A multifarious offering: Two decades of collecting Canberra

  Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG , exhibition installation view featuring the work of (from left): Masahiro Asaka, Neil Roberts, David Jensz and Kensuke Todo; image courtesy CMAG, Canberra; photo: Rob Little, RLDI

Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG, exhibition installation view featuring the work of (from left): Masahiro Asaka, Neil Roberts, David Jensz and Kensuke Todo; image courtesy CMAG, Canberra; photo: Rob Little, RLDI

Deborah Clark (editor of Art Monthly 2002–07) put together this exquisite survey of some 200 works as her last project before leaving the role as Senior Curator. On view until 17 June, ‘Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG’ represents not only the Canberra region but the broader activities of its artist community.

In her catalogue essay, Clark writes that the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery has a fundamental emphasis on collecting and supporting contemporary practitioners from the region, but has recently broadened the focus to collect historical works that relate to the area. Consequently the earliest work on show, and placed at the entry of the main gallery, is Joseph Lycett’s 1824 print View of Lake George. This is the only temporal pinning of this multifarious offering.

The Canberra School of Art (now ANU School of Art & Design) and its Bauhaus-style workshop system has contributed in no small way, with staff and alumni not only represented as individuals, but as collectives and organisations that formed to allow graduates to stay in the region, to build careers without having to move to larger cities. The Canberra Glassworks is one such example, and Studio One another. Both have built Canberra an international reputation as a city of glass and of print. There are many prints in the exhibition by national Indigenous artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Judy Watson, and they were made at Studio One with the help of master printers like Basil Hall.
 
The hang is thoughtful and clever, with rich colourways, nuanced balancing of forms, and clusters of conceptual themes. There are delightful synchronicities (Marie Hagerty’s Monarch II, 2008, next to Michael Le Grand’s Eclipse, 2010) and knowledgeable pairings, such as the ‘Carcass’ works by both Sidney Nolan (1953) and Alison Alder (2009). Outside in Gallery 4, sculpture by Masahiro Asaka, David Jensz, Kim Mahood, Neil Roberts and Kensuke Todo is all black-and-white, allowing their strong forms to commune without being overwhelming.

The mix satisfyingly addresses Canberra’s curious combination of rural, urban, intellectual and grassroots qualities, showcasing a small but splendid collection.

Caren Florance is currently Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia.