Printmaking and Optimism

Exhibition review I'sland (I'l)n. Exhibition of prints Long Gallery, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Tasmania 23 December - 2 January 1994

Visions of paradise quite commonly find their expression in the form of the island. It is a world apart. The boundaries are clear and immutable. Geographically its integrity is fixed and unquestioned. Swaying palms and seductive breezes aside, the island is also the locus of many more sinister connotations. Alcatraz, Devil's Island, St Helena - sites of exile, self-contained natural prisons. It is not uncommon to hear reference to time spent in Tasmania as a term in exile, whether that be the more benign sense of self-imposed isolation or the more reluctantly undertaken sojourn of necessity.
There is, at the core of any island dweller's experience, a strong ambivalence. The push-pull effect of the clarity of identity and the defined, containable location of consciousness against the anxiety of isolation and a sense of entrapment which is still true to a large extent, even with major mainland centres only one hour away by air. The expression of this difference comes about in the form of a pride in uniqueness but all too often that degenerates into ignorance and parochialism.
Co-ordinators of this exhibition, Megan Walch and Pat Cleveland invited a diverse group of artists, (not all of them printmakers) to address the concept of the island from a variety of angles. One important consideration was that the works all be black and white to highlight to some extent the racial and cultural collisions which attended the invasion of this land. It is unfortunate that the Aboriginal community was not more fully represented and that the potential for pertinent political points to be made was not exploited. Most reponses were predictably benign and some appeared to ignore the brief altogether.
Artists whose work stood out were those who had taken time to focus on the notion and develop work specifically for the show. In the main the best work was produced by those most familiar with the medium. Two distinct lines of interpretation which emerged were the visual expression of self-containment with the island as a central, solitary mass, compelling and apart, not unlike Arnold Bocklin's haunting vision. Julian Scrivener's Desolate Island conveyed the hypnotic attraction of the island with all of the sinister implications contigent upon the concept while making a pointed reference to the ecological threat of local management practices of natural resouces. That these aspects were expressed strongly while maintaining a simplicity of form and an enigmatic, haunting romanticism is proof of the developing confidence of this essentially self-taught printmaker. Others who addressed the notion effectively were Penny Carey Wells (whose skills as a papermaker are always interesting to see applied in the service of a notion which has some intellectual significance) and Sarah Clarkson whose Isle of Eyes enigmatically, and with naive directness evoked the myth and mystery so often generated by the idea of the world apart and the rich imagery so often attendant on stories of the journey there. Bruce Hay and Cawley Farrell were two other artists who produced powerful work through a serious engagement with all the implications of the brief. Martin Walch's Wreck of the Heemskirk conveyed the full extent of the implications of the ambivalence I referred to earlier. The shipwreck, (of which there were many around the treacherous Tasmanain coast), embodies the notion in the worst possible way. One senses the rising anticipation of the explorer or settler and the subsequent horror of the moment of destruction. Walch has expressed this in a form in which all is suggested within a Turneresque swirl of half-glimpsed dreams and the vision of the agent of destruction, embodied equally in the same form, the island. About half of this show could have been ignored. Some artists deviated so far from the brief that they lost the plot altogether, others tossed up tired old work, forgetting that every show should count or one should not exhibit. Some work was simply tacky. All of this is inevitable given that the show was conceived and put together fairly quickly and many of those exhibiting, unlike Rod Ewins and Milan Milojevic, were not confident practitioners of the discipline. It was nonetheless an exercise worth undertaking. Print shows are not frequent enough and it still remains to some extent the poor cousin of contemporary art. Any show which attempts to redress that and draw many artists together for a show of this scale deserves credit.
A brief consideration of other activity in Tasmania over 1993 gives cause for optimism and eases considerably the strains of exile for those feeling hitherto a little out of touch. Two new artist-run initiatives, Exit 339 a small gallery in North Hobart and Mission, a collective setting up studio spaces, an exhibition space and advocacy functions promise to give greater opportunities for the presentation of contemporary art, particularly from emerging artists. It has also been encouraging to see new initiatives like the Incorporeal series of 'scenographic' manifestations from David McDowell and Edward Colless as the two central protagonists in a fascinating series of work which has included Kevin Henderson, Pat Brassington and others and has taken the activity into a range of situations hitherto unexploited as venues for art while attempting to forge a new format for the presentation of ideas which goes beyond current perceptions of the concept of installation. Two new journals, Siglo which deals with literature and fine art and Contemporary Art Tasmania, (an initiative of C.A.S.T), have given artists here the opportunity to have their work and ideas reflected in a form which is concomitant with the intent and quality of its production. New links forged by touring agencies and venues in Tasmania also help to ensure a healthier situation for the future. Such activities reflect a new energy and confidence in contemporary art and allow the more positive aspects of island existence to affect the quality of life and art in Tasmania.

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