The new exhibit, Upriver, Downriver, at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, is an incredibly engaging cultural snapshot of the Hunter.
Featuring more than 100 works in various mediums by 52 artists, all with ties to the Hunter, the exhibit provokes thought and study about who we are as a people, all unified by a sense of place that we see through our own lenses.
"People are already loving it," the gallery's director, Gerry Bobsien, said of the show which was installed on June 10. "It's like walking into a really great art museum, where you have different works, different experiences around every corner."
For the gallery's senior curator Kim Blunt, who spearheaded pulling together works from dozens of artists plus the gallery's own collection and two specially-commissioned artworks, it was a cathartic experience.
"What I love, too, as a resident of this area is the taste of this exhibition extends beyond the river," she says. "It talks about things that are common to all of us, the experiences that we all experience living in this area. It's the river, and the beaches of course, but there are other things we universally experience."
The collection of artists is a study in itself; the show includes stars like Nell, Drinkwater, Gardiner, Milsom, Bell, Tipping, Cuppaidge, Snape, Langlois and Marti. But also emerging talents like Alexia Sakoff and Bronte Naylor. It includes artists from Newcastle and Maitland, but also several from the Upper Hunter like David Darcy and Travis De Vries.
Every piece in the show feels personal.
Artist Brett McMahon has two substantial installations. Cargo is a dark reflection on items moved by wheels, both individual and industrial. The most endearing piece from McMahon is a ceiling-hung bell-ringer, which visitors can swing, creating the most-realistic sound of two train bogies bumping together.
"It gives me goose bumps when I hear it," Blunt says, who first heard it when McMahon showed it to her in his studio. "I know that sound. I hear that sound when I sleep at night. Cause I also live near the railway line.
"He had created this work, and never shown it before. As soon as he rang it, I thought, 'Oh my god, we have to have that in the show'."
Lucas Grogan's Xanadu Quilt is another stand-out reflective of a time and place. It has been acquired by the Maitland gallery.
"He grew up in Maitland," Blunt says of the artist, whose works have shown and sold globally. "He talks about coming home... as young children we might rebel against home, kick and fight and leave, but for Lucas, he's come home, just temporarily, he's come home."
The blue-and-white quilt requires close examination, radiating humour and a bittersweet love of his hometown.
"He always had that duality in his work of love and hate. Of passion," Blunt says. "We have another work of his in quilt form from when he had his solo show a few years ago, so this will be a fabulous partner to that work.
"It [Xanadu] was just so special. It was made on one of his brother's blankets, with cloth given to him by family and friends, so it's a really meaningful, special, purposeful work."
The quilt is full of quips and thoughts, long trademarks of Grogan's work.
"When we were looking to acquire it I was reading his story to the committee," Blunt says. "It was really so touching. He talks about circling back home. 'We map the rest of the work from our home, but we couldn't get away from it, a warm and familiar hug, pieced together from scraps of fabric given to me by my friends and family, on my brother's bedsheet. This quilt tells the story of the prodigal son facing hometown, real and imagined and long dead monsters as an adult, who has seen it all, tail between his legs and humbled. The Xanadu quilt gave me the opportunity to return that hug'."
The various chambers of the Maitland gallery are put to good use in creating mini-galleries for Upriver, Downriver, allowing visitors to focus their thoughts on a single zone at a time. On the ground floor one gallery features works focused on river life by John Morris, Rebecca Rath and Chris Langlois, with words by Scott Bevan (Langlois and Bevan took a canoe trip along a section of the Hunter River in April, with artwork and words from that trip incorporated into the show and catalog). Also in the same space is an interactive work, with indigenous artist Mitch Mahoney building a river reed canoe over four days, with the public invited to participate in the process.
Two paintings, Graham Wilson's The Source, acrylic on hand-carved birch plywood, and Muscle Memory, acrylic and acrylic exterior house paint on aluminium, were commissioned for the show, paid for patrons Bob and Paula Cameron.
Wilson's work depicted the headwaters of the Hunter River, based on his own exploration of the terrain.
Naylor's work shows two skateboarders along the Hunter River in Maitland.
The large paintings draw attention immediately, as do other large works in the show by Peter Gardiner, David Darcy, Trevor Weekes, Braddon Snape and Nicola Hensel.
In the exhibition catalog, gallery director Bobsien calls the show a geographic snapshot "reflecting a diversity of practices, forms, ideas and methods of making art throughout this place we call home".
It was a bold undertaking, well executed.