A date with art

It has been wonderful to welcome so many art lovers back into the Art Gallery of NSW this week. After ten weeks of closure, staff now wait in anticipation each morning for the doors to open, eager to share the riches of the building with the public once again.

To celebrate our reopening week, we gave people the chance to have an up-close and personal encounter with art before opening hours with our Art Date competition.

The contestants were asked what they were most looking forward to about revisiting the Gallery and the winners were matched with a curator and their favourite artworks. The responses were truly amazing – people have obviously missed seeing art in-person and are excited to reconnect with the world.

After her tour, Kath McLean remarked that ‘it’s quite emotional to open the doors back up and start reintroducing ourselves back into the world and it’s just such a nice place to have done that’. Thank you Kath, we loved having you!

Here we share some more Art Date highlights.

Anne Gerard-Austin with Juanita Kelly-Mundine and Isabella Conomos in the Grand Courts

In need of attention

As a recently graduated conservation student, Juanita Kelly-Mundine (pictured above) said she wanted to see some freshly cleaned objects from our collection. We knew exactly where to take her. In the Grand Courts we have several paintings that have undergone recent restoration treatment, including Giambattista Tiepolo’s 18th-century portrait of Saint Roch. The painting, which survived a shipwreck off the coast of Australia in 1901, depicts the 14th-century pilgrim saint invoked to offer hope and healing in times of plague. Anne Gerard-Austin, assistant curator of international art, feels the theme of the painting is perfectly relevant to our current circumstances. Juanita and her guest, Isabella Conomos, agreed and were interested in discussing how we can share the hidden stories of art with the advance of new technologies.

Kath McLean and Ivy with Melanie Eastburn and Nō theatre costume c1800

The good stuff

Kath McLean, a photographer, often comes to the Gallery with her daughter and ‘art buddy’ Ivy and has missed experiencing the beauty of art. Melanie Eastburn, the Gallery’s senior curator of Asian art, took them through the exhibition In one drop of water, which they hadn’t seen before. Aside from loving the Gallery cafe’s scones, Ivy thought Ah Xian’s China, China – Bust 78 2002 was a highlight of the visit. Kath’s favourite piece was the Meiji period Octopus vase. ‘Humans do such beautiful things, and it’s not just about the daily grind’, says Kath. ‘You can come in here and you can see how amazingly some people interpret life. And it’s something to aspire to.’

Isobel Parker Philip with Deborah Roach and Alexandra Roach in Shadow catchers

An itch in your hypothalamus

‘You are my go to place’, wrote Deborah Roach. ‘Art is not an escape. It’s a constant itch in your hypothalamus. If I had to pick one outing I missed during COVID-19, you are it.’ Isobel Parker Philip, our senior curator of contemporary Australian art, sought to remedy the situation by leading Deborah and her daughter Alexandra through the exhibition Shadow catchers. Seeing LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Self-portrait at 40 Holland Avenue 2007 was a particularly moving part of the tour. As a proud Wiradjuri woman, Deborah was touched by the female genealogical narrative behind the work and the political message embedded in the the powerful presence of the child represented. ‘It’s an amazing show’, said Deborah later. ‘It’s just lovely to be here and to be back in this space.’

Priscilla Pettit and Joe Valero Villagran with Peter Raissis in the Grand Courts

The rainbow after the storm

‘Being stuck at home for so long has been difficult’, wrote Joe Valero Villagran for his Art Date entry. ‘I’ve slowly learnt to enjoy the solitude of spots that used to be full of people and life, and tried to use this once-in-a-lifetime event to see the beauty in the quietness and emptiness of places.’ This response prompted Peter Raissis, our senior curator of historical European art, to show Joe and his guest, Priscilla Pettit, a tranquil landscape by Claude Lorrain. Peter also explained the artist’s enormous influence, and how no one afterwards could paint landscapes without thinking of Claude. Joe and Priscilla soon had a feel for Claude’s sensitivity to effects of light and atmosphere and spotted how other artists tried to emulate Claudian light in their own landscapes.

Emma Mottram and her brother Ben with Nick Yelverton in the 19th-century Australian gallery

A spiritual experience

For Emma Mottram and her brother Ben, the Gallery brings back fond memories of their father, an artist and picture framer. Emma and Ben are both fans of Australian landscape painting, so Nick Yelverton, assistant curator of Australian art, showed them some iconic impressionist works by Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder. Emma and Ben were particularly interested in the display of works painted on cigar-box lids that were created for the famous 9 by 5 impression exhibition in 1889. The siblings grew up in Mittagong and were excited to learn that Streeton and Roberts had painted there too in late 1892.

