I first wrote about the gallery scene in Mildura July 2022. I’m excited to review two shows recently ended at NAP Contemporary and to reflect further on the type of place Mildura is. After 3+ years I’m not yet a local, but I’m also not an outsider, I now find myself somewhere in the murky middle area. I can begin to decipher the middle-class aspirations surrounding me as a healthy response to the distance from other, bigger, better serviced cities. I also begin to note the fierce independence and pride in the region. Why would you want to live in the city, I hear often. Melbourne in particular remains a huge planetary body with commensurate gravitational pull, but it’s also nice that it’s just down there – a place to acquire things not available in this neck of the woods.
As a one-time Melbournian I’ve come to resent that city’s centrifugal pull. It is the assumed default location, destination and occupation of so many. And for ten years it was those things for me too. Only after leaving did, I begin to notice that for so many outside Melbourne it occupies the centre of their thinking too. What does it mean to grasp a different reference point? What qualities do we take as our guiding star (to continue the laboured celestial metaphor). One answer, perhaps, can be found in the people of Sunraysia, bordering on the desert and making the most of the profits made from the lands of several Aboriginal nations through the efforts of two Canadian irrigators…
All this is not to romanticise this hot, dry and dusty place. There are many things the strike me as absurd and wrong. This housing development for one (which architecturally seems to take its cue from Melbourne mining cottages…)
Temperatures in Mildura can reach 44 degrees in summer, it’s 42 as I type this. So it seemed a fitting welcome to the artists and curator for the launch of two exhibitions at NAP Contemporary on a Friday evening after a 41-degree day. Both Speedway and Mildura Atrocity Exhibition speak in different ways to themes of climate and heat and their vocabularies lean to extremes.
‘Speedway’ artist Matthew Ware spoke with the self-deprecating humour and shyness typical of a young artist launching a solo exhibition. ‘Speedway’, he noted immediately, has nothing really to do with cars and is instead interested in cycles of youth culture marketing and the rock band the Who. It’s an amalgam of influences, detailed in the catalogue essay by Phillip Brophy.
Another concern appears to be the creation of a meta exhibition in which we the audience observe figures slumped on the floor in front of Ware’s target paintings. He is interested in how easy it is to construct a believable human form from simple materials like bubble wrap, cardboard and clothing. And he’s right. The paintings filling three walls of the space are placed low, confirming that they are really there for these uncanny viewers and not us. We watch the meta exhibition and often catch a reclining person out of the corner of our eyes and think “oh how rude they’re on the gallery floor”.
Ware’s work is irreverent and like the title, to my eye embraces a bogan sensibility. Hearing the artist speak with all the disavowal and earnestness of someone asked to give a speech on their birthday. These are my interests, this is what I was doing, I think it’s pretty neat and hope you do too. Perhaps it was the opening night beers talking, or his genuine enthusiasm for the exhibition, either way it was infectious.
The paintings all adhere to a target format with circular colours on black backgrounds. With an unfinished air to them, these works have a roughness and practical quality of thinking through concepts without getting bogged down in the perfect finish. Along with the mullet wigs on the floor figures, the exhibition honours its location and the many excellent hairstyles of working class Mildurans.1 These paintings are filled with a coded visual language but a decidedly anti-elitist one. The eponymous painting taking the word speedway from Timmis Speedway, Mildura, A local icon of entertainment since 1964.
It is the Mildura Atrocity Exhibition that more fully comments on the connections between automotive culture and the climate, taking inspiration from NAP Contemporary’s former life as a car dealership owned by gallerist Riley’s father. The title references the new wave science fiction of JG Ballard with themes of chaos, societal collapse and – similar to Ware’s work – a healthy rendering of post-WWII British social landscape as strange and unfamiliar.
Curator Helen Hughes has responded sensitively to Mildura as an important part of NAP Contemporary’s identity. Taking into consideration the former life of the gallery space, as well as the ongoing importance of vehicular culture in the regional city, the exhibition features both local artists and those from further afield. Burchill and McCamley present the heavy lifting on a climate damaged through resource extraction with their mounted car seats, shooting upwards into the space on metal frames. A red and yellow striped seat jets in the direction of a nearby temperature chart as though on its own personal rollercoaster.
As local artists these two women must understand the impacts of a changing climate, if not witnessing the weather become more extreme.
Mildura’s automotive culture also finds resonance in Alexandra Peters’ wall mounted vinyl artworks. Taking inspiration from her own Subaru Forester and the shape of the doors, she has rendered their hard surface and model-specific colours in a soft but durable industrial fabric complete with screen printed speed stripe. Marketed to women in particular, the artist’s own Forester forms the template for one of the vinyl pieces, the others representing newer models. The car-ness of their shapes, though turned on their sides, adds to the large scale of the works and brings to my mind interesting questions about car ownership and automotive identity. The Forester isn’t as prevalent in Sunraysia as the larger ute-style 4WDs, but this doesn’t mean less women are driving.
Peters’ largest piece is another blue vinyl shape with screen prints derived from photographs of bitumen. They look a bit like crime scene photographs or the black and white newspaper photographs of car crashes that so fascinated Andy Warhol.
Also drawing parallels between repurposed car aesthetics is Lauren Burrows Exiguous plains a group of car windows of different sizes and shapes. Painted with a Eucalyptus-derived bio glitter, the shards of glass with neat edges speak of nail art and a very different shiny surface. Many satisfying parallels can be drawn between the often-masculine love of a car’s sparkling paint job and the effort and pride (predominantly) women put into their nails. Burrow’s windows have a gritty and aged appearance and the diamantes arranged on their surface are askew, as though stuck on by a distracted 5-year-old.
I find Exiguous plains compelling. I like imagining the giant fingers to which these odd-shaped nails might have belonged. Are they ethnographic artefacts surviving a post-apocalyptic future, now preserved in a kind of Mad Max vehicular chapel? In this sense they are at home in Mildura with its proximity to desert landscapes and (within a day’s long drive) the actual location of the Mad Max set.
Burrow’s other work Negative Content (2023) makes tangible any sense of latent violence. Using plaster and medical impression foam, the artist has rendered the action of keying someone’s car, in three-dimensions. A small fist sits at one end of the long jagged, sparkly object. Sitting low on the wall, curator Helen Hughes confirms this is ‘to indicate surreptitious execution’.2
Explicit environmental themes have influenced Hughes and these artists, and the resulting exhibitions present something of compelling narrative about place. Mildura is a place of extremes, including its extreme weather and the strange normalisation of climate inappropriate housing and transport.
Hughes’s outsider perspective considers this place and responds with a compelling selection of artworks, their narratives reflecting both the epic denialism of living through climate change for many people, their preoccupations with their cars as perhaps a form of coping mechanism, and the working-class anti elitism found at the speedway and in cultures of rebellion that so fascinate Matthew Ware.
This is a post from Slow Looking, a newsletter about art and history. Subscribe at https://nikitavanderbyl.substack.com/
1 I’ve lived here for 3+ years and still wonder if this is the correct collective noun.
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