I wasn’t sure what to expect when Richard Bell announced that he would be hosting a series from NITV/ SBS called Colour Theory. Bell’s theories, or at least his theorems, can spark afair amount of controversy. And as for “colour,” it can be a loaded word when Bell is in the room, a word that can in lighter moments become “colourful” as an adjective for Bell himself, or can assume the more serious connotations of “race,” a topic about which the man has a lot to say, almost all of the time. As it turned out, the phrase I found most apt was “local colour” and Bell himself, as I suspected, turned out to be pretty self-effacing throughout.
The eight-part series (which has just recently begun another run, on Thursday evenings at 9:00 p.m.–Sydney time, I’ll assume–and is available on DVD) focuses on eight contemporary artists who live and work in a major Australian city, if you’re willing to extend that category to include Alice Springs and Launceston. There’s a real diversity among them in styles and media, which is one of the things that makes the series so fascinating to watch.
Jake Nash designs sets for Bangarra. Yhonnie Scarce is a glassblower. Warwick Thornton makes films. Nici Cumpston combines photography and painting to produce her landscapes. Reko Rennie is a spray-paint street artist. Archie Moore—well, he does a little bit of everything, including playing in a band. Vicki West makes sculptures out of bull kelp she harvests from the Tasmanian coast. And Tony Albert, well he does a little bit of everything as well, including a lot of recycling. There isn’t a conventional painter in the lot, unless you include Bell; but his work is largely unseen except in a few exhibition survey shots.
The local color comes in two varieties. One derives simply from seeing each of these artists in their accustomed work environments, which are equally diverse. We get to see Jake Nash, for example, working out studies and maquettes in the Walsh Bay rehearsal spae that Bangarra occupies, and we go along with him to the industrial shop where those designs are translated into the large-scale versions that grace stages around the world. Warwick Thornton cooks for his family at home and Reko Rennie prowls the Melbourne laneways. These sequences provide biographies, working routines, inspirations, and look at the occasional gallery opening.
The second variety of local color is found in the country that each of these artists call home in a deeper sense. This abiding connection to country, which we hear so much about in discussions of artists from Arnhem Land or the Great Sandy Desert, is the single overriding theme of the entire series. Long stretches of each half-hour segment are devoted to gorgeous shots of the artist patrolling country that is beautiful and inspiring; we get to see a lot of Australia outside the cities in which these artists work, whether that be the salt flats of Lake Eyre, the desolation of South Australia’s Nookamka Lake, or the waterfalls of the rainforest near Cardwell in northern Queensland. Each artist talks at length about how this connection to country is an essential wellspring of the art and the psychological source of well-being that allows creativity to flourish in the urban landscapes they customarily occupy.
Although Richard Bell acts as the host or front man for Colour Theory, the series was written by Hetti Perkins, and this connection to country is an important, recurring theme for her. This fact was made manifest in the title for her previous television outing, Art + Soul (ABC, 2010). In the current Aboriginal art exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, curator Bruce McLean has organized the show around the themes of country, history, and life; Perkins wrote the major essay in the catalog, the one centered around country that discusses the works in the long spine of the show’s layout.
And so one of the chief messages that the viewer takes away from Colour Theory is that country is every bit as crucial to artists living in the metropolitan centers as it is to those with whom the country to the country that they are still living on (that is, the artists of rural and remote Australia). In a way, then, this series becomes a complement to some of the stories told in Art + Soul, which spent a large portion of its time out bush, with Perkins sitting down to talk with the likes of John Mawurndjul, Mr. Giles, and Crusoe Kurddal. Of course, Art + Soul also took us into the working environments of Destiny Deacon and Ricky Maynard. Art + Soul was a brilliant, panoramic series, and Colour Theory represents a sort of distillation in its extended focus on just a few urban artists.
Colour Theory offers a goodly amount of information about each artist, in addition to the gorgeous shots of country and the reflections of each participant on how being back on country affects and inspires them. We also get to see their studios, their galleries and sometimes openings, and occasionally travel with them to other parts of Australia. I would love to see Bell and Perkins return to the bush communities in a follow-up series.
The television version of Art + Soul was like an art survey course; Colour Theory gets closer to a seminar. The more in-depth stories about the lives of the artists featured in the former showed up in a series of essays that were printed in the companion book for Art + Soul, no doubt due to on-screen limits on time. (See my discussion of the difference in the presentation of Warlimpirringa Tjaplatjarri’s life story for an example.) I would dearly love to see Bell or Perkins (or any number of other artists and curators, say, Tony Albert or Djon Mundine, Vernon Ah Kee or Francesca Cubillo) sit down with the likes of Hector Burton, Gali Yalkarriwuy, Eunice Porter, Ron Yunkaporta, Rammey Ramsey or any one of a dozen other artists from bush communities and give us the kind of insights we are presented with in the segments of Colour Theory. Imagine Helicopter Tjungurrayi reminiscing about his days in Balgo with Tjumpo Tjapanagka or Charlie Tjapangati telling us about working with Uta Uta Tjangala.
I don’t mean to detract from the achievements of Colour Theory. I learned a great deal from it, even about artists like Thorton or Cumpston or Albert with whom I already have a great deal of familiarity. I knew nothing about Jake Nash, despite having seen numerous performances by Bangarra, and had only a cursory acquaintance with Yhonnie Scarce’s work before watching the series. My appreciation of their work increased significantly as a result. Rather, I simply want more, and I hope that NITV represents a platform that can continue to inform and document the practice of Aboriginal artists throughout the country, and that Perkins will continue to explore the varieties of Indigenous art-making practice afoot in the world today.
Have a look at the trailer for Colour Theory; I’m sure it will make you want to watch the whole series.