JACKY REDGATE: LIFE OF THE SYSTEM / SYSTEM OF THE LIFE by Raymond Roca

The success of an artist can be defined in terms of their position, or value, in the artworld. This success does not arise in a vacuum, but rather comes about due to an artist’s complex interactions with the other agencies of the artworld, including educational, commercial and public galleries, as well as curators and critics. It is these agencies, and the relationships between them, which work together in constructing a dialogue about an artist’s work to audiences, enabling the artist to articulate their position in the artworld and thus become more successful and well-known.

The significance of the relationships between the artist and the other agencies of the artworld can be understood more profoundly by examining the practice of the Australian contemporary artist Jacky Redgate. Redgate, who was born in the United Kingdom in 1955 and migrated to Australia in 1967, is currently one of the most successful artists in the Australian contemporary art scene, and is well-known for her highly-conceptual and distinctively-minimalist work that explores the nature of systems and codes of representation. Redgate’s rising prominence in the artworld is due to a number of interrelated factors, including her relationship with educational and commercial galleries, which functioned as agents for her promotion, her exhibitions in public galleries, which exposed her to progressively-broader audiences and elevated her status as an artist, and the various reviews that her work received from art critics.

Redgate’s first formal involvement with the agencies of the artworld came about in 1978, when she exhibited in various non-profit and educational galleries while she was still undergoing her tertiary studies in Adelaide. Her first individual exhibition, at the South Australian School of Art, was followed by a series of group exhibitions in 1978-80 with the Women’s Art Movement and the Experimental Art Foundation. These non-profit foundations, which are partly government-funded, serve an important function in supporting and promoting emerging artists, thus enabling them to form an identity as actively-exhibiting art practitioners.

The Women’s Art Movement and Experimental Art Foundation were particularly significant in Redgate’s development as an artist, as they provided her with the resources and experience to facilitate her initial introduction into the artworld, while also presenting her with a means of experimentation in a genuine gallery context. Redgate’s early work consisted almost entirely of performance installations, and her ability to exhibit this body of work in a gallery, with a relatively low cost of entry, gave her the opportunity to experiment with this media type and gauge the audience’s response to her work. In this way, art foundations provided Redgate with the possibility to exhibit her work numerous times, something which would have been impossible in, say, commercial galleries, due to her art’s experimental nature and the fact that Redgate was still an emerging artist, and thus not commercially-viable in most contexts. The curators of her initial group exhibitions, such as Free Fall through Featherless Flight and Sleep has its House, were also important in using their experience of the artworld to select those works of hers that they believed would be most successful, thus further refining and validating Redgate’s early practice.

Non-profit foundations also furthered Redgate’s career by exhibiting her works in public contexts where she was able to form relationships with the other agencies of the artworld. Her membership of the Women’s Art Movement, for example, facilitated her contact with a community of other female artists, curators and critics, many of whom were linked to commercial galleries or actively published in art journals. This enabled the emerging Redgate to attain greater prominence in art circles, particularly considering that second-wave feminism was still influential in the late 1970s and multiple commercial and public galleries were interested in showcasing the work of female artists. Also of significance is Redgate’s inclusion in the journal Women’s Art Movement: 1978/79, published in 1980 with the support of the Experimental Art Foundation, which further popularised her as an emerging female artist, particularly to new audiences that may not have seen her art in a gallery situation. Her publication alongside other similar artists also placed her in a context which added further validation and thematic background to her work.

Redgate continued exhibiting with Adelaide art foundations until 1983, when she moved to Sydney to study for her post-graduate diploma in the visual arts. During this time, she came into contact with a number of commercial galleries, which perhaps played the most pivotal role in the launch of her professional artistic career. The first institution that represented Redgate was the Mori Gallery in Sydney, where she took part in four exhibitions between 1985 and 1990, three of which were individual. The role of the Mori Gallery, which is known for its promotion of emerging artists, was significant in elevating Redgate’s position in the artworld. As her first commercial representative in this artworld, the Mori was involved in the promotion of her body of work, even though it may not have been commercially-viable at that time. It also played a key role in the consolidation of her artist profile, providing Redgate with her initial introduction into the professional artworld of Sydney and its various agencies. Specifically, Redgate’s exhibitions at the Mori offered her various connections to prominent art dealers and collectors that would have been difficult to establish otherwise.

