Out of a Clear Blue Sky

Madonna Staunton, Australia b.1938 / Sunflowers 2013 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Estate of the late Kathleen Elizabeth Mowle through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

For nearly 50 years, Queensland artist Madonna Staunton has been creating a significant and personal body of work in both paint and collage. We explore her works, which are the subject of the exhibition ‘Madonna Staunton:Out of a Clear Blue Sky’, currently in the Glencore Queensland Artists’ Gallery at QAG.

Madonna Staunton is well recognised for her significant contribution to Australian modernism over the last five decades, and has long been appreciated as one of Queenland’s favourite artists. Her confidently arranged collage and assemblage works exude a meditative lyricism that is prized by private collectors and admired by audiences. In recent years, however, Staunton has committed more and more of her time to figurative painting — the discipline that provided the origin of her art practice. The time has now come to contextualise this latest achievement in the exhibition ‘Madonna Staunton: Out of a Clear Blue Sky’.


Beginning with her earliest colour field abstracts of the 1960s, ‘Out of a Clear Blue Sky’ examines Staunton’s whole career for preludes and connections to this return to painting. Indeed, the exhibition comes to suggest that the artist has always taken on the concerns and interests of a painter, albeit one that has often worked with unconventional materials.

From school age, Staunton’s mother offered her a comparatively advanced introduction to the qualities of colour, tone and their capacity for drawing an emotional response. This attention, and her strong aptitude, meant that by the time Staunton attended classes at Brisbane’s Central Technical College in 1964, her understanding of colour and form arguably rivalled those of accomplished professionals. Famously, by the late 1960s, the artist directed her attention to collage due to ill health. Collage accommodated her particular skills perfectly and great success followed. But with her Armature series from 1999 the artist signalled her concerted return to painting, and her works began to demonstrate the kind of philosophical, psychological and emotional concerns that would occupy her thereafter.

New acquisitions that feature prominently in the exhibition include Anxiety 2012, a painting from which a sole figure depicted is nearly ejected from the picture plane, tumbling out of this synthetic space, preoccupied and faltering. The figure’s hands seem to repel each other like magnets of matching polarity, signifying a body and mind in all-consuming turmoil. Intelligently, the cityscape that surrounds them is articulated in a condensed geometric arrangement — a post cubist strategy linked to her tonal collage, but coded with emotional sensitivity provoked by the wrestling of humanist ideals and hostile circumstance. Brilliant, piercing blue eyes strike out from a sophisticated layering of complimentary tones — pink, yellow, mauve and more blue — all worked over each other with a delicate brush action.

Madonna Staunton / Anxiety 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas on board / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Estate of Jessica Ellis through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Sunflowers 2013, another recent acquisition, is remarkable for its economy of form. Again post-cubist, but with a nod to Van Gogh, Staunton has constructed a deceptively simple composition full of the pulse of nature, tempered by a mindfulness of the inevitable decay of all life. Its ambiance again reveals her immense capacity for colour and form in painting, and indicates an abundance of melancholy insights present in its making and in the artist.

‘Madonna Staunton: Out of a Clear Blue Sky’ demonstrates Staunton’s capacity to change and adapt, reintroduce and renew. Expressed with talents amassed over a career spanning nearly 50 years, these recent representational works are weighted with the kind of insights that come with age and deep reflection. This is Staunton’s first exhibition at the Gallery since 1994, and her first major exhibition since 2003. It is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated publication, which offers the most comprehensive representation yet of Madonna Staunton’s career and is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online.

Lincoln Austin ‘Out of sight’


This playful, retro-styled optical work by Australian artist Lincoln Austin was inspired by his interest in music, mathematics and puzzles. Austin is a Queensland-based artist renowned for his exacting geometric sculptures. Created from wire and metal mesh, and descriptive of mathematical series, these works produce perplexing optical illusions and moiré effects. Recently, Austin has started experimenting with other materials to similar ends. Maintaining his interest in puzzles and patterns, he seeks new ways to imply three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional picture format.

Lincoln Austin, Australia b.1974 / Out of sight (installation view) 2013 / Light box: acrylic paint, aluminium and light-emitting diodes / 101 x 121 x 13cm / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lincoln Austin

Using something akin to lenticular technology, these works become animated as the viewer moves past them or changes position, revealing a ‘hidden’ sequence of images. In this way, the viewer controls the tempo of the composition and, to this extent, some of the work’s affect. The experience is further heightened by a series of LEDs in the interior, which produce a machine-like glow. Austin’s Out of sight 2013 exemplifies this bold new strategy, watching and interacting with the swirling abstract Out of sight is an entrancing experience. Activating its secrets and peering into its potential is a playful activity: it could even be said that the audience is simultaneously performing and viewing.

