Helen Maudsley: Our Knowing and Not Knowing is on at NGV Australia this summer. (NGV Australia: Caitlin Mills)
The major galleries of Melbourne are filled with the work of women artists this summer.
Out of the five solo exhibitions by leading Australian artists on at NGV Australia, four are by women. The Heide Museum of Modern Art is featuring a retrospective of Jenny Watson’s work, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) Big Picture Exhibition brings together over 50 women and non-binary artists to explore the legacy of feminism.
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Elvis Richardson, one of the curators of the ACCA exhibition, has reported on women in the art world on her blog since 2008.
Her 2014 research found that while women make up 74 per cent of visual art graduates, they represented only 34 per cent of state museum exhibitions.
So while this shouldn’t even be cause for remark, this much art by women feels like a win.
The positive energy of rage
When you enter The Highway Is A Disco, Del Kathryn Barton’s exhibition at NGV Australia, you step straight into Kathryn Barton’s sensuous, hyper-colour world.
From her volcanic women and multi-breasted fluoro goddesses to her textural collages, humans, animals and plants intertwine.
Artist Del Kathryn Barton initially resisted identifying her work in a “gender specific way.” (ABC RN: Hannah Reich)
Barton wasn’t all that interested in identifying “in a gender-specific way” at the start of her career 20 years ago. But, Barton says, she’s been fed up with the progress of women’s rights.
“I’m 44 now and we’re just not far enough along and I am just so ready … to advocate more for equality,” she says.
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Barton’s first short film, RED, is a result of this frustration.
In the film, Barton cast Cate Blanchett as a red-back spider who disposes of her mate post-coitus. It’s a fiercely unapologetic gesture about the potential and positive energy of women’s rage.
But despite the rage and the bite of her latest work, Barton still resists throwing in her lot with women artists.
“I think on one level it’s a mistake to make the celebration of the shows [at NGV Australia] too gender specific,” she says.
“But in saying that, I am so excited to have my show opening alongside three other very important Australian artists across diverse generations … I feel that’s very timely.”
‘They’re doing all sorts of amazing things’
This is Barton’s first solo exhibition at a major gallery and she shares a level with three other solo exhibitions by women artists: Louise Paramor, Mel O’Callaghan and Helen Maudsley.
A selection of Louise Paramor’s incredible paper sculptures. (Supplied: NGV Australia/Caitlin Mills)
Paramor’s exhibition features three-metre-tall collapsible paper structures, built using a unique “honeycomb” technique. The sculptures are simultaneously delicate and impressively solid — and are, frankly, delightful.
O’Callaghan’s film installation Ensemble makes its Australian debut at the NGV. The short film fills a 20-metre-wide space and depicts a man resisting an intense jet of water. There’s no sound to the film, but the pressure of the jet seems to make a sound through the silence.
As with Del Kathryn Barton’s work, stepping into Maudsley’s exhibition, Our Knowing and Not Knowing, feels quietly immersive.
Now in her seventh decade as an artist, this is also 90-year-old Maudsley’s first solo show at the NGV. It features 30 recent paintings and drawings, done in very on-trend pastels, which blend into a room wallpapered with her art, which she describes as “visual essays”.
Maudsley, like Barton, doesn’t see herself as a woman artist.
“I just think of us as just artists … I would never think of a man as being a man artist,” she says.
While she admits that women might not be that visible in larger commercial galleries, she says you just need to do some digging.
The artist Helen Maudsley at her solo exhibition at NGV Australia. (NGV Australia: Eugene Hyland)
“They’re doing all sorts of amazing things, all the time, but nobody takes any notice of them … but they are there,” she says.
Maudsley recalls that for a time nobody was very interested in her work. She believes that in the past women artists who succeeded, “tend to be accepted if they were in line with something” who emulated artists like George Bell and Max Meldrum, who both happen to be men.
“Men are accepted as doing something on their own … women are taken seriously only if they are doing what somebody else has already done,” Maudsley says.
And if the works of Barton, Paramor, Maudsley and O’Callaghan aren’t enough, visitors can also check out the work of Claudia Moodoonuthi at the NGV.
The exhibition includes found objects from Brisbane, painted with vivid imagery inspired by Moodoonuthi’s childhood on Queensland’s Bentinck Island.
Moodoonuthi’s work was also featured in an exhibition on at NGV Australia last year, Who’s Afraid of Colour, which featured the works of 118 Indigenous women artists.
It was curated in part as a response to the NGV’s 1981 major exhibition of Indigenous art — Aboriginal Australia. Of the 328 works in the 1981 exhibition, not even one was by a woman.
Whether or not you chose to view these artists through a prism of gender, it still feels like a cause of celebration that visitors can walk through an entire floor of NGV Australia and see only art by women.
Here’s to more summers like this.