From Paris to Woolloomooloo: Artists integral place as 'exhibition objects'
Paris in winter was quieter than one would expect. Headstrong French train drivers, protesting against national government austerity, had brought for some months now the city to a standstill. And while this made getting out and about difficult and wearying, there were plenty of inviting wine bars, picture-perfect cafes and delicious pâtisseries (a personal weakness) to distract one’s journeying.
My first attempt to visit the Musée Rodin on the famed Boulevard des Invalides was met with the imposing gate of the 18th century mansion being firmly shut. The train strike had prevented staff attending work and the museum was closed for the day. Undeterred, presenting at the gate the next day I was this time waved through and into the forecourt, manicured garden with Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ (1904) gazing earnestly down at me. I stood, and drew a breath, as I anticipated the wonders that lay ahead. I had long desired to stand in this spot, since Bruno Nuttyen’s 1988 bio-pic Camille Claudel had given me an intimate glimpse of the monumental works of both Auguste Rodin and his forlorn lover Camille Claudel.
Musée Rodin, Paris
In a memorable scene from the film, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, the young sculptor Camille is boorishly chastised by her more famous master and lover Rodin for lacking the necessary desire for success - 'to exhibit, exhibit, exhibit’. For a female artist at the time, when women were not allowed to enrol in arts school, or exhibit at major expositions and salons it was never going to be that simple for Camille.
Camille died in obscurity at an asylum in southern France in 1943. Today, only 90 of her works – sculptures and graphic studies – are known to survive. But of these works, a clear artistic genius is evident.
For decades, the best way to experience Camille’s sculpture was somewhat ironically by visiting the Musée Rodin, where a room is dedicated to her sculptural works – many of which bear Rodin’s signature, a common practice of the apprentice system. As of 2017, however, about half of Camille’s surviving works can be viewed within their own dedicated national museum in Nogent-nur-Seine, the Musée Camille Claudel.
With her legacy fully reinstated, Camille overcame even after her death, the prejudice against female artists to become an ‘exhibition artist’ in a modern context.
And this modern way of viewing Camille’s art positions most clearly for me the connecting relationship between often diverse exhibited artworks - seeing the exhibition itself as a whole work of art - to be explored in terms of its broader societal and artistic meaning.
Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu in Bruno Nuttyen's film, Camille Claudel (1988)
Camille Claudel, 'The Mature Age' (1913) Photo: Musée Rodin
The notion that exhibitions have become the medium through which most art becomes known and they establish and administer the cultural meanings of art, speaks to the very nature of the art exhibition and why it retains its preeminent place in a world of multiple marketing platforms.
Its temporality, narrative form, and its ability to express points of view are all components of its inherent nature. In presenting art to the public in a strategic, curated and organised way, often through telling a story and posing questions where the viewer is left thinking, the exhibition serves as a form of contextualisation for art.
The intrinsic nature then of the art exhibition sets it apart from all other forms of artistic display, expression or medium. The transience of the temporary exhibition lays the foundation for novelty, for risk taking, for experimentation that coincides with the mentality of contemporary society, or further challenges that mentality. Social and other media fall well short in this regard.
Exhibitions are essentially spaces of experience, manipulated environments prepared specifically for an audience so as to achieve a certain goal.
Musée Rodin Photo: The Guardian
And while commercial galleries have as their primary goal the sale of artworks via short-lived exhibitions, intertwined here too is the importance of connecting the modern artist with the exhibition of their art, representing the artist's view of him or herself, the difficulties of the artist, and the artist's social status - who themselves in this way become exhibition objects. That is, galleries at all levels must sell the artist to an audience in the face of competition, to become ‘the talk of the town’, to attract the public, and to procure for them an income.
These tasks invariably create tensions, from questions about artistic freedom to the social role of the artist, but there is still much to be gained by investigating the relationship between the production of art and its representation, between exhibitions and an enthusiastic public, and between animosity toward an artist and admiration. This is how success is measured.
This brings me to the present day, a world on hold especially from an institutional perspective. I have scanned the Australian art scene for exhibitions that capture the essence of this symbiotic relationship, for a collection of works that successfully produce a cohesive narrative, and an insightful, rewarding experience. Here, with the artist at centre stage, are a few.
Craig Handley, ‘Make Believe’
18 June – 19 July 2020
Consciously making seismic changes to one’s life is not something to be done lightly. There are a relatively small group of people that are comfortable with change and then there is the rest. Of course, it often does not work out how one hoped. For artist Craig Handley, his decision to turn his back on the choking inner Sydney suburb of Wolloomooloo to set up his studio in the clear air of the Southern Highlands of New South Wales did not seem a difficult one to make, just one more really.
But its import on the artist’s psyche, the universality of his experience of transience, of loss and longing is clearly evident in his paintings currently on display at Sydney’s Piermarq* gallery in Paddington.
