Art

The eight artists in this year’s Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial unleash their imaginations in a transporting exhibition. By Tony Magnusson.

The Dobell Drawing Biennial

Installation view of Jack Stahel’s Unified theory of itself (2020) in Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020.
Credit: Christopher Snee, AGNSW

The Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial’s fourth iteration at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Real Worlds, makes a strong case for what curator Anne Ryan calls “the immediacy and intimacy of drawing” and its relation to the artistic imagination during periods of upheaval. “In the absence of individual power to transform forces that threaten to overwhelm,” she writes in the introductory wall text, “[these artists] reflect our capacity to imagine something better, or different.”

Several of the eight artists selected employ the genre of landscape to say things about race, place, Country and nature. Others fill their drawings with action heroes, myriad forms of junk, and a captivating array of found objects to tease out themes of nostalgia, consumerism and epistemology. Each has unleashed their imagination to work on an institutional scale. Most are convincing; several are transporting.

Danie Mellor’s two blue crayon drawings of rainforest landscapes in the Atherton Tablelands of Far North Queensland refer to the Country of his mother’s family, the Ngadjon and Mamu peoples. A time of the world’s making (2019) includes diminutive sepia-toned Aboriginal figures capturing a nautilus in the cathedral-like canopy with ropes (the artist has used twine) while others float around below. A landspace: bala ngunyiny [the tableau, bala jarrga] (2020) is anchored by a cutout of an Aboriginal man in profile placed in front of the drawing, as though it were a museum diorama.

With their vivid blue-and-white palette – emblematic of the colonial gaze à la European blue-and-white dinnerware – and surreal subversion of anthropological tropes, these are formally and conceptually audacious works. Each large multi-sheet drawing is mounted on an infinity cyclorama, amplifying the aura of theatricality. Intricate in their patient description of light and form, they meld disparate visual traditions in a powerful evocation of what Mellor terms “landspace”.

Becc Ország’s mirror-image triptych in graphite, Fantasy of virtue / All things and nothing (2018-20), recalls a Renaissance altarpiece. But instead of God and assorted saints, the devotional focus is nature – although in this case she is perfectly symmetrical, all wildness tamed out of her. In the smaller drawings to either side, damaged antique heads hover above water, testament to the impermanence of temporal affairs. Seductive yet unreal, this Arcadian landscape feels subtly monstrous, as though in the process of replicating.

Peter Mungkuri is a senior Yankunytjatjara man from Indulkana in South Australia’s APY Lands. In four ink and wash drawings titled Punu Ngura (Country with trees), 1-4 (2018-19) he describes, with exquisite delicacy, tree species that have significance in Anangu culture for making spears, digging sticks, bowls and other objects. Merging the linear crispness of ink with the shadowy stain of wash, Mungkuri posits multiple layers and points of view in these richly detailed landscapes built from radiating networks of leaf, branch and trunk.

At first glance, Nathan Hawkes’ four chalk pastel works read as landscapes, yet they are complicated by perspectival shifts and flights of formal fancy. Working in a mostly organic palette, he co-opts the visual language of the genre to create protean compositions that evoke the feeling of waking from a siesta on a hot, hazy afternoon.

In his 75-sheet pen and ink work Martin Son of the Universe, what me worry (2018-19), Martin Bell catalogues his fondness for the robots and cartoon characters of his childhood – an age when the imaginary was real. It also signals his capacity for endurance drawing. It’s a dizzying sight to behold, partly because of the zigzag patterning that underpins much of the gargantuan work. Studying it sheet by sheet, one can almost submit to the obsessive energy of this boys’ own story. Viewed from a distance it’s harder to grasp, although the inclusion of MAD magazine’s grinning mascot is a nice touch.

Helen Wright reimagines a surfeit of household items, architectural fragments and industrial junk in two graphite drawings whose forms borrow from Constructivism while calling out the material excess of late-stage capitalism. The composition of one work, Scrap stack freefall in ‘The Age of Stupid’ (2019-20), echoes that of an 18th-century ceiling fresco (trash by Tiepolo?) while Scrap stack, the slump (2019-20) presents as a terrifying Jenga of stuff about to topple through the picture plane and onto the viewer.

Matt Coyle assembles, photographs and then draws nightmarish compositions using ink, coloured pencil, acrylic and enamel. Resembling stills from a horror or noir film, his four works are dramatically lit and infused with dread. Whether viewed in sequence or individually, they thwart attempts to discern any coherent narrative. Bad things are happening, but we don’t know why. And maybe that’s the point.

The most ambitious contribution is Jack Stahel’s installation. Pushing the “expanded field” envelope, Unified theory of itself (2020) comprises dozens of technical and scientific drawings alongside found objects carefully arranged and painted in gradations of grey and black. Some have been conjoined to produce new forms. Displayed in museum cabinets, on plinths and affixed to the walls, this work parodies the pursuit of knowledge and associated systems of documentation and classification. Nothing is what it seems: here, a drawing of the Rosetta Stone bears made-up script; there, a ruined saxophone morphs into a piece of driftwood. Fascinating at both the micro and macro level, this majestically absurd “real world” demonstrates just how far a fertile imagination can take us. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Transforming realities".

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Tony Magnusson is a Sydney-based writer and curator.