rising temperatures in a sinking building

temperature 2: new queensland art
Museum of Brisbane
6 February - 8 June 2009

The Museum of Brisbane (MoB) currently calls Brisbane City Hall its home. In 1920 City Hall’s second foundation stone was laid by the then Prince of Wales. The building opened in 1930 and is, to this day, considered to be Australia’s most architecturally significant City Hall.1 In early 2008 it was announced that restoration work had to start immediately in order to stop the iconic building from sinking, caused by concrete cancer. In 2010 all of City Hall’s residents will be relocated for three years while it undergoes a $215 million restoration.

For ‘Temperature 2: New Queensland Art’, Kyle Jenkins took to the building with pencil and paint, applying amorphous shapes directly on the walls and ceiling of the entrance to MoB. After following the outlines of Jenkins work my eyes were drawn to City Hall’s early twentieth-century architecture. It will probably be the last time that I will closely inspect this icon before it is revamped and I have Jenkins to thank for that.

Of the twenty-two artists included in the second instalment of ‘Temperature’ (the first instalment opened in 2004), there are only a couple of examples of Queensland artists visually intervening within local settings. For Orange/White/Red, Rebecca Ross introduced orange string, white paint and red pigment into undisclosed locations, and then photographed these interventions. The photographs were taken in light dry scrubland settings in which the orange string was wrapped around spindling trees, the ends of dead branches were painted white, and red pigment was scattered in a line along a fallen tree. Though the locations remain unnamed, those familiar with the types of foliage seen within the frame would have a location in mind.

The Museum’s Curator of Visual Arts, Frank McBride, opens his introductions in both ‘Temperature’ exhibition catalogues with almost the same line: ‘“Taking the temperature” describes the practice of monitoring and interpreting to better understand the conditions of a thing—in this case Queensland artists’ feverish involvement with sculpture’,2 and ‘“Taking the temperature” describes the practice of monitoring and interpreting to better understand the conditions of something—in this case the current work of some of Queensland’s most interesting artists’.3

The first exhibition brought together Queensland sculptors, whereas the second brought together Queensland artists regardless of their medium; this jump in the curatorial premise was not addressed in the second catalogue. There is a diverse range of work in ‘Temperature 2’: from Tony Albert’s exotic OTHER spelt out in vinyl letters on the museum wall and covered in an assortment of domestic objects that depict Indigenous Australians in a kitsch fashion; to photographs of fire-ravaged domestic and industrial settings by Francesca Rosa; to exquisite marks made by Miles Hall and by Sally Gabori; to skateboards—a sign of youthful freedom—with feathered arrows piercing them from all angles as if they were surround in battle, by Matt Dabrowski and the Many Hands of Glamour. To my mind, there are enough emerging and mid-career Queensland artists to hold ‘Temperature X: Contemporary Queensland painting/ photography/ moving image’ consecutively. Of the works in ‘Temperature 2’, more than half were paintings, there was one moving image work4, and of those remaining, half were photographs and half sculptures.

Alison Kubler pointed out in ‘Queensland painters: The new breed’ that the Queensland ‘contemporary art scene is thriving and growing… the sunshine state is called home by a crop of emerging and established painters… who are producing arguably some of the most visually exciting work in the country’.5 Of the nine painters that Kubler mentioned four participated in ‘Temperature 2’: Kirsty Bruce, Julie Fragar, Madeline Kelly, and Gemma Smith.

Kirsty Bruce’s untitled works are painted with painstaking realism and yet there is something absurd about the scenes depicted. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the scenarios that Bruce paints—a woman holds her hands over her face, a young girl shrugs—and yet I feel as though something has happened or is about to happen that is cringeworthy. Two paintings by Fragar were included in the exhibition, one text work Stag at Bay: Begging to be (Ful)filled and one figurative piece Death of a Stag: Our Dear Hunter (Jason). Stag at Bay reads as if it had been uttered from the mouth of the stag that lies dead in Death of a Stag. The use of the written word, being an authoritative means of expression, reclaims the helpless stance of the hunted animal in Death of a Stag.

In Amona (After Oded Balilty’s Photograph) Madeline Kelly reworked Oded Balilty’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a single female Israeli settler holding off a score of armed security officers. Rather than reproducing the smoking landscape, Kelly depicts the settler fighting off the officers in a white washed landscape and Balilty’s score of onlookers are morphed into a solidified wall.

Gemma Smith’s polygons of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples and pinks click together across the picture plane. While most are painted in solid blocks of colour there are some moments of light handed transparency that break the geometric pattern by leaving one shape floating. Another Queensland painter who is able to animate his works with a light touch is Peter Alwast. The translucent, shadowy moments within his painting endorse the sense of seeing a vision of a dream of the future half remembered for which his work is known.

The curatorial premise of this show was to foster awareness of the individual works, rather than how works relate to a theme or how artists in Queensland are grappling with a specific medium.6 As a survey of what is occurring in Queensland (mainly Brisbane) studios and galleries, one might ask what ‘Temperature 2’ contributes by remaining within state boundaries? A show of this type would perhaps gain extra currency if it was toured around or outside the state to people who are not already within close proximity of these galleries and studios. 

notes: 

1. Arkhefield, Donovan Hill, Halcyone, Richard Kirk Architect, and Riddel Architecture, ‘Brisbane City Hall—Repositioning the Centre: Architectural report July 2008’, in Saving Brisbane City Hall for Future Generations: City Hall 2010 Committee Report October 2008, p.3.

2. This author’s italics, Frank McBride, Temperature: Contemporary Queensland Sculpture, Brisbane City Council, Brisbane 2004.

3. This author’s italics, Frank McBride, Temperature 2: New Queensland Art, Brisbane City Council, Brisbane, 2009.

4. Noting that although the Moreton Street Spare Room Exposure DVD appeared in the exhibition space and was mentioned in Peter Denham’s foreword, it is not included in the list of works.

5. Alison Kubler, ‘Queensland painters: The new breed’, Art & Australia, vol.45, no.1, 2007, pp.104-15.

6. ‘This is not a themed exhibition. The intention is to survey the activity in Queensland studios and galleries without any preconceptions other than an awareness, now shared by all observers in our state, that there is a great deal to see.’ Frank McBride, Temperature: Contemporary Queensland Sculpture, Brisbane City Council, Brisbane 2004, p.9.