REVIEW: Five works from the MCA Australia collection

Reading room at MCA Australia, Sydney

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney is based in an Art-Deco former Maritime Services Board building and overlooks Sydney Harbour in the area known as The Rocks. Founded in 1989, through a bequest by Australian expatriate artist John Power (1881-1943), it first opened its doors in 1991 and later underwent a major renovation because of an increase in attendances in 2010 to over 580,000, reopening in 2012.

There is an entire floor dedicated to the MCA collection which includes important holdings of Aboriginal art from Arnhem Land dating back to the 1950s, including the Arnott’s collection of bark paintings and a collection that is held in trust with the community of Maningrida, as well as many contemporary works from Australian and international artists. There are two floors of galleries for exhibitions and The National Centre for Creative Learning includes a library, digital and multimedia studios, a seminar room and lecture theatre.


Gordon Bennett
Born 1955, Monto Queensland. Lived and worked Brisbane, died Brisbane 2014
Home Decor (Relative/Absolute), Flowers for Mathinna #2 1999
Acrylic on linen
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the MCA Foundation, 2012

Bennett described the work as “at once one painting and many paintings”. In the work he combined examples of Modernist Abstraction, the dot paintings of Papunya Tula, to Pop art, a Roy Lichtenstein mirror painted in dots sits centrally in the composition, and his own reworkings of colonial representations of Aboriginal people. The work is dominated by the portrait of Mathinna, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl who was painted by the colonial artist Thomas Bock in 1842. Her sad story of theft and cultural dislocation resonates through the other works Bennett quotes in the painting, in particular the Margaret Preston woodcut of desert peas which sits below her portrait – these are the ‘flowers for Mathinna’. Preston freely borrowed Aboriginal themes and motifs in her artworks, using them to establish a visual language that she hoped would become a defining national style. Here they function as another visual reminder of the ways in which white Australia has adopted ‘Aboriginality’ without the permission of or regard for Aboriginal people themselves.



IMG_7447  IMG_7445

Justin Trendall
Born 1957, Uganda, lives and works in Sydney
Darlinghurst, 2010
Screenprint on cotton drill
Museum of Contemporary art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordent families, 2011

Justin Trendall is a contemporary artist who works with a combination of drawing, photography, screen printing and Lego. He is interested in the creation of monuments and the construction of histories are integral to the production and maintenance of the collective identities that shape us as individuals. He explores how official processes of memorialisation relate to the more subjective relationship to the past that we have through memory. He creates cultural maps to experiment with ways of linking history, memory and cultural identity, which feature a diverse range of marginal and mainstream histories including mining, urban subcultures, modern art, architecture, surfing and Enlightenment politics, reflecting the nature of Australian cultural identity.

His work is held in the collections of major public institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney), the Art Gallery of NSW and the Monash Museum of Modern Art.


IMG_7450 IMG_7454


Vernon Ah Kee
Born 1967, Innisfall, Queensland, Lives and works in Brisbane
Titles, 2011
Etching on paper
Edition 18/20
Musuem of Contemporary Art, purchased 2013

This suite of etchings forms part of Vernon Ah Kee’s ongoing critique of race and politics in Australia. The artist pairs words alluding to the experience of being Aboriginal in Australia, with delicate portraits that emerge from a web of lines to become visible – a retort to the invisibility of indigenous identity in Australian society.

Vernon Ah Kee was born in 1967 in Innisfail, Queensland, and is a member of the Yidindji, Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Koko Berrin and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. He lives and works in Brisbane. At the core of Ah Kee’s work is a constant and provocative investigation of race, ideology and politics. His practice is multi-faceted in terms of the media and processes he employs: from large-scale drawings to text-based video works and installations. Through clever puns and plays on words Ah Kee has fused the history and language of colonisation with contemporary black/white political issues to expose degrees of underlying racism in Australian society.

Ah Kee represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale in the group exhibition Once Removed. In 2015 he exhibited a new body of work at the 14th Istanbul Biennale Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.



Rosalie Gascoigne
Born 1917, Auckland, new Zealand, Died 1999, Canberra
Tiger Tiger, 1987
reflective material, wood
Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Loti Smorgen AO and Victor Smorgen AC, 1995

This work is made from reflective road signs that flash as they catch the light. The artist carved up the signs and reassembled them into abstract grids. The work is named after William Blake’s 1794 poem, The Tyger, a rumination on the beauty and horror of nature. Gascoigne’s assemblages are often referred to as visual poetry as she constructs the works using techniques of fragmentation, repetition and juxtaposition.

Rosalie Gascoigne came to art late in life. Holding her first exhibition in 1974 at age 57, her career spanned 25 years, during which time her work was exhibited widely both in Australia and internationally until her death in 1999. Gascoigne used mostly found materials: wood, iron, wire, feathers, and yellow and orange retro-reflective road signs, which flash and glow in the light. Some of her other best-known works use faded, once-bright drinks crates; thinly-sliced yellow Schweppes boxes; ragged domestic items such as torn floral lino and patchy enamelware; vernacular building materials such as galvanised tin, corrugated iron and masonite. These objects represent, rather than accurately depict, elements of the world around her: the landscape around her home in Canberra and the materials and textures of rural life.

Four years after her first exhibition in 1974, Gascoigne was the subject of a major survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and four years after that she was chosen to represent Australia at the 1982 Venice Biennale.



Peter Graham
Born 1970 Sydney, Lives and works Melbourne
Tusk, 2004
oil on Belgian linen
Museum of Contemporary art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts program by Fraser Hopkins, 2011.

Working across a range of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture, Peter Graham explores how images come into being in a natural sense connecting human activity to that if the earth. He sees images as complex codes combining different shapes and parts to enable humans to exist and think beyond the ordinary. He creates his works through a combination of observation and fictive fantasy. Graham studied at the Victoria College of Arts, 1990 – 1992.


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