frontiers they encountered lay “a powerful means of expressing their independence and originality.”
Almost two decades after the initial exhibition, Wilson has retuned to its great themes with an ambitious landscape survey show, Country and Western, which opened in late 2015 at the Perc Tucker gallery and is touring to regional galleries and museums over the next two years. The ideas behind Escape Artists have been broadened, and developed into a study of landscape as lure: the pull that draws Australian artists on. Like the premier scholar of Northern Territory painting, Daena Murray, Wilson sets Aboriginal and Western artists side by side, and considers the parallels between their perspectives.
He brings together work by 39 artists, both obscure and well-known. Large canvases by John Olsen and William Robinson hang close by deeply meditated pieces from the hands of Townsville artist Anneke Silver and Claudine Marzik from Cairns.
Wilson includes a range of works from indigenous art stars such as Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas, but his strongest engagement is with the Roper River artists, who painted the look and lie of their gulfland country as much as its hidden energies. The colourist Ginger Riley, the great precursor of this movement, is well represented, but very plainly for Wilson the central work is Angelina George’s Near Ruined City, which won the Telstra Art Award general painting prize in 2007.
When Wilson first saw this canvas, with its “fusion of panoramic landscape elements glowing in an opalescent light” he caught its special mastery at once: “sustained by a rhythm of loose brushstrokes and translucent hues that point to a creative, meditative state — somewhere between spirit and place. In was in George’s resolution of internal conflicts — religion and ritual, personal and the traditional that the artist seized upon an acute state of awareness.”
Wilson is here responding to Near Ruined City as a piece of art, Australian landscape art, not as Aboriginal art behind a wall — a key curatorial breakthrough. He also sees that Western artists, with their own deep responses to specific sites, have been influenced by indigenous ways of seeing, and have found their own “hard-won grasp of the character of a place with its history and interconnected landscape systems.” He treads with care in his preface at this point: “With the focus back on the national landscape in all its complexity, now is the time to assess the relevance of Western landscape traditions in response to the indigenous vision, and search out common ground (if any).”
His account closes on an unusual joint painting project, mounted on the flood-plains of Arnhem Land by the Western artist John Wolseley and the Yolngu Mulkun Wirrpanda: a journey into the bush, and between cultures, a set of works that highlight not just the possibilities in collaboration but also the whisper of affinity between two worlds — affinity made visible by the landscape and by our quest for what it holds.
Wilson’s Country and Western is the latest stage in a grand exploration, largely initiated in the North, nurtured by the little galleries of Cairns and Townsville, and by a community of artists, writers and curators seeking to see from where they themselves stand. In a globalising art world, it underlines the place of the periphery: that region where the eye and mind can work free from preconceived theories and the fog of established ideas and words.
Country and Western is on view at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery until March 6 before showing at galleries in Wagga Wagga, Mornington Peninsula, Orange, Cairns and Darwin.