The Mori Gallery was also important in promoting Redgate’s work to a broader audience, enabling the artist to become more well-known both domestically and internationally. The gallery’s publication of catalogues for her two principal exhibitions, Work-to-Rule (1987) and Hungry Birds (1989), enabled her works to reach audiences outside of those who directly visited the gallery. More importantly, the Mori used its links in the artworld to organise the launch of Redgate in other commercial galleries throughout the country, such as Melbourne’s United Artists Gallery, which exhibited a show of Mori Gallery collections that prominently featured Redgate’s Work-to-Rule series and thus gave her access to a larger market in which to sell and promote her works. Additionally, her exhibitions at the Mori enabled her to win an Overseas Fellowship from the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, where she lived and exhibited in 1988, thus exposing her to an even broader, international range of art collectors, dealers and audiences.

Redgate’s exhibitions at the Mori Gallery also created significant links between her and art critics, who played a key role in adding value to her works and promoting them in the artworld. For example, following her Work-to-Rule exhibition at the Mori, the critic Edward Colless wrote about her in his article “Tradition: Jacky Redgate”, which was published in 1988 for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Although Colless’ critique was balanced, lauding Redgate for her “patient and laborious work” while noting the shortcomings in her “mediocrity” at conveying meaning, it was important in validating her practice at a time when she was still considered an emerging artist. The role of the critic in establishing and elevating Redgate’s position in the artworld is therefore of key importance. While the other agencies of the artworld, such as galleries, present the artist’s works to the audience with no direct evaluation of their subjective worth, Colless’ article actively constructs and articulates a meaning for Redgate’s art, thus adding value to her work, while also creating an insightful dialogue with consumers of her art, be they viewers or collectors.

It is this combination of links to the various agencies of the artworld, provided by the Mori Gallery, as well her rising prominence in the artworld, which enabled Redgate, by 1988, to be curated in her first exhibition in a public gallery. In this year, she took part in the 7th Sydney Biennale, with her work exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Redgate was also curated into the next Biennale, in 1990, when she was once again featured at the same gallery. Her participation in the Sydney Biennale, which is one of the largest contemporary art festivals in the Southern Hemisphere, further consolidated Redgate’s success and fame, exposing her to significantly broader and more diverse audiences than her previous exhibitions. Her opportunity to exhibit at the Biennale was directly facilitated by the curators of the exhibition, Nick Waterlow and René Block, who selected her as a participating artist for the festival and hence played an important role in furthering her success. The function of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was also significant in raising and broadening her profile and recognition as an artist, considering that the gallery, which is the most prestigious and important in Sydney, is visited mostly by the general public, as opposed to the more specialised audiences that are patrons of private institutions such as the Mori Gallery.

Redgate’s selection for two consecutive Biennale festivals, as well as her continuing exhibitions at the Mori Gallery, enabled her to become rather well-known in the artworld by the early 1990s. One of the most significant effects of this was her possibility to become associated with the Sherman Galleries in 1994, described by the critic Sunanda Creagh as “a heavyweight of the Sydney art scene”. The Sherman Galleries therefore played a key role in the development of Redgate’s art practice, and were in many ways the agency that completed her transition from an emerging artist to a well-established, commercially-viable art practitioner. As Cay Lang states in his book Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist, “there is no doubt that representation by a commercial gallery [such as the Sherman] significantly adds to an artist’s status”. For Redgate, this elevation in status was came about not only due to the reputation of the Sherman Galleries, but also through the institution’s active promotion of her artist profile. This was achieved through the gallery’s marketing of Redgate’s exhibitions by means of home mailers, advertisements in art journals, and catalogues, all of which exposed her works to new audiences and raised her identity in the artworld.

The Sherman Galleries also promoted Redgate through their wide-ranging connections to other agencies of the artworld, ranging from prominent art collectors to well-known critics and curators of other galleries. For example, her early Sherman exhibitions, Equal Solids (1994) and Life of the System (1998), were reviewed by critics such as Ross Gibson, who remarked a “cluey, peripatetic continuity in her investigative process” and described her works as “sophisticated mediations on the intricacies of perception, institution, cognition and communication.” This positive reading of Redgate’s exhibitions had the effect of raising the value of her works – both monetary and otherwise – in the artworld, and once again provided validation for her practice.

