Western Australian Artists see things differently

The myopia of the past continues to distort Australian art history. According to Edmund Capon’s ABC series The Art of Australia and Hannah Gadsby’s OZ interpretation of contemporary art practices in Melbourne and Sydney, art ends on the 129th Meridian.

Distance and cost no longer excuse this negligence. Capon acknowledged Rover Thomas as an artist from Western Australia, but Gadsby did not recognize any creative activity within the state.

This conception of Australia’s cultural life is not new. There are a number of books, curated exhibitions, and other publications that, while describing some aspects of visual art on the continent, have excluded any mention of Western Australian artists, galleries, or institutions.

In retrospect, critics and curators have admitted that they made mistakes in omitting Western Australian artists, events, or works from public collections. Unfortunately, recorded history is all that remains, and private apologies have no impact on the next generations of art historians, curators, or critics who continue to make these mistakes.

The fact that so many local artists see the world from a different perspective is not surprising. They are encouraged to think globally and work internationally by living in the West.

I returned to London two years later with my unfinished thesis still in my bag. The rain defeated me, the cold and the constant drizzle but re-energized and inspired by the vibrant art scene. It began at art schools like Chelsea, Hornsey, and Saint Martins and morphed into exciting and challenging Arts Lab spaces throughout the country, including the ICA.

The energy was a powerful force that swept through the galleries on Cork, Albemarle, and New Bond Street, as well as museums such as the Tate, the National Gallery, and the Tate Modern. But it was the rough edges of the Birmingham Arts Lab and the ICA which were the most intoxicating.

Was it possible to replicate them in Perth on the western edge? Was there anything unique to Western Australia that could contribute to this mix of ideas and practices?

Just a few days after my return to Perth, Rie Heymans, the intrepid gallery owner, announced that she would be selling the Old Fire Station Gallery in order to take up the position of curator at the University of Western Australia.

I immediately began to look for ways to energize local practices and celebrate the work of local artists. I desperately tried to gather enough money from friends to fund this madness.

Failure was inevitable, and it came quickly. But Rie connected me with other young Australian artists who shared similar goals. We met to discuss ways we could implement change in Western Australia that was stifling the arts.

Mark Grey-Smith returned to Perth from Chelsea School of Art several months before me. He immediately started to build support for an artist-run art gallery that would shake up the conservative Perth art scene.

The PRAXIS clubhouse/gallery was located at Murray Mews. This run-down laneway snaked through an abandoned part of town. It was a forgotten sector of the city, hidden behind the polite façades of rarely visited city shops. The PRAXIS gallery/clubhouse was located in Murray Mews, a run-down laneway that snaked through a derelict part of town. It was a lost sector of the city trapped behind the polite facades of rarely visited city stores.

PRAXIS used the space to host lectures, such as one given by the visiting American theorist Lucy Lippard. It also hosted exhibitions, which attracted a completely different crowd than those who usually attend Sunday openings of the Art Gallery of Western Australia or the Old Fire Station and Skinner Galleries.

PRAXIS was the direct result of Whitlam’s slogan for his election: It’s Time. It was possible to offer radical alternatives and expect them to succeed. Perth was a city with an added urgency, fuelled by the shared feeling of dislocation and isolation.

It is not surprising that the Whitlam Government’s sacking was a prominent feature of culture in 1975. This acted as a pin to our self-confidence. This was the government that bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles and who had orchestrated our withdrawal from Vietnam.

Malcolm Fraser’s boring predictability, refusing to allow the Australian National Gallery to purchase George Braque’s Grand Nu, was back. We all felt the deflating effect of this.

The PRAXIS magazine was also in decline by the end of last year. Although it would be foolish for us to blame the political climate alone, we could not deny that our hope was shattered.

Mark Grey-Smith expressed his concerns with unrestrained vehemence about the possibility of moral corruption if the group received money from an outside body. Nevertheless, it was agreed to apply for additional funding from Perth City Council. The first year for the newly restructured PRAXIS was looking very promising. With a funding base and an exhibition program planned around one conceptual idea to which each individual would contribute, it looked like the future of the group.

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