Beyond the Tower: 40 Years and Counting

University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane

In October 2016, one of the solutions suggested to mitigate the Australian federal budget deficit was a proposal to sell Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1971).1 Bought for $1.3 million, its price tag, in 1973, caused controversy. Now estimated to be worth $350 million, this significant abstract expressionist painting, arguably Pollock’s best work, is often cited for its monetary value. While we have pressing budgetary needs—social issues such as homelessness, public health, and education—the fact that culture is seen merely as an asset with a price tag attached, rather than a repository of memories, public story, and historical narrative, would indicate that we have some way to go in terms of achieving cultural maturity. I would argue that, without stories and their cultural memories, we are more automaton than human.

When my mother died, also in October, what kept me awake at night was the compulsion to tell her story. Her funeral became a celebration of all the decades of her life, allowing us (as her family) to share with others the person she was, throughout her entire life. This was powerful, affirming, and positive—its value to us at this time immense.

This preamble is testimony to the way in which objects and imagery tie us to place, to story and to memory. The forty year collection that has evolved around the University of Queensland Art Museum (UQAM) is a repository of cultural values and collective memory, with the visual excitement of the contemporary. Luckily for the University, but also the broader state and national population, the establishment of a collection and a gallery in 1976 allowed for a focus on contemporary Australian art and the narrative of now. It spans four decades and describes, as only art can, the territory that we have traversed in this period. Accordingly, looking back has many levels of frisson for the artists, directors and students who were involved but, more broadly and powerfully, for what these individual objects tell us about themselves. They describe the times and changes that we may reinterpret and review what they reveal about the now.

This show acknowledges the legacy of the collection, its origins, and the directors who shaped it. Notably, the founding director, Nancy Underhill, with her determined direction, created a foundation that was rock solid. The strongly contemporary focus that continued under subsequent regimes has come full circle, in a way, taking as its remit under the current director Campbell Gray, an involvement with the broader student and academic population at the University. Under the directorship of Ross Searle, the art museum was granted a building with state of the art facilities, and Nick Mitzevich, who preceded Gray, further developed an exhibition program and collection with national profile.

Curator Samantha Littley (with Gray) curated this exhibition to depict the influences under which the collection has formed. UQAM has a sound acquisitions budget, and the retention of the focus on contemporary art means that most work is purchased within a year or two of being made. This has been extended with a focus on self-portraiture (reflecting the acquisitive National Self-Portrait Prize, biennial since its establishment in 2007). For Beyond the Tower, the four central spaces in the building have been organised thematically to showcase post-colonialism, integral to the story of the last forty years, self-portraiture, feminist discourse and its influence in the 1980s and, finally, the flavour of the 1970s.

Bequests that have extended the collection are shown in the alcoves, and on the edges of the spaces, and reflect exhibitions, historical narratives that connect to the University, and the artists who have been part of this journey. Littley acknowledges that, as curators ‘we can get caught up in what we want to present, there is more eclecticism, and freedom in the gifts, with less imposition of currency’. A notable wild card that a gift may represent is Ian Fairweather’s Chi-tien stands on his head (1964), associated with the publication of his translation of The Drunken Buddha, by the University of Queensland Press (1965).

Artists’ emphatic political consciousness of recent decades, and the prominence of a significant generation of urban Indigenous artists is reflected with the post-colonial theme in the first gallery, but continues in all spaces post-1980. Threads of connections travel between rooms—Gordon Bennett’s prescient Outsider (1988) was early, and remains powerful. Its relevance is echoed in the more recent Danie Mellor Exotic lies and sacred ties (The heart that conceals, the tongue that never reveals) (2008), which draws together this artist’s joint Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage, yet notes the continuing fracture in relationships in its mosaic surface. Fiona Foley’s Bliss (2006) demonstrates the seductive beauty of the flower with its deadly and addictive undercurrent of opium.

Coming to terms with an unsettled history in Australia is a narrative thread, with the first gallery also featuring Mavis Ngallametta’s Starting to Paint at Kendall River (2014) and Gordon Hookey’s video Terraist (2012). The experience of being Indigenous both outside and inside urban centres is starkly contrasted. The other major focus in the collection is the understanding of the self that artists crystallise in their work, which reflects the times from which it emerges. John Barbour’s Because I am a void in reality (2011) poignantly predated his death, and Lisa Adams’s Sparrow (2009) evokes both the fragility of the natural environment and her tenuous existence as an artist. The use of self-portraiture to describe the contemporary is an effective collection strategy. This does not undermine the presence of the earlier works which include Ken Whisson’s Ship and flag (1976-77) and Robert McPherson’s Swanboro II (1976). These powerful paintings project the artists’ aesthetic strengths and influences, and the contrast with the Mona Ryder painting on an ironing board, Fixed attitudes (1984), which speaks to her struggle as a female artist, is also telling in this final space.

Many such surveys could have been assembled from the University’s 3,700 contemporary artworks, but what emerges here is the legacy of objects, crucial expressions of the time with which we may continue to contextualise and unpick the contemporary. Simply put, these stories matter because they were and are made. They speak to each other and to their own concerns, as packages of memory, culturally conveyed, effectively contextualised. The UQAM’s ambitions from 1985 are quoted in the accompanying book, to be a ‘lively and provocative centre’ for the study of Art History. These works capture the legacy and experience of their times, with connections into the broad stream of culture, history and memory that has led us to this time and place.

John Barbour, Because I am a void in reality, 2011. Handcut lead, 24 parts, dimensions variable, 69 x 123 x 1cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2012 from The University of Queensland National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize 2011. Reproduced courtesy the artist’s estate and Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney.

Gordon Bennett, Outsider, 1988. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 290.5 x 180.0cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council, 1989. Reproduced courtesy of The Estate of Gordon Bennett and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Mavis Ngallametta, Starting to paint at Kendall River, 2014. Natural ochres and charcoal with synthetic polymer binder on linen, 267 x 199.2cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased with the assistance of Cathryn Mittelheuser AM in memory of Margaret Mittelheuser AM, 2014. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

Ken Whisson, Ship and flag, 1976-1977. Oil on board, 85.8 x 111.2cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, 1978. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Watters Gallery, Sydney.

notes: 

1. Matthew Doran, ‘Painting Blue Poles, worth $350m, should be sold to reduce national debt: Senator James Paterson’, ABC On-line, 7 October 2016. See http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-07/governments-$350m-painting-should-be-sold-to-reduce-debt/7911882