5 local artists in prestigious art prize

Now that all the excitement has died down after the winner was announced for the 2012 Geelong contemporary art prize (in case you missed it, it was NSW artist Paul Ryan for his painting, Wild colonial boys), let’s have a look at some of the works on display in the award exhibition, focusing on artists from the Geelong region.

Given that the gallery received hundreds of entries from around the country, with only 45 works selected for exhibition, it is no mean feat to be included in this prestigious prize. Congratulations to the five local artists who were shortlisted for the prize: Amanda Johnson, Rohan Robinson, Felicity Spear, Peter Webb and Stephen Wickham. Images of their work, along with artist statements and short biographies are presented below.

Geelong GalleryAmanda Johnson, Supported exotic — Dracaena Draco (Dragon Tree) 2010, synthetic polymer paint and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist statement – Amanda Johnson
“My recent paintings question the fate of the regional Victorian botanical garden in a context of global warming. How has our physical and cultural encounter with the public garden changed? Has the picturesque garden subject (as landscape vista, folly, or symbol of civic confidence) been relegated to expressions of cultural nostalgia as environmental problems take their toll? I paint images of ‘supported exotics’ within Botanic Garden walls, such as the Geelong Gardens’ Dragon Tree, as well as extinct or threatened plants such as the recently rediscovered Dwarf Spider Orchid (Caladenia pumila). My ‘paper documents’ on canvas are replete with stains, watermarks and foxing mould copied from deteriorated botanical documentations. Painterly parodies of ‘first contact’ drawings suggest the melancholy possibility of last contact, while evocations of Victorian garden subjects (after William Guilfoyle and others) are remade as a futuristic revisiting of the botanical archive.”

Dr Amanda Johnson is a writer and artist. She has a Masters in painting from the Victorian College of the Arts, a Masters in creative writing from the University of Melbourne and she has also completed her PhD thesis on the representation of Indigenous voices in Australian historical novels. Amanda has been the recipient of Asialink and Bundanon Trust residencies in painting. Her compelling 2007 novel, Eugene’s Falls, retraces the journeys of colonial painter Eugene von Guérard and unites her interests in art history, biography and cultural memory. Amanda is also the recipient of the 2012 Wesley Michael Wright Prize for her collection of poetry, The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street.

Geelong GalleryRohan Robinson, In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist Statement – Rohan Robinson
“In the Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:
Is the last line from a poem called “The Circus Animals Desertion” by Yeats. In the final stanza of the poem, Yeats takes a hard look at his “masterful” imagery, and realises that though it seemed to grow in “pure mind”, it actually began in the ugly, common experiences of everyday life, which work upon the mind. Wearily but with resolve, Yeats states that he must lie down in the place where poetry and imagery begin: “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Many of the communities in central Australia, and not many people get to see them, entry being restricted, are in crisis, that a lot of communities experience as a result of being mismanaged with great skill over many years. The poverty and unhygienic living conditions distract from the heart and soul of the people/these cultures. When the success of a community can depend merely on one person on the ground whose resolve is corrupt, the community can be held to ransom by that individual who administers the community. Further enhancing the fall into depression, unhealthy living, and a dilution of cultural ties. This painting covers the region I have been travelling; the road west from Uluru past the Olgas, where the dirt road starts on towards the western Australia and NT border, past Lassiter’s Cave, Kaltukatjara (Docker River), further west and south, past Tjukurla, Warnan, onto the Gun Barrel Highway, aint no highway, and further west again to the edge of the Gibson desert, to the tiny remote community of Patjarr. So let us all lie down in “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

Rohan Robinson is a landscape painter who has exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions across Australia and also overseas. This is the second time that Rohan has been shortlisted for this nationally-significant prize. His landscapes often reference Indigenous art and are painted from an aerial perspective. Rohan’s work is represented in Artbank and private collections.

Geelong Gallery, Geelong Contemporary Art PrizeFelicity Spear, Atomic – my carbon copy, 2011, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen McLaughlin Gallery, Melbourne.

