Melbourne’s 9 X 5 Exhibition … the time is NOW

Micky Allan's 9 X 5: Early Morning near Maria Island [detail]. Pigment print, synthetic polymer resin, collage on rag paper.

More than 300 contemporary visual artists have contributed original artworks for the 9 X 5 NOW exhibition at the Victorian College of the Arts, which ran from 16–25 June at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. The show’s curator explains why.

By Dr Elizabeth Gower, Curator of 9 X 5 NOW

9 X 5 NOW, at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 16–25 June, showcases generations of practicing artists who have studied or taught at the National Gallery School or VCA Art. The most experienced artist represented attended the National Gallery School in the 1940s, and the youngest completed studies at the Victorian College of the Arts just one year ago.

Kirsty Budge, Thanks for having me but I'm probably going to run away without saying goodbye, no offence.
Kirsty Budge's 9 X 5: Thanks for having me but I'm probably going to run away without saying goodbye, no offence. Oil on canvas.

The exhibition title and concept references the famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition held at the Buxton Rooms, Swanston Street Melbourne in 1889. All seven artists in that exhibition, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder, C. Douglas Richardson, R.E. Falls and Herbert Daly, were National Gallery School alumni. McCubbin was also a staff member and Louis Abrahams, also a former student, supplied the 9 x 5 inch cedar cigar box lids on which the works were painted.

At the time, women made up the majority of the National Gallery School student cohort and alumni. It is significant to note that Jane Sutherland, Clara Southern, May Vale, Elizabeth Parsons, and Jane Price, who practised en plein air painting and were associated with the development of Australian Impressionism, were not included in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.

Louise Hearman, Untitled #1501 2017.
Louise Hearman’s 9 X 5: Untitled #1501 2017. Oil on masonite.

In contrast, representation in the current 9 X 5 NOW exhibition is characterised by inclusivity and diversity of identity, generation and practice. Each contributing artist was supplied with a 9 x 5 inch (23 x 13 cm) plywood board, and a range of works have been returned from across Australia and overseas that include contemporary approaches to photography, drawing, text, painting and cross media practice.

It is easy to forget that en plein air painting promoted by the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition was avant garde and challenged the prevailing status quo. In this light, the 1889 exhibition can be considered one of the first Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs), which have since come to characterise exhibition practice in Melbourne.

Jon Cattapan, Veiled Woman Study.
Jon Cattapan’s 9 X 5: Veiled Woman Study. Oil on wood.

Many ARIs have been founded and developed by subsequent generations of National Gallery School and VCA graduates as venues for independent exhibitions, debate and the promotion of cutting-edge aesthetics. These include Art Projects, Roar Studios, First floor, Basement, TCB art inc, Conical, Westspace, DAMP, Kings ARI, Blender Studios, Blindside, Platform and Caves.

The quality and range of works in 9 x 5 NOW are indicative of the significant contribution the 350 eminent alumni and staff have made to art education, the visual arts and the broader cultural landscape of Australia.

Emma Coulter’s 9 X 5: self-intersecting #2. Synthetic polymer paint.
Emma Coulter’s 9 X 5: self-intersecting #2. Synthetic polymer paint.

In addition, the funds from the sale of works from 9 X 5 Now will establish the ART150 Fellowship, encouraging subsequent generations of alumni to pursue and support high ambitions for their work.

It has been a privilege and a challenge to curate this landmark exhibition.

9 X 5 NOW runs at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, from 16–25 June. See event details.