Review by Robert Nelson
Publication - The Age – The Culture.
December 25 2002, page 6.

Age critic Robert Nelson looks back on the year of art in the age of Federation Square.

Since the 19th century, Victorians have felt that Melbourne is the national art capital, and with good reason. It has brought to the fore a large proportion of the country's key figures and movements; it has the nation's key collection in the National Gallery of Victoria; and the number of museums, commercial and artist-run galleries is well above the national per capita average.

The evidence is matched by public interest in art generally, even though artists don't gain huge financial support. No one in Melbourne was surprised that the exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, ‘The Italians’, would be as much a success at the Melbourne Museum as it was a flop in Canberra.

But this year, the preeminence of Melbourne has been expressed in the most demonstrative way. The openings of the new Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) at Southgate and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Federation Square have drawn unprecedented numbers to witness new art. And, the opening of the NGV Australia at Federation Square proclaims the prestige of Melbourne on an almost intimidating scale.

The new spaces in the Victorian capital are highly theatrical, to the point that they could be criticised for intruding on the scope of the art works. But in the spatial vigour and clout of the buildings, you don't get a chance to entertain many curatorial scruples. As in baroque architecture, you're rather overcome by the energy and complexity of the spaces. The architecture at ACCA and the NGV Australia encourages dramatic sequences and heady video installations, a genre that completes the championing of baroque spectacle in recent times.

In this, the advent of ACMI has been especially timely. A centre devoted to moving pictures- but not necessarily cinema- reflects international trends in art, where sensations and ideas develop over the time that you remain in the room. Often, the space around the screen or screens is integral to the meaning.

This was the genre that dominated the inaugural exhibition at ACCA; video installation also features as an equally large-screen experience in Patricia Piccinini's work at the NGV Australia.

But perhaps the greatest coincidence this year is that the development of the moving image was traced so usefully in an exhibition of the experimental films and sculptures of Len Lye at the Monash University Museum of Art. Lye's work was remarkable in its balancing of abstraction and implied narrative, its technical logic and its strangely symbolic method of toying with chaos. So many of the virtues and qualities of contemporary video (at its best) can be adduced from Lye's work from the 1930s to the '80s.

Painting, in this environment, is increasingly isolated and seems to grope for useful things to do. Last year, a number of exhibitions searched for a good rationale for figurative painting, and this effort continued this year in shows such as ‘It’s a Beautiful Day: New Painting in Australia’, in the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. All very worthy (like the learned historical surveys at the Potter) but you’re often alerted to the lacunae in contemporary painting, especially in the poetic rationale that would make the technique sustainable and give the work integrity.

Coincidently, an exhibition of Gerhard Richter at RMIT Gallery brought home the limited feasibility of painting in the international scene.

Richter is one of the world’s most successful painters whose career oscillates between figurative and abstract painting. The schism in Richter’s output demonstrates the irreconcilability and weakness of the two. His abstractions lack the allusions of the figurative pictures; but the figurative pieces lack the sensual energy of the abstractions. Somewhere in between, the integrity of painting has fallen into a huge international hole.

There are isolated masters such as Rick Amor and (at both Niagara Galleries and the Mornington Peninsular Regional Gallery) who still bring painterly intuition to a sincere image. I also responded to the evocative work of Robyn Burgess at Helen Gory Gallery and, of course the triumph of Aboriginal painting in exhibitions too numerous to mention is a strong sign that the unity of style and subject matter can still be sublime.

The strength of Aboriginal art was highlighted at the Melbourne Art Fair, which was also rich in Asian participants and was certainly the best ever. It included a brilliant installation by Natasha Johns-Messenger, whose work was also seen at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces.

But this year with the start of the NGV Australia seems to belong to the future as much as the past.

Abstract painting fared well in the hands of Wilma Tabacco at Niagara Galleries, an artist who also featured in the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize and the remarkable survey of Op art, Good vibrations, at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Lens-based imagery has some of the difficulties of painting. It was represented well by the CCP, with video frequently upstaging still images - though many of the most memorable were traditional sharp pictures, such as David van Royen's. Deborah Paauwe's sharp photographs of girls in costume at Sutton Gallery were unsettling in their beauty. From a technical, poetic and formal point of view, Harry Nankin's mural-size photograms at Smyrnios Gallery were formidable.

The Australian artist best known overseas, Stelarc, had a remarkable solo exhibition at the Monash Faculty Gallery, featuring the artist's third arm, the machine for walking, the stomach camera and the third ear project. Documentation of Stelarc's performances from the 1970s is included in Fieldwork at the NGV Australia.

The regional galleries maintained their programs to high standards and sometimes revealed little-known treasures, such as Martin Lewis' prints from the 1910s to '30s at the Castlemaine Art Gallery, and Barry Cleavin's prints from the 1960s to 2000 at the Gippsland Art Gallery. But this year - with the start of the NGV Australia - seems to belong to the future as much as the past. We have a building that might be a bit intrusive on the dear old collection that it accommodates, but it symbolises a great theme: we're entering a new epoch.

With Melbourne now firmly the centre of Australian visual art, how can you not be excited?