The fireplace in Australian art is an exhibition-in-waiting. Think of Drysdale and his bushfire paintings, with the fireplace as the last thing standing, or of artworks from the late 1880s National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship, established to send the best young local artists to Europe. The criteria were prescriptive – the paintings had to incorporate a range of pictorial elements, including a still life arranged across a mantelpiece over a fireplace. Figures, here, were central to the pictorial arrangement: the result was an academician’s mix of contemporary social-conscience genre painting and the ‘conversation picture’.
‘In Memoriam’ was Callum Morton’s exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art late last year: it included a fireplace. Heide is best known as the home of John and Sunday Reed, Melbourne’s great advocates of modernism. Their home, now called Heide II, was built in the 1960s of Mount Gambier limestone, glass and timber; it’s geometric, all right angles, no curves. In it is a small, sunken space with a fireplace – an intimate conversation setting where the Reeds relaxed and talked about art, literature, politics and ideas.
Morton’s work usually deals with the archetypes of architectural modernism – minimalist and linear forms – favoured by the generation that preceded his. In the case of One to One (2011), Morton recreated Heide II’s fireplace and built it in the neighbouring gallery, Heide III. Concealed within the work are speakers playing recordings of John and Sunday Reed in conversation, which quietly fill the space. It is an evocative critique and tribute, unpretentiously ambiguous, where Morton seemingly memorialises the history of the site in which he exhibits. This recalls the ideas behind the Reeds’ creation: to think internationally and act locally. Morton takes the idealism in modernist twentieth-century architecture (and on occasions its local, vernacular and miscued efforts) and gives it a disarming twist. He allows us to see and experience our recent history in ways that are personal and idiosyncratic, where he imbues the rigid expression of the modernist canon with an intriguing, often witty, humanist Romanticism.
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