The curators of the Sherman Galleries played an even more important role in the formation of Redgate as a well-established, successful artist. The function of these curators, such as Blair French, was to select Redgate’s work and group it in exhibitions based around a central theme or style, such as her photographic investigation of taxonomies in Life of the System (1998), or the distinctive exploration of perception and geometry conveyed through her orange-and-white plastic forms in Straightcut (2002). In this way, Sherman curators took Redgate’s discrete works and combined them in such a way as to create coherent, unified exhibitions that could be used to promote the artist much more powerfully and eloquently. Due to this, exhibitions curated by the Sherman were shown throughout Australia in the late 1990s, in contexts as diverse as the New England Regional Art Museum, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, the Robert Lindsay Gallery and the ARC One Gallery Melbourne. Once again, the Sherman Galleries’ links to other art institutions enabled Redgate to reach broader recognition as an artist outside of Sydney.

The Sherman Galleries were also the medium through which Redgate came to be appreciated by the curators of several other galleries, particularly following her highly-successful Straightcut exhibition of 2002. This resulted in the launch of her Survey 1980-2003 exhibition by the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, which included a selection of her works from the Sherman Galleries, as well as her older productions that were exhibited at the Mori Gallery. The exhibition, presented in Adelaide in early 2004, was then transferred to the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, and is noteworthy because it was Redgate’s first major individual exhibition at a public gallery. Survey 1980-2003 was jointly curated by Blair French, from the Sherman Galleries, and Zara Stanhope, a Melbourne curator who was familiar with Redgate due to her frequent exhibitions at the prestigious ARC One Gallery, made possible as a result of the gallery’s partnership with the Sherman.

The Survey 1980-2003 exhibition allowed Redgate’s art to reach its largest audience yet, while also affirming her status as a mainstream, public artist. As opposed to commercial galleries, which strengthened Redgate’s links with art professionals and connoisseurs, the government-funded galleries of Adelaide and Perth and their broader cultural role in the artworld offered her direct exposure to the general public. This enabled her to become identified by a significantly broader group of people outside of her traditional exhibition locations of Sydney and Melbourne. Her reputation as an artist was also augmented by Zara Stanhope’s positive review of her in the exhibition’s catalogue, which describes Redgate’s work variously as “intelligent”, “beautifully-toned” and “elegant”, further adding to the worth and status of her artist practice. In addition to this, the two public galleries played a significant role in documenting Redgate’s history as an artist from her initial launch into the commercial artworld, with this documentation remaining permanent as a result of the exhibition’s catalogue and archives.

The collaboration between the Adelaide and Perth contemporary art galleries, as well as the Sherman Galleries, raised Redgate’s profile to such an extent as to lead to the inauguration of her Life of the System 1980-2005 exhibition, which was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney in late 2005 and early 2006. This exhibition, which was virtually identical to Survey 1980-2003, provided the most comprehensive validation for Redgate’s reputation as a well-known artist, mainly due to the status that the MCA has as an internationally-renowned public gallery that plays a highly-influential role in the artworld. Redgate’s opportunity to exhibit in such a gallery was hence a recognition of the success and significance that her works have in the contemporary cultural context. The exhibition’s location in a major public gallery further built upon this significance, adding value to her works, as well as an “aura of respectability, worth and permanence”, as Craig Judd stated in his discussion of the role of state-funded art institutions.

Redgate’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art was also important in transmitting her works to a large, diverse audience, as well as generating significant critical and media attention. This attention created an extensive dialogue about her works from some of the most well-known and influential critics in the Australian artworld, which not only encouraged greater attendance of the exhibition, but also enhanced the public’s identification with Redgate’s works and contributed to her success and status as an artist. Life of the System 1980-2005 received positive criticism from a variety of critics, the most prominent of which are Jill Stowell and Robert McFarlane, both of whom frequently publish in art journals and newspapers.

In her article “In a class of their own”, published on January 21, 2006 in the Newcastle Herald, Stowell describes Redgate’s photographs as “elegant assemblages of everyday items” which are “justly celebrated” in the gallery and “make a welcome contrast with the vast and now rather fetid installations of Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz”, an exhibition that was also taking place at the MCA in summer 2005-06. Through her critical review and evaluation, Stowell not only interprets Redgate’s work to make it more understandable and evocative to audiences, but also promotes the artist by constructing an undoubtedly-positive image of her practice. Additionally, Stowell’s preference of Redgate over Kienholz & Kienholz adds significant value to her works and her profile, considering that the latter are internationally-acclaimed artists.

