Artists in the Field: A Retrospective
by Anita Angel

12/06/2000

Venue Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
Start Date 01/06/2000
End Date 17/09/2000

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)’s current exhibition, Artists in the Field: a retrospective, pays tribute to a chapter in the history of institutional patronage of the visual arts in the Top End which ended with the departure of the Foundation Director of Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Dr Colin Jack-Hinton, in 1993.  Spanning just over a decade (1980-1991), the annual programme of ‘artists’ camps’, initiated and run in close collaboration with internationally-acclaimed Australian artist and friend, Frank Hodgkinson, was unique for its time, and as Dr Jack-Hinton notes in the exhibition catalogue’s Preface, ‘born of necessity’[1]. His visual arts acquisition policy for the Northern Territory’s combined museum and art gallery - ‘to establish a collection of works inspired by Northern Australia and the Centre, or at least the bush’[2] – provided the impetus and the framework for the Artists in the Field programme, one which reflected his abiding belief in the arts and sciences - in nature and culture - as complementary, rather than competing, human endeavours.  During his time as Foundation Director, this belief also informed the architectural design and interior layout of the purpose-built Bullocky Point institution, opened in 1981 as the ‘NT Museum f Arts and Sciences’, now since renamed and restructured - administratively, conceptually and otherwise. [3]

Under institutional aegis, the Northern Territory Artists in the Field programme resulted in over 40 Australian and international artists[4] spending time in various remote locations in Arnhem Land and the now World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park[5] - areas of the tropical north of the continent which had hitherto received little sustained artistic attention, for reasons of distance and inaccessibility.  A year after each of the ‘camps’, participating artists were given a solo or group exhibition at the Museum, which displayed the works ‘inspired’ by their experiences ‘in the field’, produced during or after their time in the Top End.  The Museum retained first option to purchase art works, thereby consolidating, in stages, a collection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper, of great diversity, which related to the region.[6]  In many cases, artists themselves made significant donations to the institution (most notably, Frank Hodgkinson) and subsequently showed their ‘Artists’ Camps’ work in galleries and institutions ‘down south’ and abroad.  Some of their work was subsequently acquired by public galleries, private and corporate collectors, thereby increasing awareness of the tropical north’s artistic potential, which earlier Modernist artists (such as Fairweather, Tuckson and Drysdale) had discovered several decades earlier, during their own trips or ‘escapes’ to the Northern Territory.[7] 

From a local perspective, the Artists in the Field: A Retrospective provides a long-awaited opportunity for residents to see and enjoy again a selection of art works from MAGNT’s permanent collection which have not been on public display for many years, given the recent history of travelling exhibitions and the institution’s limited display space.  Many local residents present at the retrospective’s opening night recalled, with some nostalgia, the original ‘Artists in the Field’ exhibitions they had attended during the 1980s, prompted not only by particular art works, but by the presence of both Dr Jack-Hinton (whose opening speech, tinged with wry humour and genuine feeling, was warmly received), and that of a number of the original participating artists.  Several paintings in the exhibition were borrowed from resident private collectors, who had purchased works from the Museum’s ‘Artists in the Field’ exhibitions in the 1980s.  More than two-thirds of the 75 works on display were drawn from the permanent collection, and had been selected for acquisition by Dr Jack-Hinton during his Directorship. In a sense then, the retrospective also served as a public acknowledgement by MAGNT, long overdue, of its debt to the past and to its pioneering founder – its first official and institutional patron of the arts and sciences in the Northern Territory.

It is a pity that the image chosen for the catalogue cover and exhibition invitation was of a painting on loan from an interstate corporate collection [Sandra Leveson’s Sere Grasslands, 1990][8], rather than from MAGNT’s own holdings. Whilst the work itself is one of the strongest and finest images in the show, there were, arguably, many other art works of comparable quality from within the permanent collection which could well have served the same purpose – at the same time underscoring the artists’ camps’ enduring legacy to the community, through the Museum collection.

