Sydney might be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but it is also, according to one recent survey, second only to Hong Kong on a list of the world’s most expensive places to live. Coupled with its poor public transport system, as well as ‘lock-out laws’ that enforce the early-morning closure of bars and entertainment venues, cultural life here is fraught with obstacles. That said, Sydney somehow manages to maintain its long history of non-profit and artist-run spaces.
Located in Potts Point, Minerva Gallery has been a beacon for Sydney’s alternative art scene since 2014. Following a hybrid artist-run and commercial gallery model, it has staged some uncompromising exhibitions that promote a distinctly materials-based agenda. In late 2016, one such exhibition, ‘Fiona Connor, Sydney de Jong, Audrey Wollen’, showcased very different works by its titular artists, spanning architectural intervention, video and ceramics. The gallery’s penchant for combining formal rigour with seemingly off-handed methods of display was exemplified by the positioning of De Jong’s ceramic works (‘Coloured Clay Pieces’, 2016) – multi-coloured cups and plates with a 1960s hippie aesthetic – on a drying rack in the gallery’s kitchen, used daily by staff.
Around the corner from Minerva, in the adjacent suburb of Kings Cross, a functioning underground carpark is home to Alaska Projects, which comprises two empty car spaces and two long brick walls that previously functioned as a mechanic’s office. Under the directorship of former street artist Sebastian Goldspink, Alaska has been staging temporary art exhibitions since 2011, with permission from the city council. Recent exhibitions, such as ‘Bridie Connell, Alex Karaconji and Robin Hearfield’ – which included works ranging from drawings of suburban life to go-go dancing and commercial photography – are characteristic of the gallery’s eclecticism. In 2016, Alaska expanded to a site on William Street, closer to the centre of Sydney and to galleries that share its spirit, such as Firstdraft – Sydney’s oldest artist-run space – and Chalk Horse, whose recent painting shows by Amber Boardman (‘Titlist’) and gallery director Oliver Watts (‘House Model’) share an aesthetic sensibility that falls somewhere between Alex Katz, Martin Maloney and aspirational fashion advertising.
Roslyn Oxley9 gallery, in the picturesque eastern suburb of Paddington, has been at the forefront of Australian contemporary art since the early 1980s, emerging as an early supporter of artists such as Jenny Watson and Dale Frank – two of Australia’s most important contemporary painters. Recent solo shows by David Noonan and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu added to the gallery’s illustrious reputation. As with his previous work, Noonan’s melancholic silkscreens of performers in theatrical makeup (all works Untitled, 2016) are appropriated from a range of published material that the artist sources from antique bookstores and thrift shops the world over. Noonan reconstructs these enigmatic images with great delicacy and attention to detail, the apparent gravitas of his sources transposing to his treatment of materials, which comprise patchworks of linen, pearlescent pigment stains, charcoal-weave sisal carpet and graphic overlays of glass that recall the tradition of lead lighting. While Yunupingu’s exhibition, at first glance, seems a long way from Noonan’s urbane aestheticism, the work of this artist – who hails from Gumatj Clan in Yirrkala, at the top of the Northern Territory – is equally beautiful and enigmatic. Paintings such as Circles (2016) and Stars (2016) consist of white motifs on bark and board that interpret the traditional ‘Djulpan’ story of seven sisters whose hunting expeditions by canoe are recalled with the appearance of seven stars in the sky. Exhibitions such as Yunupingu’s – whose contemporary relevance is undeniable – are precisely what makes this country’s complex contemporary art scene so compelling.
Situated in a tiny, industrial-looking space in Redfern – the symbolic birthplace of the urban Aboriginal civil rights movement in Australia – The Commercial is one of the local galleries that has most successfully negotiated the sometimes tricky terrain of commercial art in Sydney, where small spaces that fail to balance critical inventiveness with marketability struggle to stay afloat. The recent exhibition ‘Stray Geranium’, by the brilliant young painter Mitch Cairns, has immediate nostalgic appeal but is also a deceptively slow burn: a lesson in image-making that draws connections between cubism, modernist cartoons and under-recognized Australian post-pop artists such as Robert Rooney and Dale Hickey. In Geranium Pots (Interior) (2016), Cairns’s signature angular lines and cubist-style shading depict a cartoonish middle-aged man with a moustache hammering away at a stretched canvas, alongside a banana, a bottle of wine and a paintbrush. The rows of bricks in the foreground are a reference to the artist’s brick-layer father. The exhibition at once exalts and lampoons Western art and working-class culture, evoking an ambivalence towards European tradition and heritage that somehow seems culturally specific, perhaps even symptomatic of the country’s unresolved colonial past. In Australian art, such issues of national identity rarely go uncontested.
Main image: Mitch Cairns, Geranium Pots (interior), 2016, oil on linen, framed, 216 x 170 x 5 cm. Courtesy: The Commercial Gallery, Sydney; photograph: Sofia Freeman/The Commercial