Geoff Newton

the scene
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne
1 February - 1 March 2014

In Robert MacPherson’s Where are you now Sylvia Holmes? (1982-83) a typewritten text accompanies two found paintings. The text is a thinly disguised (but immensely entertaining) rave against the politics and hypocrisy of the art scene. Here is an excerpt: ‘Did you start to notice the popular images around you had more power than most of the paintings you saw…’.1.

Geoff Newton’s recent exhibition alludes both to urban landscape paintings and to the machinations of the ‘art scene’, with each painting based on the view from the entry to an Australian state gallery. Gertrude Contemporary is a fitting venue for this project; it was here that Melbourne artist Dan Moynihan recently recreated the interior and façade of Newton’s gallery Neon Parc.

What are we to make of these views from the steps of our major art institutions? On one hand, a project of this kind is more likely to be framed in low-key materials associated with conceptual contexts (think Robert Rooney’s and Ed Ruscha’s works in snapshot form). Instead, Newton reclaims brightly coloured figurative painting, so that the works waver between the traditions of conceptual art and grand history painting. That the artist is situated on the verge of each building indicates the influence of the German Romantic tradition, particularly Caspar David Friedrich. Both artists employ the device of the threshold to express broader existential concerns. These paintings proclaim a renewed social purpose for history painting too. In an era where the stockpiles of history are relegated to the haphazard archives of social media, Newton, through the painterly reproduction of spontaneous snapshots from a phone, historicises our flimsy attempts at recording personal experiences.

The exhibition provides a chronicle of distinguishing features of prominent civic spaces. It is no surprise that Newton, who studied in Canberra, should direct his attention to the ways that a sense of public amenity is created in these environments. We notice (perhaps for the first time) the imposing boulders between the National Gallery of Victoria and the road beyond; the concrete pillars which frame the exit from the National Gallery of Australia; and the expansive walkways which lead from the Art Gallery of South Australia. Our attention is drawn to the exhibition promotions embedded within these scenes, such as the festive flagpoles outside the Queensland Art Gallery or the light boxes outside the Art Gallery of South Australia. The advertisements appear at odds with the sparsely populated external areas of the galleries; it is only outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales that a middle-aged woman strides directly towards the building. Given this information, we are nudged to question the efficacy of the audience development programs to which every institution is now beholden.

So there we have it—a pleasing series of large scale figurative works in lightly iridescent colours. As the artist suggests, these would be ideally reproduced as commemorative souvenir postcards in gallery shops. But Newton does not let us off so lightly.

There are several openings for cynical readings of the exhibition: that our cultural decision makers are ultimately situated within bland homogenous sites which translate into similar experiences with the gallery, or that it is time for our state institutions to look beyond the walls of the gallery and engage more fully with the world beyond. As both a practising artist and gallerist, Newton would no doubt be familiar with these kinds of dilemmas. Ultimately though, this is an exhibition underpinned by generosity—the artist has offered to gift each painting to the corresponding state gallery. It remains to be seen whether they will accept the offer.

The idea that MacPherson suggests—a point of such saturation from art that it barely registers—is one that surely resonates with many artists. Newton’s exhibition seems to demonstrate this point. The artist’s senses are enlivened at precisely the moment he steps outside the gallery. Perhaps more than anything, these works speak of the relief in leaving a gallery (and the art and politics contained within) and stepping back into the broader world.

Geoff Newton, The Scene, 2013. Photograph Mark Ashkanasy.

Geoff Newton, The Scene, 2013. Photograph Mark Ashkanasy.

notes: 

1. Trevor Smith, Robert MacPherson, ex. cat., AGWA, Perth, 2001 p.104.