'Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.'
In 1885, some thirty-years after Marx wrote these well-known words, the first Buxton Art Gallery opened on Swanston Street as a centre of Melbourne's most self-conscious political and artistic avant-garde. The revolutionary ideas it fostered sought a sharp break from the public taste of the time. A young, dynamic generation of "native" born (as they called themselves) attacked the rearguard elite of British diaspora and their academic art, ensconced nearby in the National Gallery and its art school (then at the State Library up the road). The Australian Artists Association formed and first met in 1886 at the Buxton Art Gallery, as did the Australian Natives Association, who spearheaded federation and fought for the rights of the white native born against the cosmopolitan apparatchiks of Empire. Entries into the competition for the design of Australia's first national flag were even exhibited at Buxton Art Gallery, but the exhibition for which the gallery is most remembered is the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889. It shocked the good burghers of Melbourne's elite and, as The Argus art critic James Smith then complained, was cause for "one to despond with respect to the future of art."
The second "Buxton" incarnation appeared in March this year as Buxton Contemporary. It is just down the road from the first one, but on Melbourne's south bank rather than in the city's centre. This time it is within the arts precinct; in fact, it is in the embrace of the National Gallery School, which is now called the VCA—and now grown up, sits just across the road from its parent the National Gallery of Victoria. It's too early to tell if Marx's curse will befall it, but the second Buxton is at odds with the first. Aspiring for "museum-quality" it has aligned and inserted itself into a well-established art world, even if this is one that's inherited the avant-gardism of the first Buxton.
Like critic James Smith in 1889, the opening exhibition of the second Buxton, The shape of things to come, also reflects upon the future of art—and specifically the futurism of the artist "as visionary, storyteller, dissenter and alchemist." While Buxton Contemporary lacks the once described 'pitchy darkness' and 'artistic disorder' of the old Buxton, it still has an unassuming cavernousness that recedes far behind its modest entry to three main exhibition spaces, one of them on an upper level.
The first painting you see, Untitled (2014) by Daniel Boyd, however, is an immediately familiar work—its photographic pointillist style even recalling impressionism. In the second main gallery space, Marco Fusinato's large aluminium printed image of a rock wielding masked protestor printed alongside black monochrome rectangular area, The infinitive 3 (2015), also has the familiar commanding and auratic presence of a cliché, even if its intention is to ironise the clichés of political pictorialism. Beside Fusinato is Helen Johnson's deconstructions of motifs of academic history painting—but in The shape of things to com there's an overall impression that is somehow all too familiar, triggering memories of shows like Melbourne Now at the NGV in 2014, where similar works were hung in a similar way amongst a similar terrain of art.
Weirdly, the exhibition feels like a premonition of impressionism, as if Buxton Contemporary were foreseeing the shape of its own future. At every turn, critical and deconstructive artworks are undone by a general sense of creepy, unsettling familiarity—a monotony of discursive and presentational strategies. As with impressionism, this is not an individual monotony, as separately the works are generally strong examples of the artists who made them. It is rather a collective monotony—a familiar grouping of artists and artworks that have been found together so often in public collections and exhibitions over the previous 20 years.
The old claim that public taste is corrupted by private taste (i.e. by the money of philanthropists and private collectors) therefore seems curiously reversed at Buxton Contemporary. One can't help but sense that the Buxton collection's ambition and criteria of success has not been the private taste of Michael Buxton, the collector, but that of the collection's curators, whose taste and values has also been shaping public museum collections around Melbourne. Perhaps it is for this reason that The shape of things to come displays none of the eccentric weirdness of exhibitions in private museums like David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art.
There are, however, moments of eccentricity, but as in state art collections it resides in individual works rather than a collective persona. Hany Armanious's Turns in Arabba (2005) played an eerily quiet original musical hit on 30 second loop, which, through tinny distorted speakers, haunted the large ground floor space. Upstairs, Destiny Deacon's and Virginia Fraser's video work Forced into images (2001) yields a similar disconnecting presence. The brief, personal and somewhat awkward inter-fading monologues of David Rosetsky's installation Custom made (2000) also had a refreshing datedness. The audio-visual presence and somewhat nostalgic distance of these works somehow offered a feeling of escapism from the open-spaced safety of the rest of the exhibition.
This is surprising, given that Ted Colless writes in the catalogue essay about the need for "unsafe art", as if one were supposed to expect danger lurking in every direction. For Colless, the point de perfection of art is 'the unsafe x-factor in artists—that talent for contaminating the normative, not just eluding the conservative.' If that is the case, for the most part the exhibition lacks all Collessian perversion, distrust and polemic. Or rather, this lack is its perversion.
Amazingly the original building that housed the old Buxton Art Gallery remains on Swanston Street, across the road from the Town Hall and swallowed up by the Manchester Building (built by "Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows"). However, the radical significance and oddness of the first Buxton has faded into oblivion, along with its political and artistic avant-gardism.
Paris Lettau is a writer from Melbourne.
Title image: Marco Fusinato, The Infinitive 3, 2015, white UV halftone ink on black aluminium, 250 x 625 cm, courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.)