Review: Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly, NGV

A thoughtfully curated show that captures something of an artist who defies ready catagorisation.
[This is archived content and may not display in the originally intended format.]

Ken Unsworth, Mind games (2014) plastic skeletons, aluminium, steel, wooden chairs, steel ball, electrical components 150.0 x 120.0 x 350.0  cm (installation). Collection of the artist ©Ken Unsworth. Photo: Eugene  Hyland.

Just inside the entrance to the NGV Federation Square sits a curious installation: a large metal blade embedded in the wooden case of a baby grand appears to be sawing its way through the body of the instrument. A spiked chair sitting in front of the key board more suggestive of an instrument of torture than seat for a musician, it sits poised, ready for an unlikely performance. In Concert, (1983 – 84), composed of wood, metal and electrical components evokes emotions of both humour and horror and sets the scene for the theatrical nature of the exhibition to come as well as the idiosyncratic style of Ken Unsworth’s art making.

Two more equally enigmatic, large installation works confront the viewer in the ground floor foyer. One of these is another piano piece, The Angel of the Lord came down, (2010), made from fibreglass resin, polyurethane foam, gold leaf and ink on leather, wood with electrical components, has an angel perched on its lid;  a piano leg balancing precariously in the mouth of a prone figure holds a conducting stick while the arm moves periodically creating a mechanical rhythmic tap.

Meandering across three foyer levels Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly, is a survey exhibition which combines older and newer sculptural/installation works from significant periods in Unsworth’s long career, as well as three recently commission pieces: each work selected according to the physical structure of the space it occupies. Although lifts at the back of the foyer allow movement between floors, if you can, take the stairs as tucked away in nooks at the landings between floors are smaller sculptural pieces worth taking time to see. Considered curation leads the viewer on a journey to unexpected places, cleverly echoing the nature of the art pieces themselves.

Ken  Unsworth, In concert (1983–84) piano, circular saw blade, chair, wood,  cane,  steel, electrical components, sound (looped) 200.0 x 400.0 x  420.0  cm  (installation). Collection of the artist © Ken Unsworth. Photo: Eugene  Hyland.

Now 87 years old, Unsworth is known for his diversity of skills and focus in his art-making. His use of very personal iconography strongly influenced by the love of his life; wife and muse Elizabeth, a concert pianist, the grand piano is both a symbol of her life and death. But other important influences continue to play out in the artist’s oeuvre. Early travels in America and Europe lead him to the ideas of Arte Povera, poor art, which explores the use of unprocessed materials with references to consumer culture and the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, a socialist orientated art in which the use of humour was paramount. Despite reoccurring themes of love and death humour is never far from the surface in Unsworth’s conceptual sculptures, installations, mechanical relief works, land art events and performances pieces which combine dance, theatre and art.

Mind games (2014), consisting of plastic skeletons, aluminium, steel, wooden chairs, a steel ball and electrical components depicts two bowler-hatted skeletons perched opposite each at the end of a long table on which a steel ball rhythmically moves back and forth, referencing the game of life and death along with Unsworth’s fascination for the human body.

On the top floor, nestled in the foyer between two gallery spaces, a recent work Alphaville, (2018), made of composition board, silk, electrical components and sound, models  an imaginary futuristic city replete with ambient city sounds; barking dogs, crying babies, prayer rituals and so on. Large white blocks form the building structures and rather disconcertingly blend with the surrounding gallery walls, the black silk curtains hanging loosely, this brave new world is a contrast to many of Unsworth’s more figurative pieces. The nature of the space it occupies does however make navigating with a wheel chair or walking frame more difficult.

Surprisingly, this is the first major exhibition of the artist’s sculptural works to be held in the state of his birth. Although raised in Melbourne, Unsworth has lived in Sydney for most of his adult life. A prominent figure in the NSW art landscape, he is represented in collections both nationally and internationally and has been the recipient of various awards and scholarships over his six decade career.  In 1989 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia (MOA) in recognition of his artistic achievements.

Ken Unsworth, Memory (2018) fibreglass resin, polyurethane foam, steel,  wood, blown glass, electrical components, halogen lights 294.0 x 251.5 x  211.1 cm. Collection of the artist © Ken Unsworth. Photo: Eugene Hyland.

A recent monograph, Ken Unsworth, by art curator Anthony Bond and published by the ARTAND Foundation is a celebration of Unworth’s art and features essays by leading Australian historians and curators. It is also the first major publication on his work.

A thoughtfully curated show that captures something of an artist who defies ready catagorisation.

Although supported by minimal interpretive material it may in fact be congruent with Unsworth’s wishes. As he says ‘I make work that is essentially intuitive and I hope that somehow or another it speaks to people who come across it, and they interpret it in terms of their own experience.’

3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Ken Unsworth 
Truly, Madly

14 September 2018 – 17 February 2019
NGV Australia, Federation Square Melbourne
Free entry

Mem Capp
About the Author
Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.