It wouldn’t be an art fair without abstract painting. Thick gestural lines, bright colour palettes and titles alluding to memory or “the body” are always a given. I step into @14, the satellite venue for Nicholas Thompson Gallery at Spring/Sprung1883, where the walls are neatly lined with paintings either aligned with an Antipodean colour palette (think Albert Tucker) or an upbeat block colour spread that easily compliments works across the room by the likes of artists James Drinkwater, Eleanor Louise Butt, Rhys Lee, Tonee Messiah, Antonia Sellbach, Amber Wallis, and Miranda Skoczek.
A series of small acrylic works on paper by Leo Coyte are piled on the front desk. Sifting through them, some stick out and provide a cheeky perspective from the soles of feet looking up at a fictional figure. Am I looking at a shower drain, a butt plug, shapely buttocks, symmetrical testicles, perky breasts or all these things at once? It’s a fun hands-on exercise.
At a quick glance, an oil painting by Heidi Yardley sits quietly in the back area. It’s of a woman with grey swept back hair butting heads with a lover. An ominous piece. I assume it’s physically out of reach because its already sold.
Mutterings of another lockdown start to fill the air and so I quickly take pictures on my phone of the @14 installation and power walk to Collingwood Arts Precinct. Climbing up the steps to Arts Projects Australia, their satellite “booth”, a large neighbouring room, is brightly lit by portable flood lights and dotted with an array of different sized plinths. The framed pastel drawings by Julian Martin are propped up by bricks found at the ends of a side room, beckoning for a closer look. The buttery and solid qualities of these pastel works offer subtle variations of the same forms in block colours, reformed and reimagined, comfortably set within the artists’ own serial portrait frame. Above Martin’s work, hanging from the ceiling, is a soft sculpture by Mark Smith. Filled with stuffing and stitched together with velvety bottle green fabric, it reads “HOPE”. As a word (or even an idiom), it feels both meaningless and necessary to keep in our lexicon.
In the middle of the room, an assortment of small ceramic figures by Chris Mason of voluptuous naked women are a humorous find. As I stand over their little fleshy folds carved out in these tiny sculptures, I get distracted by a set of modest ceramic forms proudly sitting near the front door. Eight of Ruth Howard’s hand-built structures of coral-like coagulated towers each coated in rich sea blue and green glazes, are a welcomed discovery before I quickly dash to the next gallery.
As I reach FUTURES, one block over, I’m greeted by co-director Zara Sigglekow who, at this stage in the afternoon, seemed slightly deflated due to the immanent news of another lockdown. The conversation quickly turns to Matthew Harris’ solo exhibition on display. Titled GOO, it was open to the public for only one day. Like the string of commercial galleries participating in Spring1883 that had to quickly improvise and re-stage their hotel room hangs, I couldn’t help but ask myself what would’ve gone where in the hotel if things went to plan. The giant fuzzy heart, Big Love (2021), made of a combination of possum pelts, synthetic fur and stuffing would of course lie on top of the made-up bed. The concrete hands cupping a resin full of cut out sperms, titled, Daddy (2021), would perhaps do well propped up on the bathroom sink.
A series of seven shaped panels hold sticky nostalgic sentiments that line the opposing wall. Their colour palettes remind me of all things Nickelodeon dump slime, the covers of R. L. Stine’s children's horror fiction novels Goosebumps, and even the sign of an independent DVD rental store I use to work at in my early twenties. I call this wobbly-edge abstraction: a product of the warped frames and the mixing of acrylic paint with Harris’ own hair. Up-close, the panels’ surfaces conjure up a sickly feeling of watching someone paint carpet or an image of a hairy leg covered in a thick strip of wax. At first it’s confusing as the installation photographs of these works make them look like they are smooth, ‘clean’, or even squishy. They are still fun, enticing, to ogle and even buy, but their abject production interrupts these innocent initial meanderings.
As I leave and briskly walk down Brunswick Street to Sutton Gallery, a teen with long wispy hair brushes past me yelling into her phone on loudspeaker, “BABE IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN”. I don’t check the news, and instead “check in” with an older couple who meet me coincidentally at Sutton’s front door at the same time. We go our separate ways as one opens the door and I do a lap to check the staple of Sutton artists in the larger gallery space who all made new work over this tumultuous past year and a half: Jon Campbell, Stephen Bush, Nicholas Mangan, Matt Hinkley, John Meade, Lindy Lee, Ann Debono, Jackson Slattery, Kate Beynon, and Brett Colquhoun. I wander back towards the smaller gallery where a new suite of ten paintings by Gian Manik butt up against each other in a neat line.
From the left, we begin with Stock Ocean (2020), a small canvas depicting water reflections remembered and re-represented as a glistening snapshot. Next to it, a sea of fleshy bodies writhing and throwing around what appear to be knitted scarves or coloured snakes is an engrossing scene that easily sticks with you. I eventually read the gallery floor plan to see its title refers to La Tomatina, Spain’s ultimate fruit battle, the annual tomato throwing festival held on the last Wednesday of August. What follows is a combination of smaller and larger oil paintings representing a picturesque form of nature: a spider’s web, a blazing fire, the nights sky or a lush grassy spot where weeds blossom. Strangely, these works recall for me just how Biblical the world has become with such extreme weather: the recent European floods, the ocean literally on fire in the Gulf of Mexico, wildfires currently raging in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Lebanon. The list goes on.
The largest painting found in the left corner, titled Contemporary Dancing (2021), contains a series of studies of dancers layered, in multiple attempts or spurts, stopped and started again and again, creating a constellation of moving bodies across the canvas. Caught in the non-moving enterprise (painting), my dance knowledge can only identify as far as the leaping frog, Mr Jeremy Fisher from the Beatrix Potter 1992 ballet adaptation by The Royal Ballet. I spend the rest of my time in the gallery looking at this painting. Then I have to resign myself to the fact that I should really check to see if we really are going into lockdown, again. O what I’d give to be that frog happily bouncing around a pond.
Chelsea Hopper is a curator, editor and writer based in Narrm.