Three Australian gallerists let JEN NURICK in on the emerging art talents to invest in (and name-drop) before everyone else does.

HOW DO YOU define a piece of art? In the infancy of his career, Keith Haring may have pointed us underground, to the bare advertising spaces in New York City subway stations that famously became his canvases. Perhaps Jean-Michel Basquiat would have guided us to Great Jones Street, in Manhattan’s NoHo, where he tagged the walls with “SAMO”: shorthand for “same old shit”, a concept he developed with another subway graffiti artist, Al Diaz. Or he may have led us closer to home, to the realm of the domestic, where refrigerator surfaces and other mundane household objects took his fancy, becoming vessels for his art. 

Artists like Cindy Sherman and, here in Australia, Destiny Deacon and Gerwyn Davies may present their own reflections as an answer, having used their bodies to convey their art. The digital artist Mike Winkelmann (also known as Beeple, his online alias) would surely point us to a screen. It was his non-fungible token, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”, that sold at Christie’s for a record $88.9 million in March 2021. Works like his are becoming increasingly desirable but still evade simple definition: they are pieces of art, digital files, a series of hundreds of thousands of intangible pixels.

So the art world remains elusive and accessible to very few. Among those who are familiar with it, some may argue that a work should activate a message, that it should stir up a reaction in us and jerk us to politicise its purpose. Others may believe it should hang on a wall, without disruption, a thing of beauty. Most, however, share one goal: to discover an unknown artist before they rise to fame.

And who better than the gallerists of Australia’s pre-eminent art destinations to guide us towards the nation’s most promising artists, those who are working to reshape the fabric of Australian art on a local and global stage? We’ve asked three of the country’s most interesting gallerists to each name one Australian artist who has seared in their imagination — and soon, hopefully, ours too.

Artist: DARREN SYLVESTER

Gallerist: GEOFF NEWTON

Gallery: Neon Parc, Melbourne

“As a gallerist, I’m looking for a range of things — ideas, materiality, an engagement with society — but as a collector, I am drawn to political art and abstraction, or if a work simply knocks me out. In Darren Sylvester’s current exhibition, ‘Shoobie Doobie’ [until18 December; neonparc.com.au], there is a large-scale photograph also called ‘Shoobie Doobie’, which Darren refers to as a throwaway quip among New Yorkers in the late 1970s. We see a deeply saturated cluster of purple clouds with creamy edges in a soft, almost pointillist, style. Over the top of these bulbous clouds are streaks of marshmallow, like powdery droplets of rain. The scene is nostalgic, almost dreamy. It feels like you’ve seen it before. I’m seduced by the technique, use of light and trickery of the composition. It’s sophisticated and simple, so those would be the traits that drawn me in.

Darren is an established Australian artist who utilises kinetic sculpture, photography and sound to expand our imagination and emotional response to art. He has a distinct style, as he mines elements of the everyday, like sunsets on Instagram stories or the design of McDonald’s hamburger boxes in the Styrofoam era. Darren makes a version of things we are familiar with and transforms it into something dazzling, unattainable and desirable. He works with notions of commerciality to create iconic images, mixing emotion with hyperreality.

A lot of Darren’s work embodies the artist’s ironic use of metaphor within an era of pop culture and advertising. He- speaks to a removed nostalgia intrinsic to late capitalist culture. For many, we experience the brands alluded to by Darren in a second-hand fashion — via television, billboards, print media — and they are, therefore, ingrained in the fabric of developmental periods of our lives. Darren is a truly multidisciplinary artist and the themes of his pieces— hopes and dreams, work conundrums, loss and longing, fear of death — are reminders of what it means to be alive in the here and now. The value of his work is that it is intrinsic to the identity of Australian art and in dialogue with a global cultural discourse.”

Darren makes a version of things we are familiar with and transforms it into something dazzling, unattainable and desirable. He works with notions of commerciality to create iconic images, mixing emotion with hyperreality.

ARTIST: REKO RENNIE

Gallerist: SAMANTHA BARROW

Gallery: Station Gallery, Melbourne & Sydney

“Based in Melbourne, Reko Rennie has Kamilaroi heritage and is informed by both his Aboriginal background and his urban western suburbs upbringing. Reko’s work is uniquely his own in its visual style, but it’s also internationally facing and speaks within an international context. It’s very distinctive, very arresting and colourful. It has this real allure in terms of its strong, potent aesthetic and geometric forms. 

