Perspectives is an annual offering from the Art Gallery of Western Australia, showcasing the best fine art students of the graduating WACE cohort. The exhibition is by now a proud tradition, granting a well-deserved nod of encouragement to the budding visual artists of our community. Sadly, it often falls short in the same respect. The work of young artists can come off immature, and the showing of the 2016 graduating class is no exception.
Formally, there is a melange of mediums and shapes that contribute to a well-varied ambience. Aside from one or two stray pieces, there is nothing that looks amateurish, which is hard to believe considering the age and (presumably) low financial backing of most of these artists. You will only find the well-done and the beautiful.
The works also seemed to be better situated within art history than previous Perspectives shows. Kahlo, Picasso, Hockney, Goya, Mccubbin, Caravaggio and Chardin, amongst others I will have missed, were referenced to good effect.
My reservations were on the choices of subject matter. In this exhibition formal aesthetics take a back seat to crude political discourse. On entering the gallery we are fed two token pictures dramatising the stresses of high school, a subject matter too well trodden for Perspectives. Again, these pictures were astonishing formally. In their overwhelming will to communicate, however, they are reduced to unremarkable literality.
We move to works concerning climate change, the perils of social media, the plight of animal testing, and the dangers of capitalism. To be curt, the exhibition is a tribute to the ideals of armchair socialism. Each political issue is grossly oversimplified, and sanctimoniously stuffed with vaguely progressive ideals so as to have some meaning. Self-written captions are undesirable at the best of times, and here they read like Vox or Sydney Morning Herald opinion pieces. I am not sure why art is seen as a medium of political communication; this exhibition is a testament to the fact it does not work. While most will agree with the polemics presented in the pieces, the fact is that they are not appropriately communicated in short form artworks. Each seeks to drive home an overwhelmingly aspirational thesis, and the viewer begins to feel somewhat harassed.
In the gallery beneath Perspectives there is an array of semi-contemporary works from the 50s onwards, largely pieces of Australian abstract expressionism. When peering down from the balcony in the Perspectives floor, it is hard not to feel a bit cheated. Where up here are the jazzy abstractions of Debra Dawes, Brent Harris, Dick Watkins and Lesley Dumbrell? Why aren’t any of the kids trying anything wildly inventive? Why isn’t there at least one piece of experimental art sans-message, progressive or otherwise? If art is perfectly meaningless, why isn’t there a piece that means nothing at all?
I suspect the answer is that the WACE fine art course mandates some sort of meaningful conceit. This is an offence to aesthetics, and to budding creativity. Expression should have no guidelines, and no end-point. The problem is distilled in ‘28 Bayly St Port Beach, Fremantle’ by George Gare. The work consists of a light board illuminating translucent coloured bricks, in a technically advanced and beguiling play of materials which recalls an effervescent Liam Gillick. Upon reading the caption, however, the art is forced into a more literal narrative on the dangers of government and property acquisition. Presumably the grades soar, but for me the magic is dissipated.
To be fair, there are a handful of pieces without an awkward political justification. Elouise Greenwell and Owen Halliday produce landscape series that are exactly beautiful. Emily Bairstow’s ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ is a quasi-botanical study of subtle insect forms, and Yusef Hourani’s ‘Wahdat Al-Wujud’ represents Islamic spirituality in unique shifting forms. Maja Healy’s ‘At Sixes and Sevens’ is by far the most treasurable piece exhibited, as a work of semi-expressionist portraiture which would rival most established artists.
Again, there is formal mastery shown in the art here, and I cannot see any excuse for a patron not to support our most talented young creators. I can only hope that in the future the artists will become more interested in the aesthetics of it all. They must stop cramming their work into justifiable conceits, or being told to do so.
Words by Harry Sanderson