In the normal course of events I would never have seen The Fleurieu Biennale. Geographically, McLaren Vale is well out of my way and aesthetically, landscape painting barely registers in the artworld circles in which I mix. Two factors swayed me: first, it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and a drive in the country seemed a pleasant way to spend it; second, I know a few of the artists who entered work in the sculpture prize (they had returned from the opening two weeks earlier complaining bitterly of their treatment - more on this below).
This inaugural Biennale was a huge event - a regional arts festival basically conjured out of nothing. The accent was on traditional landscape, making it, perhaps, a fitting companion for the Doug Moran Portrait Prize - another regionally-based competition promoting nineteenth century values in art. The Biennale comprised six separate exhibitions, five of which were competitions, with prize money ranging from $10,000 up to a cool $50,000 for the premier event, the Fleurieu Prize for landscape. The sixth show, curated by Betty Snowden, was an exhibition of paintings of Kathleen Sauerbier and Horace Trenerry, two South Australian artists who painted together on the Fleurieu Penisula in the 1930s. In addition to the big prize, there were also awards for landscapes in the Fleurieu region, a scholarship to "further the talents of a promising artist", a sculpture prize, and a prize for landscape with "a wine industry theme".
The Biennale was largely bankrolled by the McLaren Vale wineries. Most of the art was exhibited inside the wineries' buildings, and many, who came to see it, took the opportunity to sample the local product. This made the event into a very pleasurable afternoon: driving leisurely through the countryside between venues, looking at the art, drinking just enough alcohol to ensure that it all remained interesting.
Of course, there's a culture shock coming from one artworld into another that even alcohol can't dull. Whatever we may like to think, consciousness of postmodernity hasn't penetrated far outside academia. The vast majority of visitors to McLaren Vale are blissfully unaware of Marxist, feminist and post-colonialist critiques of landscape painting. To them a picture's ideological connotations are invisible; all they see is gum trees. By contrast, we are trained to see nothing but the ideological connotations. As Ian Burn put it, we don't look at a landscape, we "look through" it, reading its socio-political subtexts. So perhaps we're both missing out on something.
Certainly, the experience of walking out of a shed full of art, directly into the landscape that provided the initial inspiration makes for an immersive experience. But while the land itself is all of a piece, the impression given en masse by the art is just the reverse: a hundred different styles vying for attention. French Impressionism, Cezanne, Heidelberg school, expressionism, abstraction, photography, naive art... all these and pretty much anything else you can imagine gets a go. One hundred and fifty, even a hundred years ago, artists didn't have this problem. But in the wake of modernism, with so many styles to choose from, how can one ever be justified above another?
Two answers seem to be endorsed by the artists exhibiting here: either choose the style which best allows you to express yourself (your personality, feelings, etc.), or choose the style which best allows you to depict the natural world external to you.
Robert Hannaford, who took out the main event, the Fleurieu Prize, with his painting, Mainland from Kangaroo Island, falls into the second camp. Hannaford overcomes the perennial problem in landscape of arranging foreground, mid-ground and background by cramming a giant rock into the picture, pretty much obscuring everything else. So instead of having to render depth and space like all the other artists, he renders mass and matter. In this respect, it's actually really smart and deserves to win. If Courbet was alive, he might have liked it.
The sculpture prize though was a bit of a scandal. The prize was a sculpture commission, and the entrants had been asked to make tiny maquettes - models for the proposed commission. The trouble was, this was not made clear at the exhibition, so everyone was walking around wondering why the works were so small. Worse, the judges decided not to award a prize in this section. This was particularly unfair, since entry had been by invitation only. If they didn't like any of the artists, they shouldn't have invited them. They'll probably get Sylvio Apponyi to weld them a giant bronze wombat. Hell, they deserve it.