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Arthur Boyd and modern art at the National Gallery of Australia

Heather Wallace

There’s a scene in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary where the eponymous heroine is in an art gallery and needs to go to the toilet. “I burst into the cubicle and was just about to get on with it when I realised the toilet was actually a moulding of the inside of a toilet, vacuum-packed in plastic. Then Daniel put his head round the door. ‘Bridge, don’t wee on the Installation, will you,’ he said and closed the door again.”

Modern art can get a bad rap. Saying it’s polarising is one of the biggest understatements there is. But there’s something we tend to forget: every piece of art starts as something modern. Looking at an exhibition of a famous artist’s work, it’s so easy to see it as a piece of history, a window into another time. Even when the artist was consciously echoing other times, earlier artistic forms, their work still reveals what was going on around them.

So when I went to see the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) Arthur Boyd: Agony and ecstasy exhibition, it was a good thing that I’d just seen their newly opened NGA Contemporary gallery.

Located down by the water’s edge of Lake Burley Griffin and away from the main building, the NGA has dedicated a space to contemporary paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photography, video and the decorative arts.

Like most collecting institutions, the NGA can only show a very small of percentage of its standing collection at any one time. And when you consider that the NGA also has the largest collection of modern Australia art in the world, just imagine all the treasures there to be discovered. What’s exciting is that the NGA will be rotating the collection with four exhibitions over the next 12 months.

From bright plastic cushions piled high in corner (Christopher Langton’s Sugar the pill) to a garden made out of fake fur and paint (Kathy Temin’s Tombstone Garden) to the ultimate Cinderella bejewelled shoe (which Timothy Horton gives a new spin by titling it Glass slipper-ugly blister) there is so much to take in that you’ll need more than one visit. One of the most famous pieces on display has already been the subject of criticism and praise: Ron Mueck’s Pregnant Woman.

This is the perfect space to explore new works and debate what makes art.

With that in mind, I headed to the NGA’s main building to see Arthur Boyd: Agony & Ecstasy, the first major exhibition of Boyd’s art in over 20 years.

The exhibition has more than 180 pieces of Boyd’s art including paintings, tapestries, prints, drawings, sculptures and ceramics, created between 1937 and the 1980s.

The title is fitting; the works can be disturbing, showing a mind that was restless and questioning. The change of Boyd’s style from traditional landscapes to fevered dream sequences during the second World War is a shock when you see them so close together, and reminded me again that art is a product of its time.

Even when Boyd uses medieval themes, like the Lady and the Unicorn drawings based on the Flemish tapestry series, he creates something completely new and powerful with simple pencil drawings.

Much of his work uses myths and fairy stories against an Australian background, but they are never cozy or comfortable. A cartoon-like character with big eyes and curving nose is never whimsical. There is anger and anguish in his work but joy and compassion too, and it jolts you out of the everyday to look beneath the surface of the world around you.

Even after 60 years Boyd’s work is modern and powerful and stays with you long after you’ve left the gallery. Modern art, as it turns out, has quite a history.

Arthur Boyd: Agony and ecstasy is on display until Sunday 9 November and is showing only in Canberra.

The essentials

What: Arthur Boyd: Agony and ecstasy

When: Until Sunday 9 November 2014

Where: NGA Contemporary (open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm) at the National Gallery of Australia

Web: www.nga.gov.au

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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