In June, Gertrude Contemporary shut its Fitzroy home for the last time, ending its 32-year stint with a bittersweet show looking back at the gallery’s history. In late-July, it reopened on High Street in Preston with a new gallery, renewed vigour, and a show all about resilience.
The Preston space – a former furniture warehouse – is a world apart from the wooden floorboards and cracked plaster walls of the old Victorian-era Gertrude.
“We had a slim budget, and we needed it to be active space,” says Christine Tipton, one of the gallery’s directors, “so it couldn’t be too pristine”. The result is a shell within a shell. Architects Edition Office have delivered a modern, wide-open space with exposed timber walls and large studios for 15 resident artists – it’s a white-cube gallery through and through.
The first exhibition here is the 17th instalment of the gallery’s annual Octopus show, which focuses on curation. Fittingly, guest curator Georgie Meagher’s Forever Transformed explores resilience, giving voice to five diverse artists.
“I wanted a theme that would speak to the transition of the gallery without being too literal,” Meagher says. “I was interested in thinking critically about what that word, ‘resilience’, means.”
We live with constant existential threats, Meagher says, and yet we persevere. “I started to think about what that enables,” she says. “More pressure on systems and environments, for one. Fallibility. Hurt. Disillusionment.”
It’s a diverse, playful show, and in this fresh context, it’s an optimistic one.
The piece Meagher describes as the show’s backbone is Tony Albert’s Optimism, a photo series of a man with his back to the photographer, wearing a Jawun woven basket, which is a traditional symbol of positivity, resilience and hope in the Indigenous communities of North Queensland. The subject is the artist’s cousin, wearing the Jawun at various Brisbane locations. The series is about the endurance of culture in contemporary urban life.
Liz Linden presents a series of found book covers in her piece, which all have the same title: Damaged Goods. There’s a mix of pulp romance novels, Christian self-help guides and memoir, and each one has a woman on its cover. The recurring phrase works as a critique of a culture that commodifies and fetishises women, as well as offering some laughably dreadful graphic design.
Artist Sophie Cassar’s zine-inspired work explores the impersonal aesthetics of hospitals, inspired by the artist’s own inpatient stints, as well as internet communities and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage. Cassar has an eye for the clinical and absurd. Look out for the paper bag in which her breakfast toast arrives each morning, emblazoned with a pink rose and the cursive text “your toast”.
Rushdi Anwar, an Australian of Kurdish heritage, grew up in multiple war zones. His piece, The Circle of Knowing and Unknowing, is a large circular installation that covers the floor of the first room. On one side of the circle, sticks of white chalk; on the other, a mass of black pigment. Where Anwar grew up, schools have been targeted by the military as a way to destabilise the next generation. The chalk sits in varying levels of decay, while the pigment remains untouched.
Finally, Tabita Rezaire’s Peaceful Warrior is a mesmerising, garish, web 2.0 anti-aesthetic instructional video. Superimposed on psychedelic two-dimensional backgrounds, the artist demonstrates Kemetic yoga, while disconnected slogans (“decolonial self-care”; “if you fuxx with me I’ll fuxx with you”) flash across the screen. The visuals are retro, but the message is earnest.
With only five artists the work in this show is given plenty of room to breathe, and the new gallery is given a moment to shine. Let’s face it – visitors are going to be just as interested in the new gallery as they are in the art.
The new Gertrude Contemporary is now open at 21–31 High Street, Preston South. Octopus 17: Forever Transformed runs until September 9.