What happens when you turn a house into a gallery? This is what Jane O’Neill explores by way of essays in Austral Avenue: An experiment in living with art, which was recently published with Emblem Books. Austral Avenue was a house in Brunswick, Melbourne that O’Neill turned into an independent gallery with the goal of exhibiting underexposed artists. The space was geared not toward attracting a large volume of viewers, but toward creating a dialogue between these artists.
O’Neill is bothered by the art writing norm, which she believes allows for little of the flexibility and creativity lauded in the art it describes. She cites the timing of exhibition catalogues as an example, many of which writers create in haste or without having seen the work as it is exhibited. O’Neill also takes issue with the fact that journals or newspapers rarely document the varied experiences inherent in viewing an exhibition. This book is O’Neill’s attempt to experiment with her own art writing and to incorporate and balance all elements found in displaying work. In O’Neill’s words, she tries to “convey the great pleasures to be had in making, exhibiting, and responding to art.”
Austral Avenue was a gallery from 2005 to 2007, during which time over 20 exhibitions were held. O’Neill believes that displaying art in a domestic setting and immersing artists and viewers in the work created enabled more incidental, surprising observations than crop up in the typical white box of a traditional gallery. The work includes extreme salon-style drawing displays, oil and acrylic paintings, Belgian linen and cedar stretchers, decals on porcelain, and altered vehicles. The main room of the Victorian home functioned as the gallery, but work on display often meandered out into the hallways, the lounge, and even the street.
One striking exhibit that lived in the street was Andreas Exner’s Angewandte Monochrome Malerei (Applied Monochrome Painting). Obsessed by empty space framed by man-made objects, Exner makes visual plugs for the gaps in these objects (which typically invite some type of interaction). Examples of gaps he’s plugged include arm and neck holes in clothing and the middles of toy train tracks. For Austral Avenue, he plugged a window in three cars with plywood panels painted in vibrant acrylic.
Cathy Blanchflower’s pieces, titled Astral, also involved windows. She painted the gallery windows with a special, heavily textured paint so that the trees and Geranium shrubs from outside were distorted yet visible. The effect was similar to stained glass. When light shone through the windows, the paint saturated the room in a gentle blue-green fog of color. O’Neill describes these as “sub-aqueous three-dimensional landscapes,” which she compares to Monet’s waterlilies.
Another artist who incorporated nature into her show was Mishka Borowski. The title of Borowski’s contribution stands out: With my lightnin’ bolts aglowin’ I can see where I am goin’. Here she takes her hallmark fascination with the erotic and translates it into traditional oil painting. By linking the cyclic nature of plant regeneration with our bodies, she explores connections between decay, death, and the erotic. These three lurid paintings are of oriental lilies, and they represent the lush depths and pink folds of the human body. In one, a glans-like stamen with a globules of clear liquid calls back the “lightnin’ bolts aglowin” in the exhibition’s title—we can see where Borowski is going with this. Located in the living room of a traditional Victorian home, these paintings’ effect on the viewer are likely more intense than they would be in a typical gallery setting.
What was foggy in Austral Avenue: An experiment in living with art was how the artists interacted, and what their reactions to each others’ work were. Where is the dialogue O’Neill wanted to create? It doesn’t seem to appear in this book, though perhaps it was not her goal to document this aspect of the process. Overall, the writing is an interesting conglomeration of how the shows spawned from an atypical gallery space, and the energy in the artists’ work makes clear the excitement and vitality to be found in this new gallery model.
Reviewed by Maria Anderson