Reko didn’t follow the traditional route to fine art. He studied journalism because he was moved by his family’s history and the struggles of Aboriginal people. He wanted to find a way to deliver messages that would counter what he saw as a negative, stereotypical mainstream dialogue. He soon realised it wasn’t that effective, but he had an interest in street art, having been a graffiti artist as a kid, and he was successful in transferring his message to a studio practice

Earlier this year, between lockdowns, one of Reko’s works was installed in the foyer at 101 Collins Street. I feel particularly proud — of Reko, the gallery and the client that commissioned it — because the eight-metre, four-panel work is on Collins Street, the beating heart of colonial wealth and institutional power. The piece is named after David Collins, a lieutenant governor who came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. He went on to be the first lieutenant governor of Tasmania where, arguably, there was the most horrific genocidal campaign against our First Nations people. Somehow, against all odds, this painting sits at 101 Collins Street and says ‘Always was’, referring to the fact that no matter how high in the sky we might stand in the pillars of power and wealth, we’re still on unceded Aboriginal land. It’s not a statement of aggression or claim for retribution, just a pervasive, relentless statement of fact. 

Reko has shown in Los Angeles, New York and the Nevada Museum of Art. Although we’ve obviously got more work to do in Australia, we do have a level of experience in the process of decolonisation that is considered an exemplar in some parts of the United States and Europe. An artist of Reko’s calibre can have a real impact when shown at a place like the Nevada Museum of Art, particularly in the region’s ongoing dialogues with its First Nations people. He did a mural work in the foyer and had interesting, challenging conversations with curators and patrons about the treatment of First Nations people in the US. Reko’s work has this subversiveness that slowly begins to take effect. It’s a bit of a slow burn but once it takes hold, it sticks.” 

“Very distinctive, very arresting and colourful. It has this real allure in terms of its strong, potent aesthetic and geometric forms.”

ARTIST: DAN KYLE

Gallerist: MARTIN BROWNE

Gallery: Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

“At 32, and with 10 years of exhibitions under his belt, Dan Kyle has developed a unique visual language that positions him directly in the lineage of the major painters in the Australian landscape tradition, particularly Frederick McCubbin and Fred Williams who redefined the way we see the Australian bush. 

Dan works from a studio that sits among eucalypt forests at Kurrajong Heights in the lower Blue Mountains and, more recently, at Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales — a residency that was awarded to him as a joint winner of the 2020 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. Wherever he’s located, Dan’s paintings capture the essence of his surroundings at specific times, from the smoky, searing winds— yet often beautiful light — of the 2019/20 summer bushfires, which threatened his studio multiple times, to the cool, lush growth and tumbling waterfalls that surrounded the site of his residency. 

In April, we showed the paintings that resulted from his residency in a solo exhibition, ‘The Path of Least Resistance’. In preparation, I visited Dan’s studio to see what he had been up to. Nothing prepared me for the golden paintings arranged around the studio, paintings that seemed to vibrate with colour and energy. The first one I laid eyes on was ‘All Summer II’ and I immediately knew that when the exhibition was over, that one would be coming home with me. Misty veils of falling water contrast with a slash of ochre paint on the left— a crevice in the escarpment, perhaps? — all set against a glowing hillside that, on closer inspection, is composed of myriad imprints of paint-soaked flowers. The overall sense is of abundance, light, air, movement and the joy of summer.

Flower ‘prints’ have become a hallmark of Dan’s work. At the time of the bushfires, he was struck by the appearance of a yellow daisy that, seemingly turbocharged by the heat, bloomed profusely in the bush around his studio. He collected the flowers and used them to create a collage in his bushfire images, pressing them into the wet paint. In other works, he stamped the paint-soaked flowers onto his canvases, leaving an imprint of the flowers’ forms. Since that time, his own garden has provided dahlias, cosmos, anemones and other flowers that he’s used in his paintings. In their seasonality, they provide a timeline of when the works were created.

The dominant genre in Australian art, since the environmental illustrators, has been that of landscape painting. Dan’s paintings develop and enrich this tradition, adding a fresh, contemporary voice that challenges us to see and appreciate the Australian landscape through new eyes — and to protect it. Over the past 18 months, many people have discovered — or rediscovered — how the presence of artworks can enrich their lives, creating peace, joy, an escape that inspires the imagination to wander, or be a source of meditative contemplation. Dan’s paintings inspire all of this while connecting us to the landscape in new and exciting ways.”

Nothing prepared me for the golden paintings arranged around the studio, paintings that seemed to vibrate with colour and energy…The overall sense is of abundance, light, air and the joy of summer.