chemistry 1990-2000

the faulding exhibition
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
IS September - 5 November 2000

CHEMISTRY played out in a number of ways: as the various shows it might have been and seemed to be. The casual punter looking to see what 'Art's up to' would have found an interesting assortment of new things-and a pointer to what has been going on lately, specifically among South Australian artists. it might have seemed a show of recent Gallery acquisitions of South Australian work, or of Faulding Bequest purchases. Chemistry could be seen as the Gallery's take on the truth' of recent history, or the bet it was placing-which one could accept, persuaded or otherwise-or judge against one's own conception of these years. The exact status of the works was not clear. Some were neither Faulding, nor even Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) pieces. A number, in fact, were loaned by the artists. The catalogue had it that the Faulding Bequest purchases provided the exhibition 'core '. Worrying about who had 'made it' served to make the art community a little nervous and querulous but was pretty much a distraction. As a survey show it was interesting and probably more generous in point of numbers than it could have been if limited to recent gallery acquisitions. Still curator Sarah Thomas was able to avoid at least some gallery purchases. In having collected work by artists who were arousing interest over this last decade, Chemistry-and by extension the Gallery-was pretty much on the money. it registered accurately the character of South Australian-read largely Adelaide-art. Chemistry was dominated by installation and a fairly high degree of abstraction in its thought: the legacies anddicta of conceptualism being grafted on to the neo-minimalism and kinds of postmodernism that have since come and gone. Indeed Chemistry threw the art into sufficient relief against the rest of Australian art to indicate a number of differences-of degree if not of kind. Adelaide art has a generally thoughtful air; its humour often is rather dark; it is rarely brash and instantaneous the way some Queensland art seems to be (Lyell Bary, Dale Frank, Rod Bunter for example); it has not had much truck with the grunge phenomenon (work like that of, say, Tracy Emin, Hany Armanious or Adam Cullen- and while Shaun Kirby has something of that aesthetic it is rarely central to his purposes or ever its point, merely the most economic, ‘functionalist' means or route); there is less focus on popular culture (compared with Scott Redford for example); the aesthetic and habits of thought associated with a povera installation practice (by turns grave, literalist orironical) reign; and Adelaide art has registered less fascination with new media or even with the conditioning effects of the Media. Of course the mostly single pieces collected here reveal only fractions of each artist's practice. Hewson/Walker, Alan Cruickshank, of those represented in Chemistry, have been concerned with the thematics of mediatised and specular experience, but not as evidenced in this show. Finally, there was very little of the handsomely or dashingly commercial. (The small size of the market here cannot provide much temptation to stray from the purities of the disinterested pursuit of ... well, the thrilling, critical, satirical, mordant, analytical or witty. Some very good artists have shown with the Greenaway Gallery-as they had, to a degree, with Bob Steele's Anima Gallery a decade earlier-but these will not generally have been artists from which Greenaway has made much money.) Taking up so much room, installation seemed to dominate the character of Chemistry. it was also more difficult to show to advantage. The two-dimensional works, living within their own discrete frames, fared well in this respect, though I liked few of them-memorably, Anna Platten's painting of children in a mysterious tableau; Richard Grayson's painting, of decontextualised orthography and cynically beautiful colour; Pablo Byas; Anton Hart's amazingly compelling enactments of sight as non-passive, almost incriminating observation. The exhibition's unavoidable shortcoming was that so much work is created in series and makes most complete sense, or only makes sense, seen that way. Grayson's paintings profit by being seen in number, Hart's even more so. This was true of many others in the show: Bronwyn Platten-though she was well represented, and, indeed, her work looked very good here- Shaun Kirby, John Barbour, Warren Vance, Aldo lacobelli 's record paintings. George Popperwell's installation was whole and singular, and so fared well. it was as if most artists working at all similarly were simply quoted. They work in the discursive space and with the syntax of solo exhibition and the trophy-room mentality of State Galleries misunderstands them, or protects audiences from dreaded 'ideology'. it was th is that gave Chemistry something of its march-past effect: the gallery saluting, by 'sampling ', great shows of the past-the great Kirby Sym Choon gallery show, the Platten Aire de la Noche exhibition. And so on. In contrast the paintings of, say, l an Abdullah, Anna Platten were less handicapped in their isolation. Chemistry was too big for the space (and the three weeks) the AGSA gave it: some works were a little hidden (under stairwells etcetera) or hard to locate (being elsewhere in the building), and very many were cramped. Some, such as Aleks Danko's sol id, look-no-orifices house, a public sculpture, was in situ somewhere else. But this pointed to the show's real significance-an award ceremony nominating those deemed achievers, long-serving art-world footsoldiers, stars even.

notes: 

Ken Bolton's most recent book is August 6th; major collections (of poems) hove been published by Penguin and Wakefield Press.