The Festival of Perth
March-April 1995

Reviewed by Dorothy Erickson

The Festival of Perth continues to be problematic for the visual arts in Western Australia. It is well known that the management of the $6 million Festival only gives lip service to the visual arts and would prefer that it were dropped from their program. No visual arts experts sit on advisory panels, which leads to questionable selections of the Festival artists. This year an emergent artist, Julie Goldenberg from the Artplace stable, produced a useful piece of poster art. However her exhibition was not of the calibre expected for such a prestigious position leading one to question a hidden agenda. Are the staff winding the visual arts down for an eventual expulsion from the Festival? A notion which has been given airing in other states about their Festivals. This year the visual arts events were tucked away behind a massive array of lesser arts: $400,000 of street theatre, sub-festivals, fireworks - even behind the tourist information and sport – very much below the salt, a continuing process of downgrading which appears to be a deliberate attempt to discourage galleries from requesting inclusion.

The obvious bias against the visual arts eventually forced a government inquiry into the state of play but at the time of writing this was still sitting on the Minister's desk and the Festival management were proceeding with plans for the 1996 Festival. With the advance program launched in August it will be interesting to see if anything has changed. This is unlikely unless there is a strong ministerial directive, for those in charge have been there many years - the director since 1977 - and their attitudes are entrenched. There appears a good case for limited term contracts for directors to allow for fresh approaches to counter personal biases which inevitably occur.

It is many years since a visual arts highlight has been funded from the public purse and this year is no exception. The star was the Howard Taylor exhibition which opened in the stunning new Galerie Düsseldorf in Mosman Park. Exquisite minimal works from the master were created especially for the opening of the new space. A major book on the artist was launched. The opening night was a gala event, notwithstanding the non-attendance of the reclusive artist.

Several visits were necessary to appreciate the way the changing light affected the works for Taylor continues to exploit his fascination with the forest in which he dwells and the play of light upon surfaces. While columnar sculptures and drawings of soaring tree trunks were rendered with a minimal palette, a close look revealed many layers of marks across textured surfaces. Subtle inter-related colours conveyed the dappling of light on or through foliage.

Reflections such as that from the carefully placed grey striped "Internal Cylinder" altered the colours on the complex curves of "Contracurve" mounted on the wall nearby. The major work "Colonnade" comprising seven painted steel columns and six panels of painted wall which altered according to the viewpoint. The circular "Light Source Reverse" with its use of reflected light to give colour combinations dominated the space and induced mesmeric movement. Smaller contemplative drawings and painting were rewarding as were the bolder paintings; "Blue Winded Figure" and "Still Life with Black Figure".

Also excellent was Evelyn Kotai's intriguing work at Perth Galleries exploiting both metaphor and memory through a two-fold process of layering of images and associations. The viewer was encouraged to delve through the layers to find the essence. The work was also interesting on another level being technically innovative with laser printed photocopies of old textiles, photographs and documents embedded in clear acrylic against backgrounds painted with Livos organic-paint. Several layers of acrylic and transparent inks gave a 3D effect. Shadowy ghosts of her father's sculpture practice in Hungary danced upon tile walls. The poignant pathos of grandparents' recycled images reached out.

Joan London's thoughtful essay on the dislocation of immigrant families accompanied the exhibition and more particularly "Quilt 1" which she described as "... fragments from the past salvaged, reshaped, re-assembled to form new patterns, a new whole, a new life?" - thirty-five manipulated and framed glimpses of a family's journey to Australia.

Bela Kotai's stoneware pots which shared the exhibition space were more contemplative than thought-provoking. No 8, one of his characteristically large almost closed forms, was superb, almost hemispherical with a grey blue glaze - its vulvic opening constrained by a decorative chastity belt of clay. Some pots such as nos 2 and 11 were rhythmically manipulated to give the appearance of pleated fabric while others resembled carapaces of invertebrates.

Once again the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which is known to have its differences with the Festival, did not provide a focus. Exhibitions covering twenty years of gifts from the friends, 100 years of donations by the public, work from students of the gallery school and borrowings from corporate collections are not a focus. In this the gallery's centenary year some effort was expected. Instead a major hang "In the Company of Women: 100 years of Australian Women's Art from the Cruthers Collection" was staged next door at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. Hung across multiple galleries it showed a powerful range of work. There was strong modernist work from artists such as Elise Blumann and Margaret Preston through to arresting work from Susan Norrie and Ada Bird Petyarre.

