The Continuing March of Western Australian Sculpture

Exhibition review Sculpture Survey 1995 Gomboc Gallery Middle Swan One Hundred Years of Sculpture 1895-1995 Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, WA

THE CONTINUING MARCH OF WESTERN AUSTRALIAN SCULPTURE

Sculpture Survey 1995,
Gomboc Gallery Middle Swan
One Hundred Years of Sculpture
1895- 1995,
AGWA

Reviewed by Maggie Baxter


March was a bonanza month for sculpture in Western Australia. Two major survey shows forced into prominence the extent of an artform largely unrecognised by the general public. Over the last fifteen to twenty years sculpture has evolved into a dominant force in this state. In fact, Australia Council statistics suggest that there are more practising sculptors per head of population here than in any other part of Australia. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this should be the case. There must be a multiplicity of factors but the central issue is perhaps the happy coming together in one place of a group of artists committed not only to their own work but also to the overall advancement of the artform.

There are a number of particularly strong and consistent role models: three tertiary institutions now offer serious sculpture components within their curricula: the University of Western Australia; Curtin University of Technology and The WA School of Art and Design's Claremont Campus. Whilst the UWA course is relatively new, Curtin and Claremont have much longer histories and the benefit of consistency of teaching from their respective heads of departments: David Jones and TonyJones. Prominent visiting, short term and part-time teachers such as Theo Koning, Peter Phillips, Lou Lambert and particularly Hans Arkeveld have been equally influential. A different type of practice was introduced to Curtin firstly by Nigel Helyer in 1983 and then later by David Watt in 1985. Both encouraged performance art amongst their students and Watt in particular injected a new level of intellectual rigour. Overall, the variety and quality of teaching has produced a core base of conceptual and theoretical practice coupled with work of considerable technical skill and ability.

Western Australian sculptors have also benefited from a renaissance of public art commissions. Until recent years support for art in public places was sporadic. Things began to change in the late 1980s when the Western Australian Department for the Arts initiated a "Percent for Art" scheme to incorporate site specific artworks into new government buildings. In addition, following the development of policies across a range of State Government instrumentalities, artists have been commissioned to develop works for projects by Transperth, Westrail, Homes West, the East Perth Development Authority and the Joondalup Development Authority. Whilst these projects are not entirely the domain of sculptors it has to be said that they are often ahead in the selection process because they are used to dealing with space, volume and durable materials.

Ron Gomboc is one of those very committed sculpture professionals -artist, artisan and gallery owner. In 1962, he opened his gallery and foundry in the wine-producing Swan Valley on Perth's outskirts providing an exhibition venue for established and emergent Western Australian artists with particular emphasis on sculpture.

On March 12, Gomboc Gallery opened their annual sculpture show. This year there was a change in focus from a prize-driven competition to a survey. For as Stuart Elliott, the co-ordinator of the show, stated in the catalogue: "... the original Prize was introduced at a time when sculpture as a profession was struggling for recognition [in Western Australia and], the 1995 Survey reflects the vastly broader and denser involvements of contemporary practice."

The 1995 Survey consisted of three parts: - an invited section; an open section and an outdoor student section. There was actually some degree of selection for the open and the student section which was undertaken by curator Sandra Murray and artists Peter Dailey and Jon Tarry. The latter also coordinated the invited section. By involving sculptors in the selection and co-ordinating processes, Gomboc has encouraged further commentary and critical debate from within the sculpture community. The student show was a particularly important and brave venture for a commercial gallery. The very fact that students were included in a professional show encourages career aspirations and gives a valuable opportunity to experience the professional requirements for exhibiting.

Even with a selection process the standard was patchy and ranged from the spectacular to the frankly kitsch and highly derivative. This was inevitable with such a large and comprehensive exhibition of 110 works and that very range, with all of its problems, was the strength of the show. There was an opportunity for the public, and for artists whose work has not yet fully developed, to access and assess a wide standard of work both conceptually and technically. The survey did not show any artist's work in depth but it did offer a tantalising sample of whose work to watch.

The particular joys within the exhibition included the Melbourne artist Bruce Armstrong who showed a series of eight fantastic pieces simply carved and painted. Although slightly rough-hewn the works retained a certain gracefulness and showed a superb understanding of the economy of line and detail. He captured the very spirit of the fish, birds and animals that he honoured. The solidity of some of the pieces gave them an air of permanence despite the odds stacked against them by man and nature.

