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‘Wild Thang’ is ‘wild’ in two ways. Firstly, it presents a selection of experimental art covering the years 1962 to 1978 and secondly, it advances an innovative curatorial model that sets out to connect works from the permanent collections of Regional Galleries to a larger body of work from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
The show’s curator, Craig Judd, in association the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, has devised a touring exhibition that was developed around a series of adaptable modules. This has been achieved through the establishment of a highly innovative series of institutional partnerships that places works from the Museum of Contemporary Art collection alongside complimentary works from the collections of Regional Galleries in Bathurst, Armidale and Albury. The result is to create a series of unique exhibitions that is determined by the specific collections of the individual Regional Galleries.
One of the remarkable side effects of art collections in regional centres is that once an international work becomes part of the permanent collection of a regional gallery it is not only Australianised but it also becomes identified as a specific cultural marker belonging to a particular geographical place. Perhaps it would not be totally inconceivable to ask questions such as ‘wasn’t Jackson Pollock a Canberra based artist?’ or ‘didn’t Enrico Baj have a studio in Bathurst?’. In this way ‘Wild Thang’ pays homage to benefactors, gallery directors and curators from the past and the present who have developed outstanding collections in regional galleries throughout Australia.
The selection of works in ‘Wild Thang’ covers virtually the entire spectrum of experimental practices from the 1960s and ’70s. Included are examples from movements and styles as diverse and oppositional as Optical Art, Kinetic Art, Pop Art, Photorealism and Conceptual Art. Superficially, it might be argued that this unruly mixture of styles may not fit together easily, but through a clearly structured curatorial framework this exhibition presents an accurate account of the diversity of styles that characterised the complex and contradictory genealogy of the period.
Within the field of contemporary art the decades under scrutiny here are notable because they oversaw the transition from late Modernism to Postmodernism. This period was characterised by an almost painful level of experimentation that led to the extremely rapid turnover of artistic styles and movements. The critical shelf-life of some of these movements, such as Optical and Kinetic Art, lasted for only two or three years. The thing that is most wild about this period is the level to which all aspects of art and culture were perceived to be in a state of crisis. In retrospect this partly explains the mythological status of the 1960s and ’70s.
Importantly, many of the works in ‘Wild Thang’ were produced in and around the year 1968, a year widely acknowledged as being pivotal in the denouement of Modernism. Another important feature of the exhibition is that it treats all of these different art movements equally. This outstanding example of curatorial democracy acknowledges a diversity of art practices and resists treating the unravelling of late Modernism as a fetish.
Virtually all of the art works in this exhibition are strong examples of their genre and Judd has placed individual works into well considered thematic groups. Some of the outstanding examples of art works to be found in ‘Wild Thang’ include the aluminium sculptural relief titled Labyrinthe diagonal (Diagonal labyrinth) by Martha Boto. This optimistic space age object dates from 1965, a year that is widely acknowledged as being the most significant in the history of Kinetic Art. The inclusion of two works by the British Pop artist Patrick Caulfield introduces an air of cool cynicism and ironic detachment. Caulfield’s screenprints titled Coat Stand and Spider Plant emphasise the cool side of art from the 1960s and ’70s.
In a very different way John Salt’s remarkable photorealist painting titled Arrested vehicle with broken window 1970, depicts the torn front seat and cracked windscreen of an abandoned ’57 Chev. In retrospect Salt’s melancholy painting depicts the end of an era. A fine inclusion that introduces the beginning of a new art movement is to be found in Sweeny Reed’s conceptual screenprint Rosepoema 1970. This work depicts a portrait of Gertrude Stein and is surrounded by a concrete poem. The use of text is a very common feature in Conceptual Art and also plays a crucial role in the Mail Art movement to which Reed belonged. Although this exhibition focuses on International art, a number of works by significant Australian artists such as Frank Hinder, Ian Burn and John Nixon have been included.
Other works such as Werner Nofer’s screenprint Perspective 1968, resist categorisation. Nofer’s screenprint was chosen to illustrate the front cover of the exhibition catalogue and reveals the extent to which the true character of art and culture from the 1960s and ’70s was as Susan Sontag suggested ‘against interpretation’.
Many of the individual works in ‘Wild Thang’ had a profound impact on Australian audiences when they were first exhibited. Sadly, since the time of their acquisition many of these works have languished in storage. Curiously this lack of exposure has enabled them to retain an air of freshness. This has been heightened by the fact that they are now being exhibited in an innovative way to new audiences in a variety of regional centres across Australia.