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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Artists and the polemics of international recognition: Why Australian artists Kathrin Longhurst

At a time when Australian artists from film, ballet, and music are touring and fashioning strong reputations internationally, Australia’s visual artists in contrast have not enjoyed anything like the success of Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, and Anish Kapoor.

While Australian expats Ron Mueck, Ricky Swallow, and Tracey Moffatt, along with Gareth Sansom, Patricia Piccinini, Bill Henson, and Wendy Sharpe are making their presence felt, even their work is rarely seen on permanent display in the art museums of London and New York.

Australian artists are turning up at international art fairs in increasing numbers, and some fairs – most notably, Art Basel Hong Kong and Miami – are actively promoting Australian artists and their art, but they are mostly featured among the stalls of Australian galleries rather than hanging prominently in the stands of global gallery behemoths like Gagosian, Gallerie Perotin and Pace Gallery.

Antony Gormley, Free Object (2017)

Ricky Swallow

Self-serving commentary of late that Australians are forging a new path internationally, despite their isolation from New York, London and Paris is in my view somewhat premature. Certainly the ‘tyranny of distance’ in this digital age is no longer the hurdle it once was. However, the list of Australian artists 'making it overseas' is still not long.

Australian commercial galleries of the calibre of Olsen, Sullivan+Strumpf and Michael Reid have set up permanent spaces overseas, bridging the divide to bring Australian artists to the international attention of collectors, dealers, curators and philanthropists. All this helps the cause of Australia's visual culture, if only to make it slightly less foreign – and a less risky proposition – to foreigners. But this is far from representative of an Australian onslaught. So what is blocking the path to international recognition for so many Australian artists?

Australian art in the main tends to focus on Australian home-life; that by its nature fails to garner the broader attention of an international audience. Of course there are exceptions - with John Olsen's landscapes coming to mind - but their success tends to highlight the rarity of Australian arts' influence on the world stage. Australia remains for the most part a settled and stable place to be, far from conflict zones and places where issues of 21st-century humanity are played out. Domestic themed works of this type are neither exotic, politically interesting, nor familiar.

Olsen Gruin, New York

To be successful internationally, the artist must break free of the confines and tastes of a parochial, jingoistic art market and draw upon a broader platform. Over and above this, the art works themselves must stand as simply, good art. Often success is elusive for reasons that the works fall short technically and that the artist is trying either too hard or not hard enough.

The singular embrace of the viewing, collector, gallery, critic and institutional art market ultimately is the measures of success. To reach across such a diverse group, the artist in my view must produce consistently high quality works that contain an original narrative or meaning that transcends the mundane and a capability to take the audience along with them in any direction the artist so choses.

There are many good contemporary visual artists, but there are it seems few capable of navigating this path.

Kathrin Longhurst

Australian artist Kathrin Longhurst’s international accolades are borne of her persistence, and dedication to achieving a forward-looking, universal and well-executed narrative for her work. And this month sees Longhurst’s much-anticipated return to Nanda Hobbs’ new gallery space in Chippendale with her exhibition, ‘Protagonist’.

Kathrin Longhurst, Liberation Photo: Nanda\Hobbs

Confirming the international attention her work commands, a week out from the exhibition Longhurst’s feature oil painting ‘Ode to Feminism’, consciously drawing on revolutionary imagery and measuring 180 x 540 cm, has been purchased by The Bennett Art Collection in Texas, and is destined for a major public exhibition in Chicago next year.

Meanwhile, Nanda\Hobbs’ pristine white gallery walls provide the perfect atmospheric backdrop to her finely painted, freefalling female aviators. Up close, the presence of these protagonists command attention, compelling the viewer to take in and confront the contradictions emerging from the works. The most apparent being the substitution of young women where men once only were portrayed as heroes.

This is simply the challenge of Longhurst’s art.

