Michelle Hespe scours our nation’s foremost metro and regional galleries for the works you simply have to see – works that not only have a great story to tell, but capture the cultural beauty and spirit of Australia.


Next time you hear someone rambling on about Australia having no culture, just laugh. Anyone just back from Paris or Prague is usually the worst: “Australia is a cultural desert compared to Europe.” Or the classic: “Australia just hasn’t had time to develop real culture because it’s still so young . . .”

Shame they can’t see what’s right in front of their noses. No, don’t try explaining that culture is about how people live, that it’s about art, history, design, clothing, people’s homes and the things they love. And, God forbid, don’t drag out the old “Indigenous Australians were painting murals thousands of years before the Tate Gallery was even a scribble on a draftsman’s board.”

They need a better case in point than that. Do them a favour and send them to their nearest art gallery to see if they can locate some Australian culture. Chances are they’ll find more than they bargained for.

I asked some of Australia’s most clued-up art experts to produce some artistic fodder that demonstrates just how brimming with culture Australia really is. They came up with the goods. In the following pages are gems from the Australian art scene chosen by directors and curators from each state and territory’s official gallery. Not only do they reflect the talent of Australian artists past and present, they also do a great job of capturing the cultural essence of this incredible country.

Sydney

Artist? Activist? Cross-dresser? Deciding what Mike Parr actually is can be just as confusing as knowing what his work’s about. But hey, Sydney isn’t a city that breeds people who lay it all down on the table. Tony Bond, Director at the Art Gallery of NSW, says that despite the critics Parr has accumulated like lint in a dryer over the years, he likes the “whole man.” And although acclaimed for etchings and self-portraiture, when most people think of “the whole man” his performances take centre stage. We’re not talking theatre here; rather, the kind of performances a big portion of the nation would find too in-your-face, pretentious or even irritating. Think confronting bloody gestures of bleeding limbs or Parr sitting in front of a tree for three days and you’ll get the idea.

In general, Sydneysiders beg to differ when it comes to Parr. As Bond says, “Sydney’s the city where Mike gets the right dose of reaction and acclaim. Even at 60 he has art students queuing for his autograph. He’s high-geared and edgy and that’s very Sydney.”

The Wax Bride 1998 is a wax model of Parr himself. “Uh-huh,” you’re thinking. Having grown up with one arm, Mike was dependent on the women in his life – particularly his mother. Bond says one way of looking at the work is that Parr is visually coming to terms with the strong feminine influence in his life. Marrying it (so to speak) to his work and life. “Although this piece may say ‘Mardi Gras’ to some, Parr by no means goes that way – he’s very much a straight guy,’ says Bond. All depends on your definition of straight, I guess.

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On 1891 is one of the great icons of Australian art. When the public are invited to vote, it’s always a favourite. It captures the wild and dangerous side of the making of this country.
2. Surprisingly, when the Sydney Morning Herald ran a survey on the most popular art in the city, Ken Unsworth’s Suspended Stone Circle 1988 came up tops. It’s a magical piece that seems to levitate despite its three tonne weight.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Newcastle Regional Gallery has taken an exciting new direction under the leadership of Nick Mitzevich. Its core collection has over 3000 works, including Margaret Olley’s Newcastle, paintings by the eminent artist from the ’70s. Check out www.ncc.nsw.gov.au.
2. Orange Regional Art Gallery is one of the most patronised regional galleries in Australia. It holds around 30 exhibitions annually and (along with contemporary paintings and prints) specialises in jewellery, ceramics and art clothes – concentrating on articles that reflect the region’s agricultural base, particularly the wool industry. See
www.org.nsw.gov.au

Hobart

You may be wondering: “How much culture can one old wooden couch contain?” Well, this particular couch  features the oldest squab found in Australia (which, for future reference, is untreated sheep’s wool). And the best person to expand on the question is Bill Bleathman – Director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Once you know the story, however, don’t get excited about procuring one of these numbers for your own loungeroom; it could well be the only one in the world and unless you have a quarter of a mill to burn, you’d better head back to IKEA.

The sofa in question is a rare colonial double end couch from the early 1800s that TMAG purchased after a generous donation of $280,000 from Tasmania’s Federal Group. “It’s so Tasmanian,” says Bleathman like a kid unwrapping Christmas presents. “It shows what Tassie is all about. This place is the treasure trove of the nation – it’s all about hidden cultural gems that continue to surface in Hobart and around the state.”

