Blurred Lines: Merging Art Genres in Far North Queensland

It is hard not to chuckle when one sees the clever title of a 2010 publication by the Queensland Artworkers Alliance: So you want to be an artist & still be able to eat? But for those familiar with the realities of an emerging artist in the industry, the humour soon dissipates and an enduring question arises: would an artist sacrifice conceptual individuality in order to gain social and financial recognition? I decided to investigate the issue at hand in my hometown of Cairns, Far North Queensland (FNQ).

Some academics in the field argue that a definite line separates commercial and fine arts—each of which have varying purposes. Fine art is known to convey a message, present an atmosphere or stimulate deep reflection through the viewer’s individual interpretation; commercial art often has the opposite intent. Driven by modern conventions, commercial art can be superficial and mass-produced, appealing to the larger clientele and often referred to as ‘pretty pictures’. Cairns artist Paul Giudice, whose works are regularly exhibited at the local Red Chair Gallery, defines commercial art as ‘appealing to as wide a market as possible’. Despite funding and support that has developed over recent years in response to growing concern for emerging artists, some may feel the need to compromise their individuality for the current consumer demand. Ingrid Hoffmann, Gallery Director of KickArts Contemporary Arts, explains: ‘[Commercial works] are generally unimaginative and predictable, in that they reproduce the clichéd motifs of ‘the tropics’ … in tired ways’.

It is the region’s rich culture and diverse sites that have attracted and inspired artists for decades. Rather than merely copying outward appearances, however, many works of art produced are vibrant reflections embellished by the beauty and power of the natural environment in the tropics, connecting the viewer emotionally to the often astonishing subject matter. Although deeply conceptual and personal in response, these sought-after fine works are, in a sense, commercial: promoting the life and experiences of tropical North Queensland. Giudice agrees: ‘Local art gives a sense of pride. It shows the rich diversity of our community and natural environment’. This is when I discovered the subtle merging of commercial and fine arts in FNQ, separated merely by the blurred lines of traditional conventions—and a few hungry artists. 

Widely-acclaimed artist David Stacey—whose name is said to be synonymous with the genre of fine art in the region—has a unique and distinctive style, effectively showcasing his own site-specific interpretations of the diverse flora and fauna he explores. When asked the question outlined above, he remarked: ‘I once struck a formulaic depiction of the reef and rainforest; since then, many have copied. After several years I realised I was just painting for money; good money. Rather than merely pretty pictures, I started painting what I really wanted to paint. I didn’t make one tenth of my previous earnings, but was reassured knowing that I was leading my own path’. 

Similarly, at KickArts—the region’s cultural hub for contemporary arts—one will often find exhibitions taking on a site-specific approach, such as that of the ‘Sentinels’. For this show, ten artists developed works in response to the giant, white-flowering Pendas trees, part of a rainforest eco-system that has escaped extensive logging in the area. Jill Chism, the curator of the exhibition, explained their intended artistic approach as 

Allowing the site to speak for itself without the intellectual impositions we are inclined to impose on it; learning to listen to the site through all senses; being in touch with physical sensations
                    (Jill Chism, Sentinels, exhibition catalogue, 2013)

In this way, fully engaged, the artist is connected to the subject matter with a sense of wholeness. Deeply conceptual creativity then emerges as seen in the works produced, each a diversified response depending on prior experiences and beliefs. Stacey commented: ‘Fine art is created by an artist who has honed their skills to such a point, that the artwork is both visually and conceptually brilliant. Only after more than twenty years of complete immersion and obsession with the natural world do I consider myself to be one of them’.

Whether the line between commercial and fine arts in FNQ is definite or blurred, every work has purpose in one way or the other and is embellished by the artist’s creativity, skill and ambitions. A struggle it may be, as David Stacey agrees, ‘to put food on the table in the current economic climate’. This may result in an emerging artist temporarily compromising their conceptual individuality in order to gain financial support. However, this can be a symbiotic relationship in which the artist gains recognition as well as promoting regional artists and experiences, while the client is satisfied with the latest décor. ‘The main challenge shared by emerging regional and metropolitan artists is visibility: accessing the physical spaces to exhibit and the publicity tools required for new work to be seen and become known’, explains Hoffmann. She expands: ‘Ethical commercial galleries selling original art by regional artists have a role to play, along with Cairns Regional Gallery, the Tanks Arts Centre and our organisation, KickArts Contemporary Arts. By presenting the work of emerging and established practitioners, we play an educative role as advocates for originality and work made with purpose, passion and intent.’

Artists from all walks of life can promote the richness of FNQ, eternalising the essence of the region in all its nuances. The tropical outdoors is our studio, and its unique eco-systems reflect who we are as a community, our culture, and the interactions that occur in our daily lives. Here, art flourishes in all forms; spanning the seemingly superficial to the deeply conceptual. Meaningful and reflective art needs a culture to be built upon. In retrospect, without the insightful, emerging artists that have left a perpetual mark on the region, there would be no culture in the first place. 

Mollie Bosworth, A meditation on light, 2013. Cyanotype on porcelain, 50 tiles at 140mm square. From Sentinels 145° 38’14.17” E, 16° 50’ 08.63” S

 

Sasi Victoire, Wish tree, 2013. Woodcut, 1800 x 1200mm. From Sentinels 145° 38’14.17” E, 16° 50’ 08.63” S. Images courtesy KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns.

 

The tropical outdoors is our studio, and its unique eco-systems reflect who we are as a community, our culture, and the interactions that occur in our daily lives.