Visual Arts in the Valley 2020: A wonderful success
“Big Prizes Bad/Small Prizes Good”: well known art dealer and local resident Rex Irwin aptly misquoted George Orwell’s Animal Farm to open Visual Arts in the Valley 2020. He was spot on. Over the long weekend around 1,300 people visited Kangaroo Valley Hall, transformed into a professional gallery. Visitors took time also to explore satellite exhibitions and our beautiful valley. The art trail was particularly popular - what a treat to be able to chat directly with artists in their studios! And to visit an emotionally confronting art installation.
By Monday afternoon just under $100,000 worth of artworks were sold, including $33,000 by local Kangaroo Valley artists - unprecedented for any art event through the South Coast or Southern Highlands, and great news for local and regional artists. Adding depth to the main event, Rex Irwin curated an exhibition of works from Sydney’s King St Gallery on William at The Hive, showcasing work by Elizabeth Cummings, Euan Macleod, Guy Warren and other nationally renowned artists. Rex also hosted a series of private viewings to which buyers were invited, an added bonus that added character to the weekend festival.
Under new direction, Visual Arts in the Valley has grown from a local show into an emerging national event that is inclusive and diverse in genre and media. Yet it has lost none of its local and regional flavour, and thus marks a difference from more established art prizes like those at Paddington, North Sydney or Mosman.
Local donor Alice Oppen OAM recognised the importance of this when voicing a common sentiment, “What can we do more for local artists?” The director Gary Moore came up with idea of a Salon of Local Artists, and Alice was happy to be the inaugural donor of its prize, allowing locals to show their work alongside regional and national peers. Like all sustainable contemporary art events, emphasis is on the art and the artist.
Over the October long weekend, the village bustled with new visitors, a good mix of locals and artists, from regional farmers who paint to long-established practitioners: a welcome diversity, compared to the usual metropolitan art crowd.
As Gary Moore observed, “I visited the studio-galleries on the Art Trail on Sunday. They were buzzing. There must have been 15 parked cars when I arrived at the Prescott Gallery, with tables in the shade under the trees for those needing to wait for Covid-restricted entry. Likewise under the beating sun at the Silo Gallery, in a wonderful old grain silo in the middle of the former Osborne property. Everyone was enjoying the art and having a chance to see professional artists’ studios, their tools, paints and occasionally a work in progress.” This success story was enabled by local donors who understand its generative force and community benefit. Their generosity lead to $18,350 in prize money distributed amongst three major prizes. Curator Jane Cush reviewed over 630 entries from across Australia. She winnowed these to 120 finalists, with another 65 semi-finalists exhibited through the Online Gallery. Well-known Sydney gallerists Brenda May (May Space) and Damien Minton (Sunday Arvo Art Salon) judged the winners.
And the art itself? It’s not often that regional art exhibitions host cutting edge ideas - we usually head to Sydney to see the latest trends. No longer: as a quick trip to the Wynne Landscape Prize at the AGNSW will confirm, much of the works here too headlined a major shift in the way we experience our land and, by extension, our life world. Landscape painting will no longer be the same. Over the long weekend, we gained a new, collective insight into what we have seen around us - burnt fence-lines, scorched bush, dry paddocks, near-extinct flora and fauna.
Think about the last time the land loomed so large in Australian art. The pastoral ‘vision splendid’ of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeto
n and the Heidelberg School painted a story of Australia Felix, riding on the sheep’s back. This fable was soon debunked by the arid, outback landscapes of Russell Drysdale and friends. Nonetheless their dusty, mismanaged badlands still felt a world away: somewhere Out West.
Today our green and damp rainforests burn, and artists were there, on the spot, as residents and first responders within affected communities, as part of the painstaking re-build and, importantly, offering an affective and reflective insight on what we have been through. As local photo artist Patrick Cummins noted of his Salon award-winning Burnt Landscape - Jacks Corner Road, “After the New Year bushfires had passed through Kangaroo Valley, I took a trip out to Jacks Corner to witness the result of the intense heat on the landscape. I saw nature at its worst can still create a piece of art.”