A cool aluminium finish and bold graphics give a retro appearance: think space-age clean, rounded, modernist metallic forms, inhabiting op-art incisions. In this curious way, Out of sight is making an understated formal reference to the early-twentieth-century art movement Orphism, and in particular, the work of its key proponents Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) and Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979)1. The Orphists — taking their name from the fabled musician and poet in ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus — sought to infuse the cubist methods of abstraction with bright colours, which made for stimulating fields of vision. They patterned their colours in a mode analogous to the way that music patterns sound: art as music for the eye. In Out of sight, the skill and precision with which Austin constructs his work is key — he has let these circular forms repeat seamlessly, like a melody. Its reflective surface enables the work to ‘play in tune’ with the colour of its surrounds.

Lincoln Austin, Australia b.1974 / Out of sight 2013 / Light box: acrylic paint, aluminium and light-emitting diodes / 101 x 121 x 13cm / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lincoln Austin

Austin has a particular interest in music. Appropriately, the titles from this latest series of works are borrowed from popular music important to the artist. ‘Out of sight’, for example, is the title of a 1964 song by James Brown. Austin commented:

Brown was notorious for using the double entendre in his lyrics, usually referring to sex. This song was one that set the stage for the development of funk, which influenced the psychedelic soul and disco that followed. The title also refers to the fact that, at any one time, 80 per cent of the ‘image’ is literally out of sight as it is obscured by the pattern of the front panel. I enjoyed the perversity of calling a work that is, in some respects, overflowing with image, ‘Out of sight’.2

And while Out of sight is abstract — comprised primarily of circles in two sizes — the smaller circles, drawn out with thick perimeters, look something like a pupil and iris. As they materialise and vanish, the larger circles around them appear and then intersect one another, forming the almond shapes of an eye. Whatever importance you might give this subtle iconography, this elliptical ‘opus’ conveys an emotive and thoughtful groove on the pleasure of seeing.

Peter McKay is Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, QAGOMA

1  Sonia Delaunay is represented in the Collection by two works: a print, Untitled c.1970 and a weaving, Tapestry: Syncopée c.1973–74.
2  Lincoln Austin, email to the author, 19 March 2014.

Delve deeper into your collection

Wilma Tabacco, Australia b.1953 / Hellza poppin 2004 / Oil on linen / 183 x 244cm / Gift of William Nuttall and Annette Reeves through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2008. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Wilma Tabacco
Lesley Dumbrell, Australia b.1941 / Stridor 1972 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 167.7 x 246.7cm / Gift of the Queensland Art Gallery Society 1974 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

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Feature image detail: Lincoln Austin Out of sight 2013

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Everything, beautiful or not, is fleeting.


In 2011, curator Robert Leonard, summed up Michael Zavros’s art practice in an erudite article for the journal ‘Art & Australia’.

It is often said that Zavros’s subject is beauty itself, but it is, more generally, symbols of status. His canon of beauty is aspirational – keyed to notions of privilege, tradition and the faux-aristocratic taste of luxury brands. Zavros’s work speaks to a desire for status, and therefore also to our fear of not having it – what television-philosopher Alain de Botton famously called ‘status anxiety’… Those who love him think his work epitomises precisely what art should be (which is what they have or want, like and are); those who loathe him think it is everything art should not be (class, ideology). The strength and clarity of Zavros’s project lies precisely in his ability to polarise his audience…

For me, what is so sharp about Zavros’s art is how utterly, rigorously and deliberately uncritical it is.

With this in mind, I have come to suspect that when Michael ‘likes’ something, he may well like it with a greater commitment than another person might in a similar situation. When, as Leonard notes, ‘Zavros is an aesthete: he paints beautiful things beautifully’, I think to myself, Michael likes certain objects so much — objects that he finds beautiful — that he cannot help but paint them in dedication or devoutness.

When I took Michael through the QAGOMA Collection storage looking for works to include in ‘A Private Collection’, I noticed how very easy it was for him to discern what he found appealing. Michael could say with speed and conviction as we walked at pace through the racks of artworks: ‘yes’, ‘hmm’ (meaning polite no), ‘yes, I love this’. Less concerned with historical context, social function, cultural significance, Michael is motivated by satisfying his very attentive eyes.

Installation view of the Abstract Room in ‘A Private Collection – Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros’

As Michael explained in our recent video interview, if he feels positively towards an artwork, piece of furniture or item of clothing, it inspires him to exercise a kind of intellectual ownership over it. In the studio, he becomes committed to forming a visual understanding of his affections, converting his meditations into a drawn or painted image, using his knowledge of form and tone. Often he creates scenes or interiors to contextualise his subjects and give them depth.

Applying this strategy to ‘A Private Collection’, Michael came to ‘own’ certain works from the Collection by creating a series of decorative settings, a visual balance through the display, and making the works accessible through the more familiar or comfortable vernacular of the domestic, rather than the standard museum method.

Walking through ‘A Private Collection’ we can see the world the way that Michael does – keyed to beauty, splendour, and playfulness — exploring his personality projected into the space. The exhibition itself becomes an artwork, a space that we imagine sharing time in, living in, and reflecting upon.  Whether he is railing against a fear of not having things, I am not so sure but he certainly is aware of what quality means to him in terms of human achievement. I suspect his intention is to try to fix beauty in taxidermy, art, or even the exhibition catalogue of installation photographs, revealing not so much a status anxiety, but an awareness that everything, beautiful or not, is transient — whatever precautions we may take to stop it from fading away.

A Private Collection – Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros‘ is on display until 23 June in the Xstra Coal Queensland Artists’ Gallery at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). Mirroring Michael Zavros’s recasting of the Gallery space as home to a distinguished private collector, the accompanying publication continues the fiction. With photography modelled on the style of a lavish interior decorating magazine, and captions imagining the collector’s life and adventures, this is a beautiful guide to the works on display.

A Private Collection — Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros

Michael ZavrosArtist's ChoiceQueensland Art Gallery
Michael Zavros guest curates a new exhibition ‘A Private Collection — Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros’

Brisbane-based painter, sculptor and video artist Michael Zavros uses perfection as the overarching theme in his work, evident in his faultless renderings of images from fashion magazines, and vistas of the most sumptuous palaces of Europe. The artist talked to Peter McKay.

Peter McKay | The ‘Artist’s Choice’ exhibition series invites contemporary artists to work with the Collection to assemble a display that sits outside the conventions of ‘professional’ curating. Your approach here has been very distinctive, and relates to your own painting Unicorn in the anticamera 2008, held in the Collection. Could you describe your idea for the show and the relationship between your practice as an artist and this curatorial project?

Michael Zavros | Really, I didn’t want to step out of my role as artist and become a ‘curator’ by making a themed display. I was interested in shifting the experience of an artwork from something on a white wall shown alongside ‘like’ things. I approached the exhibition as though it were an art work, like the three-dimensional evocation of one of my own paintings. I wanted to create a new context for works from the Collection, and offer the objects new life and meaning, by shifting them from a museum to a domestic space. Of course, on the surface, it could be seen as simply Zavros on Zavros. But I took the project very seriously.

Michael Zavros, Australia b.1974 | Unicorn in the anticamera 2008 | Oil on board | Purchased 2009. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

PMcK | This project, and the publication that will accompany it, was guided by the sensibility of home interior magazines. Could you talk through the process?

MZ | In 1956, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton asked, ‘What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ House and home magazines are effectively democratic public exhibition spaces. Everyone can look and admire and consider — and of course have an opinion.

I certainly mimicked an interior-decorating aesthetic, where the space created becomes a singular composition and the art and objects are treated as formal elements.

I am interested in the manner in which art becomes a kind of decorative device, how the same rollcall of collectable artists appears in these homes across Australia or across the world; how their works are displayed alongside furniture and objects — like trophies of wealth but also as measures of intellectual clout or cultural sophistication. These homes are themselves carefully curated — often with the assistance of interior designers and an art consultant.

I also wanted the publication to reflect this fiction and present the Collection as if in a photographic feature. You could say it is an art work in its own right.

PMcK | What is it about the lifestyle of the ‘beautiful people’, or ‘the rich and famous’ that resonates with you as an artist?

MZ | I think I just don’t ‘resist’ it the way artists and arts workers have tended to. What’s not to like about beautiful people or beautiful things? I think beauty is power. It’s as ancient as the Greeks. And I’m Greek. It’s not something Andy Warhol dreamed up or some evil formula concocted in a fashion or cosmetic house.

PMcK | There is a long-running discussion about public and private wealth in this country. What are the most interesting ideas about presenting state-owned public wealth in the guise of an affluent individual’s personal treasure for you?

MZ | We live in philosophically challenging times. I have just returned from Europe — 50 per cent of people in Spain under 30 are unemployed, while at the same time, Rich Kids of Instagram, one of the most curiously successful social media phenomena, enjoys a staggering following. How do these two things co-exist?

As an artist I am often challenged to justify my attraction to beautiful things or luxury items. There is always the assumption that I must be being critical or post-capitalist. The interesting thing, of course, is that very often, significant parts of a collection, including this one, have been gifted by private individuals. Public institutions rely on the philanthropy of private individuals so I am not sure that one can ever draw a line between private and public, or make a distinction. And of course we also tend to appraise differently the same work in the context of a private, as compared to a public, collection.