The CSIRO certified that the couch was made from Australian Cedar and Tasmanian Gum between 1810 and 1815. “So its possibly the oldest piece of Tasmanian colonial furniture in the country,” says Bleathman. “It’s also in complete original condition. That’s worth its weight in gold. When I walk into a room filled with people looking at this couch, I see the children and think: ‘Their children and grandchildren will enjoy this piece, just like they’re doing right now.’ That’s amazing to me.”

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. A room in the museum’s Colonial Art Gallery houses the jewel in the crown of the Tasmanian State art collection: a visual history of the state from Glover to Duterrau, from Pigeneut to Gould . . . what, names not ringing any bells? Well, that’s exactly why you should be stopping by.
2. Borchgrevink’s Sled is potentially the oldest transportation object in the world. It’s part of the gallery’s permanent exhibition, Islands to Ice: The Great Southern Ocean and Antarctica, that tells of the history, the heritage, the science and the artists whose lives Antarctica has had an impact on.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Devonport Gallery and Arts Centre, in a converted church in the town centre, houses a great collection of 20th Century glass, ceramics, decorative art and craft with an emphasis on local artists. Check out the Tasmania section at www.amol.org.au
2. West Coast Pioneers Museum at Zeehan deals primarily with West Coast heritage and includes some of the most stunning mineral displays in the nation, including Tasmania’s mineral emblem, crocolite.

Canberra

No, it’s not just a designer piece of funky stoneware. It’s a ceramic work of art by Marea Gazzard called Kamares VII that, in the opinion of Robert Bell – senior curator for the decorative arts and design at the National Gallery of Australia – captures the spirit of Australian culture.

“Most Australians feel a real bond with the landscape, whether it be the beach, their garden, the outback or the mountains,” says Bell. “Maybe because there’s something so strong about the physicality of the land here. I think Marea has captured that visual strength. She’s one of Australia’s senior ceramicists and sculptors, and like Australia, her work is elemental – not sentimental. It’s powerful, like the Australian landscape, but there is also a sense of fragility about it.

“Australia is a surprising country and one of drama and promise. Just like Marea’s work. Some people may see this sculpture as a kind of container. It could be. Just like this piece, Australia has the potential to contain so many things.”

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. Margaret Dodd’s Holden with lipstick surfboards 1977 is a funky work that captures our larrikin spirit. The FJ Holden is known as Australia’s own car. In the ’50s it gave families the chance to become tourists and day-trippers in their own country.
2. Ease of travel these days has seen the influence of Asia, Europe and the third world make a fantastic impact on craft-based works in Australia’s galleries. Frank Bauer’s Neckpiece 1977 is one of many gems that have emerged.

“The FJ Holden is known as Australia’s own car. In the ’50s it gave families the chance to become tourists and day-trippers in their own country.”

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Craft ACT, the peak industry body for contemporary craft and design in the Canberra region, has a fantastically wide range of work from emerging and established artists. See
www.craftact.org.au
2. The Nolan Gallery’s collection began in 1974 when Sidney Nolan donated 24 of his paintings to the people of Australia – including the first of the artist’s Kelly paintings (1945) and the first in the Burke and Wills series (1948), both must-sees. 

Melbourne

When it came to choosing one of the gallery’s art works, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria Gerard Vaughan was quick to elect an iconic Australian painting called The Pioneer, by Frederick McCubbin in 1904.

The three phases in the painting speak not only of the steady thriving of an immigrating family, but the growth of a city viewed by many as the cultural heart of Australia. The Pioneer shows the passing of time and this country’s burgeoning spirit and culture.

“It was commissioned at the time of Federation so is a celebration not only of Melbourne, but of the spirit of Australia,” says Vaughan. “Governments have always strongly supported the arts in Melbourne and I think having classic, iconic pieces like this in the gallery also shows that this state has some of the most incredible collections of Australian art people can see. It’s not just visual arts that are celebrated so much here; its music, theatre, film – it all happens down here in Melbourne.”

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. John Brack’s Collins St, 5pm 1955  captures the daily bustle of Melbourne locals and the European character of one of the city’s most famous streets.

“It’s not just visual arts that are celebrated so much here; its music, theatre, film – it all happens down here in Melbourne.”

