The Edge - Verge Gallery, University of Sydney

In1960, six students studying architecture at the University of Sydney exhibited together in a show titled ‘Six Young Artists’, at the War Memorial Gallery, University of Sydney.

That exhibition was to celebrate the use of the New Fine Arts Gallery by students.

Fifty-two years later the Director of Verge Gallery was approached with a proposal to exhibit current work of the original group.

The 2012 show, ‘The Edge’, at Verge Gallery features pieces from five of the original artists, Lawrence Nield, Jon Crothers, Philip Cox, Tony Corkill and Tanya Crothers, (John Paynter died in 1987) and now includes Darrel Conybeare, who also studied architecture in the 1960’s.

When Greg Shapley accepted the proposal for the show he recognised an opportunity for ‘intergenerational exchange’, and paired each artist with a student from the University; Three from Sydney College of the Arts and three from the faculty of Architecture, Phillippa Griffin, Jen Hou, Saffaa, Peter Nguyen, Rose Steedman and Pamela Maldonado, leaving it to each pair to establish the terms for the exchange.

The exhibition brings together students immersed in and formed by the post-modern, conceptual practices of contemporary art and architecture, with artists whose formative influences include the modernist aesthetic of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, along with fifty years working in architecture and art amidst the cultural shifts and changes over this period. The students are at the beginning of their careers open to opportunities such as this exchange for developing their visual and intellectual language whilst the original group bring a lifetime of experience developing and synthesizing ideas through practice.

Of the modernist era Tanya recalls, there was ‘an accepted visual aesthetic, ‘…with few artists making political or social comment. ‘Subject matter usually drew on the artists sub-conscious or their environment. Prevailing approaches to painting included gestural abstract expressionism, formal, geometric ‘hard edge’ abstraction and ‘colour field’. Of particular importance for students in architecture were the art classes run by Lloyd Rees, Roland Wakelin and John Santry.

The shift in thinking and practice toward what is defined as post-modern practice began to take hold within institutions and the broader culture in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. It was during the 1970’s that the prevailing dogma within cultural practices in visual arts and architecture began to fundamentally change and the delineations between fields blurred into one another. Architecture students at the University of Sydney began to actively challenge the orthodoxies of the day through protest, to broaden what could be considered and assessed as architectural practice. For example, in 1972 the construction and operation of an Indonesian restaurant on campus was presented as part of a ‘Thesis’ within an independent research project.

In 1976 Sydney College of the Arts was established, running courses firstly in Design followed in 1977 with visual arts students. The College was the first of its kind and provided an alternative to the National Art School, (then East Sydney Technical College) and ‘the atelier’ model. SCA became a faculty of the University of Sydney in 1990.

For most of the artists in the show drawing is fundamental to their practice. This reflects its resurgence as a medium of value in contemporary art and a long held conviction in its power to convey ideas through a simple sketch just as it can in a highly detailed watercolour.

What then differentiates the students from the original group? Primarily it is an awareness that art is created and interpreted within space and time. This includes the immediate and broader culture, art history, how the physical space effects the work and whether it’s framed or unframed. Each element matters and is integral to how we interpret and respond to the work.

Each pair established their own terms for the collaborative model, some allowing it to unfold over time others meeting once or twice initially and then working independently.

The work utilises a range of media from drawing, printmedia, painting, digital media, photography and sculpture.

Darrel Conybeare and Pamela Maldonado (Architecture) discussed numerous aspects of the city environment and the forces influencing the changes taking place, as well as the capacity for art to interpret and articulate this process of transition. One of the areas they chose to focus on was the Cahill Expressway, as a structure that separates the city from the Harbour at the ‘edge’ of the Harbour at Circular Quay. In the image, ‘Cahill Aerial Park and Busway with Quay Railway Underground’ they collaborated on a re-visioning project for the First Fleet landing place transforming the road into a parkway walk and relocating the railway underground.

Darrel produced a number of paintings exploring sites around the Harbour from different perspectives and imagined juxtapositions with other structures from a history of each site. The images explore and traverse notions of change at the ‘Edge’ of Sydney Harbour, a place defined by edges, land and water bodies.

Pamela’s black and white digital image of a pixelated Opera House provides a harder-edged contrast to Darrel’s more whimsical studies of historic sites around the Harbour. The image sets the Opera House adrift amongst the clouds and reflections in the water below of another place and time.

Philip Cox and Saffaa (Honours, Printmedia) agreed to pick a common theme and settled on Feminism and Islam. Philip described his series of four paintings as illustrating the progress of a woman identifying with the traditions of Islam and the Australian Bush.

In the series, a Burka clad figure painted in dark grey leads the narrative, exerting a strong visual presence against the vibrant blues, greens, yellows and browns of the Australian bush. The male gaze has been inverted by positioning the women in the foreground, observing the naked male figure in a muddy creek, waterlily lagoon and coastal headland with a Persian carpet spread beneath the gums. Until the last image in which she has moved into the frame, no longer on the periphery or in her Burka.

