This essay written by Michael Denholm published in Periphery Issue Number 28 August 1996. It is in response to an exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery titled "Beyond the Great Divide" in that same year. The essay's focus is specifically on arts practice in regional areas.  Another article on the same topic is by Geoff Levitus "Arthur Wicks – an Example to Regional Artists."

When you are ready to return to the Library or another space in the gallery, please press the appropriate button below.


2d work3D buttonmachines buttoninstallationsVideo works burronlibrary buttonCV Wickshome page




Beyond  Neglect  and  the   Divide
Regional  Australian  Art


Michael Denholm

Recent books on Australian art, such as Christopher Heathcote's a quiet revolution, the rise of Australian art 1946-1968 and Charles Green's A Peripheral Vision, Contemporary Australian Art 1970-1994, demonstrate that a failing of Australian art writing still continues. Heathcote's book is a very important study, based on extensive interviewing, and includes some fascinat­ing material, especially regarding the struggle between abstraction and figuration in art and between progressive and conservative forces in the Melbourne art world, but it mainly concentrates on art in Melbourne, despite its very misleading title. In doing so, it ignored, for instance, developments in Adelaide when Paul Beadle was head of the South Australian School of Art, the impact of Udo Sellbach and the emergence of such artists as Barbara Hanrahan, Syd Ball and Robert Boynes.

Similarly, Green, in Peripheral Vision, mainly concentrated on artists in Melbourne and Sydney with a little coverage of art elsewhere and with some coverage of
that vital phenomenon in Australian art, the flourishing of Aboriginal art. Green was awarded a $35,000 grant from the Visual Arts/Craft Board to write his book, so he had the opportunity both in terms of time and money to visit regional areas. His failure to do so is inexcusable and makes his reading of Australian art a very partial account. Green stated that a definite account of Australian art is not yet possible and that its story is still that of Sydney and Melbourne, repeating Elwyn Lynn's comment in 1963 in the Texas Quarterly , but the reality of Australian art is far more complex than that. As the touring show from Tasmania, Brushing the Dark, demonstrates, high quality art is being made in regional centres in Aus­tralia.

Beyond the Great Divide, a show held at the City Art Gallery, Wagga Wagga, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Arts Council of New South Wales in May 1996, is a further example that art of high quality is being made in regional areas. It consisted of the work of artists from Wagga Wagga and the Riverina who are divided from the main centres of popula­tion and artistic activity in Australia and by the Great Dividing Range which runs from the top of north Queensland right down the eastern seaboard.

A sense of place and a strong ecological consciousness were a feature of this exhibition. In the 1960s, Pop art in the United States had celebrated consumption in a society where largeness was a virtue. Now we are forced to ponder any unthink­ing impact we make on the environment as the effect of ecologically harmful activities recoil on us. In Wagga Wagga this is especially so, as farmers nervously consider the el nino factor and its impact on their harvest.
As is perhaps not unsurprising in a regional gallery, the work in this exhibition was uneven, with some amateurish work, and would have considerably benefited from being culled, but it included some strong work. In Reflections Melissa Delaney's work had a strong, meditative presence. Delaney, a student for a Bachelor of Arts-Visual Arts degree at Charles Stuart University, Wagga Wagga, likes to use industrial and rural materials that are evocative of her surroundings, the dry, uncompromising earth. She likes rusted barbed wire that she finds in paddocks as well as weathered wood, bones, rocks, sticks which become traces in her memory. Very influenced by the time she spent as a child in New Guinea, she wants her work to represent something from where she lives, to evoke a sense of loss. As befits her love of ritual, Reflections had a strong, still impact.

Treahna Hamm's Bush Bride and Spiritual Peace show an artist comfortable in her Aboriginality as in the cocooned figure in Spiritual Peace. The winner of the 1996 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Art award, Hamm has been a great achiever, while at school, in sport, and now as an immensely talented, energetic artist. She has a great love of colour and detail and celebrates both her people and her land while mourning in her art the destruction of her environment. Hamm uses the ovoid shape, symbolising both her nurturing female nature and her own journey to discover her Aboriginal heritage, her ancestral past, which she has increasingly pursued.

In his substantial sculpture The Desire for Progress Ralph Tikerpae questioned the nature of progress in a work which stemmed from Delacroix's famous painting Liberty? Leading the People. In Delacroix's work, there was the expecta­tion then of creating a new order. People now, particularly in cities, lead their lives at a hectic pace, but our expectations of change now, for many, are fearful and anxious, as we are vulnerable to the decisions of business executives. Tikerpae's contorted figures appropriately express the anxiety that many if not all of us feel.
In his appealing sculpture perched on rocks and wheels Arthur Wicks' work was notable for the shadows it projected on the gallery's wall as it was for its own construction, the shadows giving an eerie, bird like presence to his work. In Cheryl Sobott-Tom's sculpture Mater Morte, Mater Vitae, two figures wear a costume of hanging leather straps. One of them carries crosses and skulls, the other a bowl with a spoon with a face and crosses, as they stare quizzically and blankly ahead as if uncertain and vulnerable to their fate. In her very evocative work Remember Me; forget my fate. sixteen small figures stare blankly ahead. On their bodies are featured symbols of life and death, the cross, the spiral, hands, skulls, a serpent, fishes and a goblet. We know little about their fate other than that they will suffer and die.

Errol Fielder raised questions about what we do to the landscape in his The Squatter's Daughter across the Black Soil Plains in which he juxtaposed six black coats on hangers at the top of six photographic images that unscrolled towards the floor. Imposed on one of these images was the paper mache version of the upper part of a woman's body, while teeth were imposed on another image.

The artistic career of one of the partici­pants of this exhibition is an illustration of what regional artists can achieve. Born in Sydney, Wicks worked for twelve years in Canberra in the public service as a statistician. Teaching himself art, at night he taught printmaking at the Canberra Technical College. Other teachers there then included John Coburn, Tom Gleghorn, Donald Brook and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. In 1967 he was awarded leave from his job to study printmaking in Paris at Hayter's famous Studio 17, having been awarded a French government scholarship, Wicks was the first occupant of the Sydney University Power Institute Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris. The events of May 1968 in Paris had an immense impact on him.

While being based in Wagga Wagga where he has taught art at the Charles Sturt University, Wicks has extensively travelled overseas. In 1977 he lived and worked in New York. In 1981 he performed a series of actions and installations along the San Andreas faultline, California, and, in 1983, was awarded a Visual Arts Board grant and DAAD assistance to work at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin.
He has adopted, in his art, the role of seer, of shaman, and fool. He, as Michael Haerdter wrote in December 1983, 'is witness and victim who demonstrates to both himself and to us, the frailty of being human', an 'adventurer in the border between our fragile uncertainty, and the unknown around us.' Wicks once stated that the Australian environment 'tends to exclude the human presence' and that the attempt to live there, especially outside the big cities, is 'accompanied by an element of anxiety and vulnerability.'

His art often entails a personal encounter with an area troubled by the possibility of either political or ecological disaster or the combination of both, with his body often a central part of his art. Thus in his important work Peace Car, an open construction made from laminated wood, driven by pedals with wheels that run on short, radiating spokes, Wicks, dressed in a suit and tie with a latex mask over his face, in 1990 peddled his car through Hoorn and Amsterdam. In Berlin, the trek began at Potsdamer Platz, over the SS Bunker where there is an obelisk reminding people that from here the German forces were launched against Poland, and along the one and a half kilometre stretch - prior to the Wall, the centre of Berlin - across to the Brandenburg gate. Then he drove down past the Soviet memorial to the Reichstag, the old Parliament.

This event happened almost a year after the Wall had fallen down. A red missile was perched on top of his machine while a small siren sounded on his lapel. His action questioned the increasing irrelevance and uselessness of war machines with only a ritualistic and meaningless pattern of behaviour remaining. The idea for it came from when he had spent eighteen months living in Berlin and had the idea of doing something about the division of East and West. When the Wall began to crumble, the idea returned to him and he managed to get financial assistance from an Australia Council fellowship, while Rene Block in Berlin organised additional
financial assistance.

His peace car is the third in a series of machines in which he has reflected on mechanisation. They often work in an ironic and out-of­sync way, their appearance and function at odds with one another. Wicks has wandered through shopping malls with his face caked in mud, spent solstice nights camped on the roofs of art buildings in Berlin and Hamburg to register within twenty four hours the track of the sun, buried himself on a geological fault line in his San Andreas series of 1982, and crucified himself as naked as Adam across an X structure on a beach in New South Wales, vulnerable to the power of the tide. In 1985 he rowed his skeletal Survival Boat back­wards along the train tracks of Swanston Street, Melbourne. In doing so, he reminds us of primal realities.
As we come to the end of the millen­nium, Wicks senses an element of futility in that, despite the progress of the past, we've created an immense amount of havoc. He enjoys making objects that remind us of this havoc and that remind us of rituals that we have lost, that are anarchic. He enjoys puzzles, 'setting up questions and letting other people make their own answers. We all', he has stated, 'need to be forced into a position about what we're doing. We need to make our own way.' 'I would like', he stated in a proposal for the Australian Sculpture Triennial in December 1980, 'to be an alchemist surviving at the close of but still very much in touch with the last days of the twentieth century.'
Wicks is, the critic Elwyn Lynn has stated, 'the rough carpenter ... master of the makeshift'.' Living in Wagga Wagga he has taken and performed his art in various countries and demonstrated that you do not have to live in Fitzroy or Darlinghurst to have an international impact as an artist. The fact that this has to be stated shows how obtuse some art critics in Australia have been.

1.The Australian, 23-4 Feb, 1991, Review, p.8.
Michael Denholm is author of a survey article on Australian art since the 1960s published in the June 1996 issue of the American magazine Antipodes. He is currently completing a history of Australian art magazines 1963-1996.


Issue No.28 August 1996 25

to top of page