2. Seeing Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams 1888-’90 (right) in the flesh is like finally seeing the real Mona Lisa. Growing up in Australia, this iconic painting is everywhere – on the wall at school, at your grandparents’ homes, on placemats, on coasters . . . Don’t miss out on seeing the genuine article.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. The Convent Gallery in Daylesford is a 19th Century Victorian mansion, bought by the Catholic Church in the 1880s. In 1989 it was bought and restored over 15 years by artist Tina Banitska. It now houses seven galleries featuring fine art, sculpture, limited edition prints, ceramics, glassware and textiles by more than 100 local, national and international artists. Visit www.theconvent.com.au.

2. McClelland Gallery, set in a sculpture park on the Mornington Peninsula, hosts changing exhibitions, while the park displays both permanent and changing displays. There’s a significant collection of works by Lenton Parr, one of Australia’s pre-eminent sculptors working with welded steel. Check out www.mcclellandgallery.com for more info.

Brisbane

Swamp Rats by Robert MacPherson blasts out its own disjointed story, yet with the help of Julie Ewington, Head of Australian Arts at the National Gallery of Queensland, the story behind the signs really comes together. MacPherson lived in a Brisbane suburb where the Mayfair sandwich bar was the meeting place of the Swamp Rats – fisherman who worked in the swamp areas entering Moreton Bay. “This piece is about the cafe and the men who went there,” Ewington says. “The 97 signs tell the story of these humble people and their lives. It’s street poetry. It’s the jokey language of everyday life.”

Once, the brown and black boards with stark basic messages in white were everywhere, visually touched by the local lives of those who wrote them and stuck them out on the street to grab the attention of passers-by. Now they do so again at this Brisbane gallery. And the importance of this Aussie work has even reached a generation that haven’t yet grasped its true meaning. As Ewington says, “I saw a boy of about five come to the gallery with his mother and he refused to leave until he had painstakingly read every single one of the 97 signs.”

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky 1997 is a provocative image alluding to the Stolen Generation. Now based in New York, Moffatt is best known for her fantastical self-portraiture and stunning film-still like photographs.

“Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky is a provocative image alluding to the Stolen Generation.”

2. R Godfrey River’s Under the Jacaranda is one of the Queensland Art Gallery’s iconic paintings, depicting what’s believed to be the first Jacaranda tree in Australia.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Queensland Live: Contemporary Art on Tour heralds the opening of The Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The touring exhibit will start in Bundaberg then travel to five other regional galleries in 2006 and 2007 before returning for display at the Gallery of Modern Art. 
2. In Cooktown’s Botanic Gardens, the Nature’s Powerhouse Visitor Centre has displays curated by the Queensland Museum and Art Gallery, displaying works of acclaimed botanic artist Vera Scarth-Johnson and the Charles Tanner gallery of wildlife of Cape York Peninsula. Phone (07) 4069 6004.

Darwin

“It’s about survival,” was the first thing Daena Murray, curator of visual arts from the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, said about this painting. “And nature’s control here.” The Survivor – Cyclone Tracy 1979 by Lawrence Daws is an eerie work that captures the survival of Darwin itself, but it also has a lot to say about how people there lived before the arrival of Tracy, and how they live today.

“You can’t tell where the person in the picture comes from, what colour they are; that says a lot about Darwin.”

“People always think of Darwin as a survivor,” says Murray. “After it was bombed over 60 years ago and when it recovered from Cyclone Tracy. It’s not just about the survival of Europeans here but also Indigenous cultural survival. You can’t tell where the person in the picture comes from, what colour they are; that says a lot about Darwin. There’s a great ethnic community here; there aren’t enclaves that belong to particular groups. The fact that it’s a very unified city makes it different to other cities in Australia.”

The housing pictured is of naive days gone by, Daena points out. Old, simple, flimsy homes that stood no chance against a cyclone. “In Darwin, nature hasn’t been conquered,” says Murray. “People who live here have to learn to cope with the weather and the wildlife.” The weather dictates the buildings that make the city what it is and what it was; the new Darwin, with its high-rise apartments and modern homes with louver windows built bravely on the coast to combat the heat, and the old flimsy buildings where air-conditioning was king and Cyclone Tracy was a monster yet to rear her head.

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. The Rainbow Serpent in John Mawurndjul’s work is an extremely important figure in the mythology of many Aboriginal groups.
2. Wibaringu by Bai Bai Napangarti (below right) depicts Bai Bai’s father’s country known as Wilbaringu, south of Balgo in the Great Sandy Desert.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Gallery Gondwana in Alice Springs showcases both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal art, sourcing new works from remote community art centres and a core group of artists in residence. See www.gallerygondwana.com.au for more info.
2. Katherine Art Gallery’s collection of Aboriginal art reflects the influences of the Jawoyn and Dagoman groups that have lived in the area for thousands of years. It has a range of collections from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the Central Western Desert. See
www.katherineartgallery.com.au

Adelaide
Raise your hand if your Grandma had this kind of artwork on placemats she pulled out for special Sunday dinners? This painting is about as Australian as you can get.

