The Great Australian Art exhibition

Queensland Art Gallery
Queensland Art Gallery
16 May - 17 July, 1988

The Great Australian Art Exhibition, while a visual feast, is surely one of the most idiosyncratic exhibitions ever to be drawn under the spectre of a survey of Australian art. Daniel Thomas' preface to  the book, Creating Australia, while presuming to set out the very strict parameters which guided the show is in fact an apologia for it.

Few would question the difficulties inherent in drawing a representative selection from 200 years of art but there is a basic problem with this exhibition which Jay within the entire concept of "Creating Australia" tied as it is to Australia's self-imposed identity crisis which the bicentennial seems only to have exacerbated.

There is an uneasy juxtaposition between preconditioned notions of "art ... by which Australia was invented and created" (if indeed any art can be said to have done so) and that which is displayed. We are assured that "peculiarly Australian images have been favoured" but what peculiar images some of them are; ranging as they do from morbid curiosities such as Trucanini's necklace through to the more whimsical pieces such as Lorraine Jenyns, Baboon with Banana, and certainly more Augustus Earle's than anyone should ever have to look at in one day. it is almost as if Mr Thomas is attempting to "recreate" Australia all over again only this time nearer to his heart's desire.

The exhibition attempts to cover many of the concerns which plague a guilt-ridden Australia with aborigines, women and multi-culturalism each attaining their own level of tokenism. However it is the use made of aboriginal art which is by far the most disturbing aspects and one suspects that this art is used for the sole purpose of giving The Great Australian Art exhibition a depth that one often suspects it Jacks. The show begins with examples of traditional aboriginal art forms and ends with twentieth century adaptations of said forms – most notably Western Desert art. The impression given by the show is of a very holistic, almost evolutionary trend in the interaction between European and aboriginal art forms, an impression which is reinforce by the comment from Daniel Thomas that "the aboriginal people are re-conquering the minds of their invaders, as the Greeks re-conquered the ancient Romans."

The exhibition is divided into three basic timeslots, the colonial, centennial and twentieth century and it is the colonial which is the real strength of this show. This section has been used to destroy, and very successfully, the Great Australian icons of the Heidelberg school and the myths of the 1880s by redressing the issues of colonial art. These images are no longer dismissed merely as the Europeanization of the Australian ethos but are allowed to stand alone as a visible sign of colonial life and concerns. it is here that the idea of art creating a form of Australian identity is actually viable. Unfortunately the strength of the colonial section has been achieved at the expense of the rest of the exhibition, most particularly in the area of contemporary art.

It may be because contemporary art will not, and can not, fill the slots provided by the exhibition's themes that it has been so neglected. Applying a nationalistic fabrication, such as "Creating Australia", to the art of the Jat two or three decades is well nigh impossible and the continuity of the show is seriously eroded at this point. The problems of incorporating this art first manifest themselves in the superficial manner in which much of the later works are hung. Part B of the show is characterised by colour coordinated walls; for example, all the black and gray tones of Tuckson, Booth, Maddock and Gascoigne comprising one wall and the more "colour-oriented" works of artists such as Whisson and Larter on another. There is no longer anything guiding the display of the works. The only way the coordinators were able to slot contemporary art into their guidelines for the show was to specially commission a work - lmants Tillers Kangaroo Blank, a work which refers back to, among other things, the illustrations of Stubbs. it is an interesting way to circumvent the thematic problem but it is almost as if Tillers has been used as the ultimate signifier for recent developments in Australian art.

It is probably inevitable that any show which tried to encompass so much should fall flat in certain areas and there can be little doubt that one of the greatest problems for The Great Australian Art Exhibition was the fact that it tried to be all things to all people. However it was a brave, and at times a winning, attempt to redress many of the imbalances within Australian art and to promote the very active role the visual arts have played in this country.