Art Sets.

The art that made me: Agatha Gothe-Snape

By the Art Gallery of NSW
Image: Agatha Gothe-Snape, courtesy Artspace. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

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Image: Agatha Gothe-Snape, courtesy Artspace. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by Agatha Gothe-Snape first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.

For a time in 2017, it felt like Agatha Gothe- Snape was everywhere you looked. Her billboard-scale work You and everything that is not you hovered above the Gallery’s escalators during The National: new Australian art, and was acquired for the collection. Her permanent public artwork Here, an echo, commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the City of Sydney, was unveiled on Wemyss Lane, Surry Hills, and Rhetorical chorus, her largest and most ambitious performance work to date, was presented at Carriageworks during Liveworks. Internationally, her work featured at Frieze London and Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, while back at home a portrait of the artist by husband Mitch Cairns won the Archibald Prize. That portrait and 46 other Archibald and Wynne finalists are on tour through regional NSW in 2018.

While preparing for Taking form, a show with Sriwhana Spong, curated by Anneke Jaspers at the Gallery in 2013, I came across this quite strange work by Rayner Hoff. After seeing a retrospective of Lye’s work at ACMI in 2009, I was so moved by his free-flowing filmic experiments, sense of vitality and use of colour – in particular his seminal 1936 film Rainbow dance. This sense of liveness seemed antithetical to this work that Hoff made during Lye’s short stay in Sydney in 1925. The work is almost a death mask in its hauntingly cool, smooth materiality and polished marble finish.

I thought it such a strange depiction, seemingly defining Lye by negating those qualities that appear to best characterise his creative output. I like to think of this work as kind of emblematic of the act of museum acquisition – taking something that is living and breathing and fertile and fluid, and kind of fixing it in history, stating its significance or context as a sealed deal. Having said this, the work is also supremely beautiful and proffers the artist as an other-worldly figure or mystic, someone worthy of monuments.

As I was compiling this list, I was depressed to find that my initial list had three male artists, and not yet a single female artist. This ratio is reflected in the data. Of the 147 artists who were exhibited in historical exhibitions at the Gallery in 2014, only 17 were women. While I had not envisaged reinforcing such ratios in my own selection, I had done just that. Of course, many galleries, including the Art Gallery of NSW, are always attempting to remedy these inherited gross imbalances, but when I reproduce them in my attempt to navigate the collection, I realise how embodied such biases are, and how the knowledge through both the education we receive and archives we inherit is always subjective.

As an exercise, I began to search the Gallery’s online collection with ‘women’ as the only search term. It was only because of this exercise that I discovered this incredible work, recently acquired, by Margaret Worth. I hadn’t come across her work before, but what struck me was its vitality and radiance, and its uncanny similarity to the late Syd Ball’s work – another of my favourite Australian painters. It wasn’t until I mentioned Worth to artist Ruark Lewis that he gave me some context and background, describing her as relatively under-acknowledged until a recent exhibition at Charles Nodrum Gallery, and also the first wife of Ball. Finding these hidden undercurrents and eddies reminds me that my knowledge is never exhaustive and art history is never exhausted.

I cannot help but include this incredibly influential work, not only because I have just completed my first season of Rhetorical chorus 2017 at Liveworks, Performance Space’s experimental arts festival. Rhetorical chorus is a system or score created in order to transmit Weiner’s inadvertent output, particularly his gestures, to other subjective bodies, resulting in a kind of visual and sonic mutation. My fascination with Weiner began at the Art Gallery of NSW. As a teenager I was perplexed by this work that, in a way, stood over each experience I had at the Gallery, situated as it was above the escalators adjacent to the café, like a subtitle or coda to my experience of art. Its poetic gravitas and obscurity were both transfixing and irritating, and I seem to have sought both these qualities ever since in the art I admire and make.

In high school I was always taken by the American colour field and hard-edge painters such as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler. (They all had such good-looking names.) I was in love with the notion of something being ‘all over’, the kind of pure chromatic experience such works offered, and the idealism held within such an invitation to transcendence. On reflection, I think I was just finding a sense of familiarity in these works, having grown up with the work of Australian abstractionists such as David Aspden, John Peart, Julie Harris and Peter Upward at home. Things that are in front of you are sometimes hard to identify as being significant or important. But then I remember so clearly seeing David Aspden’s posthumous retrospective at the Gallery in 2011 and being stunned by the sense of rhythm, musicality, chromatic dynamism and discipline in his body of work, but also realising things that are local are no less or more important than things that happen overseas. We need to be looking everywhere all the time to understand what’s happening, and not let our internal bias dictate what is more or less important culturally.