Robert McFarlane’s appraisal of Redgate is similarly positive, as can be seen in his article “A certain grace in the ordinary”, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 10, 2006. McFarlane remarks the structural sophistication of Redgate’s works, describing them as “expansive primer[s] on visual literacy” that have “immediate visual impact”, while also acknowledging Redgate as a “maturing artist who regards photography as a central pillar to her vision”. Through these insightful evaluations, as well as the laudatory language used throughout the article, McFarlane encourages readers to explore Redgate’s works, thus marketing her to audiences that may not have otherwise been aware of her work, or at least of the significance that McFarlane finds in it. This promotion  becomes even more noteworthy when considering the fact that the article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper which has a very broad circulation and is read much more extensively than art-specific publications.

Despite the importance of positive criticism in creating an image of artists to audiences, negative criticism also encourages greater interest in an artist’s work, and in this way may also add value to an artist’s practice. This can be seen through John McDonald’s review of Redgate’s Life of the System 1980-2005, which comments on the resemblance of the artist’s works to “arid designer exercises” and questions whether “the course of Australian art [would have] been noticeably different” had Redgate “never existed”. In this way, McDonald downplays Redgate’s status, criticising her “hermetic thinking” and arguing that her work has been overrated by curators and other critics. For all its negativity, however, McDonald’s review of Redgate is in many ways an acknowledgement of her success, and, when taken in the context of reviews by other critics, contributes to the construction of a more complex and realistic view of Redgate’s practice that enhances her attractiveness and prominence in the artworld. In fact, it can be argued that negative criticism, particularly in eminent publications such as newspapers, contributes more significantly to an artist’s fame simply because of the allure that controversy and the “forbidden fruit” regularly have to audiences, who, in any case, most often come to their own conclusions regarding the success or subjective qualities of the artist’s works.

By looking closely at the practice of Jacky Redgate and its growth and development throughout history, it can be seen that an artist’s success is most often determined by the interactions between the agencies of the artworld that they come into contact with. In the case of Redgate, educational and commercial galleries, augmented by publications such as catalogues and compilations, were significant in introducing her into the artworld and promoting her to audiences and other consumers of art. The curators of these galleries played a particularly important role in selecting and refining her work into a unified whole, while critics utilised their insight and analysis to validate and project an eloquent image of her practice to audiences. In turn, these agencies connected Redgate to other institutions, such as public galleries, which further promoted her to the general public, enabled her to articulate her status in the artworld and, in an almost cyclical fashion, once again consolidated her links to critics and commercial galleries. In this way, a retrospective look at Redgate’s interaction with the agencies of the artworld – a “system” that underpins her life as an artist – provides the best understanding of why, in 2005, she came to be described as an artist whose “singular combination of sculptural and photographic practice was so influential in determining the course of Australian art in the ensuing two decades.”[1]

Bibliography

COLLESS Edward, “Tradition: Jacky Redgate”, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 1988

CREAGH Sunanda, “The new landscape”, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2006, p. 15

FRENCH Blair, “Life of the System”, Life of the System catalogue, Sherman Galleries, 1998

GIBSON Ross, “The Colour Clavecin”, Jacky Redgate: Survey 1980-2003 catalogue

LANG Cay, Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist, Chronicle Books, 1998

McDONALD John, “Visual Art: Get into the groove”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 2005, p. 28

McFARLANE Robert, “A certain grace in the ordinary”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2006, p. 11

STANHOPE, Zara, “A Clear Eyed Look”, Jacky Redgate: Survey 1980-2003 catalogue, 2005

STOWELL Jill, “In a class of their own”, The Newcastle Herald, 21 January 2006, p. 14

SHERMAN GALLERIES, Artist Profile: Jacky Redgate, 2006

http://www.shermangalleries.com.au/artists/inartists/artist_profile.asp?artist=redgatej

EXPERIMENTAL ART FOUNDATION, Mission Statement, 2005

http://www.eaf.asn.au/mission_statement.html

BIENNALE OF SYDNEY, From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940 – 1988, 1988/2006

http://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/history/1988


[1] Michael Desmond, Life of the System 1980-2005, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia

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