One might assume that a marriage between a pile of suburban detritus and one of the world’s finest luxury brands would be rife with conflict, marked by embarrassing dinner party moments, uncomfortable in the extreme.
Here, seemingly, are two irrevocably opposed phenomena of contemporary society. Yet in the recent union between Melbourne artist Jon Cattapan’s ode to urban discards Imagine a Raft (Hard Rubbish 4+5) (2012) and the European fine jewellery house Bulgari, we find only harmony and fecundity. This successful alliance is thanks largely to the head curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and chief architect of the Bulgari Art Award, Wayne Tunnicliffe.
Now in its second year, the Bulgari Art Award is one of Australia’s most valuable prizes in the visual arts arena. Totalling $80,000 for the recipient, it comprises a $50,000 acquisition allowance for the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a residency for the artist in Italy to the value of $30,000. The design of the award represents a collaborative effort between Bulgari and the art gallery, after the luxury brand initially approached the gallery with the offer of an endowment of their choosing. For Wayne Tunnicliffe and his curatorial colleagues, the question: “What would be of most use?” immediately spells the word “Acquisitions”. With funding for cultural institutions becoming scanter by the fiscal year, one of the main challenges for a public art museum is to build and maintain its permanent collections; acquiring works is all but impossible without private benefaction.
The target recipients of the Bulgari Art Award are mid-career Australian painters. In this focus, the architects of the prize aimed to reward local artists committed to their practice. As Tunnicliffe notes, while the landscapes inhabited by both emerging and established artists are inundated with accolades and grants, “mid-career can be a wilderness”. Melbourne-based artist Jon Cattapan is hardly without honours to his name. Not the least of his commendations has been a solo survey exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne in 2006. Yet the current prize is undoubtedly a valued boon for Cattapan and, in his own words, “a tremendous honour”.
The painting acquired by the AGNSW, Imagine a Raft (Hard Rubbish 4+5), consists of three painted canvases: “three discrete parts in conversation”, says Cattapan. Each canvas represents a narrative in its own right, yet together they form a non-linear trilogy that engages the viewer in an extended, multidimensional journey through contemporary urban existence. In the left and right panels, the viewer is taken down into the very heart of the city (Melbourne), with scenes of old furniture and other domestic debris left on the streets for a council collection.
The artist reimagines these rubbish mounds as marooned identity rafts within a sea of social transactions, prompted in the first instance by the mast-like shape formed by a Japanese lantern discarded on the street. The central panel of Cattapan’s work raises the viewer above the city, offering a matrix perspective of the urban territory in which the hard rubbish lies, and in which the artist himself stands.
Not only is this work conceptually intricate, it also displays a richness of colour that is rarely encountered. For Wayne Tunnicliffe at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Jon Cattapan is one of the finest colourists currently practicing in Australia. Of course the irony of uniting Bulgari with a representation of hard rubbish is not lost on the artist or the curator. Yet, in the colour and visual quality of Cattapan’s work, the luxury brand finds an unlikely ally.
Bulgari has a tradition of sourcing dynamic coloured gems for their jewellery, and their choice of colours is not unlike the vibrant palette employed by the artist. But while Bulgari’s use of deep green in their jewellery puts one in mind of richness and decadence, Cattapan’s use of green is suggestive of night vision surveillance, an aesthetic influenced by the artist’s time in East Timor.
This militaristic ambience serves as a qualification to the potentially humorous subject of the winning painting Imagine a Raft (Hard Rubbish 4+5), currently on display in the main foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In Cattapan’s painting, our domestic discards become monuments to the unnoticed and sometimes threatening mechanisms of everyday life.
1. Jon Cattapan’s winning entry.
2. Jon Cattapan with Julie Ann Morrison, Bulgari and Michael Brand, director Art Gallery of NSW and managing director of Bulgari Australia Brad Harvey.