Michael Zavros Artist's Choice Queensland Art Gallery
Michael Zavros with a few of his favourite things | Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)/ Courtesy: Queensland Museum, Brisbane | Paola Pivi, Italy b.1971/ One love 2007/ Type C photograph on paper, mounted on aluminium/ Purchased 2010 with a special allocation from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation/ Collection: Queensland Art Gallery/ © The artist | Patricia Piccinini, Australia 1965/ Heaven bound 2002/ Automotive paint on fibreglass/ Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund/ Collection: Queensland Art Gallery/ © The artist

PMcK | Working with the Queensland Museum on this project and the works that will be borrowed for ‘Artist’s Choice’, has been a great insight into their scientific mission. What has been your interest in their collection? What do taxidermied animals represent to you?

MZ | Of course in the context of the exhibition they reflect my own painting practice, which has offered a meditation on art as a contemporary trophy, alongside the taxidermy in the tableaux I paint. More than this, I think taxidermy perfectly articulates the decadence attached to decorating. More than money has been spent on such a trophy — a life has been spent.

I have been collecting taxidermy for many years. For me it functions as a memento mori, and I wanted these beautiful creatures to be seen in this particular context. I find it very beautiful — melancholy and contemplative — and I do think it is a form of artisanship. It’s sad to think of these creatures languishing in storage, and so I wanted them to be seen. I am grateful that the Museum has been so gracious. I was interested to learn that some items are acquired via confiscation by the Australian Customs Service, and that the Museum is generally unlikely to display such pieces.

PMcK | You have been interested in the fiction created by presenting the selected works as a private collection. Have you had a particular collector in mind or did this character and their life story manifest in the moment of selecting?

MZ | The collector evolved as his collection did, although I did imagine a particular kind of individual. On some level, of course, he’s me. I made these choices and my only prerequisite in selecting work was — do I like this?

Mostly I imagined a man of means and intellect for whom art is a pleasure and a folly. The exhibition is conceived as a series of rooms within a home, an apartment in some great city, for example, replete with good furniture, soft furnishings, ceramics and objects and taxidermy. But the fact that this collection contains so much Australian content means it’s likely that the collector is also Australian.

I hope that each visitor will bring with them their own conception of the fictional character that inhabits this space, and this is part of the appeal.

A Private Collection — Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros‘ opens at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) this Saturday 23 March. Join Michael Zavros in conversation with Peter McKay at 3pm in the Lecture Theatre. Free entry. 

An exhibition publication will be available for purchase from the QAGOMA store and online. Pre-order now to receive a SIGNED copy of A Private Collection — Artist’s Choice: Michael Zavros. Publications will be sent late-April 2013.

Queensland New Media Scholarship

QAGOMA congratulates George Poonkhin Khut winner of the 2012 National New Media Art Award currently showing at GOMA until 4 November 2012. Khut’s winning entry Distillery: Waveforming 2012 consists of a clip-on heart monitor, tablet computer and a program that shows the viewer a visual interpretation of their beating heart. The work poetically explores the interactions between the mind and body; and art and science; by visually displaying the viewer’s heartbeat the work instantly responds to their changing reactions, creating a continuous biofeedback loop.

With only days to go before the close of entries to the Queensland New Media Scholarship — excitement is starting to build around the office as the last assortment of applications come in.

The prize is a substantial $25 000 towards professional development offered to a Queensland based emerging artist working in new media — the kind of opportunity that could launch an area of research, new body of work, or a whole career.

2010 Scholarship winner Claire Robertson recently told the Gallery that the “Award provided me with the incredible opportunity to study and live in New York, completing a portion of my Masters of Fine Arts degree at the prestigious Parsons New School of Design. At Parsons I have had the opportunity to study under world renowned artists in my field and collaborate with other emerging artists from around the world — and I will continue these projects when I return to Australia.”

The biennial award program comprises the National New Media Art Award and exhibition of shortlisted artists; as well as the Queensland New Media Scholarship for an emerging Queensland-based artist. The Award and exhibition showcase the work of leading Australian new media artists and the award-winning work by George Poonkhin Khut is acquired for the Queensland Art Gallery Collection.

Making an application is simple and easy. If you or someone you know is eligible to enter there is still time to think big and make a pitch to our selection committee: Suhanya Raffel, Acting Director, Queensland Art Gallery|Gallery of Modern Art; Amy Barrett Lennard, Director, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts; and leading Australian new media artist Daniel Crooks.

Read the background information, and download the form. Applications close this Friday 14 September 2012, so get busy and it could be you sending QAGOMA the postcards next year!