Reflections on three works at the Queensland Art Gallery

The Bridge Under Construction, Roland Wakelin, 1928

A partially-built Sydney Harbour Bridge and a street in what is probably Sydney’s North Shore. A crane perches on top of the unfinished arch of the bridge, and in the street in front of us two trams carry passengers, as people walk around.

The painting confidently asserts that human engineering and human determination can conquer the limitations of nature. We barely see Sydney Harbour itself, apart from a small glimpse at the right of the painting. Instead the bridge-in-progress, which stopped the harbour being a great natural barrier and made it easy for people to travel from one side of the water to another, towers in the sky as a monument to human skill. On the right of the picture we also see some storehouses on the far side of the water, suggesting that the street in the painting is on the harbour’s north shore.

The colours in the painting are muted. Pink and grey tones in the sky and on the bridge suggest night will fall soon. Browns, blues and greens create the road that curves up and to the left in the foreground.

Image of Modern Evil: Spring in Fitzroy, Albert Tucker, 1943

This is by an artist who must have loathed women, at least women who dared to have any sort of obvious sexuality.

The painting is of a grotesque woman throwing her head back, with a ridiculously large mouth and lips dominating her face and a pig’s snout for a nose. We can’t see her eyes at all. Her hands are raised in the air, and the width of her torso shrinks to almost nothing, yet circular breasts, almost half their area dominated by bright red aureolae, are still obvious. The woman’s distended belly with a huge navel is only vaguely connected to her legs. Only one leg is shown, but it’s still obvious by the woman’s posture that her legs are spread wide. A huge flabby thigh and a drumstick-like shin completes the image of disgust.

The red and white stripes of a US flag sit under the woman’s waist, and through the open window in the top left of the painting red, white and blue flags fly from the tops of buildings. Tucker was clearly horrified by the overt sexuality shown by women chasing US troops garrisoned in Melbourne at the time. A clear sense of inferiority and jealousy is transformed by the painting into a hatred of “our” women who showed interest in the GIs.

A Thousand Doors and Windows Too…, Ayaz Johiko, 2009

This installation is an plain white octagonal room, with a diamond-tipped arch-shaped alcove in seven walls, and a doorway of exactly the same shape and size leading into the room. Other visitors to the room were immediately drawn to stand in the alcoves. An eight-pointed star, made of one solid black square superimposed upon another so each point is directed at one of the archways, sits in the dead centre of the floor. To enter, you have to walk on a platform that leads over a pool of water, with a floor plan of the room to your left.

I felt a physical sense of peace and hightened awareness as soon as I entered the room. The curatorial notes say that this work was meant to evoke Islamic architecture. However as an atheist I do not attribute this physical feeling to spiritual causes, so that suggests that something in the design of the room itself is likely to trigger such feelings in the human body.

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