Survey exhibition by QLD legend Merton Chambers

From environmental challenges to food security, Merton Chambers' survey exhibition demonstrates the value of art to communicate.

Many artists who have adopted Australia as their home have turned to its natural flora; this exhibition is similarly inspired by our strange, exotic plant life, luminous light and punchy high chroma palette. But it is also much more; it is a story of a regional food bowl facing environmental challenges, of the value of regional communities, and the role art plays to empower ideas. 

Immigrating to Australia in the 1980s, and eventually to the Brisbane Valley in 2003, Merton Chambers left a well-established career in Canada, where he significant shaped the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, and later the Architectural Arts Movement, producing a number of large-scale public art commissions. 

Today the 93-year old artist looks back over his 40-year practice with the exhibition The Apple and the Knife, presented by The Condensery, in regional Toogoolawah (QLD). 

Rachel Arndt, The Condensery’s curator, described it as a kind of ‘journeyman’s artistic response to a new environment’.

She continued: ‘And in many ways, this exhibition is witness to this community’s concerns.’

Chambers told ArtsHub: ‘I deliberately try to [paint] the image in a simple way, so people can react to it. The arts are a form of communication … [and] these conversations are international. I always put something in that shouldn’t be there, to make people stop and look longer.’ 

Arndt added that while Chambers’ artworks are aesthetically beautiful, they are also subtly provocative. The exhibition’s title points to Chambers’ youth eating sweet apples – today genetically modified to last on our supermarket shelves for months.

Merton Chambers, Onion (2019), oil pastel on canvas, Courtesy the artist.
Onion, 2019, oil pastel on canvas, Courtesy the artist.

The reimagined Condensery opened as a regional gallery for the Somerset region in 2015, signalling a new art-led future.

Indeed, the gallery itself is located in a former condensed milk factory, that together with rail access, put Toogoolawah on the map. When Nestlé moved its operations to Victoria in 1929, the factory’s closure saw the town’s population halved.

Chambers is no stranger to the value of regional galleries. He was the founding director of the Noosa Regional Art Gallery (1986-92). Chambers said that living in a country town makes you think a bit harder. 

He told ArtsHub: ‘While you might miss going to see the arts every day, out here you’re on your own, so you have to think a bit deeper, a bit more practical about why you are doing it. A regional gallery plays a central role in leadership in that way.’

‘Running Noosa Regional Gallery for so many years I know the challenges, but I also know the joy to have people engage with professional art – that is absolutely what a regional gallery can do in building next a generation of art audiences, but also next generation of cultural practice,’ he continued.

The Apple and the Knife is a multifaceted exhibition that tells the story of both an artist and a regional town. The earliest works in the exhibition are from 1980-84, not long after Chambers arrived, and increasingly shift to oil pastel and a smaller-scale as a product of the move, eventually becoming more vivid with Chambers’ declining sight.

‘The show really traces that change in practice,’ Arndt added.

Who is Merton Chambers?

Born in rural Ontario (Canada) during the Great Depression, Chambers won a travelling scholarship to the UK and Europe after art school. On his return to Canada, he established a successful pottery studio in Toronto and became a significant influence in the arts and crafts movement of the 1960s and 70s. He represented Canada at New York’s First World Congress of Craftsmen in 1964.

He then became involved in the Architectural Arts movement, resulting in numerous major architectural commissions in Canada between1961-1983. His career entered a third stage with the move to Queensland, first working at the Queensland College of Art 1984-85, before taking up the directorship of Noosa Regional Gallery. He moved to Toogoolawah in 2003 and returned to art making.

The Apple and the Knife opens 9 July at The Condensery and continues until 4 September. The Condensery is located at Toogoolawah in Queensland.

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