Primavera 2019: Young Australian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art (NSW)

This year’s Primavera is a real shake-up, and wake-up, in the hands of Archibald-winning artist Mitch Cairns as curator.

Since 1992, the Primavera series has built a reputation upon fresh voices, but this year it’s gone another level at the hands of artist Mitch Cairns who, in many ways, has reproached authorship and convention in the name of artist agency.

Despite being selected as the curator of 2019 Primavera, the Archibald-winning artist Cairns said that there were very few works that he personally selected for the exhibition.

‘In the spirit of it being an artist-curated exhibition, I was very aware that the agency of the artist was paramount, and that each of the artists brought together the works they wanted in the exhibition,’ said Cairns.

It’s a palpable difference walking into the space, which for many might feel like the installation crew hasn’t cleaned up – a flotilla of crates still wash the space, and punctuate the flow of works. But strangely it works; the exhibition has a clean, elegant delivery and perks curiosity.  

It gives us an immediate clue about Cairns’ desire to shake up expectations; about how we define art, and how the role of the museum can be more malleable in our times.

Installation view Primavera 2019, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Front Lucina Lane; right Coen Young and left Kenan Namunjdja. Image supplied, photo Anna Kucera.

Primavera is couched to showcase the works of artists in the early stages of their career – artists under 35. Cairns has deliberately gravitated to the latter end of that bracket, selecting artists who have been consistently practising for a decade.

‘I was attracted to artists who were able to see beyond their years; to speak beyond an age bracket,’ said Cairns. ‘Their practice shows that they are very aware of what they do, and don’t do.’

They artists selected are: Mitchel Cumming, Rosina Gunjarrwanga, Lucina Lane, Aodhan Madden, Kenan Namunjdja, Zoe Marni Robertson and Coen Young. 

Some of the ideas they explore include the endurance of cultural knowledge, notions of communication, poetic registers, intergenerational relationships, the museum as institution and the construction of meaning itself.

Cairns described: ‘I didn’t want to shape an exhibition that had a single focus, thesis or a thematic. I really wanted the exhibition to be a more open form. I ideally wanted an exhibition where it would reveal itself to me as much as anybody else visiting the show.’

One notable first impression is the strong inclusion of bark paintings from Maningrida, presented with equal footing alongside the edgy works of artists Young, Madden and Lane.

Cairns said that when asked to curate Primavera, he immediately sprung to the memory of John Mawurndjul’s seminal exhibition at the MCA, adding it was a pivotal moment for him as an artist practising now.

Read: Why John Mawurndjul’s barks are so contemporary

Works in Primavera 2019 by Rosina Gunjarrwanga and Kenan Namunjdja are simply stunning and not only hold their own in this contemporary context, but furthermore, add an energy to it.

Installation view Rosina Gunjarrwanga with her work; Primavera 2019, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image supplied, photo Anna Kucera.

One of the strands across the exhibition is a nod to the unseen. A foundation of Cairns’ exhibition that perked my interest was the extension of ‘the exhibition’ beyond the gallery walls.

It is a reminder of the importance and relevance of the existence of the alternative space.
Mitchel Cumming

The catalogue is very much an inclusive artwork (poems by Cumming); there are works offsite, and a work by Zoe Marni Robertson on the façade of the building that usurps conventional advertising space pushing the dialogue of her work into a public arena.

It will remain on the façade for the first part of the exhibition, then will be re-presented within the gallery for the final weeks.

Robertson has a history of using found manchester, jamming with its history and expanding the vernacular of painting. There has a great correlation with Lane’s work Fallow Field (2018) inside the gallery – used hessian strung up over an industrial metal scaffolding frame. It is almost as if their conventional placement has been reversed.

In a similar way, Young also relies on a dialogue with the material, using silver nitrate – a photographic processing agent – on paper and acrylic (pictured top). These works capture the viewer within their frame, playing with conventions of abstraction and figuration. While this is not the first time Young has used this device and material, he has punched the scale up, activating the works in a more ambitious way.

Perhaps the work that most pushes museological boundaries is a sculpture by Cumming titled Companion Planter (host) 2019, which will make its way from the MCA each Friday to an artist run space in Camperdown, KNULP, where another work is presented in a back office.

Installation view  Primavera 2019, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Left, Zoe Marni Robertson Man Who Knows Themselves (?) 2016; right, Mitchel Cumming Companion Planter (host) 2019. Image supplied, photo Anna Kucera.

The object is like a giant keychain and is fashioned after a particular chrysanthemum flower that has the chemical Pyrethrum, which acts as a pest resistant.

Cumming told ArtsHub: ‘It’s not grown for its own aesthetic value, but its role is to protect other more beautiful flowers. I started playing with that as an analogy and representative of my role – an aesthetic practice working in the background of other people’s work at KNULP. 

‘I wanted to play with Primavera as a show that is very much positioned in the broader imagination as a progressive step (in an artist’s career), which in the ecology of smaller spaces renders them as just preparatory versions to progress to the institutions, which is not my understand of their role at all. It is a reminder of the importance and relevance of the existence of the alternative space.’

There is a conceptual thread that connects to the installation of Lane, Host (2019), those five packing crates mentioned earlier. They take up a lot of gallery real estate in this exhibition, and yet their contents – a precious cargo of art – is concealed from view.

Host functions equally as both obstruction and exposition … it’s important to think about what’s not visible as much as what’s visible,’ said Lane.

While it is not an entirely new idea to present crates as art, it takes on a slightly different tone for an exhibition that is founded on the premise to reveal, to unveil new emerging talent.  

Overall, this exhibition captures a pulse, not a political statement of an age. There is a kind of psycho-spatial understanding at play here; for the artists set their own parameters that escape conventional boxes and labels. It is a concise and focussed show that really picks at convention and perks curiosity.

Primavera 2019 is the 28th edition of the annual exhibition.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Primavera 2019: Young Australian Artists
Artists: Mitchel Cumming, Rosina Gunjarrwanga, Lucina Lane, Aodhan Madden, Kenan Namunjdja, Zoe Marni Robertson and Coen Young
Curator: Mitch Cairns
11 October 2019 – 9 February 2020
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney NSW
Free admission

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