Exhibition review: Ian Gentle and The Gentle Project

A new retrospective of an iconic Australian artist, often understood, inspires a next generation.
Ian Gentle. people looking at sculpture in art gallery

I remember Ian Gentle’s (1945 – 2009) first survey exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery. It was 1992, and the Gallery had not long reopened after its relocation to its current site (disclosure, I also worked there at the time). This iconic standing sculpture, Hoary Harry and Giggling Gert (1988) was positioned central to the Gallery, throwing its animated shadows around that space.

It was the first exhibition that really showed the new central gallery to its full potential – a difficult space that is peppered with columns and angled walls (thanks to the architecture based on a crown for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation). Some 30 years later, Hoary Harry and Giggling Gert has returned to the space for a new exhibition of Ian Gentle’s work.

Ian Gentle. Sculptures made from sticks
Ian Gentle ‘Hoary Harry and Giggling Gert’ (1988), installation view Wollongong Art Gallery, 2023. Photo: ArtsHub.

Horny Sticks and Whispering Lines is part of the larger initiative The Gentle Project, driven by David Roach and the Clifton School of Arts, which was Gentle’s home and studio from 1986 to 1996, in the small coastal mining town. It is also staging the exhibition Gentle at Clifton as part of the project, which includes a film and a publication, Ian Gentle: The Found Line (taking its title from the 1992 exhibition).

What this project does is celebrate an original voice – and luminary – often overlooked by Australian art history. It also pays a nod to a teacher, a mentor and a prolific artist who chipped away at his practice on his own terms.

Walking into these exhibitions, this originality and passion is palpable. As Roach says, ‘His work cuts through like the rusty screech of a cocky.’ Shadows animate both the space and the forms, and the works look as fresh and current as ever.

Ian Gentle. Bronze sculpture in gallery
Ian Gentle installation view Wollongong Art Gallery, 2023. Photo: ArtsHub.

There is a lot of mythology that surrounds Gentle, and his sculptures are often described as anthropomorphic or representative of animals. They are neither. Made from eucalyptus sticks and branches (and later cast as bronzes), Gentle’s forms take their cue from the hard-edge abstraction of the 1970s, which has been distilled down – like a haiku (he had a love of Japanese art) – into a unique lyrical language that was inventive, rather than literal.

In the exhibition, viewers are able to map that journey from Gentle’s early drawings (often traced from sticks), to his lithographs, to his freestanding forms. A suite of those bronzes crawl along a custom pedestal central to the gallery space at Wollongong. Off to a side is the paired expansive painting and wooden pitchfork, Low Life (1985), which has been hidden in the Art Gallery of NSW Collection. Again, it feels so fresh.

Holding the end wall is Dagg in Duckboat (1997), its humour pulling viewers in. What is curiously missing from the exhibition are his important monumental works, Whispering Ant (1992) and Salivating Croc (2007), both held in the University of Wollongong Collection, where Gentle taught and mentored so many.

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What Gentle had – as a teacher and an artist – was a tacit material knowledge, where a feel for the material was underpinned by a deep knowledge of art history. Most knew him for the chaos of sticks that surrounded him, and as a funny, chain-smoking, unassuming “bush man”. He was so much more, and The Gentle Project offers that long overdue truth.

One work that demonstrates this (surprising me) is Jigger (1977), made before moving to the south coast. It bridges Gentle’s use of urban detritus (and an interest in Arte Povera), formed while studying at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, and turns to nature’s detritus – branches. In it a piece of rubber is cinched with flowing tendrils of wood. It is raw, it is ambiguous and it is poetic.

This is a stunning exhibition for all ages, and a deserving nod to a great Australian artist often overlooked by history.

Horny Sticks and Whispering Lines
2 December 2023 – 3 March 2024
Wollongong Art Gallery

Gentle at Clifton
3 December 2023 – 30 January 2024

Clifton School of Arts

There is an extensive program of talks also accompanying The Gentle Project.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina