VIRTUOSO: Sir Joseph Banks: The Hunter and the Collector, by Rew Hanks, 2010.NOVOCASTRIA, the new exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery, is another riveting example of one of the gallery’s strongest ventures, the acknowledgment, in old and new artworks, of Newcastle’s unique history. Remember the Macquarie chest?
There are documentary images from 200 years ago, including the Joseph Lycett vista of the infant settlement as a gentleman’s paradise. There is John Lewin’s view of Nobbys from 1807 and Richard Browne’s stylised portraits of local Aboriginal chieftains.
But there are also contemporary works, placing the arrival of European settlers in a wry iconic context. Rew Hanks, a printmaker of virtuoso skill, depicts Joseph Banks, Governor Macquarie and the Aboriginal celebrity Bungaree with mock-heroic detail. Banks, an 18th-century grandee in his native cloak, is surrounded by the wicked Banksia bogeymen we know from childhood, but here disguised as naughty putti.
Other mock portraits of past worthies are the work of indigenous artists Daniel Boyd and Michael Cook, gently mocking the colonial past and apparent present marginalisation.
Gentle mockery, that sometimes explodes in the present century into romantic despair, is in fact the prevailing mood of many of the works, all drawn from the Newcastle collection, with some acquired as recently as last year. Does this mark Ron Ramsey’s swansong, a bitter-sweet exercise in civilised values?
Most of the new works are modest purchases, adding to the gallery’s impressive holdings of prints and other works on paper. Some were presented, such as the trio of large linocuts by Vera Zulumovski. Others were bought to fill gaps in the collection. Some were irresistible curiosities, like the so-called ‘‘hairy leaves’’, painted in the 1830s by Isabella Louisa Parry with minute scenes of settlement.
We reach recent paintings via well-known views of Newcastle harbour by Margaret Olley and George Lambert. Few major artists of the 20th century appear to have visited, though I believe Brett Whiteley painted Nobbys from the obelisk.
Later, Newcastle-based painters take over. Peter Gardiner involves the city in a Leonardo cataclysm, all swirling clouds and building detritus. Andy Devine’s nocturnes celebrate the mountain ranges of waiting coal. Liam Power transforms them into decorative abstraction.
From this exhibition the viewer would never realise that the city has many painters of hedonistic beach scenes and suburban pleasures, or even that it is inhabited. Noel Counihan’s heroic coalminers are not from Hunter mines, although the power of industry in the city’s past is shown in Stanislaus Rapotec’s gritty industrial smoke from 1964.
This is a splendid exhibition, bringing together many areas of discussion as well as some exciting pictures. It is particularly welcome, since the gallery has had only two changes of exhibition in the past six months.
We know there have been problems. So it is crucial at this difficult point to show as much of our very significant art collection as possible, reflecting our history and ourselves.
❏WATT Space celebrates 25 years as the student gallery of the University of Newcastle.
A huge exhibition until May 25 contains works by many people with links to the university, including several of the directors who have played a vital role in the gallery’s establishment, its move from Watt Street into its commodious quarters at University House and its current survival.
The works are necessarily small, with a preponderance of prints, drawings and photographs. Maybe the air of informality tempted participation from Ross Woodrow, Graham Lang and Gavin Fry, as well as present lecturers. Many of the more than 100 works are from recent students who shared in the eight awards demonstrating a capacity for irony.
❏At Cooks Hill Galleries until June 2 are walls of small art works for resale. It is a sort of social history of what people bought for their homes 40 or 50 years ago and how they chose to present them. There are several small Norman Lindsay drawings, a fine red Coburn, a strange Olsen monkey, a clever Blackman. There are two Shay Docking abstract landforms, a deft Lillian Sutherland Chinese brush drawing, an important Vera Zulumovski autobiographical linocut and much more.