‘We have humans in the building!’ The enjoyment of art in a post-COVID summer

2020 has had many moods, as does Art Gallery of NSW's summer program, from Streeton and the Archibald Prize, to Archie Plus and Pat Larter. Curators Wayne Tunnicliffe and Justin Paton speak on curating for a post-COVID experience.

In a year where everything has been rethought, so too is something as iconic as the art of Arthur Streeton.

Streeton is an artist we have all grown up with in Australia, known for his pastoral paintings and sun-drenched impressionist landscapes – and yet, a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) demonstrates that perhaps we don’t know this Australian icon as well as we thought.

Head Curator of Australian Art, Wayne Tunnicliffe told Artshub: ‘One of the signs of a great painting is that it speaks to us in our moment, as well as the moment in which it was made, and Streeton does that.’

Streeton is part of a suite of exhibitions that will enliven the Gallery this summer, including Archie Plus – a collective response to portraiture; an irreverent and fresh retrospective on Pat Larter; a look at multi-media artist, and first Arab-Australian solo by Khaled Sabsabi: A Promise, the fourth Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial: Real Worlds, and the ever-popular Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes.

Tunnicliffe said: ‘The Archibald Wynne and Sulman Prizes empower people to have an opinion. Similarly, for Streeton we wanted to lift the hood on a classic museum show, and present its twists and contemporary conversations.’

Justin Paton, Head Curator of International Art, continued: ‘Just as Streeton looks at the contemporary relevance of works from the past, artists such as Angela Tiatia, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, and the artists of Studio A, all take the historical idea of portraiture and present it in the collective context of now, for Archie Plus.’

With a similar pulse for our times, the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial explores extraordinary new worlds through the medium of drawing, that are inventive, complex and dynamic.

Curator of this year’s edition, Anne Ryan said: ‘The immediacy and intimacy of drawing is particularly attuned to the urgency of our times, and the work of each of these eight artists reflects the human capacity to imagine something better, or different.’

She continued: ‘The real world can be reckoned with, be re-seen, be understood anew, as we face its mercurial challenges.’

‘These shows are part of the spectrum of how the Gallery is delivering diverse programs under extraordinary circumstances,’ added Tunnicliffe.

Paton explained that from the moment visitors approach the Gallery, Archie Plus signals everything has changed.

‘Archie Plus is part exhibition, part festival, part celebration, part reflection.’

Justin Paton, AGNSW Head of International Art

‘It is a celebration of portraiture and the power of community. We want to amplify the optimism at the heart of artmaking in a period that has been very anxious and somber,’ Paton told ArtsHub.

Archie Plus will be revealed over a three-month period, allowing visitors to follow the creative process of artists.

‘People are coming back; we have humans in the building! That is the magical power of the Archie!’ he said.

And with a similar embrace of the sheer joy of viewing art, Streeton weaves its way through 150 paintings, drawings and watercolours from 42 public and private collections – many of which have not been on display for decades.

A contemporary lens on Streeton

Speaking with Tunnicliffe fresh from hanging the Streeton show, he said: ‘Streeton’s paintings were never designed for white walls, so we have gone all out!  People will be immersed in the colour and light of his paintings.’

As we are bound by restricted travel this summer, and still riding the wave of COVID-emotions, this exhibition will help audiences reconnect with Australia.

‘Arthur Streeton is an artist with such a long engagement with our landscape, not just Sydney and Melbourne, but regionally. He really travelled out and spent time in the environment, and we see that translated to paint.’

Tunnicliffe continued: ‘The works actively campaign against deforestation in the mid 1920s. Those big landscapes concurrently had degraded creeks and uprooted logs. He is not against pastoralism; what he was against was the logging of old forests for paper pulp – these are contemporary narratives.’

Streeton’s first monograph came out in 1919 at the height of Spanish Flu in Australia. ‘101 years later, we’re doing another monograph, and exhibition, on the tail of a pandemic. A circular history indeed,’ said Tunnicliffe.

Mathew Calandra and Meagan Pelham from Studio A, working on Love owls and mermaids singing in the rainbow pop, 2020 for Archie Plus at the Art Gallery of NSW. Artwork © the artists. Photo: AGNSW.

Moving from the cult-like portrait of an individual, to that of a community

‘Australians love portraiture. But in our 99th year of the Archibald Prize, we are seeing a different kind of subject. It’s a good time to ask, “What does portraiture look like in 2020, and what does it look like in a pandemic when we can’t get close to the ones we love?”

Archie Plus is an enlargement of the Archibald idea, taking a portrait that is all about the individual and making it about the collective,’ continued Paton.

Archie Plus extends what was started with the Together In Art program initiated during lockdown, in the way that it brings together music, performance and dance with more traditional mediums associated with the art museum.

‘It is a huge and de-centered show – very different from your regular Gallery exhibition. It does not open all at once, or in one place.’

From banners gracing the sandstone façade, to 76 ceramic beings populating the vestibule with ‘ramshackle grandeur’, as Paton described, to a 30-metre photo mural by Angelia Tiatia in the entrance court, and an epic hand-painted mural created by neurodiverse artists from Studio A, Archie Plus re-positions the threshold to the Gallery’s grand narratives.

‘Each of the seven artists from Studio A contributed a portrait to the mural of someone important to them in this pandemic year,’ explained Paton.

‘It demonstrates what the hand can bring in these times, when we are constantly looking at the black mirrors of screens. I have not seen an artwork that argues so powerfully for togetherness,’ he continued.

Paton explained that Archie Plus was a feast of interventions across the Gallery, from collection clusters, to Peter Drew’s Aussie Posters “facing off” the historical works in the Grand Courts, a series of alternate artwork labels drawing on a range of voices, to spoken word and musical portraits staged in the Gallery space.

‘It is in-keeping with that feeling of urgency and informality that art museums have been seeking this year,’ said Paton.

Just as 2020 has had many moods and tones, AGNSW’s summer program offer the joy of engaging with art, both unexpected and favoured.

AGNSW’s jam packed summer program:

Streeton showing 7 November 2020 to 14 February 2021. (Timed-ticketed)

Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2020 until 10 January 2021. (Timed-ticketing)

Archie Plus until 10 January 2021. (free entry)

Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020 until 7 February 2021. (free entry)

Khaled Sabsabi: A Promise until 2021.(free entry)

Joy until 2021. (free entry)

Pat Larter: Get Arted opens 14 November. (free entry)

Learn more about public programs and events over summer.   

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