What is a regional artist? An artist who makes art about their region? Or who simply lives regionally and makes art there? What it means to be regional has been argued and re-argued many times. But amidst a pandemic that has radically reshaped our habits of travel and communication, the r-word carries fresh relevance.
In a world where air travel is barely happening, we’re newly conscious that art (whether it’s made in Mudgee or Marrickville) emerges from local conditions, and that its first and best audience may also be local. Then, too, there’s the pressing awareness of the fragility of the natural world – something regional artists, working in drought- and fire-afflicted landscapes, are uniquely positioned to reflect on.
More than ever, then, it’s important to recognise the art-making that happens beyond the major cities. And to help us do so, for Together In Art’s regional focus, we’ve enlisted the help of directors, curators and educators from across the State. Here, from points beyond Sydney including Orange, Dubbo and Tweed, are some artists you should know.
Emma Walker: the rhythms of nature
By Susi Muddiman OAM
Director, Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre
Mullumbimby-based artist Emma Walker is one of our treasured regional artists. As I’ve watched her practice evolve over the years, it’s been fascinating to see the consistent inventiveness with which she’s explored and engaged with nature.
Carving, sanding, digging, grinding, glazing, dripping and scratching into layered timber, Walker intuitively recreates the patterns and rhythms that recur in nature – from the intricacy of fungi microsystems and rampant weeds to the massive movements of Australian sea, sky and rock. The resulting ‘sculptured wall paintings’ are evocative and luminous. I love how the fluidly carved shape of each painting is organic but also ambiguous, suggesting the simultaneously cosmic and microscopic dimensions of the natural world as seen through the artist’s eyes.
It feels very appropriate to have reopened Tweed Regional Gallery with You are here: art from the region. The show highlights the focus in our collection on regional relevance, with artists who have lived and worked here as well as those who have portrayed the landscape and found imaginative form for the region. As an artist who has lived and worked in the Northern Rivers for the past 18 years, Emma’s practice invites the viewer to share her deep respect for the unique ecosystems that we have here, and gently reminds us to tread delicately to protect them.
Emma’s work in the show is Intervolve I 2020, a new acquisition for the Tweed Regional Gallery collection. With its surging landforms and complex patterns evoking roots and waterways, it offers a view into the complex local ecologies that support us and need our care.
Harrie Fasher: harnessing imperfection
By Lucy Stranger
Curator at Orange Regional Gallery
When bronze is poured onto steel, it cools dramatically, only running a certain distance before it slows to a stop. ‘Cold shut’ is the technical term for what happens when two streams of molten metal do not join properly as a piece is cast – it is ordinarily considered a fault. For sculptor Harrie Fasher, however, it is one of the unpredictable processes and flaws that she constantly harnesses in her vast studio.
Known for her elegant and emotive sculptures of human figures and especially horses, Fasher combines organic materials such as sticks and string with the solidity of steel armatures and bronze casting. This results in works that hover between permanence and impermanence in their textural, seemingly time-worn materials and weighted and suspended forms.
As well as possessing an undeniable grandeur and authority, especially when seen in the landscape against open sky, Fasher’s sculptures embody a state of emotional turbulence and temporary repair that speaks of trial and survival. These qualities arise, in part, from her journey in 2017 to the former Western Front in Europe, where she reflected upon the harrowing conditions of war and how to imbue the image of the horse with the anguish of that history.
At the heart of Fasher’s exploratory process is the ability to sculpt and cast in the same studio, with this year marking an exciting moment as she sets up her new foundry in Portland in the Central West of New South Wales. The new foundry sets the stage for a transformative period, as Fasher looks towards regeneration in the Central West following the crises of drought, bushfires, flooding and COVID-19.
Noni Nixon: giving the finger to satellites
By Kent Buchanan
Curator, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo
For many years, Dubbo-based artist Noni Nixon lived on a property about 30 km or so from Coonamble in the central-western plains of NSW, having moved there in 1959. Somewhere between her farm, household and parental duties, she would make art. What form this took depended on the day, the materials at hand, and whatever idea or conceit preoccupied her. Sometimes it would be not an object, but an action.
One such action saw her walk out into the middle of a paddock, arch her neck as if echoing a telescope at nearby Siding Spring Observatory, and look up into oblivion. With her eyes fixed on a point in the sky, she raised her arm above her head and defiantly extended her middle finger to the heavens. (Imagine a Department of Defence technician scanning through satellite imagery suddenly affronted by a derisive middle digit.)