Saffaa’s work is underpinned with a strong belief in political activism that is manifest in the imagery she has created. As a woman from Saudi Arabia she well knows the pitfalls for women who agitate against laws that hinder women’s lives. She has created two portraits of Saudi Arabian women activists, Manal Al-Sharif and Samar Badawi, to highlight their actions and acknowledge their bravery. Each portrait exploits the simplicity of black and white to render a graphic representation of each woman positioned at the top of a long scroll-like piece of paper. Arabic script and English text overlayed with vivid blues and pinks appear in defined areas below the portraits to illustrate that dialogue within and between cultures can be misunderstood and exploited by contrary forces.

Jon Crothers and Phillippa Griffin (Masters, Art Curatorship) established that the crossover between their practices lay in the use of metal and sculptural forms. Each has explored how metal can mimic and intersect with other materials to evoke discomforting and unexpected associations. These ideas also inform Jon’s 2D work on paper.

Jon’s floor sculpture Flame Trees, intersects three long, narrow and heavy sheets of rusted steel each with cut-out areas of positive and negative with ribbon-like strips of steel resting on the floor as the base for the 3D form. The watercolour titled Murrah Rocks echoes the sharp edges of his sculptural form through the jagged rock edges filling the composition and the application of shadow and light to accentuate the particular rock formations of the south coast of NSW.

Phillippa’s work exploits surprise to present the abject within an object redolent with nostalgia. At first glance the viewer may feel the desire to run their hand along the smooth timber, seduced by the material qualities and evocation of times past. However on closer inspection Phillippa has installed a very sinister fence of razor blades around the perimeter of each tray in the trolley, to remind us that there are less pleasant associations to be uncovered between memory, objects and everyday rituals.

Lawrence Nield and Rose Steedman (Architecture) established a shared concern for exploring materials, place and history as a series of overlays, through drawing for Rose, and for Lawrence high relief panels.

Lawrence has created a work that brings together five key elements that inform his architectural practice and philosophy for thinking about and creating structures within the built environment. Titled "Art and Architecture: Standing, Carving, Opening, Modelling, Casting", the piece hangs suspended in the gallery window to be viewed from within and outside the gallery space. Lawrence’s use of the materials, acrylic and charcoal, carved plaster and charcoal, corrugated iron and concrete paint and charcoal and the ‘Opening’, suggest a language focussed on establishing a connection between past and present in the way we live and communicate our needs through the built environment.

Rose Steedman re-visited sketch drawings from her undergraduate degree to create a new work. The original project examined a proposed building as a post-industrial form that related to the industrial nature and wharf construction type of the site. Rose’s drawing uses symmetry and careful rendering to evoke a sense of monumentality in the detail of a much larger structure. The sensitivity and strength in the line-work and use of light and dark around the central form suggest an absorption in the act and process of drawing as an end in itself.

Tanya Crothers and Jen Hou (Printmedia) initially met and discussed the possibilities for working with a knitted blanket, made by Tanya, in terms of the grid pattern and textures in the woollen fibre.

In Tanya’s work, It’s all Connected, the grid has been broken open in an aerial view of Darling Harbour in which the looping freeways appear as an organic delineation around the harbour’s edge. Four bleed prints form the one image, the edge of each print connecting to the next through misaligned red and dark blue lines to reflect a city-scape in a continual state of re-invention.

In Jen’s drawings, installed in boxes on the floor of the gallery the grid pattern in Tanya’s blanket has been radically rearranged into a continuing state of collapse and creation. Jen’s drawings depict ‘an imagined architecture’ for housing, for those living in extreme poverty. Her drawings have a delicacy and tenderness that treats these temporary structures with respect and open enquiry. Collectively they work as homage to the people who create their homes out of materials to hand, in the knowledge that they are ‘subject to removal at any time’.

Tony Corkill and Peter Nguyen (Architecture) made a decision to focus on Coogee and the coastal edge as a place of tension between human development and the natural configurations of rocks constantly washed by the waves.

Tony’s drawings in charcoal and crayon render the environment in four states that reflect the ebb and flow of human encroachment on the coastal landscape. Each image focuses primarily on the beauty of the sea and the rocky coastline, treating the encroaching houses and people as peripheral within the composition of each drawing. Through the images Tony celebrates nature and seeks a more respectful relationship between humans and the environment.

In contrast Peter Nguyen’s images shift the view away from the sea to an area where the natural environment is imposed on by buildings and people. Peter has created a series of images using cut up negatives and collage to reconstruct aspects of the coastline emphasizing the delineation between the sky and the land and walkways that follow the coastal topography. Peter’s fragmented images expose the extent to which people have encroached on this area and draw attention to the diminished remnants of bush and open land that remain.

Twelve artists were brought together to make work predicated on generational exchange, architecture and art. The outcome is ‘The Edge’ exhibition that presents a range of art practice and responses to the project brief. The work engages with the social, cultural and natural environment within Australia and the wider world making connections across time and between people.

Pia Larsen


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