Dobell Drawing Biennial modestly staged but impressively rendered

It’s the Italian term for a high-profile, large-scale exhibition, which is usually staged on a small island, such as Cockatoo, Sydney, or Venice, Italy. The artistic directors are selected from an elite group of international curators, and the exhibitions come with big ideas and conceptual credibility.

The second, on the other hand, is much more modest. In the art world, the biennial admits that the exhibition, for that, is exactly what it is, eschews all the razzamatazz and has a more modest goal, which is to create a bi-annual exhibit that has greater credibility due to its modesty.

The Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial’s history is interesting in this context. It was a prize of A$30,000 between 1993 and 2012. For a while, it was held alongside the Archibald Prize for Portraiture. The competition attracted entries across the country and featured dozens of finalists. In 2012, however, the Art Gallery of NSW decided that the Dobell would be reimagined as a curated show.

In its final years, it always seemed that the Dobell was repeating. There was some variation in the types of work selected, but it was still a show that was about artists who wanted to give drawing the credibility that it deserved. Where were the uneducated, raw works that were being produced in the worlds of artist-run galleries? What were the limits of performance or video practice?

Marwat 2014 by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. (c) AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

Drawing Out was the first Biennial of 2014 and featured the work of only ten artists. The show was disappointing because it included familiar names from the Dobell Prize era. However, some pieces challenged what constitutes drawing. These include Gosia Wolodarczak’s performance drawing in the gallery window, Anna Pollack’s short video animation, and Mary Tonkin’s 14-metre panorama. The 2014 Dobell prize was not only rich in content but also broad.

So I went to see Near to Home: a Celebration of Contemporary Drawing in Australia, not expecting it to be a huge biennale. But a significant and consequential biennial. The show features only six artists. Six. All of them had previously exhibited their work at the Art Gallery of NSW. Three of them are from Sydney, while two others hail from Melbourne, and one is from the NT.

Nyapanyapa Yonupingu, whose work I admire, and Noel McKenna are among the artists whose works are in the collection of this gallery. Unkind people might use the title of the show as a curator’s brief: keep it cheap and small.

The Dobell Biennial is tucked away in a small gallery downstairs, next to Julian Rosenfeldt’s Manifesto installation – a star-studded production of feature film level and intellectual wankfest that spans three galleries.

This context is essential to understanding the importance of drawing as a contemporary art form. Although I have been a strong advocate of video art, I never imagined that a show as worthy as the Dobell’s would be treated so poorly when it comes to gallery space and resource allocation.

Noel McKenna’s Animals I Have Knew series, Untitled 2015-16. Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

The art of drawing is being pushed aside in favor of the new media’s smoke and mirrors, but that’s a discussion for another day. Close to Home is a work of art that lives up to the expectations of an exhibition once called “the most significant” of its kind to be held in Australia.

McKenna’s Animals I Have Known (2015) is one of his signature works, mixing text and drawing. Here, a chart shows the dogs McKenna has owned, as well as other animals he’s encountered, such as possums that he’s seen in trees near his Rose Bay house or chickens in Darlinghurst in a friend’s yard. The curator, Anne Ryan, says that the work, which is a collection related to drawings and charts, is both emotionally charged and acutely observed. It’s also fascinating for dog lovers because McKenna captures their personalities and attitudes perfectly with his economical line.

An interesting connection between representation and drawing also connects a number of works. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s illustrations are notable for their use of fiber-tipped pens, natural pigments, and clay, as well as their abandonment of narrative in favor of the formal qualities of their mark-making.

Inhabited Space by Catherine O’Donnell. The artist

The Larrani abstract form (2014), with its dense crosshatch pattern, is an optically captivating field of lines. Meanwhile, Djorra 1 (paper), a multi-paneled work of larger dimensions (2014), tells the story of the artist being gored by a buffalo. In one drawing, the lines are about the act of making marks. But on the other, they have a narrative quality. Inhabited Space, a massive wall drawing by Catherine O’Donnell (2015-16), depicts the simple line of a suburban fibro home; its screen doors and windows are hyper-detailed charcoal drawings on paper. The schematic outline and detail combine, and, like Yunupingu’s drawings, they float between abstractions and figurations.

Richard Lewer’s We’re All Going to Die 2015 is a great book. Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

Richard Lewer has nine drawing series with titles that describe mental states – I’m Fine I’m Just Exhausted (2015), The Distance is Not What You Measure, It’s What You Create (2015), Depression is Like Quicksand and You Need to avoid panic in order to escape (2015).

The viewer then scrutinizes each face to find a trace of the condition that is being represented. However, it only takes a few seconds for the viewer to realize that these drawings are not photographs. Lewer’s refusal to use expressionist illustrations only enhances the power of his images.

Australian-Indonesian artist Jumaadi’s work explores another kind of subjectivity – his own, and the arrangement of drawings is a kind of diary of thoughts, feelings, and dreams, given form in monstrous figures mixed with odd observations – a bullock pulling a wagon, doll-like figures in embrace. There’s beauty in the ambiguity of these works despite their darkness.

Maria Kontis is the sixth artist to be featured in the Dobell Biennial. Her pastel drawings on paper reproduce images taken from found photos.

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