Forward-thinking yet traditional and firmly anchored in country. It would be hard to find a more apt opening exhibition for the new Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) than Lin Onus: The Land Within.
Onus, a Yorta Yorta artist and activist, loved fusing traditional First Nations' imagery with playful modernism. So, his take on toas (wood and gypsum sculptures from Lake Eyre) uses found objects like electrical plugs from the local tip and his photo realistic landscapes come with missing puzzle pieces reflecting the dislocation he felt between his urban art-making existence and his love of the country around Shepparton where he grew up. The artist died in 1996.
"This is a really significant moment for Yorta Yorta country, everyone that calls it home and comes to visit," says co-curator of the exhibition Belinda Briggs.
"This is the first time that we have such a large body of Lin's work on his home soil and I think we have often seen it from afar and not been able to engage with it in the way that others have. The exciting thing about this exhibition is we are going to have lots of people seeing reflections of themselves and, in particular, the Barma Forest, the waterways and the Murray River and our redgums."
Eight years, and $50 million, in the making the brash new SAM building shares Lin Onus's love of the old and the new.
Arriving after the two-hour drive from Melbourne you are greeted by a five-storey high cube reminiscent of Star Trek baddies the Borg, but walk closer and the grey sides give way to a rolling green outdoor space and amphitheatre at the rear, a cafe, visitor centre and First Nations' art space Kaiela Arts. The building was conceived as "land art" and the imposing grey exterior soon reveals red ochre side panels, a series of functional spaces and an arresting view beyond, perched as it is on Victoria Park Lake.
SAM's Rebecca Coates says it was always conceived as more than just a museum but the idea of public space gained even more importance during the pandemic when the only connections open to us were to walk and talk outside.
"So, we have this fantastic art hill, which has been supported by the orchardists of Shepparton, and I have seen kids rolling down that art hill and I want that to become part of the cultural memory," Coates says. "That people say 'I grew up rolling down the art hill'. This is about public space – it is space making at its very best."
Coates has already seen the amphitheatre welcome kids running cross-country and thinks that sharing a building with Kaiela Arts has many benefits.
"Being co-located with the visitor centre and with Kaiela Arts puts SAM in a really unique position. Creative Victoria, for example, noted that this is a major reconciliation program and it is the first time that I am aware of that an art museum is co-located with the Indigenous community arts centre. It enables us to do really interesting things and foster new relationships."
The building, designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall, is a corker indeed. The enclosed frontage leads onto floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the Victoria Park Lake scenery maintaining a constant connection to country. The five-floor high entrance space is filled with a new work by artist Anne-Marie May, Everything Joyful is Mobile, 2021, composed of large-scale coloured lightboxes cascading down from the roof that had be to installed by abseilers.
And, in the Flow exhibition, SAM celebrates stories of river, earth and sky and our relationship to the natural world. The Flow gallery also has one of the largest collections of watercolours from the Namatjira family organised for the first time geographically so you can see how each artist interpreted various parts of country that they kept returning to in their work.
These landscapes may be on the walls but they are also at the doorstep of SAM, so you can take in a Namitjira painting then step out onto Yorta Yorta country and watch fluffy purple swamphen chicks tread water next to a watchful parent on the lake just metres away. You can study the artwork Midden by Jack Anselmi and Cynthia Hardie, a ceramic celebration of First Nations feasting spots, and then go and knock back a salt-and-pepper calamari burger at Shepparton Brewery.
You come for the art and stay for the regional Victorian hospitality.
"Shepparton is a really unique part of Australia and this building is a part of a rethinking of Shepparton and regional Victoria and changing the agenda through arts and culture and through a shared vision," says Coates.
FIVE MORE VICTORIAN ART SPACES
BENALLA ART GALLERY
A near neighbour to SAM, the Benalla Art Gallery permanent collection includes classic colonial and European-influenced landscapes from artists like Arthur Streeton to First Nations artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Albert Namitjira. The current exhibition, Re-generation, features art inspired by the Benalla Botanical Gardens and runs until February 20.
BENDIGO ART GALLERY
Dating back to 1887, Bendigo Art Gallery is one of the oldest, and largest, of Australia's regional art galleries. It is home to the bi-annual Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize (until February 13) that attracts artists from across Australia with a cash prize of $50,000. In 2022 it will partner with Graceland for a huge rock 'n' roll blockbuster exhibition celebrating the life of Elvis Aaron Presley.
THE ART GALLERY OF BALLARAT
Spread across a handful of Gold Rush-era buildings, this regional gallery offers many different scenes of Ballarat from its time as a Colonial tent city to visions of country by First Nations artists. It is running Linda McCartney: Retrospective until January 9 as part of the Ballarat Foto Biennale and Ondormohol, an exhibition from Ballarat-based artist Anindita Banerjee that is an exploration of her Bengali heritage.
GIPPSLAND ART GALLERY
Celebrating the eastern region and how it has been portrayed in art, This Is Gippsland is a free exhibition that runs until February 27 and looks at some of the moodier and stranger ways the region has been depicted. The permanent collection has more than 3000 works said to be valued at around $10 million and also has a strong focus on the Gippsland region and its artists.
TARRAWARRA MUSEUM OF ART
A huge modernist building with sweeping views of the Yarra Valley vineyards, TarraWarra Museum of Art has just opened with a new David Noonan exhibition. Noonan uses the medium of collage to explore the idea of being on stage or on show and the show will include new pieces from him. Then step out to the TarraWarra cafe for a glass of the region's finest tipples.
Paul Chai travelled to Shepparton Art Gallery as a guest of SAM.