What a wonderful world: the work of Sue Smalkowski


Alpine wildflowers

2018, oil on linen, 100 x 100cm


Every now and then an art teacher or critic will nominate an artist as ‘a painter’s painter’ – not necessarily a helpful title, as it implies that painters exist as some exclusive little coterie. There’s already too much hype and mystique surrounding the art-making process, ironically paralleled by a  scandalous lack of Government support.

However I’ll admit the term keeps coming to mind when considering Sue Smalkowski’s work. Look – anyone making interesting, well-resolved paintings will be worth checking out, but there’s more to it than that. There’s an engagement some painters make with the actual physicality, the sensuality, of paint that makes those who regularly pick up a brush stop and take notice. There’s a frisson.


Surrounding escarpment

 2018, oil on linen, 122 x 122 cm


Then there’s a ‘tell’- and anyone who’s ever sat in a Gallery and observed the viewers will back me up here. It’s a certain posture a painter adopts when they recognise a work they could and probably should learn from. They may adjust spectacles if any… step forward carefully to a position very close to the work, as though straining for a whispered message… then the chin comes up. There follows a minute examination. You see that a lot in front of a Smalkowski piece.

Sue’s been working for 20 odd years, along the way establishing herself as a teacher of watercolour painting (a strand of her practice to be addressed another day.) I met Sue at TAFE in the nineties and have always admired both her talent and her modesty. The art scene is highly competitive, which doesn’t hurt, but the muddy end of the pond can be tainted by envy and bitterness (and probably too much alcohol.) Someone like Sue who is quietly getting on with the job is a reminder that there are, indeed, practitioners who don’t have some overblown sense of their own importance. They stave off self-doubt and chronic discouragement and make great stuff anyway.

Sue has an intense love of Nature, but the fact that the works spring from her response to the natural world may be almost beside the point to a viewer. Her paintings are not pictorial descriptions, even though the artist talks about experiences of actual places and times. Sue recalls the colours of a wildflower or a cliff-face from when she made her plein air studies, but the finished paintings do not make me marvel at the wonder of nature. They are about themselves and to me that’s precisely where the interest lies.

I simply fall in love with the art object itself. There is a vibrancy to her colour choices that nonetheless avoid the ‘too sweet’ zone. Then there is the rhythm of the works – that is, the journey the eye is taken on: the pauses; the quiet areas; the more vocal parts. I don’t get a chance to get tired or bored, and in that sense alone, it’s as though we are indeed on a bushwalk, or gazing into a rockpool: there is so much to see. Sue acknowledges inspiration from (amongst others) Elizabeth Cummings and John R Walker, both superlatively expressive painters. Like her, they respond to landscape with somewhat calligraphic expressions and a savvy and satisfying colour sense.

Where Nature sings I

2018, graphite and watercolour on paper, 68 x 54cm

Sue’s drawings – typically graphite with washes of watercolour- have a different flavour altogether. Like her paintings, the drawings are assiduously created but these are minutely observational descriptions of flora and fauna. Perhaps inevitably for someone educated in contemporary art practices, they owe a debt to John Wolseley in terms of a faithful description complemented by lyricism. The pieces read as light and somehow ‘natural’, despite what must be many hours of work and careful compositional consideration. It is these pieces that bring us more directly within earshot of the world’s song.

Both the paintings and the drawings make me want to keep looking,  but then I also want to run home to paint:  another reliable ‘tell.’

Nature’s calligraphy, solo show by Sue Smalkowski, opens soon at Frances Keevil Gallery

Opening Event 29 September 5-7 pm

Show runs 26 Sept – 14 Oct. Gallery hours Tues-Sat 10 till 5; Sun 11 till 4. (CLOSED MONDAYS)


Getting the paperwork done

This is a different kind of show. Organisers Sue Buckton and Janette Loughrey, two long-term friends, business partners and creatives, were inspired by a trip to Mexico last year. They loved the objects crafted from paper that they saw there, and the idea for this group exhibition was born.



It’s a great mix of approaches, from  character filled birds (Sue Buckton) to a diorama image conjured from childhood memories (Lea Tucker). There is the chance to dress up your own paper doll with clothing of the exhausted 21st century parent (Alice Henchlon) and delicate, calligraphic paper mache strings of colour and whimsy from Jan Loughrey.


Show opened Friday Aug 31.

Show runs 10 – 3pm till  Sunday 9 Sept at Red Point Gallery, 100 Wentworth Street Port Kembla. 

Group show at Wollongong Art Gallery

It’s a delight to be included in IAVA: NOW, a group show of artists from Illawarra Association for the Visual Arts. We’re showing at the beautiful Wollongong Art Gallery, this year celebrating its 40th Anniversary

IAVA NOW showcases the work of Arja Välimäki, Deborah Redwood, Gillian Day, Jennifer Jackson, Jennifer Portman, John Kennedy, Libby Bloxham, Liz Jeneid, Mary Wingrave, Paula Schiller, Robert Reid, Sue Smalkowski, Alannah Driese, Alena Kennedy, Angela Forrest, Judy Bourke, Lara Seresin, Megan Seres, Melissa Ritchie, T.S. Zaracostas, Susan McAlister, Ken Tucker and myself.