As a retrospective exhibition - divided between the touring gallery on the first level and what was formerly the permanent gallery of Modern European Art on the second level –Artists in the Field also offers the general public an opportunity to reflect on the significance and overall ‘success’ of the Northern Territory artists’ camps programme, from varying perspectives.  In the catalogue Preface, Dr Jack-Hinton states that the art works included in the current exhibition are ‘of major significance in the history of Australian art, and of overwhelming importance as Territory art’, and that their value in both cases will ‘only increase with time’[9]. How and why their ‘significance’ and ‘importance’ is so assured is borne out by the art works themselves, selectively assembled together for the first time and available to be considered individually or examined as a whole, with the benefit of hindsight.

The curatorial layout of the Artists in the Field exhibition does away with any chronological development of the camps, opting instead for a sequence of curatorial themes – ‘Encounters and Intrusions’, ‘Transience’ and ‘Permanence’, which do not always reflect the grouping of artists from year to year.  I am not sure that disturbing the historical evolution of the artists’ camps, by superimposing a curatorial ‘reading’ of the artists’ work, was a wise decision.  In some cases, it leads to a sense of disorientation; in others, it prohibits a closer study of the development of an artist’s work over a period of years (Frank Hodgkinson), or his experimentation with diverse media (Les Kossatz, Robert Jacks).  The key curatorial theme, ‘Encounters and Intrusions’, also sets the pace for the catalogue essay.  A recent comment by Frank Hodgkinson regarding his portrait pieces of Nipper Kapirigi and Colin Jack-Hinton[10], noted by Daena Murray (Curator of Visual Arts at MAGNT), ‘would seem to fix’, it is argued, the Artists in the Field camps within ‘the category of European intrusion and imposition’.[11]  As invited guests of the Museum (which was responsible for ensuring that ‘clearance’ to enter restricted areas had been obtained from the appropriate Aboriginal elders), participating artists were not ‘intruders’ – even if some felt this way themselves.  To caste the entire ‘Artists in the Field’ programme within this context, at the outset of the retrospective exhibition, seems an unnecessary concession to the kind of commentators who have described ‘the Australian landscape tradition … in all its variations’ as a ‘colonialist fraud’, the basis for which is the ‘theft of indigenous land’.[12]

Two particularly disappointing features of the exhibition are the generally poor lighting (the text panels are in some cases better illuminated than some of the paintings) and the unfortunate choice of Prussian Blue walls and partitions on the second level.  It is ironic that one of the recurring comments by many of the camps’ participants, concerning the ‘overwhelming clarity of light’ of the Top End, should be noted in one of the exhibition text panels.  A significant proportion of the art work generated by the artists’ camps was undertaken en plein air.  Why at least half the work exhibited should be hung in an environment better suited to the display of Old Masters or Victorian portraiture, rather than a neutral space, is a mystery.  In most cases, the result is less than flattering; that the spirit of the camps engendered a sense of fun and enjoyment is not apparent in the generally sombre surroundings on the second level.

With the exception of Frank Hodgkinson, who attended the first six camps and was by far the most prolific artist, the majority of participating artists’ Top End oeuvre is limited in the exhibition to one or two (three at most) examples.  Specific works in the exhibition which assert their autonomy over others, drawn from the MAGNT collection or on loan (for example Hodgkinson’s East Alligator Billabong 1978, Firth-Smith’s Rock at Deaf Adder 1981, Lanceley’s Dust in Sunlight, memory in corners 1982, Aspden’s Graveside Gorge 1982, Storrier’s Sunset Rock 1983 and Jack’s Tribal wanderer 1985), provide ample proof of the quality of individual work which was produced during and after the artists’ camps.  Other work manages (but only just) to achieve ‘significant’ or ‘important’ status due to the monumental subject matter (Nourlangie or Ubirr Rock) it depicts, rather than from any outstanding formal or aesthetic properties it possesses.  Knowing that the ‘Artists in the Field’ programme was responsible for fostering the production of a far greater range of work than was possible to exhibit in the retrospective, is perhaps, one of the more frustrating aspects of the exhibition. It also makes any general assessment of the significance or importance of the programme – in terms of Territory art history or Australian art history - problematic.  The inclusion of earlier exhibition checklists or artists’ biographies in the catalogue, or as part of the multimedia facility, may have alleviated this. 

