Victoria’s public art

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Sculpture at Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Sculpture at Tarrawarra Museum of Art

You can avoid most art if you stay away from galleries, but public art is less avoidable, like buildings, so ideally it should be interesting.

It usually means some sort of outdoor sculpture, performance or environmental arrangement. Even temporary street art.

Changing heroes

We’re used to heroic statuary in Melbourne. Permanent materials: bronze, steel, stone, synthetics. Joan of Arc on her horse at the Library, Mathew Flinders and his boat outside St Paul’s, General Blamey peering over the windscreen of his jeep at the Domain. But we’ve changed heroes now: footballers frozen in mid-punt at the MCG, massive wooden eagles and bears, the metal lady permanently listening at the Myer Music Bowl.

You have only a few seconds to take in those artefacts sprinkled along the tollway to Sorrento, like the fake hotel, the giant skull and the inscrutable concrete lettering on the way. They may very well be good, but you really should be looking at the road.

In the city, there’s a baffling boundary between dubious graffiti and downright vandalism to cope with; more interesting is that tongue-in-cheek section of the public library sticking out of the Swanston Street footpath. And what more suitable in the commercial centre of the Bourke Street Mall than a gigantic purse.

White Night

Yet the most spectacular public art this year has been the way Melbourne’s sober buildings were magically translated into coloured poetry by the White Night light event.

But there’s even art in the Yarra: Herring Island, where sculpture takes creative advantage of bluestone from an old tunnel under the river. There are granite boats and stone houses, as well as inventive arrangements of material found in the place itself. An old scout hall is now a gallery, and you can find major works by Robert Jacks, John Davis and British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. You need a boat, so there’s a weekend ferry; or take your own canoe.

Generally, the wineries and resorts like Linden Gate at Yarra Glen get it right, even if cellar-door purists think it’s a gilding of the grape. They offer multiple pleasures for the visitor: food and wine, modest art displays, great scenery, classical music, jazz in the vineyard, and the odd celebrity appearance. At least one vineyard, Montalto at Red Hill for example, offers a major prize for sculpture as well. A dramatic piece, Fall From Grace, by Adam Stone is only one of the many visual attractions here.

Sculpture parks

As you’d expect, you see the most eclectic range of professional work at important sculpture parks where art takes precedence over wine; serious contemporary stuff that represents the success of former open prize winners and recent acquisitions by established artists.

The McClelland Sculpture Park (and gallery) at Langwarrin has some of the best work, in a rambling bush setting, recently enlarged. It sponsors a range of important prizes and exhibitions and connects usefully to its local community with various art and craft activities. Its interior galleries have a first-rate reputation and there’s no better sculpture park in Australia.

Werribee Park

Werribee Park (if you can drag yourself away from the formidable wildlife) has its own art award in the gardens, the Helen Lempriere prize that always attracts entries from talented sculptors young and older, and the permanent collection is impressive. Deborah Halpern, whose gigantic and fanciful monster used to grace the NGV moat has a fine work, and there’s a good piece by Bob Jenyns, whose work is always diverting.

The Mildura Sculpture Park has a long and distinguished history as the venue for a famous Triennial that brought together many of Australia’s major sculptors at a time when sculpture was mostly playing second fiddle to all the painting prizes around. You can combine a visit to its permanent collection there with the art collection at Stefano’s, where Latrobe University often arranges to show suitable work in his gallery.

Museums of art

Tarrawarra Museum of Art is another classic example of informed and benevolent support for the arts in Victoria. Splendid architecture as a lead-in to the venue, Clem Meadmore’s impressive sculpture Awakening, rolling vistas of spectacular vineyard scenery, a magnificent gallery set-up and the professional expertise to sponsor major exhibitions to a regular program.

The remarkable Heide Museum at Bulleen is yet another public jewel where you see past and present creativity reflected in the collections and exhibitions to a highly professional standard.

It was among the first in Victoria to take proper sculpture out of the gallery’s rarefied hush to join the birds in a natural bush setting, starting modestly with a couple of pieces by Ron Upton and David Tolley and later going international with a major American commission. When the spaces were rearranged in 2006, Inge King provided a major work.

Public art merges easily into performance art, theatrical events and old-fashioned happenings. There’s always plenty of this, some ephemeral, some repeatable; none of it has much to do with permanent bronze castings of King George or Olympic-looking hammer throwers in the Domain. The hammers are now harder to steal.

Story: Ronald Millar
Photos: Anne Morley
Published in RoyalAuto Nov 2016

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