Wollongong Art Gallery

cnr Burelli & Kembla Streets Wollongong ph 02 4227 8500

Opening Event Friday 6 July @ 6pm

Exhibition runs Thurs 5 July to Sunday 2 September

Gallery hours: Tues-Fri 10am – 5pm; Sat/Sun 12 – 4pm

Free event, refreshments provided, all welcome.


65th Blake Prize: thoughtful, but the numinous was hard to find

We visited  Casula Powerhouse this week to see the Blake Prize.

I’m always delighted to reach this quiet bushy spot so close to Liverpool, with its own bell-bird glen. I enjoy the venue, with its soaring ceilings and the indigenous map built into the floor.

The exhibition this year was thoughtfully presented but to me it largely lacked depth, or sometimes relevance.  I have to agree with the oft-curmudgeonly John McDonald here. Moving away from an insistence on Christian expression (which was the original premise of the prize, back in 1949) was of course both necessary and appropriate if the Prize was to remain in any way relevant.


This year’s winner: Tina Havelock Stevens, Giant Rock, 2017 (still from video)



No problem there, but many of the works just failed to engage me. McDonald rightly notes that ‘religion’ is all about a group of believers, whereas ‘spirituality’ is a more individual idea. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Many people nowadays weave their own sense of the sacred from whatever scraps they can find – bits of childhood magic, the rise of a post-institutional animism arising from ecological concerns; feminist practices that overlap with neo-paganism. There is also aesthetics and the consoling power of beauty.

I have found some new (to me) artists however, whose work is well worth mentioning and following.

I enjoyed the video by Nasim Nasr 33 beads (unworried) # 2 showing an anonymous woman, her face totally obliterated by her hair, with spotlit  hands holding and working worry beads – traditionally a male practice. Gradually other women’s hands appear and also work the multiple strings. In the end the beads are violently torn apart.

Still from the video 33 beads (unworried) 3 #2 by Nasim Nasr

Nasr is an internationally recognised Iranian artist now living in Australia.


I was disturbed and I guess, diverted  by Greg Semu’s   Dead body of Christ in two parts, a photographic self-portrait in two frames, referencing Holbein the Younger’s astounding ‘coffin-cam’ work from 1521.


Hans Holbein the Younger, The body of the dead Christ in the tomb, oil and tempera on board, 1521.



Greg Semu, Dead body of Christ in two parts, photograph in two frames.


The image I’ve had to use here was an earlier iteration, in one piece. The Blake entry  is literally in two framed pieces -one piece is his head, neck and shoulder, the other has the remainder of the body.

The pieces sit either side of a corner,  accentuating the unusual proportions. Float mounted against a blood red mat with lush, cinematic lighting a la Bill Viola , it features Semu’s Samoan body tattoos and opaque contact lenses so he looks rather shockingly like a doll.

Semu uses his own body and that of other indigenous people in some interesting video and photographic works  referencing and  deconstructing Christian iconography.

My own favourite though was far from sensational. Mark Tweedie had two entries in the show, both understated and painterly.

I loved ‘Now I lay me down’, a modest size painting of his dying grandmother in bed.

Mark Tweedie, Now I lay me down, oil on canvas, 41 x 31cm

Quiet, economical, calm and contemplative, it  brought me closer to prayer than anything else.

TOUCH OF RED: – two anniversary shows

Turns out there are two significant anniversaries this year:

Red Point Artists Association celebrates 10 years of hard work that have resulted in an arts hub in the middle of slowly – gentrifying Port Kembla. A touch of red celebrates this with a group show at the Red Point Gallery featuring sculpture, ceramics, assemblages and painting. I have a piece in this show which is sensitively  curated by Kathy Orton and  Janette Loughrey.


The idea of requiring everyone to include the colour red in their work wasn’t universally welcomed and not everyone held to the brief, but the ubiquity of red throughout the gallery certainly contributes to a feeling of dynamism and excitement.

Opening Event: Saturday 12 May @ 2.30pm

Show runs Wed-Sun, 10 till 4,  and is on till Sun May 20


Meanwhile, in the Wollongong CBD, Wollongong Art Gallery is celebrating 40 years as an art institution by inviting various community groups to hold exhibitions in the upstairs Community Gallery, rolling out over the year. Red Point Artists are continuing with their ‘Touch of Red’ theme for this show which opens Saturday 19 May @ 6pm.

Wollongong Art Gallery, cnr Burelli & Kembla Streets Wollongong

Touch of Red Opening Event Saturday 19 May @ 6pm

Show opens Tues-Fri 10am till 4pm; Sat/Sun 12-4

Show runs Saturday 19 May till 1 July




There’s gonna be a hangin’….

For the past several years I’ve curated a local community art show. It was an honour to be asked to perform this important task and I’ve been glad to do it. My dear partner acts as my ‘gopher’ during the day, helping me position, re-position and re-re-position  the many artworks over and over. By the end of the day we are totally trashed.

