Not an Animal or a Plant: (but) a very good show
Something I have always loved about Sydney is the incidental nature of its experience. Fostered by proximity and the intimacy of its winding streets, intended activity easily morphs into the unexpected. So it was with a simple pilgrimage to Parker’s (undoubtedly Sydney’s best art shop since the demise of Oxford Art Supplies) within the sandstone walls of the National Art School.
Serendipitously, also within these walls at present is Vernon Ah Kee’s solo show ‘Not an Animal or a Plant’ which would have been worth the walk through Sydney’s sticky air all by itself. On entering, my first thought (and I have to admit my first utterance to my companion) was one rarely prompted by contemporary art shows: ‘holy shit, Ah Kee can really really draw’.
Set out generously over both levels of the National Art School’s Gallery, the show - Ah Kee’s first in Sydney in over a decade - is pure delight. In recent years I’ve seen a few of Ah Kee’s large-scale works scattered through the great and good Australian art institutions, most being some variation on his famous and striking graphic plays on the word ‘aboriginal’ (with a shout-out exception to one of the best charcoal portraits I’ve ever encountered in the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria). But I’ve never seen his work en masse. Here, as in all good exhibitions, the strength of each work is magnified by its companions to give a whole that is staggeringly impressive.
Rarely have I wished more fervently for the means and time-machine necessary to stick little red dots along the wall (God, if you’re listening my absolute pick is ‘George Drahm (Uncle George)’ and I honestly don’t think the MCA would miss it).
Ah Kee draws deeply on his own indigenous heritage and experience, focussing on the continued marginalisation and invisibility of indigenous peoples in Australian culture today. While his work is obviously (and overtly) political in its messaging it is above all highly skilled. Each masterful line challenges normative whiteness even as it adds to the sublime aesthetic created. It is this blend of skill and substance that makes Ah Kee’s works so powerful and so timeless. (It also roundly denounces the general acceptance that somehow, in contemporary art; the strength of the message is inverse to the expertise with which it is rendered).
I’m speaking mostly here of Ah Kee’s figurative works, to each one of which I would gladly give a home, though his text based works and 3-d installations are also impressive. It’s early but I’d put money on this being one of the best shows of 2017. It is really that good.
Through googling the exhibition dates I’ve just discovered it’s actually part of the Sydney Festival so there’s that too if that makes any difference to you. It’s on now till 11 March 2017 at the NAS Gallery (Darlinghurst Gaol) and is both free and fantastic.