Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Gallery scene in Mildura

NAP contemporary art is a gallery situated in what was once a car lot, and yet it works. There’s an openness, good ceiling height and floor to ceiling glass at one end. The atmosphere approaches industrial gentrification with an edge; I’d expect to see a food truck on the open concrete and maybe one day soon a mural on the side of the nearby apartments. After a busy first show the owners Riley and Erica are settling into a regular routine of exhibitions and are looking forward to bringing New Australian Painting to Sunraysia.

After the closure of other commercial galleries in Mildura it is heartening to see these two go all in on the venture. Both have worked in central Australia and are using these strong community relationships to showcase Indigenous art. One section of the gallery has been devoted to a selection of works on consignment from art centres including Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land. Prior to opening NAP, the duo were fieldworkers for Papunya Tula studios in the Pintupi homelands and also spent time managing the Tjungu Palya art centre on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.

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Another recently returned local is Rohan Morris who intends to foster local talent and fill the gap left by the closure of art galleries, like the privately funded Art Vault which until recently provided a studio space for printmakers and an artist-in-residence program. He recently opened Work Space 3496 ‘a platform to learn, teach, share and enrich our local community’, according its website.

Like Riley and Erica, Rohan is drawing upon local connections as well as an established career to bring this gallery space to life. He’s a practicing artist and also runs a creative consultancy business. While Erica hails from Melbourne, Riley grew up in Mildura and both he and Rohan share a desire to see the region’s art scene rekindled after two years of pandemic impact. Both also completed their visual arts degrees in Mildura prior to La Trobe University closing the program (another source possible decline for the visual arts in Sunraysia).

In the short time I’ve lived here I’ve listened to numerous stories of what this region used to showcase on a regular basis. Being the only source of fine arts education in the region, La Trobe in Mildura fostered many of the artists now practicing professionally. The stories I’ve heard from previous lecturers and students fill me with a sense of what has been lost not just through the pandemic also prior to this as key pieces of the human support system left or retired and perhaps are only now growing tall enough to carry the task. Unfortunately for the next generation, La Trobe no longer teaches a fine art degree at Mildura, leaving the TAFE and its Dulka Yuppata Indigenous Training Centre to train and foster the artists of the region.

Chris Fraser is a local artist typical of the way artists are embedded in the community here. A recently retired secondary school art teacher, she has spent many years fostering the talent of others. Her show on now at Work Space 3496 was an exciting opportunity for me to see a well-established local artist whose work was familiar to many, but completely new to me. It was also my first exhibition opening for Slow Looking!

Gratitude and birdsong presents a selection of bright works on paper. Birds and flowers feature against contrasting backgrounds of dots. The colours pop like posters and the execution is detailed with thick black lines on acrylic inks. A colouring book meets Pop wallpaper. My fingers always itch when I see luminous colour like this and while the flatness and repetition of themes was jarring at first, I spent time looking slowly at each artwork and began to notice narratives emerge.

A recent trip to Bali comes through in the choice of birds, foliage and exotic foods. The artist’s love of nature is rendered through detailed attention to local Australian birds. A sulphur-crested cockatoo, a magpie, each repeated on their own in several different poses suggesting Fraser has spent many hours watching these local residents. Little portraits in blue appear between the birds and flowers and here a sort of narrative emerges among these bright subjects. I noticed the comic book phantom first, and then other characters from pop culture and the art world appear. Yayoi Kusama floats, at work on her own paintings, among the large flowers and birds, while a possible self-portrait peeks past a baby duck in joy de vivre.

A selection of smaller works by Chris Fraser at Work Space 3496

Frida Kahlo, long the love of many women of a certain age (and younger) appears in a peculiar still life work. While many of Fraser’s acrylic ink compositions don’t engage with the depth and layering of space like a still life, three small works, including the Frida connection do so tantalisingly. The deliberate flatness of the main body of works honours the theme of the exhibition—drawing and painting informed by mindfulness and attention to our place in the landscape—these works lean more towards Pop and are evidently influenced by Fraser’s previous work with mediums like lino cut. In vital measures, a kind of Pop art Cressida Campbell still life features flowers in jars of water and surreal elements as the artist’s interest has shifted and changed during the process. The depth of field in this work rewards the gaze and gives a sense of solid space. In contrast, the majority of works in this exhibition focus on patterned flatness which isn’t always as successful on the small scale.

Recently Fraser’s work was transformed into a mural near the Mildura Arts Centre. This seems to me the ideal format for Fraser’s bright flatness which also gels with her exploration of place and the human relationship to nature.

In Fraser’s work there’s a wholehearted commitment to the aesthetics and subject she loves. Colours that vibrate and contrast with each other and memories and objects that inspire. This does result in a strange mix at times, but it’s worth the time looking to appreciate Fraser’s devotion to her aim here.

Gratitude and Birdsong continues until 22 July.