Whetting the Appetite

Exhibition review State of the Art 4 Biennial survey exhibition curated by Stephanie Radok New Land Gallery, Port Adelaide South Australia 21 April - 12 May 1996

This biennial survey exhibition of South Australian country based artists, was curated by Stephanie Radok who travelled as far afield as Ceduna, Mt Gambier and Renmark to select 23 works from a total of over 300 viewed. The works of the 23 artists exhibited at the New Land Gallery endorsed the curator's catalogue statement that "regional arts in South Australia do not have a unified identity but display a series of identities and a series of explorations". However, they do share the predicament of artists living outside of a capital city.

If, by the turn of the century, half of the world's population will be living in cities, that still leaves a lot of people living in rural regions. In Australia, and especially in South Australia with its relatively sparse population, this statistic may need modification but even so it would be expected that a significant proportion of this state's practising artists would be living in rural areas.

From a rough analysis of artists exhibiting in Adelaide's commercial galleries or receiving public support through government grants or the non commercial gallery system, it is possible to think of only a handful of high profile practising visual artists who live in rural areas and benefit from these opportunities. Artists such as Ian Abdulla, Iris Frame, Tony Flint and Tony Hamilton come to mind but it does lead you to reflect on the proportional representation in contemporary art practice of artists from regional areas and the particular problems facing those who choose to live outside of the state's capital city.

While many South Australian artists, myself included, were born or grew up in country towns, they frequently left and continue to leave rural areas for a variety of reasons including study or job opportunities and often do not return on a permanent basis. There are obvious professional advantages to be gained from living in a capital city, such as proximity to galleries, museums and the support network of other artists but for those who choose to remain in rural areas the regional gallery must play a vital role in exhibiting their work and bringing in art from outside of their area.

The New Land Gallery, a venue primarily dedicated to promoting the work of country based artists is also a significant opportunity for professionally minded rural artists who presumably endeavour to have their work viewed by a larger audience. Its existence and objectives should contribute to a more balanced rate of participation and boost the prospects for professional development of country artists. It is of course also important for Adelaide art viewers who should not only appreciate its existence but also relish its location. We have a chance to encounter works produced outside of the Adelaide region and at the same time to enjoy the wonderful heritage precinct of Port Adelaide.

Since many people would argue that existing as an artist in Adelaide is a regional experience, it is perhaps worth questioning the notion of regionalism or at least put it into perspective, especially given the development of new forms of communication which presumably are as accessible to artists in rural areas as those living in cities. The diversity of styles apparent in State of the Art 4 indicates a connection and awareness of contemporary art practice and trends world wide and this is to be expected. An artist living in Port Augusta or Renmark need not necessarily be more insulated from these trends than an artist living in a large city. It is only at the practical level of exhibiting their work that isolation can be an obstruction.
Indeed, so called isolation can otherwise be the inspiration as in the case of the artists I mentioned earlier whose work is generally strongly tied to specific locations and their history. Taking the opportunity to know a place, its past and present, to explore this and attempt to express it in some way was perhaps a common thread to State of the Art 4.

Survey exhibitions particularly on a biennial basis frequently and perhaps even inevitably leave you with a feeling of insufficiency or confusion. There were only a few familiar names whose work I could recall having seen in another context and it is hard to respond in a substantial way to one example of an artist's work. In this case the works I liked most were small and after a brief glimpse into each artist's world it was time to move on to the next. Solitude, Suzanne Laslett's black and white photograph of a jetty and Margaret Harris' Ticking were both intriguing small works which hopefully only introduced us to their practices which we will have further opportunities to view in a more comprehensive manner, perhaps between biennials. It is not always a bad thing to be left with a feeling of wanting more.

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