HERE IN THE UNDERGROWTH
5 – 22 October 2016
Curated by Verity Hayward
Opening Night | Thursday 6 October, 6–8pm
Tuesday 18 October, 6:30pm
Join the artists and curator of Here in The Undergrowth, as well as a number of key arts workers from regional areas for a discussion about the realities of working in the arts in a regional area, the notion of the centre and the periphery, and the way we can better a relationship between regional and metropolitan arts communities.
This exhibition has received development assistance from NETS Victoria’s Exhibition Development Fund Grant, supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, a division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
John Stephen Britten, James Farley, Jacob Raupach, Tara Gilbee, Ebony Gulliver, Matthew Harris, Claire Marston, Steph Shields + Ian Tully
Here in the Undergrowth presents the work of nine regional artists from Victoria and New South Wales whose practices are as diverse and varied as the regions from which they come. Traversing neon, sound, photography, installation and painting, this project highlights what has been flourishing in the undergrowth, and opens up a discussion about the relationship between the arts communities of metropolitan and regional areas.
A BLINDSIDE project, Here in the Undergrowth grew out of the BLINDSIDE / NETS Victoria touring exhibition Synthetica, which toured to Swan Hill, Wangaratta, Gippsland, Wagga Wagga and Melbourne. At each location a local artist was included in the Synthetica exhibition, forming the first stage of Here in the Undergrowth. These artists, and others uncovered on regional research trips, will now present their work at BLINDSIDE for the second stage of the project.
There were hours and hours on the road. Hundreds of kilometres shooting by through windows, the changing colours of the rural landscape. We passed parched summer grasses, endless cropland, forests, and quaint historic towns. The artists in Here in the Undergrowth come from these regions, each with its own unique history, environment and culture, challenges, limitations, and opportunities. The artists in these regions share a particular resilience—an energy for their work and their communities despite the challenges they face as artists, practicing away from metropolitan centres (and the promise of its bounty). Each artist answers to his or her distinctive cultural conditions differently, and as such the work they present is as varied as the regions from which they come. They defy the rural painting trope that is all too often badged to regional artists, instead presenting work of concrete, neon and light—of homespun photographic processes, installation and sound. Each challenges their own position, ploughing through uncharted territories, exploring, seeking and exchanging. Expounding something new.
While their lone practices divide them, their relationship to the idea of being an artist practicing in a regional area connects them. Some have lived their whole lives regionally; others have retreated to the city. Some eschew their regional history; others draw upon it directly. Many protest the notion of a ‘regional artist’ altogether. And yet it is this experience that is the thread that binds them. I have neither lived nor worked in a regional area, and therefore, as the curator, have little agency over this position. But I have been moved and motivated by the dedication, drive and enthusiasm that the artists in this project have for their own practice and their arts communities. Here in the Undergrowth presents the experiences of these artists, exploring the conditions, challenges and realities of working from a regional area.
We live in a country where the majority of our space is ‘regional’. And yet, the regions are considered the periphery when compared to our urban centres, posited as ‘other’. There is a homogenising effect at play and artists can get stuck in the ‘regional’ canton. Though regional galleries show the work of metropolitan artists—those that have the city stamp of approval and bring the crowds—this isn’t often reciprocated for regional practice in metropolitan art spaces. The exchange seems unbalanced. Regional areas are, of course, also centres of artistic production, not simply consumers of urban arts practice.
There are challenges too related to proximity. Artists may be working over an hour from the nearest town, may be hundreds of kilometres from an art school. There may be less fish in the pond, but making a mark and building a reputation can be arduous. Some feel that they must leave their region, earn their stripes, stack a few lines on their CV and return in order to receive recognition from their council or community. Perhaps most importantly, the arts communities are simply smaller. There are few artist run spaces and facilities for critical conversation, and less people to bounce ideas off. Perhaps it is for these reasons, the artists in Here in the Undergrowth have a ready eye for opportunity, employing perceived limitations as rich content for their work.
For Ian Tully, making art about his experience and his history is an opportunity to increase awareness of the environmental and ecological issues being faced in regional areas. Growing up on a family farm, Ian developing a great respect for the country, the land, and the people for which it is a career and lifeblood. He draws on memory and place, as well as the competing interests of society, politics and industry within rural areas. His work From the series Vessel/Diviner (homage to my father) is an assemblage of repurposed material, an object devised to dowse water from underground. As with all of his sculptures, it is ultimately flawed. A shovel stands as its vertical axis; various cords snake around the structure and two buckets are ready to hold the possible findings. But the buckets have no bottoms —the efforts are futile. His work reveals uncomfortable truths of the agricultural situation in Australia, and the physically intensive, time consuming, yet essential nature of the labour that is inextricable from rural life. A nod to the resourcefulness of the farming industry and their ability to respond to adversity, even with the barest of means, the performance of the sculpture sees Ian respond with hopeful absurdity as he lugs the diviner back and forth over parched earth.
Labour is also an important theme in the work of James Farley and Jacob Raupach, who live and work in Wagga Wagga, NSW. After meeting over Facebook, James and Jacob have studied and worked together at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. Currently they share a studio and live around the corner from one another. Their individual practices have also run parallel, developing and evolving side-by-side, forming a distinctive dialogue between their. In a similar vein to Ian Tully, James and Jacob’s art making is a means of understanding complex systems and the issues surrounding the current ecological system in Australia. Untitled is a freestanding structure functioning as a photographic processing system, a machine of sorts which brings their practices into even closer conversation. Images of highways and railway lines of regional NSW have been compressed between perspex and silver gelatin paper along with organic material from the sites of the photographs. Over the course of Here in the Undergrowth the natural light streaming through the gallery windows will expose the image to create a lumen print. Light and time combine to make a new image revealed only when the work is dismantled. The combination of natural materials and innovative technological process becomes a metaphor for the regional experience, referencing and exposing emblematic components of regional living, bringing them into conversation with the urban gallery environment.
It was moving away from his hometown of Wangaratta that pushed Matthew Harris’ practice into new territories. He explained to me that if you are within a minority—for him as a gay man and artist—you will have a hard time in a place like Wangaratta. The move to Melbourne was a logical choice for Matthew, who felt his arts career would not springboard if he stayed. Matthew does not identity as a ‘regional artist’ however there remains subtle references to his experience throughout his work. Self-described as a series of ‘bad paintings’ each work in Here in the Undergrowth has a cartoonish treatment of lin— thick, black marks that contain heavy swaths of ‘thick and nasty’ acrylic paint in lurid colours. His sculptural surface is treated as a testing site, for Matthew is still learning how to paint, and he builds paint up as a way to cover his mistakes. Where previously his practice focused on installation and video work, he has forayed into painting. For him it is an opportunity to create an endless series to show and sell. The content of all of the works at first seems disjointed: Michael Jackson holding Blanket over that balcony in Berlin; two-pigs humping repeatedly; a floral pattern based on a design from a vintage teapot in his studio. He uses the repeated motif across the work as a capitalist acceleration strategy—believing paintings that look like wallpaper are more purchasable and more appealing. Matthew draws his ideas from two-dollar shop calendars, clip art, stock photos, and kitsch objects one might find at cheap shops in Wangaratta. And Kmart, Matthew loves Kmart. Within these images are art historical references, subtle pastiches of these allegorical combinations and motifs: a painting of the tiles in his bathroom is a bad copy of a Mondrian painting; Les Demoiselles d’Uranus echoes the angular and disjointed body shapes in Picasso’s Les Demoiselle’s D’Avignon (morphed with blow up showbag aliens); and Painting is a very literal understanding of Clement Greenberg’s Modernism. Matthew’s works are echoes of his personal experience and the odd moments he has come across in his move from a regional to metropolitan area.
John Stephen Britten’s work Heart and Poem is one of sound—composed from recordings made in Swan Hill, Victoria. John is deeply connected to regions in Victoria and QLD, where he now lives, finding the experience of being a regional artist to be full—one where practice is open and like-minded people are present. The big sky and fresh air allow a freedom of practice that he wouldn’t find anywhere else. The layered sound in John’s work momentarily transports us: birds twitter and screech, voices mingle and buzz, cutlery clinks against plates, and cars pass by over wet bitumen. Overlaying this is the gentle and rhythmic sound of a beating heart, that of friend Juma Ali Sherzad, an Afghani asylum seeker who crossed the Indian Ocean from Malaysia for 15 harrowing days. Momentary recitations of the poems written by Juma are woven into the soundscape. The words take us to Swan Hill where Juma found freedom and safety, and friendship in the form of John. His work is layered, complex, quiet and compelling—encouraging us to be aware of subtle sounds. Time becomes loose and fluid as the artist invites us in to contemplate the stories in the work with our own body.
