My Cowwarr sojourn gave me an opportunity to visit the Gippsland Art Gallery in Sale. The gallery occupies the ground floor of a brick cement council office building, and wraps around the central courtyard. The space has been well renovated, and creates three distinct, separate exhibition areas, as well as a contemporary reception with the obligatory shop, which has well-stocked book-shelves and display cases with works by the local glass, ceramics, and jewellery craftsmen. The curatorial content of the gallery is current and contemporary, far removed from the preconception of a regional art centre being a showcase for the local Sunday painters. I did however notice the absence of a space for the gallery’s permanent collection. In my opinion, such space is necessary to showcase the gallery’s ‘soul’ and its commitment to the patronage of the arts through its acquisition program.
The gallery currently has three exhibitions, one of which is a retrospective of Anne Zahalka’s works from 1987 to 2007. I only have had episodic glimpses of Zahalka’s photographic work, so it was a treat to see and examine her oeuvre as a whole.
First and foremost, she is a great portrait artist, with strong imagination, and profoundly deep knowledge of history and theory of portraiture as evident from her works in this exhibition. Her series of artist’s portraits, which were began in 1989, should stand as an example, a benchmark to all those who produce formulaic, predictable portraits of artists, sitting in their studios, surrounded by their works and implements of their trade, frequently with a vacant stare in their face, and no connection either to the camera or the viewer. Zahalka manages to capture in her portraits not only the individual metier of the respective artists (be it painting, photography, or sculpture), but even convey their individual, unique artistic styles – whether Darren Sylvester’s fascination with the everyday mundaneity or Stephen Bush’s interest in the landscape tradition. Furthermore, she manages to turn every artist into her own model, the vehicle for her own artistic expression. As the result, she attains the ultimate goal of portraiture – capturing the likeness of the sitter, providing an insight into their life and character, and creating a credible work of art.
Her Gesture series is also an interesting take on portraiture. Not unlike earlier works by Sadie Chandler, Zahalka appropriates portraits by the Old Masters, but obscures the sitters’ faces. Ironically, one can still discern the profession and social standing of the sitters just by looking at their garments, decorations, and the surrounding factual or symbolic attributes. Photographs from the ongoing Resemblance suite, from which are drawn some of her most celebrated images, are also present in the exhibition. Though I am not the biggest fan of the Appropriation movement, I appreciate its place in Australian and international art history. Zahalka’s re-imaging of the Old Master compositions is a thoughtful, respectful, and reverential take on the well-known paintings by van Eyck, Vermeer, and others, often with witty and insightful ‘updates’.
Zahalka references Australian artists, such as Freda Robertshaw and Max Dupain, in her Bondi series as the means of reminding us about the accepted prototypes of Australian, predominantly male, and predominantly white, beach-loving culture. She uses them as a lever to counterbalance these stereotypical notions with the other images from the series, starting with the gender-ambiguous take on Dupain’s Sunbather, and continuing with Girls II, Cronulla Beach, of 2007, which I find as being the strongest work in this suite. It depicts three Muslim girls standing on the beach in head-to-toe bathing costumes. To the viewer’s eyes, their appearance may look almost theatrical, more suited to a music video than to an everyday beach-going experience. The nature of the Australian and national identity is further questioned, challenged, and explored in Woven Threads and Welcome to Sydney series, examples from which are also included in the show.
This retrospective exhibition is the evidence of Anne Zahalka being the master of photography as a medium and as her chosen metier, the vehicle for her artistic expression. It also shows her as an artist with a deep and vivid imagination, which is informed by the knowledge of art history and sharply attuned to the contemporary issues and the contemporary photographic practice.
[© Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]