Kangaroo Valley Art Prize Winner Tony Ameneiro’s elegiac Nattai River Landscape shared this environmental theme. He made us appreciate how the intimate landscape is rendered uncanny by bushfire and climate change. Without being at all literal, he suggests that the places we know we no longer really know, and we don’t quite feel at home anymore. A delicate scribbly line (like that of a scribbly gum) overlays translucent boulder and tree forms to render a loved corner of bushland as fragile, risky, and possibly ghosted.
While painting predominated, there was also a number of strong photographs and a welcome smattering of video works, creating a refreshing change of tempo and pace. Unlike social-media attention spans, art videos, being time-based, usually demand a slower pace. It was great to see socially distanced huddles of gallery goers of all ages absorbed in these quiet though challenging works. Jessica Long’s video While Away My Home Lost Colour and Sound was an evocative reflection on self and place, and a fitting choice for the inspired and inspiring Tony White Memorial Art Prize for artists under thirty. The work is deceptively simple: fleeting memories of the family home, garden, backyard tree, boat in the car port - all abstracted on old filmstock. We usually don’t associate video work with formal intricacy, but each shot has been re-run through the projector and carefully edited through seemingly informal loops and visual-aural mis-registrations, to embody half-recollected memories of place and lives violently disrupted. As with the Archibald Prize, the gallery packers are usually on the money when it comes to topicality, wit and popular sentiment. As team leader and donor Wendy Calkhoven put it, the packers ignored style, favour or fashion by simply asking: “Do I love this artwork?” Voting was tight, and the team opted for democratic, preferential voting to choose a clever, topical and visually striking photomontage of threatened flora and fauna, Pamela Pauline’s Once Were Wildflowers. Great prize; good pick. Not all landscape works were gloomy: we recall more halcyon days in Sue Prescott’s Summer, Budderoo. The grass is burnt yellow, the trees are dry; but it feels strangely upbeat looking up over gentle rises towards the escarpment. So too Ashley Frost’s Wodi Wodi Forest, which enlivens our bush like an artistic Acknowledgement of Country with the crackle and bounce of a John Perceval or early Arthur Boyd. Local artist Kerrie Leishman’s After the Rain was an abstracted, imaginary landscape, yet viewers could share that palpable feeling of earth and air bursting with moisture after recent rains. Peta West’s popular Along the Coastal Track - a linocut in a style made famous by Sydney moderns like Adelaide Perry - also ticked many boxes with its black cockatoo, flannel flowers, twining banksia and coastal shoreline, an intensity of life tightly woven amidst the burnt blackness of the fires. The show was so much more than just bush themes. The curator was careful to include other genres like portraiture and still life. It’s probably the times, but most of the portraits on show were a little unsettling. Both Vanessa Stockard and Freya Jobbyns seduced then spooked on closer view. Amala Groom’s Highly Commended video was upfront in challenging the very idea of the individual self-portrait, with a counter-claim to collective (familial) cultural Wiradyuri identity. This was another seemingly simple yet conceptually complex work: first a black screen, then the artist’s face appearing as a double portrait, patiently explaining (through out-of-synch voiceover) her fundamental fact of self: “I am Wiradyuri” “My mother is Wiradyuri”, my “grandmother/great grandmother/great great grandmother is Wiradyuri”…. and so on, back through generations, as the image track slowly fades back to black. Visual Arts in the Valley has helped cement Kangaroo Valley’s reputation as an arts centre of the South Coast, Highlands and surrounding regions. “Who needs Paris when you can have Kangaroo Valley?” ran a recent headline in the Sydney Morning Herald, noting the re-location of the prestigious Brett Whiteley Scholarship to Kangaroo Valley until international travel bans lift. Three cheers for the ‘Paris of the South’!