To think of urban landscapes in Australian art is, inevitably, to think of the late Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) and his slightly clinical, but immensely atmospheric, paintings that depict industrial and city settings. As important as his legacy is, Constructing Landscape: urban visions, a fascinating exhibition at Caloundra Regional Gallery, reflects a new chapter in the nation’s consideration of how the urban environment might be represented.
While acknowledging (and indeed displaying) art in the vein of Smart that explores the geometry and precision of cityscapes, this show expands the idea of urban landscapes to include street art, graffiti, murals and other modes that might be associated with metropolitan culture.
“Most of the works are paintings or works on paper or straight on the wall, and cover all genres: realism, abstraction, pop, skater and street aesthetics,” says Jo Duke, curator and manager of Caloundra Regional Gallery. “And the artists have used paint, ink, photographs, collage, found objects and plastics.”
Many of the 31 participating artists hail from the local Sunshine Coast region, while others are based elsewhere in Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne, or in the case of the New York-based Mark Alequin, overseas. Two artists were commissioned to create temporary mural works, and 13 artists were commissioned to produce work that utilised in some way the ‘witches hat’ or common traffic cone.
Constructing Landscape is the culmination of Duke’s specific vision, and she cites Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Banksy as influences on the exhibition. Duke spent several years living in the coastal Central Queensland town of Gladstone, which has, she says, “an interesting landscape with lots of industry nestled in bush and coastline along one side.”
“However,” she adds, “when exhibitions were held, most of the landscapes were of the mountains, bush scenes or seascapes, and very rarely focused on the extraordinary industrial structures people drove past every day. I hardly ever saw within landscape exhibitions images of urban constructs, when so many of us live within these vistas.”
Duke adds, “I have also always been interested in street art and how it is now considered an important way to humanise and create community links within urban centres. So I became interested in two areas: artists who look at the urban environment and cities we live in, and artists who work on these surfaces creating visual dialogues not only with their communities, but with everyone who passes by and takes time to notice.”
It is testament to Duke’s curatorial nous that Constructing Landscape is balanced in its treatment of urbanity. On one hand, the show pays tribute to the colours, diversity and vitality of urban life; on the other, it mourns the environmental cost of urban sprawl and development.
Duke points to Shae Gregg as one artist who celebrates the modern city; her photographic works are a playful and positive exploration of found objects and public spaces. Another such artist is Catherine Parker, whose delicate and lovingly crafted paintings “incorporate the urban marks within her beautifully rendered landscapes of her town, Toowoomba.”
To balance this, there is the work of Blair McNamara, whose paintings and photography are, according to Duke, “about the loss of his remembered childhood spaces, or as he states, ‘the cultural and environmental conundrums that have developed over the decades in his vulnerable Sunshine Coast paradise.’”
Some visitors might regard it as a paradox that a show about urban spaces is taking place in a regional location. However, Constructing Landscape is at least in part an insight into the aesthetics of the intersection where urban and rural meet (as expressed by Duke in her reflections on Gladstone). Caloundra, surrounded by forest and hills on one side and the ocean on the other, is therefore an appropriate home for such an exhibition.
“Several artists celebrate or recognise that the urban is within the landscape,” says Duke. “I think that urbanity and the changing nature of how we live occurs in regional centres just as much as it does in large city spaces.”