Art review: Grisaille; Shades of Grey showing at Newcastle Art Gallery

JOHN BRACK: The Sun Lamps (detail), 1966, from the Newcastle Art Gallery collection.

JOHN BRACK: The Sun Lamps (detail), 1966, from the Newcastle Art Gallery collection.

Grisaille; Shades of Grey at the Newcastle Art Gallery is another high quality exhibition drawn from its outstanding collection.

While grey is often imagined as being passive, and perhaps even dull, this body of work disproves such misconceptions. Here a wide-range of work from some of Australia’s best known artists since the 1920s explores the endless possibilities of this unheralded colour range that spans the extremes from black to white.

By excluding colour from their palette the artists concentrate on form, composition, subject and atmosphere, undistracted by the overbearing dominance that colour can produce. Where colour is incorporated into the works it is used both as a counter-point and complement to the tonal mood established by the use of the grey scale.

As one would expect from an exhibition with this focus, there are many drawings in graphite, chalk, pen and ink, and prints of every technique along with photographs and significant paintings that have been carefully selected and positioned to cut across movements and ‘isms’ and reveal connections across time that are rarely exposed.

The only pre-1950s work in the show is a small ink wash study of a garden shed from 1927 by one of Australia’s earliest abstractionists, Roy de Maistre. While this exhibition is not a chronological analysis, which presumes some sort of linear artistic advancement over time, the selection of this work to introduce Grisaille establishes the prevailing ambience and subtly bridges the divide between the figurative and abstract approaches taken by latter-day artists.

Photos of a domestic interior by Fiona Hall in 1974 and Jane Burton in 2001 neighbour Nigel Milsom’s 2007 graphite drawings of deserted buildings haunted with malevolence and his dominating painting of a judo master from 2009. This rubs shoulders with Robert Dickerson charcoal figure studies from 1957 and 2002 and Bill Henson’s 1984 photographic portrait bursting with baroque grandeur.

This successful juxtaposition of artists, times and mediums gives the exhibition an unexpected vitality, erasing many of the constraints that more rigidly defined shows create. Gretchen Albrecht’s abstractly painted, large ovoid canvas does not overwhelm Charles Blackman’s small drifting figures and Fred Williams’ charming quartet of etchings from the1950s-60s is a perfect partner for Brett McMahon’s large ink drawing on paper from 40 years later.

Works by such important post-war figurative artists as James Gleeson, Frank Hinder, John Brack and Noel Counihan extend into the ultra-realism of William Delafield Cook in the early 1970 and his contemporary Bea Maddock’s confronting Holocaust images while Mike Parr’s highly charged, oversized self-portraits are somewhat soothed by his contemporary, Ildiko Kovacs’ small geometric, abstract paintings and Dale Frank’s swirling and folding graphite meditation.

It is hoped that exhibitions of similar quality and interest curated from NAG’S collection continue to be central to its program.