Tracey Lock-Weir, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, picked Tom Roberts’ A break away! 1891 as it “captures the resilience of people here – ready to deal with whatever the land throws up as a challenge.”
The painting has been voted (out of 135,000 works and at the time of the gallery’s 125th anniversary) as favourite among South Australians.

Interestingly, Roberts, after completing the work in 1891, tried to sell it to the gallery in his hometown and was turned down. “We have a letter in our archives from 1899,” says Lock-Weir, “where the painter talks about the ‘chilled indifference’ of the trustees at the National Gallery of Victoria when they declined to purchase his painting.

“I think Adelaide as a city is very outward-looking. We tend to be very apolitical and try to keep track of what’s happening on a national level, not just here, so this painting meant a lot to us. Even when this gallery was established in 1881 and we started collecting art, we weren’t just looking for pieces from our own state – like they were doing in NSW and Victoria – we were looking outward.”

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. The Olive Plantation 1946 by Dorrit Black was painted by one of Australia’s greatest modern female artists, who studied cubism in Europe.

“A break away! captures the resilience of people here – ready to deal with whatever the land throws up as a challenge.” 

2. Holiday Resort by Jeffrey Smart is set in Port Elliot, a popular coastal holiday spot. There’s an odd feeling about this painting that not only captures the light in the sky that’s very distinctive in SA, but also the quirky nature of this state.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. The Riddoch Gallery in Mount Gambier was named in honour of grazier and philanthropist John Riddoch, who donated the original collection of early Australian and British works. All works are housed in an old theatre built around 1904. Phone (08) 8723 9566 for more info.
2. Built in 1839, the Hahndorf Academy was one of the first permanent buildings in the German settled area of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Today it’s an Art Gallery, Artists in Residence facility and a German Migration Museum. Phone (08) 8388 7250.

Perth

In 2004, dynamic Aboriginal painter Christopher Pease scored the biggest ever public art commission in WA history for the new Perth Convention and Education Centre. It’s not difficult to see why. His work makes you sit up and pay attention.

Nyoongar Dreaming does a fantastic job not only of capturing something wonderful about Perth, but also something about the Art Gallery of WA – and so Director Alan Dodge was quick to push it forward for more attention.

The painting, purchased by the gallery in 2000, depicts modern Perth and one of its major constructions: the Graham (Polly) Farmer freeway, with Polly Farmer’s nephew standing on what are traditional Nyoongar lands. “It reflects a meeting or dualism of cultures,” says Dodge. “And this gallery is blessed with a wide range of WA art from its European beginnings, its Indigenous heritage and its many other contemporary faces.”

Pease is a descendant of the Minang people, part of the Nyoongar nation from the south coast of WA, and is interested in the contemporary identity of Aboriginal people. In Nyoongar Dreaming he parodies the current alienation of many young Nyoongar people by featuring Farmer’s nephew standing at the entrance to the tunnel. If you’re interested in Aboriginal art but traditional dot art doesn’t get you going, this is the man you should be keeping an eye on.

While you’re there, don’t miss:
1. The European life he left behind when coming to Australia shines through in Eugene Von Guerard’s paintings. In Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria 1857 (right), the wildlife and nature seem to exist in a kind of garden of paradise, while the circle of stones – not unlike a Stonehenge arrangement – also conveys something spiritual and very European.
2. You feel cold just looking at Snow Scene, Valmondois 1875. The atmosphere and power of Charles Daubigny’s work is captured by his use of paint applied with a knife as much as by brush. It conjures up the feel of a freezing winter countryside and, in the lone figure, a real sense of loneliness.

Check these regional galleries out, too:
1. Short St Gallery, in the heart of Chinatown in Broome, is more than 100 years old. The building is the last remaining house with a wind tunnel and is an important part of the Broome’s Aboriginal, Malay and Japanese history. See www.shortstgallery.com
2. Boranup Gallery near Margaret River boasts an incredibly diverse range of artwork from local artists and timber furniture created from state forests, including an impressive collection of jarrah pieces. Phone (08) 9757 7585 for more info.

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