This essayby Pat Hoffie, published in Art Monthly Australia, March 1991 to coincide with Arthur Wicks' exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW titled "Machina Persona" February-March 1991. Other critical reviews for the same exhibition by Elwyn Lynn (the Australian), Christopher Allen (Sydney Morning Herald), descriptive material by Wendy Symonds (AGNSW magazine "Look").

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The  last  time  I  saw  Arthur  Wicks - 
a regional allegory



Arthur Wicks is one of those people one keeps running into - like many regionally based artists he appears to forage on the move and ruminate in private - in his case, in Wagga Wagga.

When I first met Arthur he was wearing a suit but had clotted his entire head in mud. My memory of the exchange is somewhat fractured; it took place in one of the rear entrances to a shopping mall in Fremantle in 1987. I can remember the stench from the sheep ships docked at the nearby wharves reeking of ammonia -soaked lanoline from the multi-storey tiers of Arabia-bound animals, and I can remember Arthur's microphone screaming abu­sive questions at passers-by. The whole thing was thoroughly offensive. Later, I was informed that the offence was inten­tional, and that it was one of Arthur's performance pieces for ARX.

The next time I saw Arthur he was taking his clothes off in a disused freezer room in an abandoned Coles supermarket. The freezer room had a glass door, and a group of people had assembled to watch. The illuminated room was sealed off, but the small assembly listened to a take of Arthur's voice relating his experience alone in the landscape outside Perth, while they watched Arthur being slowly, gently and completely anointed with ochre by an Aboriginal man. I remember feeling simultaneously voyeuristic and oddly moved. Images of Arthur kept cropping up: I remember a naked Arthur spreadeagled in a human-size niche in the San Andreas fault; and I remember images of a man ­suited - rowing a boat along the tram tracks of Swanston Street in Melbourne. 

Recently I ran into Arthur in the shop­ping mall outside the Perc Tucker Re­gional Gallery in Townsville. The weather was unseasonably warm, even for the North, and assorted locals sat in clusters along the footpath waiting for the mango ­wind to cool things down and knock the early blossoms from the trees. As if from nowhere, Arthur appeared pushing a pram containing a baby. Arthur was looking very tropical and lightly tanned, and the baby, who was very pale and new, was looking quite pleased with himself in the early-evening north Queensland light, but the incredible unceasing screech of the crickets in the copse of trees immediately outside Perc Tucker made it impossible to speak. 

Inside, Arthur related to story of his return journey North, and his imminent exhibition titled ‘Proposals' at Perc Tucker. As he described the series of small-scale art works, hybrids between painting and sculp­ture, which he had planned, the air-condi­tioning in Perc Tucker began to make the formerly sweating baby uncomfortably cool. As Arthur removed him from the pram and experimented with a variety of elements, so that scenic vistas, driftwood, children's toys, primitive mechanics, elec­trical circuitry and paint are brought to­gether to form an intriguing new com­pound'. The common source for much of the 'Proposals' exhibition was the format of the 1V set, but one tuned, as George Hirst points out, 'to a channel ordinary TV's just don't receive'.

At the time of my chance meeting with Arthur, Perc Tucker was featuring an exhibition by Margaret Wilson called 'The North'. The upstairs gallery was filled by her huge, colour-saturated, broody can­vases and the more lyrical sheeny graphite of her drawings.

Ross Beale, Perc Tucker's director, has a commitment to curating exhibitions and publishing high-quality catalogues featur­ing the work of north Queensland artists; since May 1989 he has featured and cata­logued the work of Annelie Silver, Robert Preston and Anne Lord. It is intended that the programme will culminate in_ 1991 with the exhibition, Artists in the Tropics 1890-1991, an historical survey of artist activity in north Queensland over the last 100 years.
Conversations with artists in Townsville reveal a similar foraging impetus to that of Arthur. For many of them the magnetic attraction of the Sydney-Melbourne axis loses its pull north of Capricorn, and the proximity of other cultures offers alterna­tive means of situating their own produc­tion. Like the Aquarius Festival in northern New South Wales, the Pacific Festival of1988 left in its wake small groups of in­dividuals who are s till deciding whether to go back south, and small communities and collectives have formed. Umbrella Studios is an artist-run initiative with a regular 'alternative' exhibitions and performance programme, which relies, like most such initiatives, on the over-commitment of an enthusiastic few for its functioning.

In Townsville the sense of de-centring is stronger - artists speak of wanting to make contact with other regionally-based artists, and members of the Umbrella group are involved in the follow-up to the 'Artists go Troppo' regional arts exchange for 1991. They are aware of the importance of the Iismore based Periphery magazine, and are anxious to buy into those debates on regionalism that are often created by theorists working from more centralised positions.

The physical problems of geographical isolation are real here, and the difficulties of getting access to commercial galleries, writers, other artists, new information and a wide range of materials are assessed against the advantages of 'buying time and space to think and work'.
However, the farsighted policy of the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery has gone a long way towards addressing many of the shortcomings of regional cultural life. Artists from interstate are frequent visi­tors, and touring shows from State galleries are regular, and the high quality catalogues produced there featuring north Queensland artists is evidence of the gallery policy's recognition of the need to re­direct the one-way traffic of cultural infor­mation flow.

Arthur was in the crowded, slightly jaundiced interior of the Brisbane Transit Centre. Groups of people sat silent and bleary-eyed over laminex tables decorated with the slops of last night's cappuccinos. Tinny announcements heralding the arrival and departure of: endless buses interrupted our conversation as we shuffled through the snaps he had taken of the 'Proposals' show. He was on his way to the Gold Coast, where he had an exhibition planned, so we killed  time by rifling through the garish postcard  display in the souvenir shop. Most of the souvenirs - lots of iridescent leis were featured - were made in Taiwan, and we remarked on how little the images on the postcards captured the places they portrayed. As we examined the popular versions of selected regions of Australia it became apparent how little we differentiate between all these individual eccentric little areas we collectively lump together as ‘the regions'. The images were virtually interchangeable. In Australia, when you're looking for a visual symbol to represent any area outside the city, it seems any old patch of bush will do.

Arthur Wicks "Machina Persona" is at the Art Gallery of NSW until 30 March.

Pat Hoffie,
Art Monthly Australia, March 1991




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