While Australia’s art scene is similar to what I typically see in the US and Europe, there are also a few interesting differences. It has a very specific local scene where as in a major city such as New York, the local scene is considered international. Yet like any major art center, Australia certainly has its fair share of artists breaking out onto said international scene. There are major museums, large-scale galleries, and auctions where certain artists receive high prices. And like any major city, Sydney has its “in season” and its “out of season.” I just returned from a January visit, and it was definitely Sydney’s “out of season.” It was like being in Paris or New York in August – everything was closed and everyone was on vacation. I didn’t mind though, as it afforded me the opportunity to spend time in local vacation spots such as the beautiful Portsea, as well as time in museums with a view of art that was not specifically contemporary.  

In Sydney, instead of spending the day at the MCA, which is under construction, re-opening in March (yes, just 2 months after I schlepped all the way out there!), I spent an afternoon at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a great institution to become better acquainted with historical Australian Art. My friend, who took me to the museum, showed me his two favorite paintings, which as an Australian, exemplify what he believes represents authentic Australian landscape. The first was a Tom Roberts painting, The Golden Fleece. This work displays a sense of the bush, the suffocating heat, and the never-ending feelings of being trapped in the fleecing industry. Roberts gives a sense of the social politics of the day, showing the juxtaposition of the workers, hot and sweaty, next to the businessman dressed in a suit, standing away from the perceived “mess” of the actual fleecing. Another of Roberts’ paintings, Bailed Up, also shows the dry, dusty landscape with gentry in a carriage being robbed by men on horseback.

While Roberts brings to life the feeling of the Australian bush, Arthur  Streeton gives arguably one of best examples of the beautifully vibrant blue Australian sky. This is seen in many of his works, one of which is Fire’s On. The turn of the century has its share of impressionist artists, yet it is artists such as these that truly paint you Australia. Another post-war artist that provides a strong feeling of the outback and tough living is Russell Drysdal in his painting, Sunday Evening. Bleak is the word that comes to mind. 

The museum does have a fabulous dose of contemporary art and I also was able to spend time in the contemporary Australian galleries that carry works by artists including Sidney Noland, Brett Whitely and Fred Williams, all standouts of their generation. From what I know of these artists, the works were not their strongest representation, yet still intriguing to view in the artists’ homeland.  It’s interesting to note that this was very different from the programming at the new galleries, which house major international contemporary art. Most of the works are gifts by the John Kandor Family Collection. The collection has an in-depth acquisition of minimalist artists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, and great works by Rauschenberg and Nam Jun Paik. Also, there is a major holding of artists such as Paul Chan, Christo, Francis Alys, Jeff Koons, and Michael Landy. The only Australians in the mix were Ricky Swallow and Shaun Gladwell, who are also of course part of the international scene. 

As we are in a period of private personal museums, the White Rabbit was of this ilk. It is a refurbished warehouse space, housing the private collection of Kerr & Judith Neilson. It is one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary Chinese artwork produced after 2000. As an emerging art collection, the space is filled with lots of discovery. The space is located in the Chippendale neighborhood, which adds another layer of text
ure to the visit, as it is a less developed neighborhood, forcing most gallery visitors to explore a new part of town. When I visited, I saw their current exhibition,Beyond the Frame. For me, some of the highlights were works by Dong Yuan, her painting of the views from the 42 windows of a Beijing apartment building; a stop framed video filmed in a French village by Luxury Logico; and a wood sculpture still in touch with its roots by Song Jianshi.

Traveling on to Melbourne, my first stop was the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). I had explained to my host that a must see was the Ranjani Shettar exhibition, an artist from India, whose installations are exceptional. Her one-person show was a part of their Contemporary Twilight Series curated by senior curator, Alex Baker. Shettar’s work has had an international presence with installations at the Carnegie International and recently as part of a group show at MOMA. She is well known for transforming natural phenomena into magical forms with elegant and material specific forms. It was also great to see their permanent international collection, as they just installed a new painting by Sean Scully along side major paintings and fantastic works by Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner.

From there, I traveled to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). Being that it is very close to the NGV I was able to catch the show by Pililotti Rist. I was amazed at the gorgeous installation. The ambitiousness of the scale was spectacular. I could not help but think how lucky Rist must have felt to have these huge spaces all for her work. There were single objects and installations that required viewers to walk through them. Then there was my favorite part of the exhibition, beanbags where you had to lie and look up at the ceiling where screens displayed vibrant imagery. From laying down on the floor to gazing up into the skies, it forces viewers to get lost in Rist’s world.

I know this is a column about art, yet I can’t write about my trip without mentioning Australia’s gorgeous nature and my trip to Portsea. Portsea is the area where the wealthy vacation in huge beautiful homes. There is one strip, Main Street, with no brand name shops, and only one hotel and one restaurant. People walk around in shorts and flip-flops. It’s laidback, gorgeous and all about nature. On Saturday morning, I found out what a typical day is like in Portsea. I woke up around 8 AM and went for a beautiful bike ride through the peaceful and relaxing town. As Portsea is roughly a 3-mile peninsula, it is perfectly situated between the ocean and the bay. My companion and I rode up to the very tip of Portsea where one can see both the ocean and bay on either side. Stunning! Next, my friend and I got our swimsuits on, walked up the pier, and jumped in the crystal blue waters. I mistakenly figured the more south I was, the hotter it would be. However, I soon realized that only applies if you are north of the equator! After being completely engulfed in the water, I immediately corrected my “northern hemisphere” thinking. The water was refreshing yet chilly. Feeling rejuvenated, we then ate breakfast and my companion proceeded to play 18 holes of golf. Portsea may be a vacation town, but my hosts at least, certainly don’t rest!

When I was in Sydney, I met with an artist and we spoke about how hard it was for her to make art living in Australia. We both said at the same time, it is just too beautiful! We laughed and she went further, explaining she has to wait for a rainy day to make art. It is just so gorgeous in that country, and between that and the relaxed and easy-going atmosphere it makes it difficult to get to the core of the pathos, which inspires and helps many artists to create, yet what a great place to try.