Mary Quant to the TarraWarra Biennial: Exhibitions at Victoria’s Regional Galleries this autumn
Published by: Dr Nick Gordon | Apr 23rd, 2021
Victoria’s regional galleries have a well-founded reputation for their fantastic temporary exhibitions and diverse permanent collections. But their contemporary flair is deeply rooted in their history and reflects the history of Victoria more broadly. In this blog, Dr Nick Gordon takes a look at three of the major shows on this autumn in regional Victoria.
Mary Quant: Fashion revolutionary Bendigo Art Gallery, 20 March – 11 July, 2021
Bendigo Art Gallery has an exceptional reputation for its international exhibitions – indeed, it can be quite strange when looking through the annual list of the world’s most successful exhibitions and finding Bendigo listed along side museums in London, Tokyo, New York and Paris. The gallery’s success was built by its former director, Karen Quinlan (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), who organised exclusive and unique exhibitions at Bendigo covering subjects from Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly to the Tudors.
The team she fostered at Bendigo has continued this tradition with this autumn’s exhibition, Mary Quant: Fashion revolutionary. The exhibition brings together over 110 garments from the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as accessories, sketches, photos and other archival materials that create a more complete picture of this fashion icon and her influence.
Mary Quant is best known as the populariser of the miniskirt, and for her role in democratising visually playful and comfortable ready-to-wear fashion. Her empire grew rapidly from her first boutique in Chelsea in 1955, partly because her style articulated the values of 1960s youth culture. But Quant also possessed exceptional business nous, and she secured lucrative deals with new manufacturers in the UK and the USA, and collaborated with existing companies, such as Kangol, which brought her prices down and made her fashion lines more affordable to a greater number of people.
Quant was so successful that by the mid 1960s other designer’s garments were associated with her. When Jean Shrimpton (accompanied by her then-boyfriend Terence Stamp), for example, turned up at the Melbourne Cup in 1965, wearing a white dress whose hem was 10cm above the knee, without stockings, gloves or a hat, the Australian media went into a frenzy, with the Sun News-Pictorial declaring: “There she was, the world’s highest-paid model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions at fashionable Flemington in a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves, and NO stockings!” Lady Nelson, Mayoress of Melbourne went further: “if Miss Shrimpton wants to wear skirts four inches above the knee in London, that’s her business, but it’s not done here. I feel we do know so much better than Miss Shrimpton … we all dress correctly here.” (London’s Evening Standard responded blithely that Shrimpton stood out “like a petunia in an onion patch.”)
The dress wasn’t designed by Quant (it was designed by Colin Rolfe), but the miniskirt was already associated very closely with her, and one fashion columnist summed it up: “I don’t like this look”. But as Felicity Pitt in Fashion Journal has pointed out “this look” was already being developed and promoted by a new generation of Melbourne fashion designers such as Norma Tullo and Noleen King, Australian contemporaries of Quant. Shrimpton’s dress “pushed local journalists into a somewhat frenzied attempt to promote ‘with it’ Australian designers and set them on a quest to discover ‘Australia’s Mary Quant.’” The first designer to attract this title was Prue Acton, then 19 years old, who would become the first Australian designer to have a licensing deal in the USA. In this regard, Quant’s influence in Australia goes beyond her own epoch defining fashion – her style gave rise to an Australian fashion industry that steadily placed itself on the world map.
Robert Owen: Blue Over Time Heide Museum of Modern Art, 6 March – 27 May 2021
Robert Owen – artist, curator and humble mover and shaker – is a seminal figure in the Australian art scene. The retrospective of his work from the 1960s to the present at Heide this autumn is his first survey show in Melbourne in 20 years.
Owen has lived an exceptional life. After graduating from East Sydney Tech (now The National Art School) in 1962, Owen lived on the island of Hydra in Greece, in a community of international expats that included Leonard Cohen. After living and working in Greece throughout the mid-1960s, he moved to London, where he worked as an artist (represented by Marlborough Gallery in London and New York), curator and conservator. He returned to Australia in the mid-1970s, represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1978, and cofounded Artspace and the Sydney Biennale. He was head of sculpture at RMIT for over a decade, and has collaborated with architecture firms including Denton Corker Marshall on public and private commissions.
This very brief biography doesn’t even touch on his art – just his work fostering the arts in Australia. The Heide show reveals the dynamism of his work and the consistency of his art practice over the past 60 years. Owen is perhaps best known for his geometric abstraction in painting and sculpture, a style of art that is sometimes thought of as being ‘cold’ or overly intellectual. The exhibition at Heide, however, reveals something different – his use of colour and experimentation with light and form shows a playfulness and a warmth not typically associated with geometry.
