Australia—home to vast, unforgiving swaths of the “bush,” health-conscious, crunchy culture, kangaroos, and some very impressive, iconic landmarks. Contemporary art might not easily spring to mind in relation to the country, despite it having brought us the likes of Helmut Newton and Fred Williams, among many others, but a cursory exploration of its galleries and museums reveals a lively scene. As the Biennale of Sydney opens later this week, we take a look at some of Australia’s most gifted artists—from the emerging to the established, and painting and performance through video and photography.
Australia’s representative in the 55th Venice Biennale, Simryn Gill would prefer you don’t draw connections between her work and background, though the nature of her practice—which explores ideas of interconnectedness, transformation, and liminal states—makes that tricky. With Indian heritage, Gill was born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia, and later moved to Australia, where she now lives. She has received international acclaim for her signature arrangements of found objects, beautifully poetic photographs of the abandoned interiors of a Malaysian housing complex, and a work in which she used natural materials to create the internal systems of a ubiquitous Tata truck.
Known for his intricately detailed, uncanny wooden sculptures that riff on commonplace forms—bean bags, skulls, sleeping bags—and elegant bronze sculptures that fuse 20th century design, studio ceramics, and folk art influences, Ricky Swallow addresses memory, the passage of time, and mortality, as well as formal concerns. His work has been the subject of both gallery and museum exhibitions, receiving widespread acclaim; lesser known are his witty, sketchy watercolors of skeletons and anthropomorphized monkeys engaged in mundane and absurdist scenarios.
Perhaps the most famous living Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre—the niece of Australia’s best loved indigenous artist, the late Emily Kngwarreye—is known for her “Leaves” paintings, swarming fields of abstract patterns that recreate the rustling movement of wind in the trees. Vibrant and hypnotic, her rich and dense canvases reference traditional Aboriginal bodypaint and mythology.
Race, power relations, trauma, media, and violence are some of the charged themes that recur in Tracey Moffatt’s often haunting, troubled narratives. An experimental photographer and filmmaker and one of the most celebrated contemporary artists to come out of Australia in recent decades, Moffatt mines the gender constructions and class divisions rooted in her country’s past, often probing the relationship between Aborigines and white colonial settlers.
David Noonan’s ghostly images of dancers, actors, and mime artists are the product of a complex manual process. Collaging granular photographs and film stills via silkscreens onto patchworks of cloth and Japanese textiles, Noonan—who is also a set designer, filmmaker, and installation artist—portrays subjects frozen in performative gestures and compositions, the pattern of their bodies echoing and setting off the fabric textures of his base material.
Delicate psychogeographical maps that give material form to streams-of-consciousness and personal memories of landscapes, Jessica Rankin’s intricate compositions are made through embroidery and needlework on sheer organza fabric. Rankin is interested in Surrealist and concrete poetry, influences that emerge in the fragments of conversation or thoughts that she stitches onto her material so that words become inseparable from the visual terrain of her recollections.
Considered by many to be one of Australia’s most talented living artists, Mike Parr’s radical performance art works have been challenging audiences for over 40 years. Known for works that involve self-harm, Parr has ingested acrylic paint and vomited it up onto his canvas, and had his lips sewn shut in response to draconian Australian immigration and asylum laws. His two-dimensional self-portraits—primarily prints and etchings—address the artist’s memories and reflections.
Murray Fredericks’ breathtaking color and black-and-white photographs of wildernesses and mountain terrains are printed on cotton rag, rather than conventional photographic paper, to create a rich, painterly effect. Best known for his series of photographs and film, together titled “Salt” (2009), Fredericks camped alone at South Australia’s Lake Eyre for up to five weeks every year for six years to create it; the haunting and evocative results convey the artist’s solitary encounter with this pristine region.
Yinarupa Nangala’s absorbing compositions are made up of lines and dots that together form aerial views of the ‘Ngamurru’ in Kiwirrkurra, Western Australia, a meeting place for Aboriginal women. Nangala, who is the daughter of the well-known painter Anatjari Tjampitjinpa, a founding member of the Papunya Tula artists, paints in acrylic on linen, producing records of the landscapes and rituals enacted at Kiwirrkurra.
Emerging multimedia artist Lauren Brincat creates performative actions that test her physical limits, presenting them as video recordings. A component of her walking series, Walk in Traffic, shows the artist walking through a heavily trafficked street in Mexico, trailing a bunch of helium balloons as she slowly traverses cars and disappears into the distance. Brincat’s playful, object-based works include formalist brass triangles and soft, evocative sculptures made of sail fabric.