RETIRED: Former Maitland Art Gallery director Joe Eisenberg in Rachel Milne’s Archibald prize entry.The major event was surely the retirement of Joe Eisenberg. The 10 years he has spent as guiding spirit of the re-imagined Maitland Regional Art Gallery has established it as a real travel destination. The many exhibition areas always contain something significant, like Tracey Luff’s cardboard lianas. The myriad prints and drawings contributed by 172 artists were Joe’s final farewell gift.
NATURAL: Brett McMahon’s Foundation, oil on linen.
He has established a collection, an ongoing template for the gallery and has nurtured enthusiastic staff members and volunteers. His portrait by Rachel Milne, shown in the Salon des Refusés of the Archibald Prize, is a fitting tribute to this eccentric colossus.Part of the gallery’s success has been its education and childhood activities, with Olivia Parsonage’s fabric environment ongoing.
LIFE DRAWING: Storm on the Hill by Lisa Battye. Acrylic on wood.
A GOOD YEARTHE Newcastle Art Gallery has managed a very successful year without a formal director. Attendance is up and the exhibitions well researched and elegantly hung.Patricia Piccinini’s disturbing humanoid hybrids were as popular as the current Mambo show. But perhaps the year’s highlight was Brett McMahon’s discovery of the natural environment on his returning to live in this area. His gift for translating the perceived world into highly evocative abstract painting and sculpture was also evident at The Lock-Up, with all its loaded spaces effortlessly filled with lyrical evocation and latent drama. These were two of the year’s best exhibitions.Other significant exhibitions at Newcastle Art Gallery included the long-anticipated survey of the Sydney modernism of Frank and Margel Hinder, Margot and Gerald Lewers and Carl Plate, with later in the year the feminist photographic essays of Anne Ferran.There were also Bill Viola videos, the haunting gardens of Peter Boggs and the now yearly event of the Kilgour Prize.
PORCELAIN: Nora Moelle’s pots are based on traditional forms.
GALLERY SUCCESSLAKE Macquarie City Art Gallery continues to consolidate its reputation. It has maintained its indigenous commitment while introducing significant new artists.Perhaps the most interesting exhibition revealed former Wangi resident William Dobell’s continuing fascination with the New Guinea he visited in 1949-50. A deeply felt response to this exotic ambience coloured his practice for the rest of his life. Lola Greeno’s shell necklaces from Tasmania were yet another lively re-creation of an archaic aboriginal tradition. I’ve yet to experience ‘Happyness.’Further afield, Cessnock Regional Art Gallery struggled to survive when Council funding evaporated, but has courageously continued operations with a voluntary staff.
COLLECTIONS IN FOCUSALL the public galleries have focused on their own collections in strong shows. A number of touring exhibitions at Newcastle Art Gallery were augmented with significant insertions from the gallery’s comprehensive 20th-centuryholdings. The founding Pope Collection was featuredand Gould’s monumental birds, blown up to imposing size, at the Region Library next door in another of the year’s most memorable exhibitions.
A NEW HUBTHE Lock-Up has been progressively feeling its way in a programof non-commercial thematic events. It is good news that funding for 2016 exceeds expectations.The eastern end of Hunter Street is now developing as an arts hub, with Timeless Textiles introducing specific artists from near and far, and many well-attended workshops feeding the current hunger for creatively used fabric. Across the road, Curve has offered a succession of extremely varied exhibitions.
LUCKY STUDENTSUNIVERSITY art students again have two exhibition spaces since Watt Space re-opened late in the year in Northumberland House. Its spaces are more friendly than the former loading bay opposite.The gallery on the Callaghan campus has perforce been heavily involved in celebrating the university’s 50th anniversary celebrations, including some good work by prominent alumni and various documentary exhibitions.
NEW DIRECTIONSThe textile wave is still cresting, with felt often appearing as a sculptural medium. Marjolein Dallinga’s installation at Timeless Textiles and Mandy Robinson’s spotted bottles at Art Systems Wickham stood out. Louisa Magrics could easily crochet a brand new galaxy.Unconventional materials were frequently employed; remember Brett McMahon’s trolley loads of building materials, Penny Dunstan’s crumpled paper coal faces at Adamstown Uniting Church, Neil Mansfield’s linoscapes at Nanshe, Peter Tilley’s found objects at Cooks Hill and Luke Beezley’s resin at Curve.Interest is building in functional ceramics just as the basic skills in throwing plates and bowls have almost become extinct.Conversely, porcelain bottles, jars and other vessels are now often purely sculptural, as we saw in the work of Kristen Coelho and Nora Moelle.Life drawing continues a popular activity, while painting is making a comeback. Lisa Battye’s Dungog, Dan Nelson’s clouds and Sheila Lummis’s New Zealand were highlights. Frank Celtlan is a survivor. Tone O’Leary’s subconscious must be bursting. Ahn Wells, has not only been running two galleries, but has found a new freedom in paint. Her Gallery 139 in Beaumont Street is developing a stable of artists including Paul Maher, Helene Leane and Peter Lankas.
AND THERE’S MORE…Rob Cleworth, John Moroney,Josh McGregor are surprising painters. Will Maguire is working big. The Seven (or six?) Painters celebrate 15 years together. Rod Bathgatediscovered weather. Shibui was a good show at Back to Back. Peter Tilley and Andy Devine’s coal project travels on and The Lock-Upcookingshow needs repeating.