The fish that John West regrets

Kick Arts at Gallery of Fine Arts, Cairns and District

The Fish John West Regrets is one of the first serious exhibitions of Cairns-based contemporary art to be curated in this city. It is a unique event in a community that is little used to critical discourse about local contemporary visual culture . Initiated by the Cairns-based artists' group Kick Arts and billed as its inaugural exhibition, it was not immediately apparent whether this exhibition was open to non-members and if so, whether it is truly representative of the full range of contemporary art practice in this city. Given that one of the original themes/objectives of the exhibition was to demonstrate 'ethnic and cultural' diversity, it is a pity that Zane Saunders was the only Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist represented.

Curated by Noosa Regional Gallery

Director, Chris Downie, the exhibition was conceived through a thorough curatorial development program that emphasised broadly based consultation and group dialogue. This consultative process gave rise to a number of critical issues that go to the heart of art practice in the region.

How do artists remote from some aspects of critical discourse activate their practice in ~ cultural environment dominated by the tourist/leisure industry? Certainly a number of artists in Cairns adopt particular strategies in dealing with these issues. The desire to work in partnership with others is a significant feature of the exhibition, although some artists who are more familiar with a collaborative way of working have chosen to exhibit individually, reverting to a studio-based practice. Humour, too, is a powerful tool in subverting the cultural orthodoxy thrown up by this community and, in the hands of artists such as Christian KokaiKun, with his computer generated self-portrait, or Eddie Koumans with his transformed Barbie dolls, provides a relief to those who take themselves and their art much too seriously. Bright Sparks-Deitmar Kuhn and Marc Steiner-are well known in Cairns for various interior commissions in welded steel and glass. Their welded steel Shark provides a welcoming and playful presence at the Gallery entrance.

The installation of Klub Kane Toad (Charles Silver, David Campbell , lngrid Hoffmann and Stephen Lane) provides one of the most overt articulations of this collaborative strategy. Here parody is used as a means of deconstructing and recontextualising imagery from tourist brochures. The clever use of computer-generated collages containing emblematic statements and messages acts to cannibalise and to subvert the all pervasive tourist and real estate advertising rhetoric.

Russell Milledge's mixed media works present an environment in which the artist compares his own 'songlines', and the fragmentation of personal experience, with that of the fragmented and discarded objects placed so carefully in his installations. Alternately, one suspects that Leah Grycewicz has arranged her installation with props for some undeclared stage, almost as if the objects were for use in some static performance.

A number of the works included in the show are highly personal and record various responses to the creative process. Julie Poulsen, for instance, uses the drawings of her daughter as a starting point for her own creative investigations. Other works chart the flow of inner feelings : among them Sharon Pacey's strongly rendered landscape drawings, or Sue Ryan 's figurative works which convey a somber, dream-like state.

For some artists this exhibition has provided opportunities to make significant developments into new conceptual realms . Lenore Howard's sculptural works play with the idea of extending the painted surface into space and represent a new direction for this artist. Jandy Pannel's installation , Humming Prawn, was conceived as a ritualistic structure which incorporates a number of suspended water-filled glass bowls specially 'tuned ' to reverberate when played. Garry Andrew's eclectic contribution includes a series of paintings that engage in a formalist dialogue through the reinterpretation of the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque and the Constructivist works of Malevich.

Among the other works included are a silent television monitor with footage of pelicans and a number of etchings which source the visual traditions of Aboriginal art and Melanesian material culture . The video provides a strange ambient presence in an otherwise static environment. Joy Stewart, in her carefully crafted paintings, pointedly critiques the basis of the exhibition and the recent arrivals with all their theoretical baggage. It was left for Zane Saunders to challenge conventional, Euro-centric myths of the Australian environment.

The Fish John West Regrets presents a range of visual art practices from close to twenty artists. Although many of the works included display an enviable technical proficiency, this was not the purpose of the exhibition. The project provides an important opportunity for artists whose practice is largely marginalised by a lack of infrastructural, financial and critical support. Despite the obvious success of this show, it is hoped that it is only the forerunner for other projects that engage the local visual arts community. While the exhibition was shown in the newly designated Gallery of Fine Arts, Cairns and District, there is little evidence that this building will be refurbished in the near future. One wonders what the future is of the regional gallery in a city that cannot justify establishing a cultural facility that is so long overdue and that already has the pledge of generous State Government support.