Recent criticism of group and theme exhibitions has concentrated on the subjugation of art works to the pet "theory" of the curator. The art works/artists are cast as illustrative victims members of a common and allegedly small field, which is being continually reshaped by a premature art history. John McDonald, for instance, scathingly noted that ''work may be caricatured by the curator's chosen topic", and that "emphasis on the curator" overrides "the actual artists" in the search "for magnificent new themes and tendencies" (J. McDonald, "Romantics under the umbrella", The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1 987).
Such critics might, initially at least, welcome the approach of Michel Sourgnes, curator of the Queensland Art Gallery's exhibition, Painters and Sculptors: Diversity in contemporary Australian art.
Sourgnes in a brief two-page catalogue introduction purports merely to present "recent works (all media within the last four years) by artists who represent the main stream of Australian contemporary paintings and sculpture".
The stated rationale of the exhibition is "to emphasise the diversity, richness and vitality of Australian contemporary art". Aside from specially boosting a sculpture content "in an effort to generate a wider impression of the artistic potency of our time", the curator's selection criteria or "theory" remains invisible. Indeed, Sourgnes in conclusion suggests that the exhibited works "escape any easy categorisation and should be considered individually - each speaks for itself".
The curator, therefore, has stepped back from curatorial prominence to hide behind the "easy" banner of "diversity". An expected "dialogue" of interaction between works, and between works and public, becomes the responsibility of the viewer. This is despite the preliminary statement by new Director, Doug Hall, that the exhibition ''was initially conceived ... as an opportunity to bring together and examine comparatively the work of a large group of Australian artists".
Sourgnes' comment upon this matter is in effect an assertion, which avoids assertion: "The most characteristic feature of contemporary Australian art is diversity. There is no one movement or style which can be traced through the works of a large group of artists." The terms are so broad as to ensure a lack of discovery, and the project suffers accordingly. However, while an art-wise Australian audience might "see" the exhibition's deficiencies, will they be visible to a foreign audience?
In late 1987 Painters and Sculptors travels to Japan, to the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama. Such an overseas tour suggests that the exhibition has been constructed to represent with some accuracy contemporary Australian art. In that case, an understated curatorial position, which does not clarify selection criteria, is a more dubious proposition than that which is overstated.
Sourgnes' selection of artists is curious, at least, notwithstanding that key term "main stream". The "main stream" is not defined, and no justifications for inclusions and exclusions are given. Certainly curators make selections, but the historical/theoretical decision base should be framed by the exhibition catalogue. For instance, most of the younger Art & Text generation of artists are in absence, with the presence of I m ants Tillers' The world of men no doubt due to that work being in the OAG collection. Where, one might ask, are John Nixon, Juan Davila, Peter Tyndall, Susan Norrie, Jenny Watson, and Vivienne Shark Lewitt, to name a few? If Sourgnes' wanted to redress a prior exhibiting emphasis, why is it not stated? Sourgnes has given the constraint of illicit absence to his presentation of "diversity", though difference is inarguably apparent between such exhibited artists as Rodney Broad and Robert Hunter, or David Paulson and Hossein Valamanesh.
Painters and Sculptors presents in binary opposition twenty-three painters and twenty-one sculptors. Five women are matched against thirty-nine men. Aboriginal art enters only as a "widespread influence" (will such an attitude of colonization be evident in QAG publications in 1988?). Other less "traditional" or more intermediate art forms are not discussed, or only a "strong international movements" which "confused the prime objectives of sculpture 1n Australia for nearly a decade". Sourgnes' scheme is afforded an artificial clarity by their denial. Sourgnes, however, does provide a beginner's guide to Australian geography and cultural history.
If Sourgnes is hesitant in entering a sophisticated artistic debate, the remainder of the catalogue displays a like aversion to contemporary theoretical concerns. The "author"/artist is blatantly in clichéd evidence. A painter's workbench in full pretentious colour complements the sculptor's tools on front and back covers. Following Sourgnes' introduction is a two-page photo spread of the artists. The bulk of the catalogue (over forty of sixty-one pages) is given to large colour photographs of works alongside notes by ten different authors (awkwardly identified at rear) on each artist and their work. Such notes vary from the bland stereotypical to the well-considered researched statement, and exist as separate and separating units.
As a site for critical dialogue and researched analysis, the exhibition catalogue has inherent difficulties. Most often the catalogue acts as an educational document, which is uncertain of its audience. The Painters and Sculptors catalogue unfortunately displays the vacuity, which can result when high quality production is given greater priority over written content, and when an uninformed audience is assumed and not given credence for intelligence. The presentation of glossy quantity alone, especially when accompanied by hidden agendas, is not good enough.
Stephen Killick, Tongue Tied, 1986
Tom Risley, Totem VII, 1987.