The range of styles and media employed by a diverse range of artists represented in the retrospective, whose practices had reached varying degrees of maturity at the time they attended the camps, reflects the history of the camps ‘selection process’ over a period of eleven years.[13]  It also evidences the experimental nature of the programme. This may partly account for the exhibition’s eclecticism and refreshing lack of predictability.  Whether it also demonstrates, as noted in the exhibition catalogue, ‘the selectors’ estimations of the diverse tastes of the client – namely the Northern Territory public’[14], is open to question.  Ms Murray has also stated that, ‘in a sense, the camps were a pretext for commissioning what might be called portraits of the Top End landscape’[15], but neither the spirit of the programme  - one of freedom, experimentation and fun – nor the work it generated, could be described as ‘commissioned’ in any way.  Unlike many present day institutional commissions, there was no predetermined agenda regarding artists’ choice or depiction of subject matter, as a condition precedent to the ultimate acquisition of works.  That the majority of participating artists chose to depict Northern Territory landscape in a recognisable way was never a prescribed criteria for their inclusion in the programme.  The basis for the running of the ‘Artists in the Field’ programme would probably be considered ‘risky business’ in current times (where would it fit in a museum’s ‘corporate plan’ ?), but back then, it was not unusual to speak of trust, friendship and the mutual benefits to be gained from genuine hospitality.  The resulting body of work speaks for itself.  

There is no doubt that MAGNT – and the local community – have benefited enormously from the Artists in the Field programme, through the strengthening of that part of the permanent collection which may be referred to as ‘Territory art’.  But for the programme, many of the established and mid-career artists, as well as those whose practices were less well-recognised at that time, may never have had either the inclination or the opportunity to visit the Northern Territory. Their actual motivations for attending the camps and creating the works they did, is an issue which is over-emphasised in the catalogue essay, leading to rhetorical speculation as to the importance or otherwise of the ‘Artists in the Field’ programme, within the context of Australian art history in the 1980s.  Whether a Heidelberg School – or any other species of ‘school’ of art – has ever existed, either in artists’ minds or in reality, is an academic issue art historians - and curators - can do without.  Art history’s ‘defining moments’, such as they are, begin and end not with great artists, but with great art.  As Dr Jack-Hinton remarked in his opening speech at the exhibition’s opening, ‘there was no room for egos in Kakadu’.

In the catalogue essay, Ms Murray notes that almost all the artists involved in the programme concluded that the Top End experience did not substantially change either their ‘style’ or the ‘direction of their art’.  Whilst several artists reworked or revisited the ‘experience’ of the camps, through their works, many years after the event, it would appear that no major ‘breakthroughs’, in art historical terms, occurred as a result of their experiences in the Northern Territory.  Given the brevity of their visit, this should not surprise – but nor should it matter.  In retrospect, it is not what the artists intended to do (or what their ‘academic friends’[16] thought they were doing), that mattered, but what they did, that counts. Only a full appraisal of the entire body of work that emanated from the ‘Artists in the Field’ program may give some indication of its art historical worth in a national sense, and this is beyond the scope of the MAGNT retrospective. 

