"Marking the first major survey of Australian art in the UK for 50 years, this exhibition spans more than 200 years from 1800 to the present day and seeks to uncover the fascinating social and cultural evolution of a nation through its art."
The Australian National Gallery with its "Australia", the exhibition, presented at the Royal Academy in London confirms and reinforces the acceptable Australian Art code. The Landscape and its parochial, slavish depiction, is what defines the accepted Australian Art and artist model. What it does do rather than "uncover a cultural evolution of a nation through its art" is reinforce a cultural myopia through conventionally accepted modes of transmission. Weary artists attempting to break this mold will weep a few more tears of frustration yet.
Australian artists outside this model, this arts code of conduct, already know that leaving Australia is possibly the only way an artist, practicing in opposition to this format, will escape permanently living a life and career in the underground.
It is an underground to which I belong. Not just outsider artists are relegated to these lower rungs to which no arts institution curator will ever visit, as to do so would be too adventurous and risky, as it would take them outside the accepted boundaries of the main stream which they must reinforce. The art of permanently ignored "bottom dwellers" will never see the light of the acceptable arts scene in Australia and will remain in the shadows…unless someone foreign takes an interest…and even then…this will only be cemented if the interest emerges from the mother-land UK.
The culture and personality of the Australian art scene as manifested in this exhibition is tainted by a servitude to the depiction of a nationalistic and conventional art form/s that include and reinforce the view that the theme of landscape is what defines Australians as being uniquely "Australian". This limited and landlocked perspective is as oppressive as a gulag to any professional artist attempting to break through such barriers.
Nationalistic art-forms and the raising of their profile in a manner such as this contain not only bland cliches but are off key in tone and smack of the kind of political triumphalism encouraged by and for a political agenda. Government interferences however subtle in our arts and cultural expression contain the taint of vested interests which bear little relationship with truth and the reality of artistic aims, which are often intended to challenge the status quo a government wishes to present.
The arts must must not simply reflect what a nation wants to hear/see/feel about itself.
For our arts/cultural institutions to consistently reinforce that it is the landscape which characterises the Australian identity alone is a distortion. And, it is a truly unambitious perspective, so low in its horizons that the thinking viewer is brought to tears by their yawns. We must not be forced to reach only for the most basic of basic arguments and fame-work to describe a culture. This is the cultural cringe at its most uninspired and harmful.
Additionally, with its lack of breadth and challenge of the norm, this exhibition reconfirms perceptions that Australia and Australians cannot conceive of a cultural heritage and future without it being shaped to appeal to the perspective and for the approval of the mother-land. This exhibition is hardly a statement of the "masters" of Australian art because it reaches only as high as a biscuit tin depiction of it. Insulting to the viewers it is attempting to reach in addition.
As long as by Australian "masters" it is intended to mean those who depict the narrative of landscape then we will be regarded as the predictable mediocrity that this exhibition represents us to be. Depicting art works by landscape artists, as defined by the body of their life's work, or landscapes cherry picked from the legacy of a non landscape artist's oeuvre, narrows the focus to a blinkered degree. It also blurs the perspective so considerably that now viewers not knowing anything about Australian painters will perceive that they are all En plein air painters.
Every nation has its landscape, parts of Colorado, USA are like parts of outback South Australia. What is it that makes Australian's living in Australia's outback so very different to US citizens living lives in theirs. Nothing. The audience being targeted here is British living in a relatively lush Northern European climate. This distinction by landscape risks being little more than a travel-log and a culture has more depth than this kind of parochial approval seeking presentation can ever possibly hope to display. It is as narrow as the depiction of Germans in beer halls, Greeks smashing plates.
Two centuries are showcased, using 170 artists, some who spent their careers depicting the landscape, others chosen have works that make incidental or no real reference to the landscape. Yet this aspect alone does not form the ideas or character of a nation. The ideas of a nation manage to emerge from elements from within and without. The landscape is not the shaper of a nation's DNA, the landscape holds our emotions and connections for memory yes, but with or without it were are collectively shaped by more than any passe theme of a (white?) man's struggle with "god and country" wilderness cliches.
Much of this is no "Heart of Darkness" (Joseph Conrad) either but a more predictable and somewhat embarrassing parochial grab at the surface of the matter. Ultimately it all has the ulterior purpose of being a promotional tool it would seem.
Artists who dare to dig deeper into the psyche of a nation and its people will be relegated to the Underground for their troubles. It seems that Australia has yet to reach a status where it is honest enough to show its warts and all messy birth and life to date. This dismal (at best) post adolescent mimicry of what Australian art is and says about itself is what it believes the mother-land want's to see and what the adolescent thinks it will approve of. I hope critics with more bonafides than I challenge it.
To me this exhibition is a great disappointment and bluntly an embarrassment. It hardly represents a unique statement from a country that can, via its art history, announce its emergence from questionable beginnings and fumbling adolescence into confident and promising adulthood. Because it lacks honesty and confidence the officially approved of version of Australian art belongs to a cultural back water held back in a time funk. It is a presentation that denies the art and artistic development of this nation in preference to the comfortable illusions (delusions) of its earliest memories. And, a flawed memory will always fail to observe its flaws.