This simple yet provocative gesture, neatly encapsulates Nixon’s iconoclastic practice and maverick worldview. Deeply suspicious of authority and brandishing a wry sense of the absurd, she makes visible the unseen structures that tether us to corporations, government and the World Wide Web. Even when we think we are free, we are bound to something.
Nixon’s current work on display in a group show, features a pile of circular flatbreads, like oversized communion wafers, arranged in a corner. The bread is pockmarked with black ulcer-like burns – the result of microwaving them for too long. A pile of porcelain and stoneware plates rests in the opposite corner, their whiteness defiled and stained by the burnt and tortured flatbreads. Made during the height of the devastating bushfires that ripped through the Australian landscape, Nixon’s work ponders the risks and consequences of pushing things beyond their (natural) limits. We are now beginning to see what dish that recipe serves.
Bethany Thornber: when histories become evident
By Michael Moran
Curator, Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA)
The Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park exists on country that has for millennia been connected to the Dhudhuroa, Yaithmathang, Bangarang, Yorta Yorta and Waveroo peoples of what is now known as North East Victoria.
Bethany Thornber is an artist and of the neighbouring Wiradjuri people, and has called the town of Chiltern home in recent years. Chiltern sits adjacent to Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, a place of rich, complex and overlapping histories involving agriculture, industry, deforestation, threatened species, and displaced peoples. The park is a site where cattle, rabbits and even peacocks compete with squirrel gliders, barking owls and eastern grey kangaroos. Where St John’s Wort, blackberry growth and prickly pear threaten the native Mt Pilot spider orchid. What now exists is capable of detailing a continent-wide story of colonial settlers’ impacts in a microcosm.
The park’s histories, all evident in the present, have provided the source material for Bethany Thornber and her recent exhibition at Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), parks and wreck. The exhibition reflected on the current state of this landscape, teasing out how it came to be this way, and what makes the park enduringly beautiful. A key place within the National Park and a vital consideration for Thornber is the sacred site Yeddonba. Named in the Dhudhuroa language for the native black cyprus pine, Yeddonba is a place that has held ceremony and gatherings for thousands of years. The rock formation that protects the site has been formed over aeons and within this site exists two small paintings – one of a goanna and the other of a thylacine, an animal that has been extinct on the continent for two thousand years.
A large sculptural thylacine roamed Bethany’s exhibition at MAMA, watching a moment when all histories become evident.
The Richard Bell you don’t know
By David Capra and Julie Finch
Coordinator and co-facilitator of Little Orange, Campbelltown
Campbelltown, 60 km southwest of central Sydney, is the home to Campbelltown Art Centre’s Little Orange, a working studio for artists who identify with a disability. It is here that we met the other Richard Bell – Richard J Bell.
Early on in his time at the studio, Bell described art-making as a key factor in making the shift from illness to wellness: ‘It has changed my focus from hurt, pain and injustice to explore cultural connections; who I am as a person. It has changed my outlook, discovering there is more to me than just an illness’. His short film Storm of schizophrenia describes the lived experience of this illness through the metaphor of a thunderstorm.
Bell says the moment of the shift was hard to pin down. But presenting his writings in Project semicolon: your story isn’t over (Harper Collins, 2017) and self-publishing The gospel of schizophrenia (2015) were significant turning points. Born in Bowral to a Tongan mother and an Australian father, Bell says that attending Tongan language school as an adult has had a profound impact on his practice: ‘Reconnecting to my Polynesian heritage is something that is important to me. I think it’s important to know your heritage and be culturally connected to your roots’. Another of Bell’s films, My heart in Tonga – Ko hoku loto´ ‘i Tonga responds to this heritage in spoken and visual form.
That sense of reconnection is apparent in Bell’s photo-works seen here, which suspend Polynesian forms that look carved or tattooed before wide blue skies or the seas of the Great Ocean. Such forms are embedded in Campbelltown, where he has lived since 2012, and more of them will be seen here soon. His festive designs, in collaboration with fellow Little Orange artist Blake Thomas, will soon be featured on screens in a local recreational site, Rizal Park. This is one of the pleasures of working with local artists: seeing their work emerge in the studio and then move out into the wider world.