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Beatrix Brenneman | February 27, 2022

We have an art history on campus in Parkville.

Of course we do; one facet of it lies in the George Paton Gallery. I’ll admit I had no idea it was here until I was invited to see “Documenting Space”, an exhibition of work from an artist, architectural designer and interior designer curated by Gabrielle Bergman.

The gallery is tucked away on level two of Union House. Up the stairs, past Ida Bar, next to the now-empty Rowden White Library. Don’t worry, you’ll see the George Paton Gallery beneath the big bright orange “experimental art space” sign fixed to the ceiling.

This sign echoes the culture of the gallery in the 1970’s, under the direction of gallery director and curator Kiffy Rubbo. Rubbo’s vision for the gallery saw the space becoming a vibrant arts hub that supported female artists and encouraged radical performance art throughout the ‘70s. This contemporary push embodied the wider spirit on campus, during a time of powerful political demonstrations and protests. It is this heritage that the exhibition draws attention to through its atemporal representation of the oft-overlooked hidden spaces, linking past, present and possible future iterations of the George Paton Gallery.

Upon walking into the space, I am immediately drawn to a life-size projection of a window against a plain white wall. Bergman’s projection references a window that once existed in the gallery but is now plastered over. Through the projected window, recently constructed buildings are visible. Bergman enmeshes the architecture of Rubbo’s time with a view of the campus as we know it today. The overt metaphor here dangles temptingly before me; I take it as a suggestion from Bergman as to how we might honour Rubbo’s progressive vision for this space in our own lifetimes.

From here, the gallery space twists to the left away from this ghostly window.

Noticing a panel of white wall ajar, I venture inside. An array of bone white castings are displayed within, placed in rows in cube shelving. Initially, the objects resist recognition. A texture? A corner? A lock. Bergman’s metamorphosis of inconsequential details of the space into singular objects inverts the usual relationship between white cube gallery space and art. These once utilitarian features of the gallery become objects for our scrutiny, removed from all original functionality. 

Photography by Beatrix Brenneman

Emerging out from this corner, I’m drawn to one of Anna Steele’s installation works in the centre of the space. A Perspex sheet, tethered to a concrete block. White paint, splashed and dripping finger-like down the plastic. Across from this piece, Steele’s second installation mirrors her first in form. Instead of a splash of white, Steele paints a stolid staircase, wending up the plastic in thick white brushstrokes. The stairs nudge me through the space and into a dead end: the Perspex is placed in alignment with a partially opened wall panel, revealing closed double doors.

But rather than a dead end, Steele’s installation, like Bergman’s works, is suggestive. The guts behind the white walls are posed as worth exposing and elevating for what they might reveal to us about the gallery’s history. Such methods for memorialising the gallery’s history invoke a clear relationship between past and present experimental art practices that have been supported by the gallery. We are propelled by the knowledge that others have come before us and succeeded. In this way, the space can be a powerful memorial to the history it holds.

Photography by Beatrix Brenneman

This motif persists through the work of architectural designer Jack Murray. A mirror and six small frames are suspended throughout the space. Window panes appear in many of Murray’s framed images of architectural mock-ups overlaid with text, floor plans and dreamlike apparitions. These window panes are cut open to leave open spaces like little peepholes—holes that become a frame within a frame. The gallery space beyond can be squinted through these gaps, transforming the visible space from background into the focal point, reinforcing Bergman and Steele’s representations of gallery space as art itself.

Photography by Beatrix Brenneman

Similarly, Ellyn Faye’s installation works examine the gallery’s materiality. Her scrolling projections label the corners and crevices of the gallery’s walls like HTML codes in blue and white lettering. As I reach the back of the room, I stare at another of her works—a long floating white sheet with printed typography swirling across the fabric. Undulating words that ruminate on “this space”, heady with contradictions and circular repetitions.

“this space does not exist”

“this space is the reality”

“this space is this space”

The open nature of Faye’s poetic installations expand on the possibilities of actions and realities this space could hold. In this final work, the relationship between space and art is again inverted; a methodology that leaves a question unanswered for the viewer to fill in the blanks. Where do we go from here? After all, the gallery exists as an opportunity for Melbourne Uni student artists and curators to experiment, free for us all to visit. 

During my conversation with Gabrielle Bergman after viewing the exhibition, she expressed a strong desire to continue building on the representation of the gallery’s rich history, which she noticed a gap in while pursuing her undergraduate major in art history. She stated her desire to change this, and mentioned that she has plans to do so.  It seems to me that the suggestive future I find hints of throughout “Documenting Space” is one Bergman is actively seeking to create, where the history of Kiffy Rubbo and the George Paton Gallery is known and honoured more widely, and for good reason.

“Documenting Space” is now showing at the George Paton Gallery at Union House till March 4, 2022. Entry conditions apply. 

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Beatrix Brenneman

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