Exhibition review: Once More With Feeling, Ngununggula

Four artists rethink femininity as an attitude, rather than a gender-informed aesthetic.
paintings with ceramics in Ngununggula gallery

An expression often used in art circles to describe artworks is ‘strong art’. It is more about a feeling – a description of brave art making – rather than, say, alluding to a strong palette of colour or technical strength, for example.

So when one an exhibition of new work by four women artists – coming from different generations, different career paths and different styles – is described as ‘strong art’, what exactly is wrapped up in that gong?

Once More With Feeling at Ngununggula, the Southern Highlands’ regional art gallery, includes newly commissioned works by four contemporary Australian artists – Karen Black, Georgia Spain, Cybele Cox and Michelle Ussher.  

Without hierarchy, it stitches together expansive gestural oil painting with sound pieces, earthy ceramics and ethereal watercolours. The linking thread is the relationship between the human form and notions of ritual, theatre and sexuality. It provocatively asks, is that form exclusively feminine?

Ngununggula Director, and Curator of the exhibition, Megan Monte describes the way that these four artists approach femininity as ‘ground-breaking’. In the short 18 months since the gallery opened, Monte and her team have quickly garnered a reputation for exhibitions that disrupt viewer expectations. This one is no exception.

Walking into the spaces, visitors first encounter Michelle Ussher’s ceramic instruments, marching along custom pedestals – their spindly, knobbly legs riffing off a sense of volume and void of the organic flutes they display.

Michelle Ussher, ‘Once More With Feeling’ (installation view, Ngununggula), 2023. Images: Document Photography.

Random sound pieces of the instruments add another dimension to these pieces, while a suite of paintings by Ussher brings in a figurative element, and encourages the viewer to draw connections between abstraction and figuration across mediums.

Moving into the main gallery, the viewer is greeted with a dramatic display of five new paintings by Georgia Spain, with hand-built ceramics by Cybele Cox. The exhibition largely posits the artists in pairings. Elsewhere Karen Black’s works sit in conversation with Ussher’s.

It also attempts to dismantle the silos of figuration and abstraction, between clay and painting, 2D and 3D, sound and the sensory with the tactile and tangible. Is this more porous space a feminine one, it ponders? Simply, there is a lot going on here and the show is more successful in some moments than others.

The highlight of the exhibition is the pairing of Spain’s paintings with Cox’s sculptured jardinières, which are laden with a pendulous cluster of female breasts. She plays off societal fetishes for the sexual with historical tropes for fertility and realigns them with a lived experience of being a women, to flesh out associated trauma, and to almost exorcise the stigma that women carry in their bodies.

Cybele Cox and Georgia Spain, ‘Once More With Feeling’ (installation view, Ngununggula), 2023.Images: Document Photography.

Cox’s work falls down, however, with her major piece The Hag, which takes those female tropes in a more literal direction. Taking a folkloric character inspired by a character from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the work feels amateurish in comparison, lacking a finesse of form and a control of its bodily gesture.

There is an earthy, gestural ‘fleshiness’ that connects Spain’s work with Cox’s. It is unexpected, but perfectly matched. Spain’s paintings are expansive and confident. They are a celebration of the everyday, and slip beautifully between definition and a kind of emotional non-space.

Within Spain’s canvases landscape and figures are compounded, layered over and on top of each other jostling for space. The longer one spends with them, the more faces start to emerge, or an arm or a leg.

Both Spain and Black are guided by the materiality of the paint on the canvas, using intuition, emotion and a kind of bodily tacit knowledge to energise their gesture and mark making. While Spain’s paintings sit with a heavier impasto quality, Black’s have a lightness to them. Her figures float, feeling exposed.

They are more literal, figuratively speaking, as her bodies take their cue from yoga poses. In some works, those poses become highly sexualised, while in others, they push up against the constraints of the frame. For Black, these are psychological exercises as much as physical ones.

Karen Black and Michelle Ussher, ‘Once More With Feeling’ (installation view, Ngununggula), 2023. Images: Document Photography.

Just as yoga is a process of becoming relaxed – switching off the brain – these same bodily gestures are about self-care, allowing the emotion to be guided by the paint. They are paired with modest wall-based ceramic works by Ussher in the small middle gallery, which are equally as gestural and feel anatomical.

Ussher draws directly into the clay and makes her own glazes, describing their unpredictability as ‘a level of disruption’, where the colours become a medium in themselves, activating the drawn elements. They work perfectly together. The expansive scale of Black’s painting against Ussher’s studies has a disarming push-pull for the viewer that echoes each artist’s internal emotive journey in their work.

The connection, however, is less successful in the final gallery for this exhibition. It feels like a collection of works that failed to fit elsewhere. This is often the case with disparate group exhibitions. A peppering of earlier period watercolours by Ussher (which have a sort of Hilma af Klint quality to them) would have worked better clustered. They are diluted by being dispersed here, swallowed by the space and set against the stronger figures of Black’s paintings.

Read: Exhibition review: Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi, NGV

It was a comment by Ussher at the preview that, for me, best summarises this exhibition. She described her work as a conversation between figuration and de-figuration, and that relationship as both offering a connective tissue, but also acting as a disruptor.

Ussher continued: ‘It’s not something that is linked to gender or sex, the way that it usually is, but in the way that there’s a certain attitude or gesture that comes with feminine thinking, which is about finding the way around things.’ Once More With Feeling offers that connection and subversion, and asks: are these acts of modern ritual?

And to go back to that initial idea of strong art, these four artists demonstrate a capacity to move around the silos, and through their kaleidoscopic grasp of history and the everyday, through fetishes, tropes and traumas, they surprise and seduce us into new thinking.

Once More With Feeling
Ngununggula, 1 Art Gallery Lane, Bowral
3 June – 6 August 2023

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