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Australia's 10 Most Famous Artists
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Australia's 10 Most Famous Artists

Picture of Eleanor Cunningham
Updated: 20 December 2017
When the first artists arrived in colonial Australia from Europe in the late 18th century, they were confronted by images and scenery the likes of which they had never seen before. This diverse cultural landscape has inspired artists for generations. Often associated with painters and craftsman, artists working within mixed and new media have emerged in recent years who also explore this vast terrain. With the upcoming exhibition Australia being held at London’s Royal Academy from 21st September – 8th December 2013, we discover ten contemporary artists who are significant to Australia’s booming art industry.

Simryn Gill (1959- )

Inspired by private statements of social identity, Simryn Gill was born in Singapore and presently lives in Sydney, Australia and Port Dickson, Malaysia. As an artist of Punjabi ancestry, her work is quietly critical of Australia’s increasing intransigence on political refugees. Her work Paper Boats (2009) is an example of this, which encouraged participants to fashion vessels from pages of a 1968 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Gill uses discarded everyday objects within her photographs and assemblages to create playful works, raising questions about the origins and movements of objects within particular cultures. In her photographic series Dalam (2001) Gill photographed 258 lounge rooms on the Malay Peninsula over a period of two months, almost transforming the spaces into shrines in the process. For each house she restricted herself to only one view of a chosen room, imposing strict rules to help her unlock and gain access to hidden secrets and desires. Gill is currently representing Australia at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Fiona Hall (1953- )

Fiona Hall attempts to transform everyday and overlooked materials into vital organic forms which hold both contemporary and historical references. The core theme throughout Hall’s oeuvre is the relationship between nature and culture, and the overall complexity within these pieces comes from her exploration of many fields of interest; Hall’s background in photography and painting is closely connected to her developments in sculpture since the 1990s. Her large-scale Polaroid photographs of the mid 1990s reflect consumer products and the desire people have for them. The artist has also used Polaroid photograph to explore, in visual form, the stories of the ‘great books’ of literature. Hall has undertaken many residencies in Australia, including one at Brisbane’s Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in 1998. Her ongoing interest in the history of plants and plant classifications found fresh energy in 1999, through annual residencies at Lunuganga, a garden estate in Sri Lanka. She has exhibited widely, including in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1996), and is represented in most major public art collections in Australia.

David Noonan (1969- )

David Noonan is most famously known for his silk screens on linen. These are created by superimposing two found images and then printing them to make unique prints (not editions). The imagery used is gathered from a variety of print sources (from film stills to magazine cuttings), so producing prints seems more appropriate to Noonan than painting. Despite this, his process is extremely similar to painting in that he would print material at a print workshop then take it back to his studio and construct the pieces as collages there. His work, over the years, has become more interested in ‘the surface’; challenging the flatness of a print through collage and layering. Starting to create flat sculptures out of plywood, Noonan has found a way of extruding elements that might be found in his pictures into a physical space.

Callum Morton (1965- )

Canadian-born and Melbourne-raised artist Callum Morton presents a thorough understanding of built space, evident through the intricacies of his models. From the clean sophistication of International Style (1999, based on architect Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House) to the haunted ruins of Valhalla (created for the Venice Biennale in 2007 and re-installed in the 2009 Melbourne Festival), Morton’s sculptures and installations often draw from a deep understanding and appreciation of architectural forms. A son of an architect, Morton creates these scaled models using sophisticated computer skills, similar to those used by both computer game designers and architects. Through his practice Morton explores themes of destruction, decay and visual representation, setting familiar buildings and forms from architectural history against their original, often idealized purposes, in order to tell a hidden and darker story. Animating his sculptures with sound and light, Morton proposes that buildings are stages and that life is a performance.

Daniel Crooks (1973- )

New Zealand born Daniel Crooks currently lives in Melbourne and divides his time between creating art and his work as a motion graphics designer at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). Working with photography and video, Crook’s work is mainly influenced from the early scientific photography of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Crooks expresses a deep understanding of how a work of art can present the experiential value of time within his art practice. Employing a complex range of techniques to investigate new ways of representing time and space, his experiments become a malleable, fluid space, creating poetic and mesmerizing interpretations of the everyday world. The resulting moving images and static photographs invite long contemplation and repeated viewing, and express a deceptively familiar world, albeit one seen from a new perspective. Crooks has received numerous grants and residencies nationally and internationally for research and development, and has won numerous awards including the City of Stuttgart Prize for Animation, and an Australian Short Film Award at the 1996 Sydney International Film Festival.

Margaret Preston (1875-1963)

One of Australia’s most celebrated female artists, Margaret Preston was also known as ‘Rose McPherson,’ ‘Mad Maggie,’ and ‘Ratty Sarah’ for her loud and sharp tongue. Born in Port Adelaide, Preston spent the majority of her life traveling and studying in Munich, Paris and England. During her time in Europe, Preston was greatly influenced by European modernism and the French Post-Impressionists such as Matisse and Cezanne, as well as the Cubist style of Picasso. It was also in Europe that she would be influenced and fascinated by Japanese art. This fascination was particularly directed at the Japanese woodblock prints which utilized bright colors on plain surfaces, lacking both shadows and any ‘centeredness’. In 1929, when art had been previously dominated by men, she became the first female artist commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint a self-portrait. Preston, although not the first Australian artist to employ Indigenous symbols, pushed for mainstream society to acknowledge Aboriginal culture at a time when Indigenous people and their beliefs were shunned by white Australian society.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984)

Grace Cossington Smith is best known as the leading Sydney painter during the Australian modernist movement, her painting The Sock Knitter (1915) is generally regarded as Australia’s first modernist work. Recognized for her vibrant use of color, Smith depicted scenes of everyday and domestic life in Sydney, where she lived in her family home in Turramurra for most of her years. Her subject matter was diverse and included everything from street scenes and bustling crowds to bush landscapes and still life. While her art was mostly private in subject, some of her paintings expressed the general excitement and turbulence of big-city life, including ballet and musical performances. Most unusually in Australian art, there are also several paintings of important events in public life, such as troops marching to World War I, and a dawn landing on D-Day in World War II. However, her most moving works are the late interiors of Cossington house. She lived alone here after the death of her close family and the house became insistently filled with memories. Smith’s affections became the principal subject of her art, showing religious imagery of golden light entering doors and windows from the verandah and the leafy garden, spreading into corners, corridors and cupboards.

Jeffrey Smart (1921 – 2013)

Jeffrey Smart’s work is often described as ‘a study in modern alienation’ due to his oft-isolated figures on roads, bridges and vacant lots. In fact, it would be far more accurate to describe many of the works as portraiture, as he often painted individuals, be they famous figures such as David Malouf and Clive James, everyday people, or himself. By placing these figures alone in stark concrete landscapes, Smart was not necessarily depicting alienation. Instead, many of these portraits can be seen as a reflection on creative life, on its solitary work, artistic struggles and joys. He was interested in exploring the passing of time and was fascinated by J.W. Dunne’s theory that the past, present and future could all be one and the same thing (a concept that also preoccupied writers like T.S. Eliot).

Robert Klippel (1920 – 2001)

Robert Klippel was interested in the relationship between organic and machine forms and the internal structure of these forms. His interest in sculpture grew during WW2 while making models of ships for the Navy for recognition training. This lead to his early monumental carved stone figures and Surrealist works of the 1940s. His later works, for which he is best known, were non-figurative assemblages; Klippel started joining found objects together to create sculpture, in much the same way as a collagist creates pictures. He began incorporating machine parts, pieces of wood and industrial piping, resulting in his now-famous ‘junk’ assemblages. Never one to be too direct in his work, Klippel firmly believed in the idea that art ‘doesn’t have to say something’. Thus, many of his works are not identified by a name, but simply by a number, leaving the viewer to interpret what the artist is (or, for that matter, isn’t) saying with the piece.

Brett Whiteley (1939–1992)

Early in his career Brett Whiteley made a name for himself in London, exhibiting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and coming into contact with many famous British painters – Francis Bacon and David Hockney among others. His early paintings startled critics and fellow artists, and two reoccurring subjects became evident: the landscape and the nude, both elements which became the mainstay of his artistic practice. At the root of all Whiteley’s work was a draftsmanship of stunning artistry, capable of capturing a river in a single sweeping line of brush and ink, or the erotic curves of the human body in a few searching strokes of charcoal. Under the influence of such artists as Francis Bacon, whose portrait he painted in 1972, Whiteley abandoned his early abstract style in favor of a more figurative Expressionism. His best-known works of the 1960s included a series of paintings inspired by the British mass murderer John Christie. After visiting the United States and Fiji in the mid 1960s, Whiteley returned to Australia and created a series of Expressionist landscapes.

To discover more Australian artists, read about the Royal Academy’s upcoming exhibition Australia here.