In a similar way, Ebony Gulliver’s site-specific painting installation aims to involve the viewer physically and mentally. Her practice is concerned with space, composition and the resulting effect this has on the viewer. For Here in the Undergrowth, Ebony has created a work that wraps the gallery’s walls like a skin, collapsing the boundary between architecture and painting. By amalgamating different geometric and perspective devices, the work toys with the mind’s proclivity to create order and meaning. This, coupled with colour theory, creates a device that provokes an unsettling moment in the gallery—an intervention or contradiction—and therefore, a physical response to space from the viewer. Ebony is interested in how adding a single layer of flat colour can alter the perception of a three-dimensional space. By working into a corner, the work seems to push out and draw in simultaneously; logic falls into disarray. Moments of calm induced by three dimensional space is punctured by discordant elements that challenge the rationalising tendencies of perception.The gallery wall does not enclose or contain the painting, but is in fact obliterated by it as the work peers through to another realm. We become disoriented by a kind of psychedelic meditation that encourages an awareness of the process of perception. In this work looking is exposed as a visceral and embodied encounter, as it shows us the process we go through to see something. Ebony has moved to and from regional areas her entire life. Her move to Ballarat felt initially like a withdrawal from the art world, a fracturing of bonds she felt with the community she had built in the city—a feeling of being set adrift. While she has found a new kind of focus in her work, one that is free of distractions, she has also felt an internalisation of the art making process.
As an artist working in a regional area, Steph Shields feels at an advantage, as she is able to access the metropolitan art world, as well as being able to absorb herself in regional arts. Concerned with the pigeonholing of regional artists, Steph represents herself on a broader platform, aiming to dismantle the binary that exists between the regional and metropolitan arts. Like Ebony, Steph’s work is grounded in an exploration of space, and for this exhibition is responding directly to the site of BLINDSIDE. Working in performance, installation and drawing, over the installation period she will occupy the space with a builders string line, tracing the marks on the floor created by the changing position of the sun as it filters through the gallery windows. Through the use of the chalk line this time-based work makes tangible the light of the sun—something that we can feel and see but cannot touch. Much like Jacob and James, Steph uses the sunlight to fuel and create the work and it is this process—rather than the final outcome—which is the main interest of the artist. The work is a way to bring an outside element inside causing it to be serendipitous, dependant on the weather conditions of the day. The outcome is an exploration of the gallery site through an intimate and sustained connection with the space.
Also drawing on light as a medium, Tara Gilbee’s work captures the radiant fields of light that form within and around photograms. Through a process of investigating material transformations and the way that light emanates through photography, Tara explores figurative and abstract transfiguration and illumination. Luminous Echo is based on light as an apparatus, a phenomenological tool for the expression of surface and form. After studying in Melbourne Tara moved regionally in response to the inflated cost of city living. For Tara the regional context is dynamic, relevant and full of significant cultural value. She disagrees with the parochial mentality that often surrounds the discussion of regional areas: that these places are a cultural desert, or that they are simply the consumers of cultural capital sent from the city. This mentality flattens work coming from regional areas. For her, the limitation faced by artists in regional areas gives their work an edge, contributing to the dense framework of Australian identity.
Claire Marston is a text-based installation artist living in Gippsland, an area which she feels is full of inspiration and untapped resources. Through her study and practice she has found incredible support from people and organisations that mentor emerging artists. Claire uses text to create self-referential words or phrases that explore the historic limitations of text-based practice. She sees language as her medium as she creates sculptural installations of text, giving weight to words both physically and conceptually in order to question how we behave towards language. Her short, quirky sentences are grounded in humorous observation, and take aim at the tropes of advertising and communications. Claire’s Neon Work reads ‘I can’t draw, I can’t write, so I paid for this’. In this work she wanted to create something that was ‘done to death’, but also spectacular in its visual effect. The work challenges conceptual art’s ‘I could have done that’ hang-up, revealing its own inadequacies upon first glance. Claire is both curious and challenged by how language functions, and uses her work to disrupt the process of sign and signification, inciting us to explore not only the complexity and ambiguity of language, but also our relationship with it. Claire aims to arrest, destabilise and challenge the viewer, inciting us to explore not only the complexity and ambiguity of language, but also our relationship with it.
These artists present ideas and respond to their environment in ways that are unique to their own locality. Through Here in the Undergrowth, the idea of the centre and the periphery has become destabilised, the binary of city/country has become blurry, and the notion of what it means to be ‘regional’ has shifted. As more people migrate to rural centres due to rising property prices and living costs, our regional areas continue to grow, develop and evolve. Cultural infrastructure and support is swelling and (hopefully) one day soon the regions will be saturated with artist-run spaces to support emerging and experimental practice that is evidently already so ripe for the picking. Working with the Here in the Undergrowth artists has allowed me a glimpse into the wonderful specificity of the regions from which they each come, the possibilities and potentials of their arts communities, and of the diverse and rich works that are being produced. These cities have something to offer, a rich and fertile terrain of contemporary practice that both stands on its own and collapses the distance between regional and metropolitan areas.
- VERITY HAYWARD