After the rush
My morning in Ballarat was a mistake. A fortuitous one decided simply by a single circuit of the large hand of an even bigger clock; which, in the surprisingly punctual world of rural Victorian trains, signalled the departure of the desired train.
Next train: 1 hr.
Others may think an hour in an unknown country town is best spent in a small café or perhaps the town square but I would suggest, in any place that has ever had a surplus of wealth, the local gallery is the place to while away time. Ballarat (and indeed Bendigo) as a gold rush town had had a prolonged period of excess wealth, the remnants of which still cling to its gracious wide streets and elegantly lettered shop awnings.
The art gallery is located beneath one such awning – a gold lettered and black leather affair – and behind a matching stencilled heavy swinging door. The stair is as grand as it is rich in colonial aspirations, immediately transporting the viewer to the strikingly similar sweep of the Royal Academy in London. Not a bad connotation to kick off with.
The collection doesn’t itself invite many such comparisons though there are rooms of country house fodder; static horses and prized bulls, huddled sheep and their more exuberant hill-leaping compatriots. A lone Raeburn makes a fetching focal point but the real interest lies in the gallery’s really rather solid collection of Australian notables.
Cossington-Smith’s coloured patchworks hang between Drysdale’s languidly tortured bushscapes and Boyd’s actively tortured ones. A Dobell portrait is notable both for its brushwork and for the amphibian qualities bestowed on the sitter while the Arkley is less his typical saturated suburbia than a homage to the primary-hued line fixation of Rietvedlt.
Fred Williams and my not-so-secret love Brack (such stylish line!) round out the collection, together with some unusually figurative works from Jeffrey Smart. There’s also a typically and determinatively weird beast from Patricia Piccinini, which seems to be de rigeur for hip-and-happening galleries these days (and even hip-and-not-quite-happening). Along which lines both Ballarat and Bendigo are blessed with their own flesh mounds of humanoid blubber, determinedly prodding the viewer towards humanity’s uncomfortable questions.
Resistant to such obvious ploys – call me contrary – I refuse to engage, opting instead for a second spin with the Williams. Tracing his splotty landscape, leaning in and out so that the picture swims in and out of comprehension, I realise that my favourite thing about this gallery is its earnest presentation of Australian art. The affliction of cultural cringe has long spread to our most sandstone institutions where you typically view such works with a good dose of apathetic irony and vague distaste. Here in Ballarat, with its slight-curio-shop feel, there is no ironic knowing curatorial smile as Australiana kitsch and colonial woodwork mingle with modernist notables and contemporary sculpture. All of it is offered simply as is - no pretension, no hidden joke.
In a newer building but with the same salt-of-the-earth-meets-gold-gilded-frame feel, sits Bendigo’s art gallery. My foray here was more intentional, one of my good friends has recently moved to Melbourne and as a proper Melbourne catch-up slipped from our grasp (schedules aye) we settled for a country brunch in a strange little teashop and a stroll around another rural gallery.
Similarly blessed by the short but extravagant blush of Victorian gold, Bendigo has an impressive collection featuring all the usual suspects – Boyd, Drysdale, Williams, Roberts, Brack and Cossington-Smith. The moderns are denoted by the white walls, the old ‘masters’ bedecked in gilt frames anchored in navy blue walls) and all set off by some truly stunning Whitely’s (arguably justifying the visit by themselves, if you needed a reason) and an excellent collection of modernist furniture.
Here too, 3-d and 2-d are melded in display. No distinction appears to be drawn between what is traditionally considered craft and its loftier ‘art’ cousins. This is either quaint or avant-garde – either way it is refreshing. Bendigo differs however, in the excellent selection of Australian ceramics on display and also in the nature of the paid show available (Ballarat had the far-travelled-but-sub-par Archibald) with ‘Maticevski: Dark Wonderland’ showing. I have to confess, being both somewhat illiterate in high-fashion and a cheapskate (hullo necessity my old friend), left to my own devices I would not have paid money for this show.
God bless friends with generous impulses. The show was truly spectacular – all dramatic folds and hard angles created with the softest of material. I wouldn’t say it matched my favourite textile show of all time (all hail her highness Queen Vivienne Westwood) but in sheer impressiveness (and also quantity of sheer fabric deployed) it came close.
Now, at the end of my tale, I’m somewhat at a loss as to what my point may have been other than this. Don’t dismiss country art institutions. They offer unapologetic testament to a surprisingly rich and interesting artistic tradition.