Kathrin Longhurst, Defiant Photo: Nanda\Hobbs

Kathrin Longhurst, Ode to Feminism (2018) (Detail)

At first the imagery appears of a by-gone soviet era, far removed from the modern-day audience. It would be tempting to dismiss the works as passé, but Longhurst is having none of that.

Her heroines imbued with Balkan beauty, soft fleshy tones and most often fitted out in militaristic, oversized uniforms are in large part self-portraits - the artist having grown up in communist East Germany – and clearly also reflective of cold war propaganda.

But unlike the poster images of socialist realism, Longhurst’s figures are not of clench fisted, hard-etched women forging on through adversity in pursuit of the national social good, while men are depicted as military heroes of the new order. Rather, these young women mirror more the powerful, confident and glamourous millennials that dominate our modern media.

Kathrin Longhurst, Rebel with a Cause Photo: Nanda\Hobbs

Adolf Strakhov, Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism! (1927) (Detail)

Viewing Longhurst’s intimate works ‘Liberation’ and ‘Like the Wind’ and observing the pensive figurine in ‘Rebel with a Cause’, one cannot but reflect on the journey of women over the decades and ponder just on how much more in the name of feminism there is left to do and by whom. The steely gaze of the women depicted leave the viewer ultimately in little doubt.

In contrast to these figurative works, Longhurst presents a series of smaller cleverly composed paintings. Titled ‘Blush’, ‘Chanel’, ‘Coco Noir’ and ‘I love you’, these paintings feature the spilled contents of a woman’s leather purse, oozing intrigue. There among the female accoutrements, spill the bullets and hand-held weaponry of clandestine warfare and foreign espionage. The imagery is powerful, and even momentarily humorous.

Kathrin Longhurst, Blush Photo: Nanda\Hobbs

I find Longhurst’s paintings strikingly authentic. The artist is well placed to paint and comment upon the themes she presents. Importantly, these works are at once recognisable as by this artist, the signature style comforting to discerning art lovers. When these elements come together successfully, a trans-global art market is poised to embrace the artist.

Naturally, her use of universal iconography has progressed in form and style since her arrival in Australia in 2002 – no doubt influenced by her Australian art education – so that the artist is today well deserving of her place steadfastly on the path to international success..

Julie Rrap

Julie Rrap in a not dissimilar vein pushes back against the subjugation of women in the media and in society, in a playful, sensual and transformative series of mesmerising photographic portraits in her exhibition, 'Blow Back' at Sydney's Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

Installation view of Julie Rrap’s exhibition, Blow Back

Using her own image and that of 32 other female artists who volunteered to participate, Rrap continues her use of the body and representations of the body to complete her work. Here each woman exhales, creating a momentary fog that naturally takes many forms - a poignant metaphor for the process of pushing back in a direction opposite to the usual one.

Rrap says,

These portraits represent a collective performance act that uses breath as an action that is both gentle yet provocative. The performers’ open mouths mock the endless images of women posed in this way to suggest their receptivity; like a vessel waiting to be filled. In ‘Blow Back’ their breath is materialised like the capturing of a sound; a unique expression of their voice; a silent protest.

Julie Rrap, Blow Back #16 Photo: Roslyn Oxley9

Julie Rrap, Blow Back #10 Photo: Roslyn Oxley9

Julie Rrap, Blow Back #1 Photo: Roslyn Oxley9

Julie Rrap, Blow Back #31 Photo: Roslyn Oxley9

The bleached silhouettes of these women, contrasted against the lamp black backgrounds theatrically heighten their sense of isolation and vulnerability. But one does not feel pity viewing the images. These women are clearly enjoying and reflective of the moment afforded them by the artist.

It is evident these women are present, ecstatically focused on the life giving act of breathing. Surrounded, we can be assured of their empowerment too.


Kathrin Longhurst at work in her studio

Julie Rrap (2015) Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

Installation view of Kathrin Longhurst’s, Ode to Feminism (2018)

Main photo: Kathrin Longhurst, Ode to Feminism (2018) (Detail)

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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