Back in 2014, the first year I did the show. Ahn Do’s beautiful Wombat Man in the background…

It gives you an interesting take on the art though. Of course,  you can’t indulge the luxury of considering a work properly at this time. You’re mainly concerned with the formal aspects of a piece – it’s blue or red, it’s busy or spare in composition, it’s impasto or smooth – because it’s these aspects that impact on where it will look at its best and how it may effect it’s neighbours.

You do however quickly develop strong opinions about framing. There are many rubbish frames out there, people. Step away from the rubbish. Sorry. I know what it’s like to have no money for paint, let alone framing…but…well, there it is. Save your pennies and then get it done properly.

By the end of the day though, you find yourself having subconsciously absorbed the quality of some standout works and you fall in love with them, and with art generally, all over again. That’s after your third beer of course, when your feet are up.

Thread III





It’s great to be exhibiting with these four powerful women again. Thread III will be a varied and interesting show. Get on down and join us!


Red Point Gallery, 100 Wentworth Street Port Kembla

Opening event: Sunday 22 April @ 2pm. Artists will discuss their work.

Refreshments provided, free entry.

Show runs Wed 18 April till Sun 29 April

Gallery open Wed till Sun 10 till 4

Gallery is wheelchair accessible. Refreshments provided, all welcome.


Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing 2018

Ever heard that cliche ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ ? Yep, me too. But rule number 1 in art criticism is to put your personal taste to the side, and try to really analyse what you’re looking at.  OK, I’m not an art critic but I do try to approach a show critically and make some kind of reasonable judgement about things.

A friend and I had a great time at this year’s Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing and by the time we approached  Ceara Metlikovec’s winning piece, Indigo 5, we were maybe a bit over-excited. Certainly I didn’t give it the time it deserved.


Ceara Metlikovec, Indigo 5, 2018, graphite on Fabriano paper, 140 x 94.5cm

The piece is quiet; contemplative. It’s a closely positioned set of ruled verticals of various tones, carefully built up,  reminiscent of a barcode or a DNA read-out.  It’s also apparent how labour intensive the piece must have been, which makes it a reflection on mortality. After a while it reminded me of the transparent curtains separating the congregation from the deceased, prior to a cremation.

What I didn’t understand till later was the acres of white paper that the work didn’t cover. The drawing is reasonably substantial in size but is drawn on a huge piece of paper, and offset in the right top corner of the paper. There is more white paper than drawing. I found it unsettling, and only belatedly recognised this as a ‘masking off’ of the total reality of someone. The drawing is a kind of portrait, but as with any portrait you are seeing a mediated image; an incomplete reading of someone through the perception of the artist.  I ended up deciding this was a thoughtful and worthwhile piece.

It didn’t get my Peoples’ Choice vote though! That went to another problematic work, by  Robert Ewing:


Robert Ewing,  Fractured Landscape number 3

coloured pencil on cotton paper, 56 x 76cm

It’s a real testament to the power of a work when you don’t exactly enjoy it, but you can’t take your eyes off it and it makes you feel unsettled.  Ewing’s bioforms (I can’t really call them trees) are phallic and otherworldly. His colour choices are intriguing and shouldn’t add up but somehow they do.  He’s onto something.

Of course we both loved Tom Carment’s economical drawings of family around the table at Christmas time. He has a light touch and wonderful observation of the quotidian. I don’t know how often Carment actually wins awards but every exhibition he’s in is the richer for his inclusion. There will always be more spectacular works as he’s the master of understatement, but I love his quiet virtuosity.

Tom Carment, Family in Perth

dip pen and ink on paper, three sheets each 30 x 42cm


I’ve been head down, tail up working on this solo show for the past year and suddenly, here we are….




For reasons best known only to my genius (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s marvellous TED talk ) I’ve become preoccupied with the tapering shape of a ceiling-fan blade. Very approximately. The fascination stems purely from the interesting shape – there is nothing deeper or more philosophical at play.

The result is that most of the works in this show incorporate the fan shape.  The works are reminiscent of way stations in a narrative – film stills, if you like –  thanks to the titles I’ve chosen for them. Waddya do? In the spirit of whimsy, I’ve serenely just run with it. Come and check them out…


The way things go together II

– new works by Moira Kirkwood

Red Point Gallery, 100 Wentworth Street Port Kembla NSW

OPENING EVENT: Saturday 3 Feb @ 2pm. To be opened by artist and educator Tony Hull.

Show runs Fri 2 Feb till Sun 11 Feb

Gallery open Tues – Sun 10am till 4pm

Admission free, all welcome. Gallery is accessible.




Making landfall: beautiful things from the Illawarra


Seatree by Lara Seresin


Delighted to be part of Making Landfall, an IAVA group show with Jane Bennett, Lara Seresin, Jennifer Jackson, Sky Zaracostas, Karen Hook, Diana Wood Conroy, Arja Valimaki, Libby Bloxham, Alena Kennedy, Susan McAlister, Paula Gowans and Judy Bourke.


Making Landfall

Waverley Library Galleries

32-48 Denison Street Bondi NSW

Artists Talks and drinks with the artists: Saturday 9 December, 12 – 3pm

Show runs till Jan 22.