Although the Visual Arts/Craft Board has shifted its focus to the Asia region recently, a major program of direct assistance to artists has been the Board's studio-residencies in Europe and North America. Since the late 70s, over 150 artists have worked in the southern European studios: Paretaio, Besozzo and Verdaccio in Italy; Barcelona in Spain; and the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, France; not to mention the dozens more in Berlin, London and New York.
Little has been written on the influence of overseas travel and particularly of periods of work at these studios, despite their obvious importance for such a large number of artists during the past decade or so. Because of this the Plimsoll Gallery began research recently on an exhibition focusing on the occupation of the Italian studios since 1979. Eighteen out of eighty of the artists had lived and worked in Tasmania for periods of time and it seemed important to consider the effect of this overseas experience on the shape of the contemporary visual arts here.
Research was interrupted, however, when the VACB asked the University to develop something similar for an exhibition for Expo 92 in Seville, Spain in June/July. Playing on the 'discovery' theme, devised to celebrate Columbus's discoveries of the `new world' five hundred years ago, we created the exhibition 'Rediscovery' which, as its name implies, examined how ten artists had recently explored the 'old world' of Europe.
There was a degree of arbitrariness in the selection since one criterion was occupancy of one of the six studios (three in Italy, one in Spain and two in Paris); and we were also conscious that the exhibition was going into a large temporary gallery space on the Expo site for what was expected to be a massive number of European visitors:
mainly tourists. Although we modified the theme, including several works made by the artists back in Australia, we argued that the exhibition would deliberately focus on an ebullient and impressionistic aspect of the work produced by artists in that immediate condition of exposure to a new world. We wanted it to celebrate the sensory impact of the foreign tour and its physical effect on the artist.
Artists in the exhibition were: Arone Raymond Meeks, Domenico de Clario, David Keeling, Anne MacDonald, John Neeson, Bronwyn Oliver, Rosslynd Piggott, Wilma Tabacco, Bernard Sachs, Helen Wright. Three artists from Tasmania were included: David Keeling (Verdaccio Studios, 1989), Anne MacDonald (Cite, Paris, 1990) and Helen Wright (Barcelona, 1991). All three produced substantially new bodies of work as a result of their respective residencies.
Keeling's paintings are amongst the most direct in their 'borrowings' from Europe - classical elements are incorporated into 'To the Island' to become a metaphor, perhaps, for the way in which European civilisation has imposed itself so ruthlessly upon Australia. Likewise the cultural baggage of Europe is emphasised in another painting, 'The Immigrant's Journey', a small four panel painting in which the figure gradually disappears into the landscape, weighed down with a knapsack stuffed full of architectural fragments from the old world. There seems to be an intentional gaucheness in these pictures which speaks of the ungainliness and apparent absurdity of Europeans domination of the landscape; Keeling's Italian sojourn furnished him with the iconography to make that point most poignantly.
MacDonald's photographs are of an entirely different order. Early in her stay, she continued to focus on images of loss - forlorn crypts and grave sites in the Pere Lachaise cemetery; but a new theme started to emerge as she began photographing fragments of statuary from the Versailles Gardens. She concentrated on the playful bronze 'putti' whose licence to celebrate sensualness and sexual ease seemed in stark contrast to the sobriety of much of modern (post-eighteenth century) Paris. 'Boys' depicts a sometimes intense and sometimes languid eroticism as MacDonald isolates pudgy fingers poking, stroking, and tickling patinated bronze flesh, or emphasises a quiver or a fish. Despite their playfulness, there is an overriding sense of melancholy in these photographs - a mourning for a lost world, an 'old world' of innocence, frozen twice over, in the bronze, and in the camera's frame.
The third artist working in Tasmania is Helen Wright. Although superficially her concerns remain the same - the exhibition she held at Dick Bett's Gallery in Hobart last year included a number of images in which an isolated and diminutive female figure is swamped by the objects surrounding her - in several new drawings, a vividly theatrical quality is present, which appears to emphasise the threatening nature of objects, and this seems to have sprung from her experience overseas. In some, like 'Curtain and Dreaming in Colour', an actual stage is created; in others like the diptych 'Distance: The Enigma of Time and Space' larger-than-life objects are anthropomorphised - geometric dividers become masculine delineators of space and an hourglass becomes a feminised emblem of time. The works have a stage-like and calibrated spatial quality, tense with dramatic and erotic expectation.
Almost all of the artists in the exhibition have spoken of the profound influence of living overseas although, interestingly, few actually produced substantial bodies of work in the studios; rather this was done back in Australia, often some time after the experience had been distilled. 'Rediscovery' suggests that these residencies have been an extremely important aspect of the recent history of Australian art and well-worth exploring in more detail.
by Jonathan Holmes, curator