Fresh art

S.H. Ervin Gallery , Sydney.

Curated by Felicity Fenner and Anne Loxley, Fresh Art was an exhibition which proposed to showcase emerging artists whose work displayed freshness of concept and execution. Both curators are regular critics for the Sydney Morning Herald and, by implication, self-appointed purveyors of new talent.

Fresh Art gained an inordinate degree of media attention for a contemporary art exhibition, partly due to a largely biographical and promotional piece on Fanner and Loxley in the Herald itself1. Rather than clarifying any curatorial assertion or propagating an understanding of the work, the publicity tended to trade off the popular conception of new art as being wacky, weird and wonderful. This is not to say that publicity is some form of sell-out, but with Fresh Art the hype was disproportionate for what was, in actuality, a fairly run-of-the mill contemporary art exhibition.

The catalogue essay itself went only slightly further toward clarifying the curatorial project. The curators claim that they offered merely "possible" readings of the works does not disqualify their interpretations from criticism, since it is on those curatorial perceptions that the selection was based. The essay did not commit itself to anything explicit, except perhaps a tenuous essentialist feminism applied to some of the women's works, and referring to a universal ''feminine ability to organise" and the "feminine mystique".

If vague in its intent, Fresh Art succeeded in elucidating some of the dynamics of the artist-run circuit of the Sydney artworld. A significant portion of the fresh artists (about a third) had featured in this year's hard-line retro-modernist program at CBD Gallery in Sydney: Sophie Coombs, Lyndall Jefferies, Anne Rowe, Tony Schwensen, and David Thomas. Each, to varying degrees, presented a kind of CBD houseĀ· style of formalism-meets-suburbia. Indeed, the suburban was the prevailing element among most of the artists, notably in the works of Deej Fabyc, Li Liang, Faith McGirr, Simone Paterson, and Phillip Ruling.

The conceptualism of Kyle Ashpole's Untitled must surely have been presented in the spirit of ironic nostalgia. The conundrum of wrapped paintings installed in the gallery space has been played out many times before. In many respects this work was indicative of a brand of conceptualism common in this exhibition-a kind of cheeky material gimmickry. Marking territory by using signature materials such as jam, plastic, icing, pasta, and so on, formed the bulk of the content.

More generally, the S.H. Ervin Gallery seemed an incongruous venue in which to frame the fresh retinue. The radicality espoused in the catalogue essay2 was due largely to the work's displacement from the artist-run space (the nominal sharp-end of contemporary art discourse) into S.H. Ervin's more traditional agenda. The retro modernist project is a good example. To many of the regular patrons of the gallery, modernism in the first degree remains an unquantifiable entity; modernism regenerated and filtered through a post-conceptual formalist project is no less untranslatable.

Ultimately, however, the disorientation of meaning in many of the works was not entirely a problem of venue, or of esotericism. Fresh Art demonstrated the solipsism of much of the art of the heartland of Sydney's artist-run spaces. Many of the works, divested of the safety of their familiar fraternal structures, were reduced to vulnerable, indefensible objects.

notes: 

1. Anabel Dean, In Search of New Stars, Sydney Morning Herald, 6/6/94.

2. Felicity Fenner & Anne Loxley, Fresh Everyday, Fresh Art exhibition catalogue. May 1994. The catalogue essay notes that much of the work displays "the use of ignominious objects and environments."