There were a number of 'women only' exhibitions, as the festival coincided with International Women's Day and the launch of Professor Joan Kerr's book "HERitage". The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery staged "Bur-ran-gur ang (Court out):Women and the Law". This included a video work "Apocryphal Tales" by Carol Rudyard. In a suite of three stories Rudyard explored cultural icons by manipulating the meaning of images. Her intervention consisted of juxtaposition and layering. Pertinent text and contrasting images were introduced via a screen torn as a hole in the foreground photograph. Images of a blood-red Uluru were combined with that of a fractured Judith Killing Holofernes -the vignette showing luscious silk and dripping blood. Guys and Dolls, utilising imagery from Rafael had a 'Madonna and child' set up as a target. Lace and guns were disturbingly juxtaposed pointing up the problem of violence within the family.

In the same exhibition was some powerful work by Julie Dowling. "Goodbye Whitefella Religion" of 1992 pursued the subject of sexual abuse by priests at the Bathurst Island mission. The picture depicted a group of part-aboriginal women, their figures patterned with the crosses they had to bear, wrapping a priest in a shroud while other shadows of his past looked on.

Many of the exhibitions included dance or performance, for the well-known bias of the director produced the farcical situation where, to be sure of being part of the program some visual artists felt the need to masquerade as performers. Tired of being waylaid by performances (which were not equal to the street theatre outside) and which interfered with viewing the exhibitions, your critic wished the management would wreak their havoc on the visual arts elsewhere, well away from here.

Julie Goldenberg, the Festival artist, produced an exhibition entitled "Out of the Box" marrying sculpture, paintings and performance. Whilst her wraithlike 'jack-in-a-box' figures were successful in selling the Festival they disappointed on other levels. The subjects were mostly punning plays on words such as "Blue Cock Tail Party" - quite a 'blue' picture. Cleverer was "Perpetual Emotion" with two figures engaged in the eternal struggle - her hand tugging his penis as she chased his heart which dangled like a carrot on a string. Better still were the erotic 'pillow-book' prints at nearby Gallery East.

The international components selected and funded by the Festival were in the main merely appendages to dance. "A Celebration of Life" was publicised as one of the major features. An Indian village recreated in the grounds of Fremantle Arts Centre and an exhibition curated by the leader of a dance troupe and dominated by village arts was hardly what visual arts aficionados willingly subsidise.

At Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery the Lithuanian artist Stasys Eidrigevicius had been brought out to accompany the "Lithuanian Folksong and Dance Company". A performance marked the opening. The whirling wheels of colour were seemingly unrelated to the delicate pastels and tiny etched bookplates on display inside. Difficult imagery, surreal in a way, yet plaintive and at times grotesque, was softened by the media he favours. The pastels, imitating paper-collage, featured fractured heads, scarecrows and masks. Illustration was his métier. "Moon and cow", "Moon and fork" were plates for books. These small softly-toned whimsical works of tempera on paper were quite delightful.

The Craftwest Gallery had Metamorphs by Margaret Ainscow and David Walker. This was a collaborative exercise with crossovers between the husband and wife to such an extent that it was not always obvious who had made which work. His "Terra Incognita" and her "New over Old" hung side by side were a case in point. With these paintings on canvas Ainscow was the more successful. Her work, featuring subtle grey-blues and cream over stitched canvas and puff paint had not only more delicacy but more life than his more geometric painted patches on canvas stretched over wire. Ainscow's "Overlay Sampler, Remembered Conversations" and the four-part "Universal Web" were particularly successful. Walker's other works featuring his now characteristic skeletal steel structures were for the most part sculptures rather than jewellery and lacked the precious quality associated with his recent work. As Ted Snell wrote in his catalogue introduction, Walker takes risks that only emergent artists usually take. This time he was not entirely successful. The less said about the performance pieces by graduate jeweller Michelle Irwin which tangled up much of the confined gallery space the better.

Festival staff who actively discourage visual arts and a state gallery which abrogates its responsibility to put on a special show for the Festival could leave Perth, once again like Cinderella, waiting to go to the ball. Let us hope that the visual arts program announced in August is more than an adjunct to the music and theatre and that some commitment is made to bring the visual arts out of the 'also ran' section of the Festival. If the secretariat would like to see innovative overseas wok they would be well-advised to assist the galleries to bring it in. If it is good enough for the music, theatre and dance lovers of Perth to be regularly regaled with overseas highlights surely the visual arts can be allowed some also.