REVIEW: Show of collected strength

THE Newcastle Art Gallery is not solely a place to stage exhibitions.

We need to remember that its collections are probably the largest and most comprehensive in Australia outside the state capitals.

Works have been judiciously acquired for over 50 years. Some were purchased from a tiny budget allotted to the director at the time. But the majority have been donated to the collection, either through the gallery's support organisations or by enlightened and generous individuals.

We will always treasure works from the foundation benefaction of Dr Roland Pope in the 1950s, as well as the more recent major gifts from William Bowmore, Margaret Olley and Ann Lewis, among many others.

The recently installed exhibition Collection Companions demonstrates not only the extent of the city's holdings but also its depth. Many of its most popular paintings are on display, accompanied by satellite works that augment our appreciation of such eminent figures as Fred Williams, John Brack, Margaret Preston and Brett Whiteley, whose iconic Summer at Carcoar, presented in 1977 by William Bowmore, is accompanied by a preliminary ink drawing of the same stony, willow-lined watercourse.

Arthur Boyd's heat-soaked Shoalhaven landscape has a companion series of his enigmatic myth-infused etchings, demonstrating the polar extremities between which this visionary artist plotted his course.

Aboriginal artists are also included, with several small works by Emily Kngwarreye, Kitty Kantilla and Gloria Petyarre, all gifts to the gallery.

Two of the most remarkable Bowmore gifts are bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin, the great French humanist artist. They are accompanied by three of his figure drawings recently presented from the collection of Margaret Olley.

Hard-edge abstraction from the 1960s is another highlight of the collection. It is represented here by groups of works by Sydney Ball and David Aspden. There are surprising echoes in the biomorphic abstract paintings of John Coburn.

The exhibition is a valuable show of strength. Important paintings and studies by such popular figures as Dobell, Drysdale and Olsen could form a further exhibition expanding the historical context of this notable collection.

Now that the city council has formally endorsed the gallery's long-projected plans for expansion, it must be our fervent hope that state government funding to match the federal grant can be guaranteed early in 2013. It's more than time to turn the first sod.

A further part of the gallery's collection is its enormous holdings of ceramics, including those defining the crucial role ceramics continue to play in the cultural life of Japan.

The earliest works acquired were gifts from Japanese companies involved in the coal trade in the 1970s. (China and Korea, our biggest current coal port customers, also have venerable ceramic traditions).

Splendid donations by individuals have included notable objects from the Bowmore collection. On view at the moment are a selection of the works presented by Keith Clouton and Jim Deas, long-term authorities on Japanese ceramic traditions and advisers to William Bowmore.

The vases, plates and dishes on display are individually significant as representative of regional kilns, still an important element of present-day ceramics. A large jar has the classic white glaze from Hagi on a swirled and faceted spherical form. The porcelain from Arita and Seto has strong historical links. A small gold-flecked bowl comes from courtly Kyoto. The tea ceremony is an ongoing context. Every object represents a proud tradition.

Astonishingly, Newcastle has one of the major holdings outside Japan itself. It deserves to be much more widely known, seen and appreciated.

- AT the University Gallery until December 16, two postgraduate students stage exhibitions expounding a sense of place and acceptance of cultural legacy.

Ireland's diaspora is particularly articulate. Kiera O'Toole's elaborately constructed trefoil shrine houses the traditional West of Ireland boat as metaphor. Cate McCarthy utilises natural pigments and various cultural glyphs and constructs to explore links to the land with questions of aboriginality.

- ROD Bathgate is no stranger to the Cooks Hill Galleries. Until December 21 there are his beach scenes, using the intensity of pastels for translucent water and much familiar coastline.

- AMONG the many Christmas exhibitions, Studio 48 has a particularly wide-ranging line-up of artists. As well as works for resale by Michael Bell, Francis Celtlan, Lee Zaunders and the Strutt sisters, there are Vivienne Nelson's adroit pen drawings, Lyn Fabian's paintings of Central Australia, atmospheric lithographs by Amanda Watts, Gary Simm's surreal gorges and lots more.

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