Robert Thomson, Angus and Maryanne Macri with Hannah Hutchison in the 20th- and 21st-century Australian galleries

Next gen

Maryanne Macri and Robert Thomson got married at the Gallery in March 2018. They had intended to bring their six-month-old baby Angus to celebrate their anniversary, but the pandemic dashed their plans. It was a pleasure to welcome them back safely, and to introduce Angus to a place he has only seen in his parent’s wedding photos. Hannah Hutchison, assistant curator of Australian art, took them to see the pulsating energy and light of Grace Cossington Smith’s paintings. Angus seemed to love the Gallery space and the vibrant colours of Cossington Smith’s works – we hope to see him again soon!

Ianni Huang and Lukas Kalos with Maud Page and Karla Dickens’ A Dickensian circus 2020, commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, Create NSW and Justine and Damian Roche. Proposed acquisition © Karla Dickens

Art is a conversation

When Ianni Huang entered the Art Date competition, she said she wanted to feel challenged by art again. That is exactly what Karla Dickens’ installation sets out to do. Displayed as part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, the artist’s A Dickensian circus 2020 places Indigenous stories front and centre in the Gallery’s classical vestibule. Maud Page, our deputy director and director of collections, is proud to have such a strong Indigenous presence in the building’s entranceway and was extremely pleased to discuss the work with Ianni and her friend, Lukas Kalos. For Ianni, the installation is ‘a unique and powerful example of how history can be told and how history can be remembered’.

Thomas Sargeant and Aiden Cheney with Steven Miller and Harriet Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci 1857

There’s always something beautiful

Thomas Sargeant visits the Gallery regularly and always wanders into the Grant Courts to see his favourite piece, Frederic Leighton’s An athlete wrestling with a python 1888–91. Steven Miller, our head of library services, had this in mind when he decided to introduce Thomas and his friend Aiden Cheney to the neoclassical sculptures of Harriet Hosmer. Steven described how her languid Beatrice Cenci 1857 portrays a woman condemned to death for killing her abusive father. It is a study in beauty that masks a radical critique of patriarchal culture. ‘I really enjoyed hearing the story behind Hosmer’s Beatrice and I learned a lot more about artworks that I’d seen before but hadn’t really thought about that much’, Thomas said after his tour.

Richard and Andrea Mason with Yin Cao and Desmond Lazaro’s The Sea of Untold Stories II 2019 © Desmond Lazaro

A visual treat

We were delighted to welcome Andrea Mason into the Gallery after she’d spent months teaching art to secondary students online. ‘Just being here and not seeing the art virtually is a real treat’, said Andrea. ‘In the lockdown you kind of felt deprived of things, so it’s great to be back in and reconnect.’ Andrea and her partner Richard were shown around the Asian art gallery by our curator of Chinese art, Yin Cao, stopping first at Desmond Lazaro’s epic painting The Sea of Untold Stories II 2019. Andrea was grateful for Yin’s insights and she believes sharing new ideas and perspectives with young people through the medium of art is vital. ‘There are lots of artworks that the students have never even been exposed to before and I talk to them about it and it’s just a way of opening their eyes. I find so much joy from doing that.’

Justin Paton and Emma Burn with Tala Madani’s Cave interior (Ancestors) 2019 and Colin McCahon’s Clouds 5 1975 and Teaching aids 2 (July) 1975 © Estate of Colin McCahon, Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

Beautiful, tactile surfaces

Emma Burn has a weakness for ‘oil paintings smothered in thick globs and dashes of paint’. There’s plenty of painterly delights to be found in the exhibition Some mysterious process, so Justin Paton, head of international art, shared some of his favourites with Emma. While looking closely at Dana Schutz’s Breastfeeding 2015, they discussed how great painters get their medium to suggest things without spelling them out. That led them on to Colin McCahon’s Teaching aids 2 (July) 1975, with its white brushstrokes moving through darkness, and a new acquisition by Tala Madani’s that has a surface (as Justin put it) like ‘runny pancake batter’. ‘Art is rewarding on a fundamental level’, says Emma. ‘It just makes me really happy.’