At the NGV Australia

One of our first stops in Melbourne these days is always Federation Square and the NGV Australia. The Indigenous Gallery at the Ian Potter Centre–well, I was about to say it’s the finest on offer in Australia, but that would be disrespectful of other state galleries. The displays in Melbourne are certainly more dramatic than in Sydney; on the other hand the enormous sculptures from Aurukun than grace the halls of the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane can be hard to beat for drama. The AGWA in Perth holds a special place in my memory, in part because there were so many “firsts” for me there: the first paintings I saw by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri and Sally Morgan, the first sculpture by Lin Onus.

But still, there’s something undeniably fabulous about the galleries here in Melbourne. You could say it’s the size, the variety of work, the dramatic architecture that sets off the paintings and sculptures. But I think more than anything it is the simple fact that every work on display is absolutely first rate. It’s hard to come into a gallery and be knocked out by every single piece, but Judith Ryan seems to accomplish that with ease. We’ve been back twice so far, and even with half the galleries closed for new hangs, it’s a stupendous experience.

As soon as you enter the hall today three things overtake you: a pair of mimih spirits by Crusoe Kurrdal that soar to unmeasurable heights; a vitrine full of tiny, delicate wire baskets by Lorraine Connelly-Northey; and reflected in the glass of that exhibit, a flashing neon work by Brook Andrew, “Polemics Now.” The combination works, spectacularly, and this is part of the genius of the installation at the NGV. One space can be dominated by works of a single genre, perhaps early barks from Oenpelli, or sculpture from the Tiwi Islands. You’re captivated by the wealth, the sheer richness of the examples of that form that you’re presented with.

Tutini (pukumani poles) amid barks by Lipundja and Mawurndjul

And then in the next gallery, a set of lorrkons from Maningrida (John Mawurndjul, Ivan Namirrkki, Kay Lindjuwanga, and Samuel Namunjdja) occupy center stage in a large space, framed to one side by a new five-meter canvas by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, and backlit by three glowing ochre masterpieces by Mick Jawalji that almost manage to make you overlook the Rover Thomas paintings that share the back wall. It’s a brilliant vision that places these quite dissimilar works in conjunction and draws you into to examine each successively.

Desert meets Top End meets Kimberley in a single glance

Once you’ve absorbed all that, there’s a turn to a simpler aesthetic hidden around the corner of the gallery, where a long wall of paintings from the Western Desert (and mostly from Kintore) in black and white demonstrate once more how masterful the Pintupi are in the most conservative of palettes and design. The facing wall offers canvases from the Tiwi, the occasional splash of red or yellow ochre enlivening the display. Before turning a corner, two pair of scultpures, by Jimmy An.gunguna and Jack Nawilil take the black and white theme into three dimensions. 

And then around the corner are the early Papunya boards set across from a startling 1991 canvas by Mick Namarari. The boards are exquisite, of course, especially the pair by Shorty Lungkata. Figurative works by Namarari and Timmy Payungka form a sharp contrast to Lungkata’s ceremonial mysteries, but these figurative works, often described as children’s stories, also demonstrate that concept of “virtuosity” that Fred Myers articulated recently at the Kluge-Ruhe. To turn from these early boards to the somber simplicity of Namarari’s stripes (it looks at first glance like one of Turkey Tolson’s spear paintings, but done in earthier tones) is to recognize the enormous accomplishment of a man like Mick Namarari as a visual artist. The subtlety of this painting, with its field of horizontal lines, each of them running the width of the canvas except for a handful that are broken and offset just above the mid-point of the field, is truly astonishing.

Detail of a 1991 masterpiece by Mick Namarari

There’s more to say about the collections, but I’ll save that for another time when the remaining galleries are rehung. I did want to make one comment on the building itself that struck me this visit, my first trip back to Melbourne since visiting Bilbao a couple of years ago. For all that the talk of the Guggenheim locating a new branch here on the banks of the Yarra seems to have died down, I have to say that the conjunction of this strikingly designed building with the riverside brought the Guggenheim Bilbao to mind almost immediately. And I’m not sure that Federation Square necessarily suffers in the comparison. The complexity of the design, the way that Cubism gives way to Art Deco without immediately evoking either one, the angles, the mirrors, and the use of luminosity throughout the building make this a joyful venue to visit. There are moments when the architecture unfortunately overwhelms the art (the ventilation system grates and louvres are an egregious example throughout). But for the most part the building enhances the presentation of the work while being a joy to contemplate in itself, which is another reason that I always look forward to returning here.

A view to the Yarra from inside the NGV Australia

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