Fremantle Arts Centre 18 October - 30 November 1997
Seen through the lens of this exhibition, Fremantle's spirit of place seems almost entirely defined by its historic built environment and the ships that pass through its port. This could partly be due to the input of the Fremantle Society, who first proposed the exhibition, so that in the accompanying texts and final installation, the weight of emphasis is heavily biased towards picturesque representational depictions of historic landmarks and a maritime version of trainspotting. With only token inclusions of photography, sculpture and decorative arts, and no installations, the exhibition's scope is inevitably limited.
In fact this very large exhibition of over 220 works spread over all four galleries in the Fremantle Arts Centre could have been more critically selected and interpreted to allow a more searching examination of this illusive notion of 'spirit'. More contextual information was needed that told us not just what was 'in' the painting, but why it was rendered in that way, what was its historical context and what that suggests about the artist's feeling towards the place.
It would be difficult to imagine an exhibition on a similar scale being devoted to the city of Perth, located only a few miles up the road. Presumably its quiet suburban streets and long windswept beaches hold less attraction for local artists. As a major sea port, the mouth of an important river, the first Australian landfall for those coming from the old world, and last for for those leaving it, Fremantle is bound up in transitory stories. As a city positioned so remotely in the world it is self-consciously independent and assertive. The force of the elements of wind and fierce light reflected off water saturate the landscape.
Its character is also shaped by boom and bust times - from fledgling beginnings as the port for a colony of free settlers, time as a convict settlement to the gold rush of the1890s that generated an instant canvas city on Monument Hill. The topographical works from the early period seek to confer a claiming presence and the lithograph after Robert Dale, A View of Western Australia on the Left Bank of the Swan River, 1830 - lays out an Arcadian landscape empty of native presence and studded with improbable trees. What an advertisement for the newly founded colony. The Roundhouse, first civil gaol and later place of transitory incarceration for Aborigines on their way to Rottnest Island, is the subect of a number of works in the exhibition. Brian McKay blankly renders bricks and mortar in H.M. Prison 1851 86, (1988) and in contrast, Sandra Hill the only Nyungar artist in the exhibition, recovers the personal human tragedies up in that place, collaging images of her people and family members over the architectural form.
Confident commercial buildings followed the gold rush, building on a dense grid of streets back from the port. Servicing that commerce came the working class communities and it is their presence - their unions, their small cottages and grandiose pubs, their football, that have left a heavy imprint on the culture of the city. However their voices are barely represented in the exhibition. Ivor Hunt's pallid The Wharfie (1950s) is one of the few depictions from a turbulent labour history. Instead in Marcus Bielby's massive Realist painting Happy Hour at the National Hotel (1991), there is a kind of voyeuristic nostalgia depicting the interior of one of the few pubs in the centre of the city that is yet to be transformed into a smart brasserie. Here the unemployed, the disabled, the disenfranchised seek refuge from the pace of change outside.
Nostalgia is in fact a persistent yet unacknowledged theme in this exhibition. It perhaps marks a fear for change and sadness for things past or passing. There is little exultant or angry modernism. Its presence can be sensed early in the century in the prints of Edith Trethowan's Little Old Buildings (1930s), and the paintings of Alan Baker Net Mender and Backwater East Fremantle both from the 1950s, but there is a larger number from more contemporary times. Gina Moore's stoic older bathers braving the early morning chill, might have stepped from a 1930s idyll; Phillip Cook has painted the Royal George Hotel (1987), standing isolated and alone from the streets that once surrounded it just after roadworks have slashed a cutting through East Fremantle and Roger Levers Wake for a pagan death 1997, features local bohemian identities dancing in one last revel for the passing of their culture in the city, forced out by rising rents for inner city warehouses prior the America's Cup.
Postwar immigration from Europe brought new inhabitants to occupy the "quaint workers' cottages", adding Mediterranean details and planting market gardens. One painting in the exhibition graphically hints at their private feelings of displacement and alienation - Alan Baker's Migrant, Fremantle (1970s) of a woman in a black head scarf, alone and slightly fearful in the street. If these communities had their own artists, we do not see them, but one of the few photographs in the exhibition celebrates the migrant experience a generation on.
The extended Mondella family stand beaming in front of their massive "wedding cake" house on Duoro Road. The image celebrates their ability to flourish and thrive in this city but unfortunately this work is tucked away at the top of the stairs far away from Baker's dark painting and the connextion was probably missed by many.
Some of the contemporary works however avoid slipping into the comforting arms of the picturesque: Mary Moore's laconic And now for some local colour (1982) documents a brief phase when the cafés seemed to be filled with orange people; Tony Jones series Off Fremantle (1987-88), at first glance appear to be conventional sunny pictures of sailing boats in the big blue, but becoming much more sinister with the dark hulk of an American nuclear warship lurking behind; Simon Gevers unassuming The Beautification of Target and Tre$ur Way both from 1990 suggest a bleak but real contemporary landscape, far removed from conventional depictions of the heritage culture.