Austral Gallery

For 11 years Mary Reid Brunstrom has been an art dealer of unique perception, intelligence and charm. She has the distinction of familiarizing St. Louis with the contemporary art being produced both in the cities and the outback of her native Australia. In doing so she has cultivated a clientele that is, for the most part, outside the small circle of local collectors. Brunstrom was instrumental in the making of one of the finest exhibitions in St. Louis in the last five years with Utopia Body Paint/Australian Aboriginal Art from St. Louis at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in 1997. Utopia was a show that seemed both foreign and familiar, of another time yet vividly of the moment. With shimmering abstract designs created through the use of a series of painted dots, these paintings invited appropriation — which North American artists are so adept at — but like so much that is imagined in St. Louis these days, it didn't happen.

Brunstrom was laid low by a serious heart ailment this last year. Her health is much improved, but she's closing the Austral Gallery — the unlikely Australian-art center in Lafayette Square — to take time for recovery, as well as to reconsider life and art, and her part in both. She's put together a farewell exhibition of works by her stable of artists — at bargain prices — in a salon format. The splendid Victorian home where Austral has been housed these years seems naturally given to the salon approach. With Brunstrom's list of works taking up some six pages of text, the first-floor gallery space is nothing short of fantastic — making this show an extravagant, if bittersweet, send-off.

The salon approach fell into disfavor with the rise of modernist sensibilities at the beginning of this century, most notably with Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York, where artwork was hung with respect to its needs for space, allowing for a more dynamic relationship with the viewer. But the walls full of art at Austral have distinct pleasures of their own. Intriguing juxtapositions occur, as when the expansive landscapes of Mandy Martin bump up against the claustrophobic urban settings of Robert Boynes. These two painters represent their contrasting worlds with richly textured surfaces — Boynes dark and brooding, Martin open to the sky and plains.

Martin's depictions of the awesome natural landscape are both grand and intimate. Just as in North America, artists were challenged by the vast expanse and distinctive light of what was a new world, so Australian artists are faced with an inspiring yet uncontainable landscape. Martin's paintings are close observations of her sheep ranch ("station," in the Aussie idiom) in the sun-bleached country of New South Wales. She chooses a rectangular canvas to emphasize the omnipresence of horizon, resorting to diptych in larger works to make greater room for the expansive landscape. Smaller works (12 by 22 inches) bring the big country to handheld size.

Martin mixes the very earth she paints into her pigment, adding to the rough-hewn physicality of the work. She is making visual journal entries, a record of the austere, timeless, ever-changing landscape. Some of the paintings include actual text. "Alone, alone, all alone ..." is a scribbled account of personal misery, which contrasts with the vivid brilliance of the blond sky shimmering like a patch cut from a Rothko painting. "After storm, home paddock ..." contains both the fearsome turbulence of a tornado form receding into the background and the softness of that form, like a great wide fan over the earth.

The delight to be found in Martin's work, and in this show as a whole, is how it awakens the experience of wonder. This is akin to a childlike awareness of the world — an insight that is nearly pathologically romanticized — but the comparison is apt. The exhibition invites a leisurely appreciation, a sensual exploration of form, shape, line, pattern — the elements to which the child-eye loses itself.

The gorgeous etchings of Jörg Schmeisser are pleasurable in this way. "Diary and Port Campbell Coast," for example, with its warm ocher tones, includes sketches of rock formations, crags rising from the sea and roughly contoured bluffs. One section of the picture is given over to Schmeisser's barely legible handwriting, which serves more as a series of intricate lines and patterns parallel to the rock forms in the composition. The soft tones of the print, the landscape sketched as if not fully formed — these create the mood of both a real and an imagined place.

"The Year Away" is also a visual chronicle that suggests the closeness between memory and dream. In that "year away" Schmeisser taught in Kyoto — where he had also studied years before — and traveled to his birthplace in Poland as well. The etching he creates accounts for that year's experience as layers of dream/memory, combining Eastern and Western symbols — a pagoda tower is juxtaposed with the cupolas of an Orthodox church; gentle frame houses are drawn adjacent to open Japanese terraces. Schmeisser fills the picture with a rich complex of patterns — snowflakes, masks, a ceremonial headdress that looks like twin bands of flame, a fabulous moth, mountainscapes.

A series of nature studies — "Banksia and Parts," "Bamboo Shoots," "Shell-Back," "From Land and Sea" and "Shell-Open" — are made as if through the eyes of an 18th-century naturalist, wondrous forms represented as if newly seen.

Brunstrom has devoted one room of her gallery to her remarkable collection of contemporary aboriginal art. Darby Tjampitjinpa Ross' "Emu Dreaming" is a controlled explosion of color and design. Pink, blue, green and gold dots are painted to make lines and circles within circles. The painting can be read as a close examination of the ground — with emu tracks crossing — or a vision of the land from high above, with blocks of color representing patches of field. Or it can be left to an ecstatic vision from the dream time — a joyously patterned abstraction. Ada Bird Petyarre's "Alchira-Children's Story" consists of earthen colors — browns and golds — in the pattern of a wheel with radiant spokes. Petyarre has composed the picture with a pleasing asymmetry, so it looks oddly like folds of fabric rather than canvas surface. Jane Bird's "Untitled" contrasts the earth tones of the work nearby. White dots are painted in an arrangement that creates a diaphanous spirit form, pale and ghostly blue. A faint pattern, like a lovely beaded gown, traces its presence.

There are more artists in this large show, including most notably Ian Friend, whose series of black-and-white etchings, "From the Republic of Conscience," with its graceful curves and gestures, stands out, and Karen Papacek, whose continued exploration of planting iconographic symbols within a square frame remains emotionally charged. Brunstrom's artists have asked her to continue to represent them, so after the gallery is gone this work will still make its way into St. Louis' artistic environment. These images from the land down under will impress themselves still, to disturb and to inspire, for which the community owes Brunstrom many thanks.

The Austral Gallery remains open by appointment through July; call 776-0300 for information.

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