Regionalism–Localism: The Debate Goes On

A page from the original article published in Imprint Autumn 1992, Volume 27 Number 1.

‘Anyone living and working as a visual artist in Central Victoria encounters difficulties similar to those artists working in almost any isolated area of Australia, be it Perth, Townsville, Mildura, etc.’

Cover for Imprint Autumn 1992 Volume 27 Number 1 featuring Filomena Coppola’s Retrospect, colour Xerox print, 28 x 38 cm.

The following article was written by Barry Weston, author and former Head of Printmaking at LaTrobe UCNV, Bendigo, and published in the Autumn 1992 issue of Imprint Vol. 27 No. 1.

In 1986, four Western Australian printmakers put together a funding submission, presented to the government, to establish an access print workshop in Perth. That year was not a good year for financial support towards print workshops – however, Mr Chris Prater, master printer and founder of Kelpra Studios, London, was in Perth (the final venue for a series of PCA organised workshops) and in his letter of support for the original submission, in part, stated that of the printmaking he had seen in WA, he was pleasantly surprised at the high level of technical proficiency and also of the strong conceptual content of the prints, given limited resources away from the mainstream of contemporary printmaking in a geographically isolated city such as Perth.

Anyone living and working as a visual artist in Central Victoria encounters difficulties similar to those artists working in almost any isolated area of Australia, be it Perth, Townsville, Mildura, etc.

It is extremely difficult for artists working in geographically remote areas not to be affected by the very vastness of this country, well away from what is regarded as the ‘centre’ of contemporary art practice and debate. It is easy to withdraw artistically and to create works whose criteria rely upon the standards of interest, originality, forcefulness and quality which exist and are nurtured outside of our own backyard – becoming regional – within this context, the meaning of regionalism is one of acceptance – the acceptance of simplistic answers to complex artistic questions – an art form not of identity but of artefact.

In fact art is culturally dependant, if artworks do perform a didactic function by reflecting the values, taste, sensitivities and concerns of a particular artist’s socio–cultural environment, it is very difficult for artists working in remote areas of this country, confronting contemporary art concerns, to have support and interest from that community for an art form whose criteria of relevance is not only visual but also conceptual.

Ironically it is not a geographic/isolation factor alone, nor is it one of population density which makes a city/town develop an exciting, stimulating community with sincere interest in the arts – this depends upon the quality of the artists themselves, the dialogue and interaction between themselves and the community and the community’s support and understanding. The town of Castlemaine in Central Victoria is an excellent example of this, sustaining an aware and enthusiastic interaction between artists and community, and also hosting an annual arts festival with diverse artists invited.

Bendigo and its region are served by Artspace Incorporated, an alternative gallery for contemporary art which also offers studio space. In the past Artspace has attempted to produce a quarterly art journal, specifically for addressing contemporary art ideas and debate. Little finance but great enthusiasm has kept this alternative venture going.

In an article in the December–January 1991-92 issue of Art Monthly Australia, Mr David Hansen reports on the recent ‘Off Centre’ conference organised by Umbrella Studios, Townsville, which addressed a number of issues raised here. In part, the article states – ‘Naturally, there was no consensus in this debate. Sarah Follent warned against regionalism as rhetoric, while Helen Waterman insisted that art is a silent practice. Some called for workshops, residences and seminars to bring the regions “up to speed” on current issues … All called for better utilisation of local media to promote and review regional art making.’

I would tend to agree with the consensus of this conference – that it should be possible to be confident of ‘making good art, right here, right now.’ However, the making and understanding of art is not a simplistic endeavour. It requires effort, imagination and an ability to articulate those specific concerns pertinent to the artist.

A good analogy is that of learning a second language – but a language which constantly changes its rules of grammar. In learning this language one has to accept constant re-learning as one works and views, for art is a self-conscious language, and understanding, describing and relating to the world is a very important part of its function. Sad to say there are numerous people in both city and township who see no relevance in ever attempting to learn a second language.

Nevertheless, there are artist/printmakers who produce strong work both technically and conceptually outside of the hermetically sealed Melbourne–Sydney axis, and those do address issues not of a localised phenomena, but, through the force of their own vision and determination, produce work that is of an international standard. Many of these are young women artists who have a commitment to content and expression as their foremost concern; they seem to have a more coherent attitude to the need for content and relevance in their art. The reasons may be varied, but this attitude has become a positive source of energy and intention for the present generation of emerging artists.

Two printmakers working in Central Victoria who readily come to mind are Ms Karen Hepworth and Ms Filomena Coppola.

Karen Hepworth works predominately in the mediums of screen, relief and corborundum prints. Her work deals with a broad and subjective analysis of the issues and social problems which concern her. Through all of her work there is an underlying feeling of black humour – these works revolve around exploitation, sexuality and sensuality. They become an attempt at resolving the dilemma of what is the difference between eroticism and pornography, of sexuality and sensuality. Is sexual behaviour (whether portrayed or enacted) anything to do with morals? Her work also attempts to visually represent gender differences specifically involving differences of emotional response.

Filomena Coppola works in the mediums of lithography, and screen, although she has worked in suites of colour Xerox prints. Thematically her work revolves around multiculturalism – the problems of an ethnic upbringing in an Australian environment, of attempt of reconciling a European cultural heritage with a white Anglo-Saxon tradition, a tradition which, until quite recently, has been intolerant of anything ‘foreign’.

In recent debates on multiculturalism issues, little has been addressed towards assimilation and its affect upon the first generation of migrants born in this country. Ms Coppola’s work addresses these issues with compassion and sensitivity and serves as an explanation from her point of view.

Her work attempts also to reconstruct a cultural identity, to answer specific questions of identity by utilising images, memorabilia, family photography, etc., in an attempt to clarify, to some degree, her confusion; to find answers to questions and simultaneously find her own specific identity. Her large screenprint A1 loves Betty and Betty loves A1 probably comes closest to resolving some of these questions.

In Decline of the West, Oswald Spangler wrote that art – ‘is a seismograph that gives advance notice of subtle changes in rhythm, the stirrings and rumblings from within a culture.’ Both of the artist/printmakers mentioned are among a large number of artist/printmakers, working in central Victoria, away from access print studios, contemporary art debate, major exhibitions, interactive dialogue, etc., but who nevertheless have addressed themselves to contemporary visual art concerns of our time and culture.

The regional artist who attempts to address such issues constantly find themselves in a frustrating dilemma; however, there are a number of strategies which can be utilised to overcome these problems.

Networking – loose associations of artists with similar interests and concerns; exchange print exhibitions – utilisation of local media to stimulate community support; co-operatives of pooled resources – utilisation of electronic media (e.g. fax exchange prints, etc.).

It is interesting and surprising for the artist who believes that they are living and working in a geographically isolated area to discover that within their own community there is enormous peer group and community support if they make that initial move to locate, explain, exhibit and discuss their work. Australian printmaking as an art form, has hopefully passed through the era of being the poor cousin to painting and sculpture, passed through the concept of being seen merely to be about its own internal dynamics of technique. Hopefully it has now reached the point of maturity to discover its true potential; to respond to the cultural, social, economic and political development of our society/culture at large.