Saturday, 28 March 2015

TOD Tour, Day 45 - Margaret Olley Art Centre

It would be hard to imagine it was possible to go within 100kms of Murwillumbah and not visit the Tweed Regional Gallery.

This purpose built art space, a triumph of vision which can often be unusual for local government, is also another example of the special things that can be found in regional galleries. We have been consistently surprised by the wonderful exhibitions which remarkable regional directors mount in their galleries, often with limited funds and a lack of support from local government authorities whose bottom line is always dollars.

At Murwillumbah, they already had a tremendous art space, with its spectacular clear glass walls which open visitors to the dramatic vista which includes Mt Warning in the background and the Tweed River running into the foreground. In recent years, the combination of the generosity of one of Australia's most accomplished artists and the intransigence of the decision makers on Mrs Macquarie's Rd, resulted in millions of dollars being donated to the gallery. The use they have made of it is remarkable.
The view from the glass walled panels of the Tweed Regional Gallery
Margaret Olley was not only an artist whose work sustained such a high quality over such a long time, she was also a champion and mentor to many of the younger artists who followed her - Archibald winner Ben Quilty being just one of them. He talks with such admiration of her contribution to his development that her generosity is obvious. Known for her vibrant still life paintings, it was the special relationship she had with her home and studio and her penchant for inviting in guests, whether famous, infamous or ignominious, that have extended her reputation.

A major collector of art herself, she specifically bequeathed $1 million in her will to the Tweed Gallery in Murwillumbah, located as it was so close to her birthplace of Lismore, to build an extension to house a recreation of her home studio and contents. Using an extensive and meticulous series of photos taken by renowned photography and journalist Greg Wiese taken on the morning of her death, they have built an exact replica of her dining room/kitchen/studio which she called "the hat factory" and probably the most famous room associated with Australian art, her lounge room/studio which she called "the yellow room". The dinning room is a cacophony of colour and shape, with every space occupied by the extraordinary and the casual ordinary as though they are natural bedmates. Artworks are crowded into spaces on the walls; cupboards and shelves and occasional tables perverse with objects; palettes and painted are dotted everywhere, usually near light sources; ashtrays with cigarettes in various stages of their short lives leave traces of her humanity; an old transistor softly fills the space with ABC classic FM; paint tubes squeezed between those thin, aged fingers are here and there; and everywhere Margaret Olley has daubed life.

Margaret Olley in situ (photograph by Ian Lloyd courtesy of the Tweed Daily News)
Visitors stand at light sources - windows and doorways - held back behind middle height glass barriers from entering but still able to drink it all in. Had Olley been there, they would have been chided for blocking the light. For nothing stopped her from painting when the light was to her liking. She would be polite but dismissive and go to her colours, regardless of the status of her guest. Skylights add further light to a vibrant room.

There is probably nothing like it in its recreation of the life of an Australian artist, although years ago we saw a similar treatment of the living room of the Lindsay clan - all of them creators in one way or another. It was restrained, almost austere: a room which reflected learning and a strained and cultured upbringing. By comparison, Olley's room screams life. The dinner parties around that large central table hold stories of ideas batted back and forth by Australia's brightest minds; often those which beat to a different drum.

Subsequently, this marvellous recreation has been greatly enhanced by gifts of artworks from her estate, the NSW Art Gallery and other benefactors. These include finished and unfinished works by Olley and works by artists she had supported and admired over the years. A sprinkling of European masters were also supplied as gifts to the Gallery.

Elsewhere in the gallery, the best of the collection from another regional gallery - Queensland's Rockhampton - underlined my point. A Smart, with its sharp lines and bold solid colours depicting urban landscapes with more clarity than they actually have; a Cossington-Smith with its myriad of short vertical strokes and wonderful light; and the flowing, brilliant lines of a Whiteley pencil portrait created in in the same year that he won Australia's Art trifecta ... the Sulman, the Wynne and the Archibald prizes. There were the photographic portraits by Rod McNicol, the best of which were portraits of the same subject taken twenty years apart.

There was even more in the most exquisite series of exhibitions it could ever be possible to see under one roof and yet, here we were in regional NSW, in the lesser of many towns far more interesting in the Northern Rivers.

Director Suzi Muddiman and collection manager Ingrid Hedgcock, take a deep and sustained bow. This space is a triumph.

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