Cadence, for example, was conceived as a ‘weather chart’ of his emotions over 80 days. The monumental work – it’s over 8 metres long and 2.5 metres high – was created for the foyer of the Bureau of Meteorology: “I thought if they can measure atmosphere, I must be able to measure emotions. So using a colour tabulation, I intuitively picked how I felt every half hour during the day.”
But there’s more than colour and geometry to Owen’s work, and the Heide show reveals the dynamism of his work and an incredible engagement with music, science and philosophy that informs it. His use of new materials, for example, is explored in detail with both finished works and archival material in which you can see his ideas come together. These materials lend his metal sculptures levity and unexpected plays of colour. The prismatic scattering of light off the surfaces of his sculptures also reveals his primary interest – relationships between colour, form, light, sound and emotion which border on synaesthesia. The exhibition shows us how Owen has explored the relationships between these perhaps more consistently than any artist since Kandinsky.
While the show carefully teases out how Owen has remained at the avant-garde for half a century, it also carefully directs us to see Owen’s relationship to past artists. Some of the selected paintings, for example, appear as homages to Piet Mondriaan, which is perhaps to be expected given his interest in colour and geometry. But others show how he has been inspired by more traditional art – five monochrome paintings from the 1960s were directly inspired by Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Each panel is the size of Giotto’s ‘portraits’ of the virtues and vices, and each panel is made up of a single material used in the chapel and associated with the spiritual significance of the building, whether it is the ultramarine used to depict the infinite, the gold leaf of icon paintings, or the lamp black soot of votive candles.
Works such as these are evidence of just how Owen has explored the personal and cultural significance of colour, sound and form and the deep knowledge of art history that underpins his very modern work.
TarraWarra Biennial 2021: Slow Moving Waters
TarraWarra Museum of Art, 27 March – 11 July, 2021
TarraWarra Museum of Art is wonderful to visit at any time of year. The architecture of the building is beautifully integrated with the landscape, offering views across the vineyards to the Yarra, and the fertile, rolling hills and bush around it. It feels like a slice of Eden.
This autumn, TarraWarra is showing its biennial of Australian art, which showcases works by 25 artists from around the country. This exhibition, however, is different from most biennials in a key way. It is focused on a slowing down of time, helping us to consider longer spans of cultural and geological time, rather than become absorbed by the speed and hype fuelling ‘the spectacle’ at the heart of most biennials.
Slowing down is self-conscious and the inspiration was taken from the name of the place: Tarrawarra is Woiwarrung for ‘slow moving waters’. Slow Moving Waters refers to the bend of the Birrarung (the Yarra River, which runs through the property), and forces the water to flow more slowly: it meanders, eddies, and seems to fold in on itself. Curator Nina Miall has commented that reflection on slowing down is also time specific – the show was held back for a year by COVID. Speaking to The Australian, Miall noted that “In a way, it felt fitting that it was postponed. We were forced to really slow down and do things deliberately and consciously. Slowness was built into the exhibition by chance just as much as by design.”
The works selected for the event are mostly contemplative, and benefit from slow looking. Lucy Bleach’s attenuated ground (the slow seismogenic zone), for example, would seem fitting of Duchamp – at first glance, it looks to be a double bass covered in toffee. But when observed more closely, the strings of the double bass vibrate, and as they do the waves they create beneath the toffee force it to move. Bleach has found a particularly novel way to make visible the very slow, but constant, shockwaves at work within the earth that ultimately shape the surface we live on. Geological time, which usually turns at a rate too slow to see in a single lifetime, is laid bare on the table.
Other works are site-specific, such as Yasmin Smith’s Terroir. Smith worked with the TarraWarra Estate’s viticulturalists to create casts of the root systems of the vines outside. The result is a series of beautiful, almost abstract sculptures that reveal the complexity of life beneath the ground whose benefits we enjoy but whose causes we rarely see.
Other site-specific works are more directly political, such as Brian Martin’s exquisite and very large charcoal on paper works. His countryscapes invite slow looking for their detail and fragility alone. But one is on the floor, with a sign in front stating “The artist invites you to walk on Wurundjeri Country”. Very few people seem willing to take up this invitation, although the fragile work is covered by perspex. The irony, however, is that to see this work, you’ve already walked on Wurundjeri Country, a fragile ecology that has been carefully crafted and cared for for millennia.
Explore Victoria’s Galleries with Dr Nick Gordon
Our popular 8 day tour, From the Yarra Valley to Bendigo: Victoria’s Regional Galleries, includes visits to Bendigo Art Gallery, Heide Museum of Modern Art and TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley, limited places available for our May 2021 and October 2021 tours . More information >
Dr Nick Gordon
Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.