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While Helen Fridemanis's historical work on the Queensland Branch of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) has produced a number of outcomes—an MA thesis, an exhibition, and a book—in this review I will focus mainly on the last of these. This should not be taken to imply that there is anything insubstantial about the exhibition, nor anything particularly impenetrable about her academic work, far from it. It is simply that the book, Artists and Aspects of the Contemporary Art Society, Queensland Branch, provides the most succinct and graspable account of the activities that are her subject matter.
Fridemanis is primarily concerned with the local history of modernism, and the way such tendencies were linked to the activities of the CAS. Thus, the exhibition, Contemporary Art Society, Queensland Branch 1961-1973, presented a range of exemplary art works from the period. However, as individual objects, they were not able to articulate their own history. Even the inclusion of various pieces of ephemera and a short catalogue essay, did not seem sufficient to clearly map out the links between the various pieces and their collective relationships to local artistic struggles.
The book is organised by what seems to be Fridemanis's central thesis: that the consolidation of modernist tendencies in Queensland based art practices, was a product of the private teaching activities of a number of artists from the late fifties onwards, and the collective interaction brought about by the formation of the CAS in 1961. The first chapter is very broad in scope, and provides a really excellent introduction to local contemporary art activities from the beginning of the fifties, through to the establishment of the Institute of Modern Art in 1975. There are a great many issues raised in this chapter that suggest possibilities for further historical work, such as the changing role of the State Government in cultural activities; the shifting focus of art education; the activities of commercial galleries; and the debates over the future of the Queensland Art Gallery.
In the section which follows, Fridemanis deals with the activities of five 'Artist-teachers': Margaret Cilento, Jon Molvig , Roy Churcher, Andrew Sibley and Mervyn Moriarty (for some reason she didn't individually examine the activities of Bronwyn Yeates here, nor later in the section dealing with individual CAS artists—strange, since Yeates seems to figure so strongly in the general discussions of the period). Of these artist-teachers, it is Molvig and Churcher who are set up as the primary sources of modernist methodologies and ideas. The short exhibition catalogue essay briefly indicates that quite different approaches were encouraged by these two teachers, but the book really does not pursue the matter, and leaves the reader a little uncertain of the role such differences played—although the fact that Molvig was not a member of the CAS, and never exhibited in CAS exhibitions, must have had considerable impact given his importance in the local art community.
Almost everyone else with modernist artistic tendencies did seem to have some involvement with the CAS, with a great many of the key figures serving on the committee for a number of years (Ray Churcher was in fact a member of the committee for the life of the organisation, from 1961 to 1973, with seven years as President). In her account of the Queensland Branch of the CAS (formed over twenty years after the establishment of the Melbourne and Sydney branches), Fridemanis provides a sketch of a rapidly developing local art world, belatedly catching up with the rest of the country, and the rest of the world—mostly through the activities of the new arrivals, or the return of local travellers. It is an account of a period of great activity, but also one of instability, with almost as many exits as entrances, and in that respect, perhaps, little has changed.
The last chapter of the book deals with the individual careers of artists involved with the CAS, via a series of brief biographical sketches. These are nicely complimented by related bibliographies, and provide very useful historical material. While not all of the work illustrated in the book (or included in the exhibition) is as exciting as it may once have been, this sort of local history is still as relevant as the history of the major global art movements. For despite the fact that dominant stylistic trends have not had their origins in Brisbane, and that centre—periphery relationships may never change, it is important to recognise that it is the local conditions such as those documented in this book that provide the working environment for the vast majority of artists.