Strength in numbers at Neon Parc

By Quentin Sprague

‘Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman’ illustrates the possibilities for curated shows in commercial galleries

Installation view of Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman at Neon Parc. Photograph by Christo Crocker

The curated exhibition is often seen as the domain of the non-commercial gallery or large-scale arts institution. Commercial galleries – those, that is, that operate as commercial agents between artists and art collectors – generally do something else. Many will often stage exhibitions that feature more than one artist, but the logic behind such enterprises rarely extends beyond showcasing what wares lie in the stockroom.

The better commercial spaces have long operated a little differently. Their bread and butter still lies in presenting new work by individual artists, but a number have made it their business to sketch a mid-ground between commercial representation and more curatorially driven activity. One, Neon Parc, which operates a small gallery in Melbourne’s CBD and a large Instagram-ready factory conversion on Tinning Street, Brunswick, often stages inventively energetic exhibitions that push against the conventional commercial model. Devoid of the ties that bind institutions (to boards of directors, government funding bodies and audiences), the gallery operates with an undeniable freedom, and while much of its programming is markedly insular, there are bright moments that deserve broader attention. Last year, for example, while both the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Victoria were staging surveys of recent painting – each of which in different ways sought to provide a definitive overview – Neon Parc’s director, Geoff Newton, put forward the excellent Bilder Bilder in his Brunswick space, an exhibition that arguably achieved as much as its institutional counterparts with far less. Bilder Bilder brought early-career painters such as Lucina Lane together with established names such as Dale Frank and Janet Burchill, but it reached further than a simple intergenerational survey of Australian art. Displaying a well-honed talent for securing minor works by major international names, Newton included as an unexpected counterpoint pieces by two 20th-century European greats, Lucio Fontana and Imi Knoebel.

The gallery’s current exhibition Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman, until 16 December, is another standout. Both artists are relatively well known and have exhibited widely in recent decades, but have never before been grouped together in a dedicated exhibition. Newman’s career dates back to the 1980s, when she achieved early acclaim for the kind of austere conceptually driven painting that had then recently begun to challenge the neo-expressionist work that dominated much of that decade. Yet as her career took off she bowed out of the art scene entirely. When she finally returned in the early 2000s she found a receptive audience among younger artists. The reason for this is perhaps clear: a characteristic Newman work can seem at a casual glance to replay the grunge-like simplicity of much current art, but it usually carries a confidence and restraint that sets it apart. Her new paintings at Neon Parc each consist of softly scribbled patches of oil colour on thinly painted backgrounds. At one level they seem minor, even self-consciously tasteful, but they are emboldened by the kind of carefully deployed sentiment that often carries through Newman’s work. One painting is titled The First Wound, another What Makes This Poem Beautiful? An untitled black banner that hangs over the top of a temporary dividing wall adds to the vein of melancholy: it features text that reads “So many lights and so much darkness.”

Newman’s work at Neon Parc provides a gentle counterpoint to Gojak’s two large suspended sculptures. They are left to colonise the gallery for themselves, which is exactly what they need. Although immediately reminiscent of the elegant mid-century mobiles of American sculptor Alexander Calder, Gojak’s works forgo Calder’s modernist simplicity in favour of complex networks of scrambled wires and bent metal cable. They dump their insides into space as if they were universes caught in the act of becoming. Transfer Station 2, from 2011, is framed by thick-gauge steel painted blue, black and yellow and bent into circular organic forms that slump from the ceiling and wind their way across the concrete floor. The work’s centre cradles dense masses of copper wire sprayed with colours that create soft points amid the chaos. Transfer Station, also from 2011, is more poised: its rust brown and red lines are shot through with highlights of white and gracefully ascending rows of red wax nodules.

The connections between the two artists are left unspoken. If Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman were an institutional exhibition, there would be an explanatory wall text and an accompanying essay. We might learn that Gojak studied science before art and be encouraged to think about the interdisciplinary underpinnings that may or may not be evident in her work. Neon Parc’s approach is far more casual: you either get it or you don’t. Chances are if you found the gallery in the first place (it’s tucked away in an industrial cul de sac) you’re an existing convert to the kind of calculated-seeming aloofness that characterises much high-end contemporary practice. But one can also be less cynical: sometimes the most valuable resonances in an exhibition are those that are left unexplained, or, to put it another way, the kind that are perhaps explained only by looking. This is an approach more aligned with what artists themselves are often engaged with: the making of visual objects that direct our thoughts and feelings in a certain way.

In this sense, exhibitions can also be understood as “visual objects”. If they are to work, they, too, must be carefully crafted, each of their elements placed with cumulative effect in mind. Not all exhibitions achieve this, of course, especially those that focus on contemporary practice. No matter how well presented, they too often risk preaching to the choir: they traffic in shared signs and secret handshakes, running the noise of contemporary production through a well-oiled art-world mechanism that does little to winnow the mass from which it draws. Others, such as Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman, have something else at heart: a true curiosity about what it is that artists do, and what such activity might tell us when freed from language’s interpretive scaffold. In a field crowded by exhibitions that hinge upon pre-emptive explanation – where we are told what artworks are “about” before we truly look – it’s a refreshingly open approach.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Installation view of Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman at Neon Parc. Photograph by Christo Crocker

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