A splash of color and a dollop of joy brought winter sunshine to the country’s youngest regional art gallery, with a joint exhibition of new works by two unlikely collaborators.
Last November, acclaimed artist Ben Quilty fulfilled his ambition to establish a public gallery in his neighborhood in the southern highlands of New South Wales: Ngununggula opened with an exhibition titled High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, a collection of photography and installations by Sydney artist Tamara Dean.
Last weekend the gallery – a redeveloped heritage-listed dairy in Retford Park on the outskirts of Bowral – unveiled its latest show, Spring Collection: an exhibition of new work by veteran painter/designer/entrepreneur Ken Done and artisanal installation artist Rosie Deacon.
The two artists share a compulsive fascination with intense colors and an affectionate attachment to one of Australia’s most iconic motifs, the koala.
Young Japanese tourists flocked to Done Harbor Gallery in Sydney in the 1980s to buy his koalas, the artist says.
“I could draw koalas so cute, nine-year-old Japanese girls fainted because of their cuteness, so that’s what I decided to do,” Done told the Guardian.
“Now Rosie has taken the koala to a whole new level, very exciting, very graphic.”
The exhibit’s light-hearted focus fills the accessibility docket, said Ngununggula director Megan Monte.
“People can’t help but smile.
“It’s important for a regional gallery to offer diversity, and it’s amazing that children see the work as well as adults… [so] that they can stop and think about what art can be. And this art is something we should all appreciate.
Although there are a number of commercial art galleries dotted around the southern uplands, the people and council of Wingecarribee had spent some 30 years discussing the lack of a regional public gallery in the county – but it had only been a speech.
Sydney’s instant artistic adviser Justin Miller showed Quilty the former 19th-century dairy estate owned by the Fairfax family in Retford Park, the artist has been sold.
The name of the gallery, Ngununggula (pronounced “Nuhn-uhn-goola”), means “belonging” in the local Gundungurra language. Quilty admits that there was initially some opposition, on the grounds that some people would not be able to pronounce it; and the venue itself took more than five years to come to fruition.
“It was a shed filled with coiled barbed wire and corrugated iron,” Quilty told the Guardian.
“But it was a unique opportunity to have a real regional gallery. To build something similar from scratch, built from the ground up, would have cost around $30 million. And we’ve got it for $8 million, with a nice nuanced legacy that ties it together.
Sydney architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer were commissioned to redesign the National Trust listed property, and builder/developer Richard Crookes got so into the project that he decided to deliver it at cost. Crookes now sits on the board of Ngununggula.
Quilty has no plans to exhibit his own work in the gallery anytime soon. The multi-award winning artist, who in just over a decade has won the Prudential Eye Prize (2014), the Archibald Prize (2011) and the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (2009), said Ngununggula n was never intended as “a vanity project”.
“The earlier my name is disassociated from the gallery, the more everyone else’s names are involved,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s fair that I show myself in there for a while.”
In Spring Season, a dozen new works by Done flood the gallery’s first space, most of them large-scale inspired by coral reefs. Several other Done works adorn the walls of the gallery’s second space, in which Deacon’s wacky coral reef installation – originally created for the Australian Fashion Week 2022 show by Romance Was Born – springs from the ground .
The third space at Ngununggula has been colonized by the gigantic multicolored mutation of a Deacon’s necklace, the result of a 1.5 tonne donation of Styrofoam given to Deacon by a Sydney toymaker.
The two artists discussed their work during an on-site briefing earlier this month.
“I tried to contain the colors… but it didn’t work,” said Deacon, who expanded a bit on the joys and challenges of working collaboratively. To make the coral reef installation, she gathered her mother’s knitting circle in Deacon’s small hometown of Nyngan in central New South Wales; and for the installation of the necklace, she worked with what looked like the entire gallery staff, including the cafe employees.
The 37-year-old artist, who established her reputation in the art world relatively early in her career, admits she was intimidated by art galleries and art schools growing up. Since graduating from the UNSW College of Fine Arts in 2009, she has participated in over 50 exhibitions in Australia.
Deacon is oblivious, almost dismissive, of her accomplishments to date. Done, less.
“I was 40 when I had my first exhibition at the Holdsworth Gallery, and three months later I opened my own,” said the 82-year-old artist, who has garnered a wide range of accolades over the years, including the NSW Tourism award. (1986), Father of the Year (1989) and an Order of Australia (1992).
As Done moved from painting to painting in Spring Collection, he wondered aloud as small details in each work caught his eye.
“What are those things? I have no idea, you couldn’t look it up in a David Attenborough book,” he said, pointing to one.
“What is it? I have no idea,” he continued, of another. “It’s very much about composition, balance, a big piece here, little piece there. It’s like a piece of music, you have to have the right notes, you have to have the right rhythm – oh, here’s a little trill thing.
Done’s inspiration for this collection dates back to his childhood, when a Saturday job at his local Coles supermarket landed him his first snorkel mask. Since then, he has been captivated by the underwater world.
Many works seem to merge garden and underwater themes; and most are exhibited for the first time. There is a wisteria reef painting and another titled Sweetpea Reef – “because it’s pretty”.
“I like that word, it’s not a very fashionable word in contemporary art society, well damn it,” he said.
“Pretty is a very beautiful word, beautiful is a very beautiful word, decorative is a very beautiful word.
“All of those words seem to be a bit old-fashioned in some areas – but I don’t make the rules.”
Spring Collection, new works by Ken Done and Rosie Deacon, is on view at Ngununggula in the southern highlands until October 9