Better known for its mining booms and beaches, the town of Perth in Western Australia isn’t exactly what you’d call a creative capital. A 20-hour flight and worlds away from London, the clear skies and hot weather tend to foster a culture of sport and the outdoors, rather than any semblance of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. Urban it might not be but there is a fascinating element of the unreal in the wide roads and sprawling suburbs of this most isolated and bizarre of coastal cities.
With high rents, misguided governmental policy and physical distance against them, artists tend to seek out places east across the continent in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, or even overseas to find their audience, leaving few behind to contribute to the region’s greater cultural map. But there are some who stay and are making the most of it. One of them is the independent OK Gallery, run by artists and curators Gemma Weston, Jamie Macchiusi and Andrew Varano. Perched off one of the city’s high streets and across the road from the famed private men’s sauna, white walls and a freckle floor houses exhibits that are sometimes of a time and often of a place.
In the past, exhibitions addressing ideas of identity have featured at OK Gallery. Artists like Casey Ayres and his Picnic At Fanging Rock (a neat pun on the award-winning Peter Weir film) presented car culture on those great Australian roads, while Emma McPike explored the dreamy suburban paradise of barbecues and backyard pools in True North. For its latest exhibition, and the seventh since its inception in August 2011, The Refrain builds on OK’s preoccupation with its immediate cultural environment. This time it is through visual motifs and repetition that feature, specifically those of a personal nature, within a broader social context.
The title alludes to the part of a song where a chorus or a melody is repeated, specifically prevalent in anthems and folk songs; those tunes deeply ingrained in our memories and stirring a sense of place and sometimes belonging. Bringing together the seemingly disparate works of Victorian artist Lucas Grogan, with locals Jessie Mitchell and Anneke de Rooij, a common theme of displacement, isolation and nostalgia can be felt.
Mitchell keeps her focus on contemporary multiplicity by working across craft, metal and gardening to explore ideas of cultural diversity. Her powder-coated aluminium wall hangings feature brickwork patterns found around her local neighbourhood, as well as one discovered during a trip to Sunset Boulevard. These geometric patterns, loaded with private meaning, reappear on her hand dyed and silk-screened hanging ‘Porta Portese’; a reference to the Roman flea market. De Rooij’s ‘Avian Portraits’ series explores local wildlife in her coarsely sculpted and ink-scratched ceramics of native birds come across during a residency in the city’s port region at Fremantle Arts Centre.
Lucas Grogan, not from Perth but from Melbourne, takes on his broader-reaching, more controversial ideas of cultural identity by appropriating indigenous art iconography, as a white Australian male, and applying his non-traditional motifs of sexual identity abuse to his intricate shields. The ink, acrylic and watercolour designs are a continuation of his preoccupation with self-defence and exile in a harsh social and cultural environment; ideas also prevalent in other exhibitions tellingly-titled, UnAustralian, Private Island and Lullaby Islands. With one such exhibit describing island life as ‘both paradise and prison’, that idea is easily extended onto a sense of that outward-looking self-awareness, coupled with an insularity peculiar to the Australian mentality.
Funnily enough, The Refrain is an appropriate choice for an OK Gallery group show, especially when considering its tendency towards local themes and ideas of belonging. In the the city’s sometimes inhospitable cultural environment, artists are forced to pay high rents from low wages to a place that doesn’t offer much by way of experience in return. But that’s why galleries like OK exist; as a place to get know a city in the best way that you can.