Each in their own way, the artists-in-the-field did much to reaffirm the singular natural beauty and cultural complexity of a remote area of the continent, unlike any other.  Given the monumental character of the escarpment country, its unusual flora and fauna and magnificent galleries of Aboriginal rock art sites, many artists responded to the fresh subject matter with a seriousness and reverence befitting the most traditional landscape art – from the picturesque, to the sublime, to the detailed topographical (David Dridan, Tim Guthrie, John Rigby, Chai Kuek Hwa, John Morrison, Alasdair McGregor).  Watercolourists applied individual styles and techniques, sometimes modifying their normal working methods, to the depiction of billabongs, waterlilies, paperbarks and acquatic life (John Borrack, John Morrison, Raphael Ah Beng, Rex Backhaus-Smith).

For several ‘abstractionists’, the experience of being in an unfamiliar landscape, replete with unusual vegetation and often bizarre but suggestive natural formations (such as anthills), offered a new range of visual and other stimuli not available in the metropoli of Australian Modernism (John Firth-Smith, Colin Lanceley, David Aspden, Robert Jacks).  Others responded with both humour and irony to the human element present in even the most isolated camp sites and locations (Patrick Hockey, Richard Tipping, Jack Meagher).  Tim Storrier constructed museum-like specimen box sculptures, containing tightly wrapped and entwined sticks, canvas, old wood and straps, rubbed over with red ochre - art as archaeological ‘find’ - suggestive of prior human existence, elemental erosion and the relentless passage of time.  Some, but not all artists, incorporated a representational or symbolic reference to the country’s Aboriginal history, past and present (Frank Hodgkinson, Clifton Pugh, Karen Knight-Mudie, Made Budhiana, Sally Robinson). 

MAGNT’s Artists in the Field: a retrospective is a welcome addition to the institution’s exhibition calendar in Darwin.  It is an exhibition which reveals as much about a significant episode in MAGNT’s own history, as it does about the strengths of its permanent collection.  It is a testament to both the Museum’s Foundation Director, and to the artists who participated in a grand venture which, in all likelihood, may never be repeated in the Territory’s tropical north again.
 
Anita Angel

14 June, 2000

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[1] C. Jack-Hinton, Artists in the Field: a retrospective, Exhibition Catalogue, Museum & Art Gallery of the NT, Darwin, 2000, p.3.[2] See: C. Jack-Hinton, ‘The Artists’ Camp – and a unique experience for Australian painters’, in: M. Dondas (Ed), Profile – Australia’s Northern Territory, Sovereign Publications, Darwin NT, 1989.[3] What was originally the NT Museum of Arts and Sciences was renamed the ‘Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’ (‘MAGNT’) in 1993, following a change in Directorship. MAGNT is the NT’s major public art gallery and museum, located in Darwin.[4] The Australian artists came from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Queensland.  International artists included Canadians, Malaysians and an Indonesian artist.[5] Stage 1 of Kakadu National Park was proclaimed on 5 April, 1979 and World Heritage Listing by UNESCO was officially confirmed in 1981.  Throughout the 1970s, both Dr Jack-Hinton, and MAGNT’s Curator of Rock Art, George Chaloupka, were closely involved in local lobbying to protect the Kakadu region from increasing pastoral and mining development.[6] The work acquired by MAGNT as a result of the Artists in the Field programme comprises about 10% of its permanent collection, or over 80 works of art.  There are 75 works in the exhibition, including 19 loans.[7] See: Gavin Wilson, Escape Artists – Modernists in the Tropics, Cairns Regional Gallery, Qld, 1998.[8] On loan from the collection of Leeuwin Estate.[9] C. Jack-Hinton, Artists in the Field, Exhibition Catalogue, p.3.[10] Hodgkinson describes the portraits as companion pieces: ‘…white man sets out to tame and control the landscape, bringing his accoutrements for living with him whereas the Aborigines belong to, come from and rejoin their landscape’: in D. Murray, Artists in the Field, Exhibition Catalogue, p.9.[11] Ibid.[12] Gary Lee quoted in Ibid, p.6. [13] Frank Hodgkinson was instrumental in the selection process between 1980 and 1983.[14] D. Murray, Artists in the Field, Exhibition Catalogue, p.7.[15] Ibid.[16] Ibid, p.4.