Kevin Draper showed two elegant, formal floor-sculptures like linear jigsaw puzzles, configurations of simple wooden shapes joined by hinges which could be moved and repositioned in a myriad of ways. The thin lines created by the space between adjacent pieces of wood and the hinges themselves were an important part of the pattern of the work. Their subtlety emphasised their importance within the composition.

In the open section Mary Knott contributed two delightful miniatures. Moving away from her usual medium of reinforced paper to ceramic, "Holding Back" was a
universally accessible mythic figure, at once primitive and profound. Boats and the symbolism of crossing waters have long been a preoccupation of Knott's and her second miniature "Deep Within", in ceramic and wood continued this investigation into the unknown waters of the unconscious.

Student Julie Taylor's truncated beds made from newspaper and galvanised iron and feathers marked her as an artist to watch.

On March 14 The Art Gallery of Western Australia opened its major survey "100 Years of Sculpture 1895-1995" – part of the centenary celebrations commemorating the Gallery's first acquisitions in 1895.

Exhibition curator Dr Robyn Taylor was required to assemble this large and important exhibition in just four months; an achievement which was almost superhuman. She was only able to do this because she has spent almost a decade working and researching the area of Western Australian sculpture.

As Dr Taylor states in her catalogue essay : "Most of the works in this exhibition are located within the traditional definition of sculpture. They are predominantly objects occupying real space and in many instances they reflect the strong craft-based nature of local practice." She goes on however, to acknowledge the presence of contemporary work within a wider definition of sculptural practice; other alternative and ephemeral forms have been practised here such as the cultural explorations of suburbia by the MEDIASPACE group which operated in Perth during the 1980s, and performance art which continues to have a strong followig. Sound and other types of installation work have also been practised by artists such as Nola Farman, Carol Rudyard, Anne Graham and Allan Vizents."

The section of historical work in the exhibition is relatively small but does give an overview of sculptural practice until the contemporary period - loosely defined as being post-World War II. For those people specifically interested in the historical aspects of sculpture Dr Taylor gives a clear and thoroughly researched account in her catalogue essay.

The historical component of the exhibition served as an important reminder that maintaining a clear understanding of our heritage should be a community priority. It was sometimes an unhappy reminder of the unnecessary destruction which has already occurred.

The economic boom of the 1960s brought about a radical transformation of the centre of Perth and with it opportunities for developing modern sculptures to grace and accentuate the new modern buildings. Most of the commissions of the 1960s and early 1970s were undertaken by Howard Taylor, Margaret Priest and Peter Gelenscer. Howard Taylor has a practice which spans both sculpture and painting and many of his works are an amalgamation of both disciplines. A perfectionist, Taylor has spent much of his life acutely observing the finest qualities of nature and recreating his findings in reductionist works of supreme harmony. "Forest Figure" 1977 in this exhibition is an example of those qualities.

There were three sculptures by Hans Arkeveld in the Art Gallery show and two at Gomboc Gallery. His work is typified by macabre assemblages which position the human figure, or part of it, within a situation of pain or imprisonment. His work is always exquisitely crafted; the anatomical correctness of the works accentuates their sinister qualities.

Arkeveld's influence over a section of the sculpture community cannot be overlooked. Artists such as Theo Koning, Stuart Elliott, Peter Dailey and Claire Bailey all make work which addresses important social issues through making insightful and often witty caricatures of the human condition. The Art Gallery of Western Australia has in its collection a particularly good example of Stuart Elliott's work. It is an installation of a complete town of dark, ruinous buildings, which on closer inspection do not quite function. The buildings are made from ceramic and are fired black as though they have been through some terrible destruction. On the streets of this town, rows of trucks with front axles like horns march relentlessly forward in ways that always block each other's path. Elliott is preoccupied with the complete futility of the relentless pursuit of tasks and ideals with which mankind concerns itself.

David Jones is a sculptor with an international reputation. "Mahogany Spiral" made from 144 charred wood blocks describes the formal use of natural materials which characterises his classic and highly refined work.

Carmela Corvaia's work "Untitled Seed" is well-proportioned and harmonious. Using sticks, thread, clay, leaves and paper she has patiently constructed an intricate, woven, structure of two semi-spherical seed shapes while the base of the piece is made from a careful layering of amber-coloured leaves. The work is somewhat evocative of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy who makes ephemeral work from reconstructing all kinds of natural elements within the environment.

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