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Resplendent highlights female artists within the NERAM collections, from inter-war modernists to contemporary practitioners, who demonstrate an affinity for and experimentation with colour. Focus chats to NERAM Curator, Rachael Parsons …

NERAM is currently featuring a special exhibition which focuses only on artworks by female artists. How was the concept developed?

When I was first interviewed last year for the curatorial position at NERAM, I was asked to propose an idea for a collection based show that I might like to curate. I immediately thought of focusing on women artists in the collection. Women have traditionally had a challenging relationship to male dominated art institutions, history and markets, often being made invisible and certainly under-represented in public exhibitions and within museum collections. While this situation is improving, I still feel that it is important to actively address this gendered marginalisation of women. In presenting a show that is comprised solely of female artists, an opportunity to provide clear evidence of the vital and exceptional contributions of women to cultural practice is made possible.    

I wanted the exhibition to be a celebration of these female artists – a show that allowed for discoveries and appreciation of their work. When looking for a thematic connection, I was drawn to the idea of colour, as there is within art writing a number of references to women artists having a particular mastery of colour. For example, Thea Proctor made a claim for women’s particular sensitivity for colour, expressing that male artists excelled at form, and female artists at colour and writing: “It is well known that the majority of women art students have a good sense of colour”. Colour is also a broad and inclusive theme that would allow for a varied selection of works that could cut across and make connections between all four of NERAM’s collections.          

Tell us about some of the history behind the artists featured in Resplendent

The exhibition features artists from the inter-war modernists through to current contemporary practitioners. In Australia, women artists played a key role in the development of modern art, with inspirational artists like Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston and Nora Heysen contributing to experimentation and innovation in the use of colour, subject matter, style and technique. Thea Proctor was born and grew up in Armidale, but then later became one of the leading artists in Australia’s modernist art movement.

Margaret Preston was amongst Australia’s most celebrated and renowned flower artists. Preston’s work representing native Australian flora exemplified the formal ideals of modern art, such as a limited colour palette, stark contrasts and stylised design.

Nora Heyson was the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture and to be made an official war artist during the Second World War.

What is your favourite piece in the exhibition, and why?

There are so many exceptional works on display. One that I do really like is Elaine Haxton’s Bell Collars c1950. In the work Haxton has used bold colours and strong line to create a highly lively portrait of a woman in profile with a green cat on her lap. I think that you can see the influence of Haxton’s varied creative interests that extended to graphic art, murals and theatre design in this piece. There is an absurdity and theatricality to the composition, from the matching bell collars on both woman and cat to the inquisitive and piercing expression of the cat’s direct stare out from the painting that considers and challenges the viewer. My appreciation of this work increases with each viewing, so the more I see it, the more I like it, and I think that this continued enjoyment of a painting that you see over and over again is an indication of really good art.

What’s coming up at NERAM that our readers can look forward to?

There are two upcoming shows that I am particularly looking forward to. The first is Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes, which is a touring retrospective of Cummings’ fifty-year art practice. I especially like Cummings’ paintings of abstracted interior views; she has a very refined sense of both space and colour within her works, which oscillate between the abstract and figurative.

I am also working on an exhibition, Plain, Satin & Twill, which will display textile works that will be loaned from the Tamworth Regional Gallery’s collection. This will be the first show that I have worked on that deals exclusively with textiles of various materials and techniques. It has been a real pleasure to work with my colleagues at Tamworth Regional Gallery to explore and draw from their extensive and wonderful collection for presentation at NERAM.      

How important do you feel art and culture is for our community?

Of course I am biased, but I would say that art and culture are critical to the health and vitality of any community and that we have observed the importance and benefits of cultural endeavours consistently throughout history. We have seen art used as a powerful tool for regeneration and development of cities and communities through creating interesting and meaningful places for people to engage with and congregate.

The arts play a significant economic role across the country, contributing some $4.2 billion towards Australia’s GDP in 2015, and cultural tourism is also becoming increasingly important both in Australia and internationally.

Research shows there are significant health benefits in participating in cultural activities. Art is used to create social and political awareness and encourage change … The reasons why the arts are important are numerous and wide-ranging.   

Thanks Rachael.

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