In Sydney, the 30th edition of “Primavera” shines light on five artists whose bodies of work are materially and conceptually diverse yet resonate collectively in their stories.
TEXT: Chloé Wolifson
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
“Primavera” has sprung at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. For this annual exhibition, a curator, often in the early stages of their own career, is invited to bring together works by Australian artists aged 35 and under. While it’s worth considering the myriad reasons an artist might not begin to ‘emerge’ until after the age of 35, and whose voices might be heard when age and career stage aren’t conflated, “Primavera” was initiated in 1992 in memory of the late Belinda Jackson, a talented jeweller who died aged 29, and this 30th iteration is a great example of the many positives this ever-youthful exhibition format has to offer.
“Primavera 2021: Young Australian Artists” is curated by Melbourne-based curator Hannah Presley and includes work by five artists from around Australia, aged from 29 to 35: Elisa Jane Carmichael (QLD), Dean Cross (NSW), Hannah Gartside (VIC), Sam Gold (SA), and Justine Youssef (NSW). Keeping the number of artists slightly down on previous years seems to have created space for ambitious bodies of work, something which also expresses a deep curatorial engagement on Presley’s part. There is a lightness inherent in all works through the exhibition. Perhaps this is partially a result of a reflective and interrogative quality in these artists’ practices, with channels left in the works to allow stories to pass through.
At the centre of the exhibition sits Carmichael’s work a search for meaning is to absorb the abundance of beauty in nature (2021). It is a breathtaking piece comprising a fishing net woven of talwalpin (cotton tree) and studded with sparkling fish scales. The handwoven net has a lace-like delicacy and yet is also a functional object created by drawing on ancestral techniques, and materials from the Quandamooka artist’s saltwater Country in southeast Queensland. The net is floating, suspended over a cyanotype which also contains an image of the net’s silhouette. The layering of undulating diamond shapes over the deep blue cyanotype conjures a watery dimensionality in which time is layered and moves fluidly.
Undulating forms can also be seen nearby in Gold’s freestanding ceramic sculptures and wall reliefs. Delicate folds of richly coloured clay, marked by the repeated imprinting of fingers, seem to writhe into abstract clustered arrangements suggesting termite mounds, oyster shells, and labial folds. There is an implication of deep time, in Gold’s choice of materials, evocation of natural forms, and channelling of repeated bodily gesture.
Repetition also anchors Youssef’s dual-channel video work Under the table I learnt how to feed you (2019/21), with a mesmerising parade of pillowy Lebanese bread making its way down a conveyor belt and into the hands of women wearing hairnets, while on the neighbouring screen a group of young people make themselves at home in the laneways of the retail strip, chatting, dancing and lighting a waterpipe. Youssef’s work addresses the migrant and diasporic experience, but its juxtaposing of these states of being—quiet relentlessness on one hand and celebration and playfulness on the other—is a universally relatable tale.
Across the gallery from Youssef’s protagonists twirling in the street, the work of Gartside also spins. Gartside has repurposed the fabric and forms of vintage garments into a series of suspended sculptures which are programmed to turn at various speeds, sending fringes into a whirl and puffing up bustles. Each work is named for an iconic female historical figure, and these works frame, trace and insinuate the absences and obstacles that continue to define women’s historical legacies. In the work Pixie (2021) a glove is suspended from a collection of ribbons, its pointed finger tracing an imagined line in the sand, across the gallery floor.
Cross’ works, together titled Prima Facie (2021), are also suspended but unlike Gartside’s works their spins are unchoreographed and random. Cross’ paintings are built into exposed stretchers from layered offcuts of works previously abandoned by the artist, reassembled into new pastiches from which peer a series of faces, often with features removed or obscured. There is an open-cut rawness and vulnerability in these works and their slow turning invites the viewer to move in amongst the group for a tragi-comic conversation about how identity might be constructed.
What is striking about “Primavera 2021” is how materially and conceptually diverse these five bodies of work are, and yet somehow connected. They sit together not as relatives but as a group of friends who unconsciously pick up on each other’s gestures. The resonances between these works are not in medium but in the degree of primacy and sensitivity the artists have for their chosen materials and the stories contained therein, as well as the channelling of histories into a contemporary practice. Connectivity and conversation in the show are found through these parallel approaches. Overt or covert traces of the hand or body will draw the visitor towards a particular work, and then through the channels and pathways of “Primavera 2021”, whose modest size belies the richness of its journey.
Primavera 2021: Young Australian Artists
26 November 2021 — 13 June 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
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