East Coast 22 August 1997 -1 February 1998; & 10 April - 27 September 1998. West Coast 22 August 1997 - 21 June 1998. Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery The University of Western Australia, Perth.
One of the features of examining recent history is that many of the participants are still alive and able to contribute to the analysis. Anna Gray exploits this resource to great effect in Swingtime, East Coast - West Coast. Labels on each of the 98 works carry explanations or anecdotes from the artist, or if the artist has died, a quotation. While this results in statements which are mostly memories of the work and its position or relevance in the artist's output, it proves to be a powerful thread. The artists' voices help to construct the exhibition and to reconstruct the times.
The University has amassed a wide representation of artists from the period – a documentary slice of Western Australian practitioners – many of whom still do not enjoy national reputations today however sustained their careers. This is sufficient to legitimise the decision to divide the exhibition by geography. By concentrating local artists into one space, separate from the east coast exponents, attention is drawn to the Western Australian work while contrasts and comparisons are still invited within the exhibition as a whole. There is no intention or sense of marginalisation from either gallery, but there may have been unexpected spectacle had Carol Rudyard's bold, geometric screenprint interrupted works by the predictable line up of Gunter Christmann, Alun Leach Jones, David Aspden and Sydney Ball.
Or if Howard Taylor's commanding and grounded cylindrical painted 'equivalents' from his experience of the landscape stood amid the tracery and marks of John Olsen, Fred Williams, Michael Taylor, David Rankin and others whose landscape abstractions filled their canvases. Nonetheless, the works are all there to be observed and absorbed, a multitude of conjunctions available to the viewer.
Diversity and individuality characterised these two decades across the nation, and this is reinforced in Swingtime, although the installation attempts groupings to suggest certain shared preoccupations, primarily on a formal basis. Within these groupings, many works are distinctive and jostle for attention. For example, the new realist works are fresh and alluring in their simple yet powerful compositions. Ken Wadrop finds a rhythmic beauty in his flat depiction of vibrant blue drums whose menace is revealed only by the labelling indicating chemical compounds. Janenne Eaton also exploits pattern in Continuous Reflection I her lyrical, louvre-like dissection of the picture plane into repeated panels depicting a draped towel and bowl against a corrugated wall. It is a staged composition from her bathroom in a Perth house, yet as with Wadrop, the clarity and flatness of the acrylic brings a plastic quality to the work which dilutes its representational nature. This 1970s plasticity is interesting to reflect upon in comparison to the laden and complex compositional nature of much realist or representational art today.
The dense installation compromises some of the individuality which the exhibition heralds, although what is revealed of the The University Art Collection overall counters the impediments to the viewing and perception of singular works. Of value is the way an exhibition such as this makes transparent many of the circumstances that have informed the collecting. On one hand there is a degree of curatorial confidence conveyed through the purchase of many works soon after the date of their production. On the other hand there is the conservatism, perhaps for logistical rather than conceptual reasons, in the preference for 'safe' paintings (notwithstanding the provocations of Richard Larter, Tim Burns or Marcus Beilby) and works on paper at a time when there was an opening up of practical possibilities for art making, including performance, installation, craft, photography and text-based work. It is also apparent how important funds were from the Visual Arts Board in making acquisitions possible, along with a number of significant gifts and bequests to the institution and, of course the University Senate. Swingtime just as its predecessor collection-exhibition The Way We Were, featuring works from the 1940s and 1950s, helps make chronological and social sense of the collection while giving its audience a rich experience.
Paul Taylor, editor of Anything Goes Art In Australia 1970-1980 published in 1984 lamented the neglect of contemporary art and the selective promotion of established artists, claiming that his publication "is an attempt to remind ourselves, where necessary, of the art of the years from 1970 to 1980, to overcome today's 'amnesia' which particularly greets the less entrenched and established, or more ephemeral art of the Seventies." 1
Swingtime, by virtue of the parameters of collecting at the University of Western Australia, cannot set out to be definitive because of its exclusion of many vital aspects of art production in the1960s-1970s.
However, the 98 works presented do map a focus in the University of Western Australia's Art Collection. The privilege given to painting acknowledged, it should be said that this collection would in its breadth still rival many as a document of the period in Australian art.
It is an exhibition which will launch others in Australia and perhaps particularly in Western Australia where so few exhibitions of this period, with the exception of solo artist surveys and occasional review exhibitions in commercial spaces such as at Goddard + de Fiddes Gallery, have been undertaken. The supporting programs which have been scheduled in association with Swingtime, including a forum of national speakers, a room sheet, didactic panels and a forthcoming catalogue, make a major contribution to Australian art history and redress some of that neglect described by Paul Taylor, be it more than a decade later.
Had a little more bravado been exercised in the display of the work, or if the gallery program could have afforded the luxury of giving over the entire gallery space to this important exhibition, the presentation might have visually matched the scope, scale and offerings of the exhibition's content. Swingtime warrants its long showing time and an effort to see it should be made by those with an active interest in the 1960s and 1970s in Australian art and the development of public collections.