Artist Statement – Felicity Spear
“Atomic – my carbon copy
, is a flash of colour falling through space, the material evidence of atoms pushed and pulled by gravitational forces, the invisible made visible, the elemental operations of nature writ large, or simply a colour coded confection. With some cloth stretched over my index finger I draw marks in layers of wet paint, splitting spectral colours into patterns of chromatic energy. In astronomy the spectroscopic appearance of the sun and stars, like a forensic mapping process, reveals the chemical elements in their atmosphere. Each element produces a spectrum unique to itself, like a fingerprint, no matter where it is found. Science tells us that for this chromatic energy to be perceived, light waves must interact with the light sensitive cells in the retina, and nerves must deliver this information to the brain to be processed. It is at this point that art reveals colour’s intrinsic subjectivity. I shift and sift light and colour to draw attention to the carbon element, the basis of all known life. On planet Earth, as the elemental operations of nature become disrupted, the word ‘carbon’ has become politically contentious and ideologically loaded.”

Felicity Spear’s most recent research and works of art focus on the way in which the ideas about the natural world are revealed through culturally specific models. In particular, she is fascinated with how technologies associated with light extend our vision and map space beyond the full range of the senses, engaging with more complex ways of reading space and understanding other forms of knowledge and our place on the world. In 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, together with astronomer David Malin and indigenous artist Gulumbu Yunupingu, Felicity curated Beyond Visibility: light and dust, which was presented at Monash Gallery of Art and the University of Technology, Sydney. Felicity completed a Master of Arts by Research at RMIT University in 1999 and a Doctor of Philosophy from Monash University in 2007. She is represented by Stephen McLaughlin Gallery, Melbourne.

Geelong Contemporary Art PrizeStephen Wickham, Homage to Ralph Balson #10, 2011, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist statement – Stephen Wickham
“In 1989 Heide Park and Art Gallery (now Heide Museum of Modern Art) held a retrospective of works by Ralph Balson. An excellent illustrated catalogue by Bruce Adams accompanied the exhibition. In the chronology Adams notes a catalogue from the Solomon R Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Painting that influenced Balson. I have long been delighted by the fact that the first Guggenheim museum, opened in 1939, was called the ‘Museum of Non-Objective Painting,’ it was housed in an old car showroom at East 54th Street in New York. Balson never saw the Non-Objective Painting show yet was moved by the catalogue and essay by Hilla Rebay, the first director of the Guggenheim franchise. Rebay was an old world aristocrat and transcendentalist, and a zealous promoter of European Abstract painting, Non-Objective art and Russian modernism. This is the art of the 20th century, this is the art that inspired and focused Balson for 15 years, the most productive and creative years of his life. Balson’s ‘constructivist’ paintings are the most beautiful examples of this ‘school’ ever painted in Australia. The Balson paintings magnify and distil European modernism, it is succinct and true to its origins, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Malevich and others of Non-Objective putsch. The melodrama of the Black Square and the bright abyss of Kandinskys topsy-turvy world are all present and again fecund in the work of Ralph Balson. The artists that speak most eloquently to me are précised in the plastic vision of Ralph Balson. Malevich was edging towards his Black Quadrilateral when the 23-year-old Balson landed in Sydney from England. Now here, worlds away from the centres of great creative moment, I get to see art history’s folds and fumbles in the quiet transparency and solidity of Mr Balsons works. He died in 1964. I was 14 and had no idea he ever existed. But when I saw his paintings and later the photograph of him in suit and tie, an old bloke with owl glasses I knew I would never forget him or the others.”

Stephen Wickham’s practice encompasses photography, printmaking and painting. He has completed a Masters in Arts from Monash University and has exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions across Australia. He is represented in a number of significant collections including those of Geelong Gallery, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria, University of Melbourne, Australian Embassy Washington, Artbank, Print Council of Australia, and the Australian Print Workshop.

Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, Geelong GalleryPeter Webb, Hard times dance, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist statement – Peter Webb
Hard Times — better a living beggar than a dead Banker/They danced the night away the muse of inspiration and the painter against a flaring yellow light hard times for a dollar and a warm beer/the artist is more complicated than his works these painters here you see they are not of this world let them live their strange lives/let them be cold and hungry/they paint better on an empty belly/disorganised senses they love suffering and madness they exhaust themselves with drugs painting into the night what a romantic illusion in these times of torment is when they need their greatest faith/In the morning he had a face so dead a look so lost and those he thought knew him well failed to recognise him stained with colours/And for his long nights of work there was a two metre square canvas heavy with hard times/The projected sexual metaphor the erotic paradox/What is the socio-political motivation behind this work?/Poverty anxiety of influence short range perspective of three Decades/So what if he is destroyed dancing with the muse shuffling across the floor he believes he is in hell and he is right and the Bankers and the Corporate Giants take their share and the Art Machine takes the rest the shirt off his back but still he dances Hard times into the dawn one disaster all the way thru his life no variation in the very dark black of failure and struggle/What you cannot see he makes visible he makes the whirling planets stop in their tracks while every moment he is dammed to poverty/He knows that everything eventually becomes unbearable and no amount of money can buy back youth and the labour of nights endless patience to catch the vision alive the burning colours that blind the uninitiated and he dances the dance of Hard Times/3 am and the damage done to the nervous system/Addiction is a necessity in Hard Times/What about self interest in the work isn’t that enough reward says the Corporate Giant the horror of life is a state we all have to bear but some get paid well for their bourgeois patience/But what about the artists patience he chases the vision relentlessly he turns the silence and the black sky into images that reveal the spoonful of tears more than God requires of man and his mournful soul/One night he sat the muse on his knee after the Hard Times Dance was over and he found her bitter and fickle and she say don’t be so sensitive and cruel just waste whats left of your life away/Greed and evil hurl themselves at his windows of his cold studio while the others sleep and he thinks what is he doing here I am a beast I am a nigger who has searched his inner being and mixed it with paint and plastered the canvas with the unknown/Work assembled out of disparate objects/Friends you have caused your own hard times and soon will cause mine/The surreal as an International strategy/He defies labels/By being too insensitive and reasonable he has wasted his life on morality and enslaved himself to everything that glittered/He has never been judged fairly but what do the critics understand of the artist’s long wait at the crossroads of inspiration doing the hard work in anticipation of a possible sale/the greasy bills are in their pockets not the artists get on your hind legs dogman and bark for your supper/This frenzied passion to express the work of images is too soon a mania that devours life exhausted by the dance of Hard Times he leans on her shoulders for support they shuffle in the detritus of the mind while surreal blue and black artificial sun form a back drop for Evil boy Arabs counting out the 30 pieces of silver and reading Faust’s contract with the painter desperate for recognition/He can go without his living but not without his painting/Creativity is the God giving gift we are all forced to endure/Beauty is the sole ambition and ugliness in beauty is the goal/Monstrous and foolish dogman he dance the Hard Times not knowing if this is the way or is he going wrong but only he knows we must rely on his sincerity/Success is always the production of images that are acceptable to the ignorant masses/Cocktail Art/Photo Shop/Digital crap/How little remains of the man he once was but to recall that man is to invite more suffering and another round of the Hard Times Dance/Hand in hand from threshold to threshold like immortal dogmen one of whom was dying the other saying would I be with whom I die which is myself finally emptied out perhaps/he finally loses the understanding of his visions/but will at least have seen them!/So what if he destroys himself in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of/unnameable/other horrible painters come in their hordes and will come and compete for space on the dance floor/they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen already diseased by success and adulation/He can no longer deny that he is part of the world and that we are all in this together/The element of chance the random element the stained canvas of unsuspecting storms/Hard Times in Struggle Town.
Thanks to Cream double Album Rimbaud Leo Androgyn and Lee Kwo.”

Many people will be familiar with Peter Webb’s iconic works of art and designs created for Quicksilver which revolutionised the surf industry with its wide range of equipment and clothing from the mid-1980s to the 2000s. Peter has also exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions around the world for 40 years. In 1981 he was awarded the Alliance Française Art Fellowship and spent six months in Paris painting and studying art. His definitive style is influenced by graphic novels with a mix of photo-realism and neo-expressionism. His work is represented in the Geelong Gallery permanent collection.

Geelong Gallery’s $30,000 biennial acquisitive award Geelong contemporary art prize was originally established in the mid 1990s and showcases the best of contemporary Australian painting practice. You may recall it as the Fletcher Jones art prize, but it has now assumed it’s original name Geelong contemporary art prize after a change in sponsorship. Now the Dimmick Charitable Trust generously sponsors this event.

2012 Geelong contemporary art prize
Until Sunday 18 November 2012
Geelong Gallery
53 Little Malop St, Geelong. Ph: (03) 5229 3645 www.geelonggallery.org.au

Winner of Geelong acquisitive print awards (2011)


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