now & then

150 years of art making in north queensland
Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts, Townsville
28 August - 4 October 2009

Now and then are powerfully evocative words that kindle a range of contradictory responses. A posi­tive sense of the present collides with a sense of what has been lost, and our frustration with the life we are living is highlighted by a rosy-hued invention of our history. The two words in tandem reveal our paradoxical relationship with the past as both the bedrock on which we have built our lives and the evidence of our failure to realise its potential. Now and then is therefore a wonderful theme on which to build a sesquicentenary celebration.

Ross Searle’s curatorial plan was to ask fifteen artists based in and around Townsville to respond to an artwork created in the past one hundred and fifty years since Queensland separated from the colony of New South Wales. The selected works, divided loosely into themes of exploration/settlement, war­time/peace, urban growth/natural environment, encapsulate a range of responses within that pendu­lum swing from euphoria to dismay. The result is a group of works that through a creative interrogation of the practice of making art and the act of paying homage, reflects on the past one hundred and fifty years of change in their place.

James Brown’s reworking of Arthur Streeton’s Moonlight, Magnetic Island combines all of these ideas to give a particular resonance to the idea of sense of place. We are immediately drawn to the alluring presence of this landmark on the horizon with its poetic and romantic connotations given full reign in Brown’s re-interpretation. Additionally, the soft blue to pink hues are very different from Streeton’s original sepia tones and underscore the move into the present. Created as a diptych, the left hand panel echoes Streeton’s painting more closely while the right hand panel is a more intuitive response to the idea of the island hovering just off the coast. Islands have a particular reading in Western culture, so as well as the romantic haven depicted in Streeton’s painting we are reminded of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead and of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is this beautifully articulated sense of hovering, just off the coast and between paradise and danger, which is summoned up so succinctly in Brown’s painting.

The diptych format is used to great advantage by two of the other artists in this show. Robert Preston’s re-working of Frank Hinder’s series of watercolours of a wartime dawn landing in Townsville captures the eerie menace of a landscape given eyes by the floodlights on Castle Hill and a mouth and nose by the illuminated runways. Doubled and mirrored, his pastel reinvention of the original creates an even more dangerous and ominous presence with the ‘disembodied, fractured machine’, in the artist’s words, dominating the landscape in a way it never did in Hinder’s drawing. Both Preston and Brown have hard acts to follow but each has, through their technical skill and imaginative reinterpretation, given us a particularly potent image that brilliantly fulfils the curator’s brief of reflecting on the past from a foothold in the present.

The other is Clive Hutchison’s response to Russell Drysdale’s mid-fifties photograph of Townsville’s dock. It is almost a diptych because Hutchison has embedded Drysdale’s image within a panoramic photograph of the same place a half-century later, the bollard depicted in the original photograph the point of reference that locks the two images together. Titled Bollard it evokes both the continuing history and sense of locatedness with a lump in the throat memory of the past combined with a parallel sense of pride and achievement. If any image in the show pulls together all the themes outlined in the curator’s brief it is this simple, while concurrently complex and multi-layered, depiction of a very familiar place.

Paying homage is a difficult thing to pull off successfully. You can be too sycophantic and lose all credibility or too off-hand and fail miserably or like Ron McBurnie you can nail it with precision and skill. William Westall is another hard act to follow, but McBurnie not only takes him on with panache but proves through his Wagnerian dramatisation of a scene depicted almost two centuries before, that he is able to imbue the work with a heightened sense of the danger, distress and suffering so objectively depicted in the original. The massive ‘Damoclean’ clouds that hang threateningly above the fragile camp and the crouching figure in the foreground turn up the emotional volume to an ear-splitting decibel count.

Just as threatening but not quite so operatic is the installation by Alison McDonald, who has re-interpreted Douglas Annand’s wartime watercolour of the flying boat base at Horn Island, into descending plastic bombs made from milk bottles. What seems at first to be a somewhat tenuous link between the marker buoys Annand depicts in his drawing and milk bottles discovered while fishing as a child, the resultant work successfully makes a visual and conceptual link with the original artwork that triggers emotional and intellectual connections to a specific place.

Not all the images are as subtle however; some are quite the opposite. Gavin Ryan’s reconstruction of Roy Hodgkinson’s The Stand 1943 (whom he confuses with his younger brother Frank in his catalogue statement), replaces Australian and American sailors and soldiers with cartoon phalluses taking shots at each other. Over Paid, Over Sexed and Over Here is an awkward and uncomfortable image, but maybe that is the point.

For all the artists this is a very personal exploration of their home or a place they currently call home, but for Aicey Zaro the artwork by Donald Friend he was given to interpret has a much closer connection to family. His phosphorescent linocut Adai-nazir nar takes the pearling lugger Friend painted as a starting point for his recreation of his father’s life as a diver for trochus shell. Looming up at us from the depths holding his prize he is the dynamic reincarnation of the Aboriginal boys repairing the lugger in the painting made over fifty years ago.

Now and Then poses questions, offers insights, provides the opportunity for reflection and interrogates the past with an appropriate respect tinged with scepticism. What more could you ask of a sesquicentenary exhibition?