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Robert McFarlane’s Round Up

Photographer and writer Robert McFarlane reports back from a tour of Sydney’s current exhibitions.

Two exhibitions offer planetary perspectives on wildly differing environments – Emma Rowan-Kelly’s innocentarctic conveyed subtle, almost monochromatic colour visions of the frozen North – while Richard Green’s latest showing of his Remote and Wild landscapes revealed distant regions of Australia (an exhibition I was privileged to open at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery in Windsor).

Rowan-Kelly’s seductive Arctic land and seascapes can be seen at Danks Street Depot ll Gallery and offer deceptively simple views of what initially seems the bleakest habitat imaginable – including this photographer’s take on the Arctic’s often playful, sometimes menacing inhabitants. Polar bears emerge as the main stars in her pictures as they frolic in water so cold humans would perish in minutes. Rowan-Kelly has captured the bears’ massive, yet graceful forms along with their families with one memorable picture showing two adult bears in active dialogue above the exposed spine of a dead whale. Rowan-Kelly also makes extensive use of panoramas to address the vastness of her northern world. Ultimately hers is an affectionate view of an environment that defies its apparent hostility. Rowan-Kelly’s fine prints were made by master digital printer Warren Macris, open until March 5.

Richard Green (pictured below) declared, as I waited to open his well attended exhibition at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery that he hoped his pictures gave a sense of “actually standing within the landscape” he sought to portray. As I walked around this elegantly curated display of large, seamlessly computer-stitched colour panoramas, some over four metres wide, there was a tangible sense of having your vision embraced by whatever scene Green chose to photograph. This was particularly evident in a subtly observed landscape from Western Australia.

Not only was the land’s contorted surface exposed but the extended tonal range captured in Green’s digital image gave appropriate weight to both the deep shadows and bright highlights of inland Australia. Both Rowan-Kelly and Green had made images that conformed to the description of a planetary landscape – giving the viewer of their photographs a sense of actually standing in a remote, defining location somewhere on the surface of our sphere – without resorting to visible cleverness or artifice. It was also pleasing to note how well patronised Hawkesbury Regional Gallery was.

After similar positive experiences with Broken Hill, Cowra and Manly, I remain convinced of the invaluable roles such galleries play. This exhibition is open until March 20.

I was also asked if I would speak at Gary Heery’s exhibition of remarkable bird photographs at Shapiro Gallery. Heery is a photographer who consistently confounds expectations. Perhaps best known for his celebrity portraiture (Heery has photographed everyone from Madonna to Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards and, more recently, John Howard) Heery makes his living through the profitable triumvirate of editorial, advertising and corporate photography but, as he confided at the opening, is seduced by what the eye can’t see – such as the astonishing speed at which birds beat their wings. His feathered subjects ranged from those remarkable birds that defer to no one, Australia’s Kookaburras, (feature picture, above) an exquisite white Barn Owl, an acrobatic pas de deux by two snow white Doves and an unusual triptych of birds with their furled wings seen from behind. These three similarly hunched forms – of a Macaw, a Blue-winged Kookaburra and a Red-tailed Black Cockatoo – eerily resembled a trio of waiting, psychedelic angels. Heery’s photographs were also presented in large, superb archival prints made by Warren Macris. Open until March 6.

Tali Udovich‘s Blender Gallery continues their affectionate showing of historic moments from the history of rock n’ roll with a selection of Curt Gunther‘s photojournalistic observations of the Beatles on their first U.S. tour. With intimate access that hardly be imagined in today’s corporate rock environment, Gunther’s agile presence documents the legendary “Four” with knowing, sometimes ironic moments, recorded in classic ’60s black and white photography. Until April 2.

Darlinghurst’s Meyer Gallery in Sydney continues to explore the inherent beauty of printing techniques dating from photography’s first, confident wave of discovery. Featuring fourteen artists (including Anthony Browell, Chia N-Lofqvist, Jill Lacina, Tony Peri, Bob Kersey and Ellie Young, this exhibition celebrates, says gallery director Mary Meyer, “the broad spectrum of alternate photographic processes (and) the pictures they have made – by hand. And from the heart.” Curated by Bob Kersey. Until March 13.

Three very different photographers, coincidentally all represented by Stills Gallery, are showing in Sydney and exploring distinctly varied visual yearnings. Robyn Stacey brilliantly uses computer-constructed photographs to give us her view – by digital proxy – of what colonial Australians might have seen once they entered a room, sat down to eat, or simply contemplated a beautifully imagined still-life suggesting a scene from the 19th century.

Stacey’s images give sight to memory, substance to the half-remembered and always with the razor sharp definition of digital imaging. These yearning instants are passionate attempts to plumb echoes from dead eras – in the same way we might respond, for example, to the scent left by the emotional scenes in artist Caravaggio‘s paintings. Polixeni Papapetrou yearns to create a different reality again – constructing dreamscapes that fall somewhere between Rene Magritte, Lewis Carroll and Tennessee Williams.

Using her children Olympia and Solomon, Papapetrou populates her scenarios as extravagantly as Lewis Carroll once cast his Wonderland for Alice Liddell (a mythology Papapetrou has also previously explored in her photographs). Papapetrou’s immaculate photographs are, however, pregnant with enigmatic, sometimes menacing scenarios.

The Australian Centre for Photography have presented a retrospective of Papapetrou’s personal vision in which the arc of a remarkable career is made visible. The third artist, William Yang, appears to yearn for childhood, his Chinese identity, and love. In “Old New Borrowed Blue” at Stills Gallery, we discern a quest every bit as intense as those of either Stacey and Papapetrou. Yang guilelessly sifts through past and present experience using a kind of GPS of the heart. His homosexuality is unsentimentally realised as well as the experiences of an Australian childhood in which it came as a surprise, some years after his birth, to discover he was Oriental by race.

There is ruthless honesty and candour to Yang’s imagery, as always, whether examining his sexuality, mundane meals he has eaten, faces of past lovers or the memories of childhood. There are also Yang pictures which sneak up on the viewer, such as a delicately toned B&W close-up, taken in 1992, of a right hand clearly unmarked by hard labour which, we discover on reading Yang’s caption, belongs to the Dalai Lama. Nothing, as Vladimir Nabokov was fond of saying, is trivial. “The divinity lies in the detail.” Yang’s exhibition closed on February 26.

Robyn Stacey’s works can be viewed at the excellent “Curious Colony …. Wunderkammer” group exhibition at the S. Ervin Gallery sadly only until February 20. Polixeni Papapetrou’s photographs are on show at the ACP until March 12.

The Australian Centre for Photography are also showing the first photographs I have seen that made me instantly think of Antoine de St Exupery‘s epic children’s novella “The Little Prince”. Catherine Nelson‘s “Creation” series portrays the world on an unashamedly absurd scale – tiny spheres in which continents have been replaced by green, limpid pools and trees and grass sprout like stubble on a planet resembling a black bowling ball. And yet there is still something essentially photographic about Nelson’s fantasies and her seductive exploiting of the “anything goes” constructs available to digital photo-artists today. Until March 12.

Jim Anderson’s excellent retrospective, “Lampoon – An Historical Art Trajectory (1970-2010)” at the Tin Sheds Gallery at Sydney University. It featured a visual avalanche of works by Anderson, the former art editor of Australia’s pioneering satirical magazine Oz. Anderson is also a passionate diarist with a camera and anyone contemplating a visit to the Tin Sheds should allow time to trawl through what seemed like thousands of photographs. There are also many much larger works which delineate Anderson’s passionate, sensual imagination.

This is an edited version of a set of reviews that first appeared on Robert’s blog, ozphotoreview.com.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage