New Art from Australia and New Zealand in Chelsea

Written by: Peter Wiley

Aaron J. March - To gather a part Acrylic & Enamel

Australian art critic and inveterate curmudgeon Robert Hughes once stated somewhat patronizingly that Australian art and by implication, that of New Zealand as well was "purely a product of isolation." But that opinion no longer appears to hold true, given the level of high purpose and sophistication on view in "Out From Down Under & Beyond: The Australian & New Zealand Art Exhibition," at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from May 10 through 30 (Reception Thursday, May 15, 6 to 8 PM).

From German-born Eve Arnold's majestic minimalist forms created with large sheets of aluminum or copper that she etches, distresses and finishes with 24-carat gold leaf to create sensuous surface effects; to Russian-trained painter Alex Nemirovksy's complex figurative compositions combining classical European draftsmanship and painterly skill with a tumultuous neo-surrealism; to the flowing rhythmic abstractions of Indonesian-born painter Sonya Veronica, with their deep, luminous hues, the show plays host to a broad range of international influences. In this regard, the art of Australia and New Zealand, like that of the United States, seems to benefit from a great deal of aesthetic cross-fertilization, which enriches its native culture and makes the boundaries between homegrown and imported tendencies difficult to define.

Indeed, even when indigenous influences assert themselves, they are invariably informed by a variety of sophisticated elements, as seen in the work of Sally Smith, who lives on a small New Zealand island and whose ink and watercolor drawings with the mixture of symbolic and natural elements partake in equal measure of her experience as an architect and her husband's Maori culture.

Then there is Freya Jobbins, a former member of the Australian Federal Police Force, whose iconic black and white woodcuts capture the everyday heroism of emergency rescue workers in action in forceful compositions enlivened by powerful linear rhythms. Jobbins' compositions have an immediacy akin to the Social Realism of Kathe Kollwitz coupled with a technical finesse reminiscent of Leonard Baskin. Sally West draws not only from the rugged landscape of the Australian Outback but also from the Aboriginal art of the same area. Like those indigenous "Dreamtime" artists, she often creates her compositions with many densely layered dabs of color, resulting in an intricate, teeming, chromatically complex surface shimmer. However, West is a savvy, sophisticated painter, obviously also influenced to equal degree by Cubism and other European modernist art movements, even as she evokes a vivid sense of the Australian landscape and culture by virtue of her abiding affection for its rugged particulars.

Fiona Craig, on the other hand, employs a full palette of vibrant hues in her landscapes reflecting her upbringing in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, and her still life compositions are equally flooded with intensely heightened color, lending them an impact akin to abstraction, despite the exacting verisimilitude with which she imbues her scenes and objects.

Aaron J. March appears to combine primitive and sophisticated influences in a lively synthesis in paintings where simplified figurative forms often play hide and seek with less recognizable shapes and gestures, creating compositions in which the immediacy of Art Brut is successfully married to the vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism.

Like the other artists in this exhibition, March reveals a sophistication that belies the implication of provincialism in the statement by Robert Hughes cited at the beginning of this review. It seems certain that even Hughes would have to agree that Australian art, along with that of New Zealand, is now a force to be reckoned with in the global arena of postmodernism.

Image Credits: Aaron J. March - To gather a part Acrylic & Enamel, 44.5" x 35"

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