Craig Handley, 'Make Believe 00' (2020) Photo: Piermarq*
Craig Handley, 'Make Believe 9' (2020) Photo: Piermarq*
Craig marks his journey with keen observation and a skilled painterly hand. Not only the subtle effect of life’s vicissitudes on him, but on others about him. There are no grand moments or gestures. No sweeping statements or bold predictions. On display is the artist’s imaginative gift for narrative, narrative that is nonetheless restrained, without bordering on either sentimentalism or didacticism.
Says Craig, "Each of the works in this exhibition bringing multiple familiar images together, creating “a medley, a collage of all the things (he) comes across while travelling about”.
Art critic John McDonald has praised Craig’s work for defying classification, blurring the lines between ‘realism and surrealism, narrative and observation’, requiring the unpicking of each element within the overall composition to perhaps render sense. And in this lies the artist’s success - bringing together and making holistic sense of at first a collection of disparate images. To do so consistently for me is the mark of an talented, idea-fuelled artist.
Craig Handley, 'Some Assembly Required' (2019) Photo: Piermarq*
Craig Handley, 'Make Believe 10' (2020) Photo: Piermarq*
And this conversation between the artist and the viewer continues from painting to painting, as one edges around the walls of the gallery. The minimal palette of washed blues and reds works well to create dreamlike images, gently drawing the viewer to peer at the seemingly oddly placed reflections of familiar objects - simply constructed homes, an early model caravan, a lawnmower, an often-present man up a ladder, kangaroos and a koala. These paintings are imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia and melancholy.
Importantly, one cannot here separate the artist from this seamless collection of artworks. They are deeply personal, shared memories no doubt. I am left wanting to learn more, to engage in a conversation, despite the artist appearing to be of few words. Until then, I am left to connect with the artist, to take in these works on my own.
Min Woo Bang, 'Natural Impact'
Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
27 June - 15 July
In his new body of expressive painted landscapes at Sydney's Wagner Contemporary, the force of artist Min Woo Bang's breathless energy is evident. The metaphoric use of the destructive force of nature unfolds across each canvas in this superbly executed series of paintings. It is not a stretch to imagine oneself sitting alongside the artist as he sweeps his arm across the canvas, seemingly gently pushing the cloud masses along. They are sensual, intimate works.
Many artists create atmosphere in a painting as an enhancement to their subject. But Min takes this beyond the device, where the mood that pervades the works is mirroring his own at the time. It is evident the artist feels deeply for his environment, with a personal affinity for its ravages and for its kindness, for its destructive as well as its redemptive qualities.
Min Woo Bang, 'Grandeur' (2020) Photo: Wagner Gallery
Min Woo Bang, 'Uncertain Sky, Near Jindabyne' (2020) Photo: Wagner Contemporary
Min Woo Bang in his Sydney studio (2020) Photo: Min Woo Bang
Looking at these paintings, one is challenged. To question the artist. To understand his thinking. Is there a deepening sadness here, or a tightly held belief that all fears, that all things are transitory?
Min describes these works, "Here the landscape’s language is powerful, communicating drama via billowing clouds and ripples of light. Dark treetops and faraway horizons invite contemplation of the land as a source of peace and calm as well as a template of emotional intensity.
Within each landscape, a strong sense of presence accompanies a tension that is unsettling and underlying the unknown."
For me, Min's highly skilled use of saturated red, orange, and blue tones across his wide skies, balanced and weighted in a remarkable way against the rich, dark greens of the low lying landscape is unrivalled among contemporary Australian artists.
Min Woo Bang, 'Orange Sunset' (2020) Photo: Wagner Contemporary
Min Woo Bang, 'Beautiful Ending' (2020) Photo: Wagner Contemporary
It is a signature, making Min's work instantly recognisable. It speaks of the artist. In the hands of lesser painters, such attempts at capturing imagery and perspective in this manner would fail. Min however succeeds, justifiably earning much public acclaim.
Experiencing these works, inevitably places me back in the quiet of my contemplation as I wandered the halls and salons of the Musee Rodin. There I was filled with thoughts of Rodin, of Camille toiling at their clay. Feeling their emotion oozing through their finger tips and into the sculpture. I thought of their lives together, and apart. Of the cruel strictures of their time. Of the journeys they took, one to fame and the other to an institution for the insane. Each at long last now the indispensable object of exhibitions of their work.
Back in Australia, Craig Handley and Min Woo Bang are firmly at the forefront of their exhibitions. Exhibitions that showcase their talents, eliciting questions, and connecting them to their audience. They each are an integral part of our understanding of their art, providing context and in turn a valuable critique of our contemporary world.
In a competitive market, these artists have secured their place as exhibiting artists, thereby positioning them at the forefront of their oeuvre, winning the hearts and minds of an appreciative and no doubt better informed audience along the way. For gallerists and for artists, like myself, this path is now well lit.
Craig Handley, 'Make Believe' runs until 19 July at Piermarq*, Sydney
Min Woo Bang, 'Natural Impact' opens 27 June and runs till 15 July at Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Main Photo: The Masterpiece Collection, Musée Rodin
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia. His new exhibition of paintings, 'Passage', opens at Artvisory Gallery in Melbourne on 25 July and runs till 19 July. For details go to www.artvisory.com.au