Art | City collection on show | John Barnes

CIRCUS OF LIFE: See Robyn and Eric Werkhoven's exhibition, Comedy and Tragedy, at Art Systems Wickham.
CIRCUS OF LIFE: See Robyn and Eric Werkhoven's exhibition, Comedy and Tragedy, at Art Systems Wickham.

Newcastle is extremely fortunate to have one of Australia’s most significant art collections outside the major metropolitan centres, and Newcastle Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Painting Memory is a welcome opportunity to engage with some of our best-loved works.

This is a carefully considered and presented selection of 36 fine paintings, which trace the development of Australian art since colonisation from Joseph Lycett’s view of Newcastle’s emerging penal settlement to the end of the 20th century.

The small number of colonial works by Lycett and luminaries such as Eugene von Guerard provide context for the radically different vision that Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts had of the country as it headed towards federation.

Early 20th century paintings from the likes of Rupert Bunny, Grace Cossington-Smith, Clarice Beckett, Elioth Gruner, Roland Wakelin and Nora Heysen led us to the works of William Dobell and Russell Drysdale and into the ‘Antipodean’ dramas of the 1950s, where the predominantly Melbourne based figurative expressionists fought an ideological battle with non-representational painters of Sydney.

Now, after 60 years of usually meaningless argument, the myth-soaked, figurative works of Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan sit comfortably alongside the abstract paintings of John Coburn, Sid Ball, Ralph Balson, David Aspden, Dale Hickey and Peter Booth, which were considered by many in their time to be too international and perhaps even ‘un-Australian’.

More recent paintings by Fred Williams, Emily Kngwarreye and Brett Whiteley return us once again to the landscape that provides some continuity through the diverse stories of Australian art.

Along with the quality of the individual paintings, the inclusion of artists with very close connections to Newcastle, such as Lycett, Dobell, Matthew Percival and, of course, Margaret Olley and John Olsen, gives this exhibition added local significance while successfully placing these painters in the broader national context.

In a very constructive move, the highly informative wall texts have been written by gallery staff and volunteers and are thankfully free of art-speak.

Details of the individual paintings and artists are accompanied by the story of how each work entered the collection, which started with Dr Roland Pope’s bequest of 123 works to the city in 1945.

Under the guidance of all directors since the prescient Gil Docking, the collection has grown through donations from private benefactors, the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation’s acquisition fund and from within the gallery’s budget.

However, the collection of more than 6000 works is now beyond the gallery’s capacity and our chances of seeing these works, which only exist to be seen, seems to diminish every year.

The Newcastle Art Gallery is 40 years old and is no longer able to meet the requirements of a major art centre nor the expectations of contemporary gallery visitors.

A 21st century gallery suitable for the permanent exhibition of a growing collection is needed in addition to providing spaces for major touring and locally sourced exhibitions with specific video, performance and education areas, a café, gift shop and administrative offices with storage and conservation facilities worthy of this incredibly valuable collection.

Unfortunately, Macquarie Street is happy to toss Sydney’s AGNSW about $400million for an unnecessary, second contemporary art space and has committed a few billion dollars to knock down and rebuild some Sydney sports stadiums, but can find nothing for the state’s second-biggest city.

In addition, our local government seems fixated with pie-in-the-sky one-off events instead of investing in permanent cultural and natural aspects of our city that should be central to a sustainable, vibrant economy.

WERKHOVEN WORLD

Comedy and Tragedy at Art Systems Wickham is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of existence as seen through the eyes of well-known Hunter Valley artists Robyn and Eric Werkhoven and their daughter Monique. Having worked and exhibited individually and collaboratively for over 30 years the artists’ individual styles have merged into one where all roles in the creative process seem interchangeable. They have created an absurdist, stylised cartoon world where ‘cautionary tales’ and domestic memories reside. A circus where humans and beasts engage in curious rites and rituals against a background of religious signage and mythic symbolism. Until November 12.