This week I had to pop in to visit the new children’s hospital to pick up some crocheted ropes I had left on display after my residency at PMH. I met with the art curator Belinda Cobby and she offered to give me a little tour. Already familiar with Stuart Green’s magnificent façade outside, I was ready for the all enveloping greenness of the place which sounds bright notes against the back drop of the Kings Park vegetation visible through many of the windows. It gives you a sense of deliberate well thought out decisions being made. Not a whacky, alternative, lets-try-anything or a bland, neutral, conservative, lets-be-cautious, the bold colours within a tightly controlled spectrum seem to suggest the sort of care we might want for the patients when they eventually get to use the facility.
There are many works of art on display around the hospital including fun interactive screens and deliciously tactile animal shapes but I was most taken with Geoffrey Drake-Brockman’s multi coloured light installation pulsing like an amoeba two thirds of the way up inside the atrium. Not only is it amazingly effective from the vast distance of the ground floor but when you ascend to the level where you can walk directly under it and affect it by your movements, you feel like you are swimming upside down through a living kelp forest.
I was less taken with Stuart Green’s internal work which moves subtly to form and reform flower petals. While such a meditative and quiet piece should, on paper, be just what is needed in in a busy hospital environment, it seemed, to me, too quiet and too distant to be much noticed. (It is possible that the piece was not lit as it should have been when I saw it.)
There were plenty of works from the hospital’s art collection adorning the walls, including some of the beautiful pieces by Sarah Toohey that previous visitors to PMH will recognise, which are fresh and vibrant in their new settings and full of quiet joy and Tony Jones and Angela McHarrie's gorgeous birds and shapes in several locations on the ground floor are enticing.
While I was in the hospital I bumped into a friend who was helping to prepare the neonates ward for the influx of patients in a few weeks time. She also introduced me to other members of staff who were busy setting up. What I found really interesting about talking to them was the sense of ownership they felt about the artworks in their area and the way they talked about them with a feeling of belonging. They said things like “I don't like my one…” or ‘my picture is better than yours!” They made pertinent and personal comments about the works or suggested there was not enough variety of artist or style or colour palette in certain areas or too much in others. It made me think about the many groups of people for whom these works were important. Not just the children, not just the parents but the staff who live with and interact every day with the works in the collection. While it is obviously going to be different when the place is full of sick children, stressed parents and equipment being wheeled about instead of politely corralled in designated areas, It was nice to see the power of art at work.
Once again it is Fine Art Friday (although it is fine art pretty much every day of the week at Castledine and Castledine!) and I want to chat about Nigel Hewitt’s exhibition Recinder at Gallery Central in Aberdeen Street Northbridge.
Anyone who has followed Nigel Hewitt’s work over the decades will know he is drawn to a particularly muted palette and it seems, looking at this work almost inevitable that he would eventually fall into ash. Such a concentration of carbon it ranges from all-colours white to no-colour black and every grey shading in between and in Hewitt’s skilled hands seems to be all you would need to express yourself.
Hewitt has been working with ash since the ember of the idea came to him while viewing the bushfire landscapes of Tasmania He uses the ash in two ways, mixing it and applying it as you would any paint or colour medium and then finding mechanical ways to precisely pour tiny heaps to produce pixelated images that close up resemble the slag hills and waste dumps of some tiny but relentless industry. The pixelated works are astonishing in their preciseness and fragility but the resulting matrix of canvases felt to me a little soulless. From afar, and the gallery is well chosen to allow you to step far enough back from the work to make sense of the image, the mechanical nature of the process seems more apparent rather than less, they become somehow more textile than anything else, like a photograph rendered in wool. Not that this made them any less interesting and in an exhibition purely of these works, where you are not distracted by the other techniques you would give in to the idea and enthusiastically follow along on this exploration.
Most of the other works fall into two categories, the first being landscapes rendered entirely in ash and secondly those where Hewitt has given in to an impulse to add paint to the piece. Of these two I was completely seduced by the pure ash paintings, they are sombre and deep and captivating. Of the rest, I was most drawn to one where the colour was integrated subtly into the plants in the foreground. The others, which feature easels holding representations of famous Australian landscape paintings, I found less successful. The idea seemed too twee, too obvious and the coloured sections while not exactly dominating the composition were like a smudge on your glasses, something that stopped you from really seeing the work clearly. I would have preferred the artist left the easel holding the Heysen or McCubbin in the text of a didactic panel and let the viewer imagine the relationship between the subject, the style and the medium while being wholly absorbed by the monochrome panels. That said, his painted works and sections in wax and oils are skillful and while still using his trademark muted colours manage to sing like a bright new leaf in a burnt forest.
This is an important exhibition, impressive in its scale, mastery of technique and its heart and I recommend you get in to see it before it concludes on the 19th of May.
I always find it interesting when artists choose a technique or medium or mode of practice that is designed to disrupt the flow or perhaps loosen the control that they otherwise exert upon their work. People have famously used drugs and alcohol to do this but also restricting yourself to a certain regime or doctoring your tools such as putting really long handles on your brushes, or cutting up the work and reassembling it can help lead to an outcome which is a surprise. And I think that this is maybe the point. To surprise yourself as an artist, to make something that isn’t exactly what was in your head.
Perhaps for some it can be a need for a shake up, a weariness at the predictability of your output, perhaps for others it can be that gnawing doubt that your ideas or your skills are not good enough on their own and some magical extra element is needed. Perhaps for some, like the affable Harrison See, who is currently working on a large experimental canvas at his residency at the Mundaring Arts Centre, it is the sparking courage of youth that wants to try something new.
Whatever the motivation (the blurb describes an exploration of the physical act of painting and Harrison himself says that he wanted to change his very brushstrokes) it is an interesting process to watch. In what looks like following through on a quirky thought bubble idea Harrison is adding weights to his brushes to make each stroke harder, a deliberate effort, a powerful muscular force. There is something masculine about the process, the gym floor littered with iron circles and something mathematical too, with the preciseness of the balanced weights being added to either side of the Heath Robinson style apparatus attached to his brush, but the resulting painting, although only in its early stages feels neither weighted nor calculated, being still quite light and loose.
It was a pleasure to witness not only the performance (and it is a performance more than a process) but the results as they appear and very refreshing to cheerfully discuss the shortcomings and be shown the miscalculations that are to be expected when trying something new. Whatever the final outcome of the painting, it is clear that by the end of the process Harrison will be a stronger man in more ways than one.
The exhibition Physical Mindfulness of Painting is on at MAC in Gallery 2 until the 27th May and the artist will be in residence every Saturday until 12th May.