Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG


Canberra Museum and Art Gallery
Civic Square, Canberra City
24 March to 17 June 2018. (Free)

O Canberra. Home for more than a third of my life, loved, hated, derided, company town. I still have my ACT number plates that read: Canberra: Heart of the Nation yet I mumble when someone asks ‘So where were you before?’ and I’m schtum when someone derides Canberra as land of the seat warmers who’ve never done anything good for the country. Sigh. Yes, Canberra has still got a bit of reputation problem.

So my ex-bureaucrat’s heart leapt at the opening of a new exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery [CMAG]. This gem of a gallery in the heart of Canberra is celebrating 20 years of collecting with an exhibition of almost 200 works from 167 artists selected from nearly 6500 objects in the Museum’s collection. As the curator Deborah Clark says: ‘the twin leitmotifs fundamental to the collection are work made by artists from the region – or with significant regional associations – and art made about the region.”

The exhibition is squeezed into the main and a few subsidiary spaces in the gallery and comprises sculptures, ceramics, painting, printmaking, glass and metalware and furniture. While it aimed to showcase ‘the best of the best’, a single work by each artist often left me wanting more.

What’s distinctive about Canberra’s art? The first thing I noticed was the humour: a lone rubber thong floating in a public swimming pool; Ron McBurnie’s lithograph Put the Cat Out with a disembodied arm dowsing a flaming moggie; Ben Taylor’s print Brugel comes to Michelago (a rural hamlet about 30 minutes south of Canberra famous for its fishing) showing giant trout tormenting the damned.

Lochhead-captains flat pool

Next is the landscape, or the persistence of the landscape into the urban/suburban space. There are striking images of trees through concrete overpasses, crash barriers and views of bright blurred scenery from car windows. I particularly liked Amelia Zaraftis’ video installation soft-edges (Monaro Highway) 2014 in which afternoon traffic passes the camera along a bare highway – contrasted with Elioth Gruner’s Landscape 1929 showing the rolling hills and the river valley beneath lowering winter sky.

Gruner-landscape 1929

monaro hwy

The other thing to notice is the importance bodies like the Australian National University School of Art and Design (founded in the 1970s) and the print making workshop, Studio One (from 1983 to 2000) in supporting and developing many of the artists exhibited.

Helpful as the curator’s statement is, there’s still not much context for the works particularly given the wide range of styles, artists and times represented (from 1824 to 2017). Nonetheless, CMAG is a great alternate to the style of the National Gallery of Australia’s blockbuster exhibitions (for example, Cartier: The Exhibition, opens on 30 March). This is local art strongly connected to the life of the city and the region, and well worth a visit (particularly if you think Canberra is just a city of bureaucrats to fly over on your journey between exciting Sydney and more exciting Melbourne). And if you can’t make it  (Autumn’s lovely in the Heart of the Nation), spend some quality time with the on-line catalogue.

Images (from top): Frank Hinder, Office Staff Canberra, 1942 (particularly evocative if you’ve ever ridden to work in Canberra); Marcia Lochead Captain’s Flat Pool 2004; Elioth Gruner, Landscape 1929;  Amelia Zaraftis, soft-edges (Monaro Highway) 2014.

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