Review: ‘Rosalie Gascoigne’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 9th December 2008 – 15th March 2009


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Forty acre block' 1977


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Forty acre block
Painted wood and metal, collage



This exhibition is a relatively small, muscular yet poetic evocation of the life and work of one of my favourite Australian artists, Rosalie Gascoigne. Perhaps I have an affinity with this artist that goes beyond words: being English I have grown to love the Australian landscape but to see the way Gascoigne visions it is a truly moving experience. I have also admired artists that can successfully combine images and sculptural elements visually in their work, language and memory impinging on consciousness (hence my infatuation with the work of Joseph Cornell).

As we enter the exhibition early constructions – wooden boxes – are presented dating from 1975-1984. These have a rough hewn, rustic charm to them, made as they are of weathered thick planks of wood. Less refined than the boxes of Joseph Cornell (see below) they nevertheless draw on the Australian vernacular in their use of objects. As with the Cornell boxes there is a strong element of childhood fun and games in these constructions. Dolly boxes (1976) for example contains innumerable plastic dollies of different sizes held inside wooden boxes; Black bird box (1976) is like a shooting gallery at a fun fair; other boxes feature birds and sea shells trapped in plastic bottles, printed images of moths, test tubes, candlesticks, metal teapots and children’s bicycle seats. Cloister (1977) below echoes the work of Joseph Cornell in it’s use of classical Renaissance imagery but with a rustic Australian charm. Unlike Cornell’s boxes which are enclosed dreamscapes that do not live in the world, Cascoigne’s boxes are made her own by being open and receptive to the landscape from which they merge, by being open to the world.

Forty acre block (1977, above) is a play on the great Aussie dream of owning your own 1/4 acre block. Inside the crate like tableaux we find cardboard parrots perched menacingly on rusted cylindrical metal tubes, two cardboard cut out cows with their white faces turned towards the viewer and at the rear of the box a sun-bleached picture of an orchard and three cows with human heads: a surreal vision of the Aussie landscape. Continuing the playfulness Parrot morning (1976, below) extends the theme, the bicycle wheel almost having elements of Duchamp’s readymades but given an Australian twist with the perching parrots.

Moving forward we find one of my favourite works, Feathered chairs (1978, below), a most beautiful evocation of technology and nature. Two red rusted 1950’s office chairs sit low on the floor, their seats, back and sides replaced by four rows of dark Commorant feathers held in place by wooden slats clamped together. Simple yet eloquent these surreal chairs have a poetic rhythm of place and space, speaking of the abandonment of  technology and it’s re-habitation by a trapped but beautiful nature. Other work becomes simpler, more focused around this time (and especially from 1984 onwards) as though the artist was finding her singular voice, was confident of the ‘less is more’ rhythms of the music she was creating. The essence appears: of the land, artefacts and spaces. In Swell (1984) for example two convex forms of corrugated iron (one horizontal, one vertical) play off of each other, forming an opposing flow of energies like the swelling of the sea. Nothing else is needed.

In Step through (1980) fragments of floral linoleum floor are mounted on wooden blocks at differing heights allowing the viewer to visually wander across the space of the installation as their mind wanders to memories of the floors of Australian kitchens of the 1950’s – either seen in childhood or in photographs – their is a recognition from all ages, in all Australians. This theme is further developed in the gridded Inland sea (1986, below) patches of corrugated iron float above the ground like gently moving waves. Beautiful in it’s simplicity the colours, shapes and spaces evocatively reflect the undulating rise and fall of the landscape from which the iron has been rescued, the breath of air on the wind rippling the water.

The use of regularised block and grids start to appear in wall mounted vistas: of loopholes, of lovers, the metropolis and the fall, of beach houses and far views, of grasslands and medusas. ‘Promised land’ (1986) offers a vision resplendent of a far away country – the promised land abstracted to Tarax, Dales, Cottee’s, Blue Bow home deliveries of a Sparkling Fruity Flavour! box ends, the 32 Fl. Oz weight weighing the vision of the Australian landscape in the balance.

The most effective work uses the yellow colour of Schweppes boxes. In Monaro (1989), one of my favourite works in the exhibition the painted blocks of yellow wood with unreadable fragmented words on them become, from a distance, like the wafting waving dried grasses of the Monaro landscape around Gascoigne’s home. Liquid music of air and place.

“I like the gold of the Schweppes boxes. I think that gold is one of the classical colours. I don’t care if it has got Schweppes written all over it, people seem to think I care. I don’t care! I just like the black and yellow. When I started I had lots of off-cuts, little pieces too good to throw away. So I started joining them up in a sort of way, walking around them, adding a few more. I soon had a 6 x 4 foot panel. In the end I realised that I needed to have four panels to say what I wanted to say. As it grew so did I. I kept thinking of the Monaro grasslands, and I thought of David Campbell saying ‘the Monaro rolls on to the sea’.” 

Graeme Sullivan, Seeing Australia – Views of artists and art writers, Piper Press, Annandale, New South Wales, 1994, p. 19.


Summer swarm (1995) features small yellow blocks of wood an assemblage of yellow bees; Grassfest (1999, below) like a stand of yellow grass under the Australian sun; Metropolis (1999, below) collaged and patched road signs are worked together overlaying spaces and language. In Plenty (1986) yellow wood bricks mounted in panels are held in place with rusted metal nails. if you move close to the work the effect is immersive – every inflection of colour, grain of the wood, knot, nail hole, rub, scuff, daub of paint becomes evident. Every block is same but different, an almost transcendental experience.

In this work there is a refining of the essence of her vision of the world, a paring back of all extraneous elements but conversely an expansion in the energy of the work. A mature artist at the peak of their power.

In the ‘white’ work Star chart (1995) and Milky way (1995), heaven and earth reflect each other, the grids and patterns linked in a cosmic dance. But mostly air (1994-1995) the large installation that closes the exhibition confirms this dance, containing as it does white blocks of wood (invisible air) with a row of weathered wooden posts propped up against the gallery wall and animal spirits made of wooden blocks: faces with wings and ears, gasping for breath, white animals on a white background hovering between here and there, between heaven and earth.

This is a wonderful exhibition. Gascoigne rightly commands a place in the pantheon of Australian stars. She has left us with a legacy of music that evokes the rhythms, the air, the spaces and colours of our country. As she herself said,

“Look at what we have: Space, skies. You can never have too much of nothing.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the NGV for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Cloister' 1977

Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Mixed media


Joseph Cornell. 'Medici Princess' 1948


Joseph Cornell
Medici Princess
Mixed media


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Parrot morning' 1976


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Parrot morning


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Feathered chairs' 1978


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Feathered chairs


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) 'The tea party' 1980


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
The tea party
Painted wood, celluloid, plastic, enamelled metal, feathers
82.0 x 35.0 x 190.0 cm
Gascoigne Family Collection, Canberra
© Rosalie Gascoigne Estate. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia



After first exhibiting her work at the age of 57, Rosalie Gascoigne rapidly established a reputation as one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists. Following her first exhibition in 1974, Gascoigne subsequently developed an impressive exhibition history that included her being honoured, in 1982, as the first female artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

This major exhibition of Rosalie Gascoigne’s work ranges from the boxlike assemblages of her early career through to large scale installations and her creation of master works constructed from Schweppes soft drink crates and retro-reflective road signs. The exhibition investigates the artist’s ability to draw creative inspiration from the discarded; her intrinsic response to her chosen materials, and her unique ability to evocatively convey the essence of nature and the transitory and captivating effects of light, air and space.

Rosalie Gascoigne is the first major retrospective exhibition of Gascoigne’s work to be seen in Melbourne and is accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalogue.

Text from the NGV website


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Step through' 1980


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Step through


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Inland sea' 1986


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Inland sea
Weathered painted corrugated iron, wire



Rosalie Gascoigne’s art comes from, is inspired by, and in turn reflects the spare countryside of the southern tablelands and the Monaro district, a unique natural environment that lies relatively close to Canberra, the artist’s home of more than fifty years. Gascoigne’s transformation and re-investment in her work of battered and weathered materials sourced in the landscape surrounding Canberra also highlights the importance of collecting to her oeuvre, as different materials appear in works from across the decades …

Gascoigne’s knowledge and love of language and of Romantic poetry is evident in many of her works as she aspired to make art that achieved ‘allusive and illusive’ qualities that she experienced in this form. Through the artist’s skill in making poetry of the commonplace and her intrinsic response to both her chosen materials and the particularities of the Australian landscape, we are able to witness her unique ability to evocatively capture and convey the essence of nature and the transitory and captivating effects of light, air and space.

Wall text from the exhibition


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Sweet lovers' 1990


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Sweet lovers
Reflective synthetic polymer film on plywood
105.0 x 79.5 cm
Collection of Christopher Hodges and Helen Eager, Sydney
Photo: Christian Markel
© Rosalie Gascoigne Estate. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Grassfest' 1999


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
Weathered painted wood on composition board
106.5 x 101.0 cm
Queensland University of Technology Art Collection, Brisbane
Purchased, 1999
© Rosalie Gascoigne Estate. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'Metropolis' 1999


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)


Rosalie Gascoigne. 'White city' 1993


Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999)
White city



The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website


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3 Responses to “Review: ‘Rosalie Gascoigne’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne”

  1. August 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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