Almanac Art: Eyes on the Ball – Review from 1996

Images of Australian Rules Football, Waverly City Gallery


The Australian, 26th July 1996.


“Blues to Bite Back”, “Cats Claw Out of Trouble”, “Kangas to Add to Magpie Woe”. To many fans in and outside the art world, such headlines – culled from the pages of a recent Herald Sun Friday Footy Formbook – are pure poetry.


However, at the risk of being called before some future Un-Australian Activities Committee, I have to say Australian rules football has never been one of my passions in life. So it was with a degree of detachment, though not disinterest that I viewed Eyes on the Ball: Images of Australian Rules Football at the Waverly City Gallery which, incidentally, was opened by poet, writer and former league footballer Ted Hopkins.


Promising to be the greatest meeting of art and Aussie rules since the time Sam Newman interviewed Brett Whiteley, and close to the subject in question than that brief encounter, Eyes on the Ball is just one of the exhibitions engendered by the AFL’s centenary this year.


For instance, in April, Hidden Treasures: A Visual History of Australian Football featured specially commissioned works by 13 Australian artists, thus deliberately boosting the stocks of paintings for future shows.


Although the Waverly survey includes some other material, it differs from the earlier exhibition, which consisted mainly of photographs, illustrations, caricatures and what was described as “an amazing range of prized club memorabilia”. This is not surprising as photography in particular has made a far superior contribution to the creation of iconic images of the game than painting and sculpture.


For a show about a sport that boasts a colourful history, its share of colourful larger-than-life personalities, and of course, bright and bold team colours, Eyes on the Ball is a rather drab affair.


One is tempted to blame this one a preponderance of dark or earth colours in works of different persuasions, from Dorothy Braund’s semi-abstract forms and Robin Juniper’s fusion of figure and landscape to the realist images of Bernart Rust and Noel Counihan.


Counihan – by guest curator Chris McAuliffe’s account “a rabid South Melbourne fan” – attempts to escape the drabness of much social realist painting by heightening The High Mark (1947) with yellow.


There are, no doubt, people who see Counihan’s high-flyers as symbols of working-class aspirations, positioned at some distance from the league’s middle-class origins. But I was struck by the painting’s relation to those works, particularly by older moderns, that capture players in serpentine or balletic poses.


From here it is but a small step to that curious habit among team members of occasionally dressing up in tutus, a tradition, I believe, recently upheld on The Footy Show and in the exhibit Mardi Gras Costume, Dermot Brereton (1995), complete with photographic evidence. And what does the future hold? The Dance of the Dying Swans?


Despite my earlier remarks, McAuliffe’s display does begin on a bright and happy note with Glenn Morgan’s mixed media work, “The Football Supporters: Kardinia Park” (1994). Morgan is one artist who has never needed a commission to get him going, as Aussie Rules – its players, its fans and their foibles – has been the subject of many a sculptural commentary.


However, on the back of his piece, Morgan makes light of the dark side of football in the 90s, supporter discontent, with the comment, “Kardinia Park: The Worst Facilities in the Bloody AFL”. In a way, it sets the mood for a group of nearby works (by Michael Shannon, Greg Ades, Cathy Drummon and Eamon Scott) which depict in paintings and collage, images of abandonment and decay in a climate of club amalgamations and ground rationalisation.


If one is tempted to view them collectively as a pictorial representations of Ross Oakley’s ten year legacy, McAuliffe reminds us elsewhere (in Art and Australia) that Shannon’s paintings and drawings of deserted football grounds in the early 70s, which pre-date Oakley’s regime, are “among the first of many images that use abandoned football grounds to signify the decline of tradition, the loss of community and the failure of myth in the face of post-war change.”


McAuliffe has organised the exhibits into categories such as “Images of Community Experience” (in which Shannon and others are placed), “Football and Gender” and “Abstract Approaches to Football”. Not the wisest of ploys, as art works have a habit of straying from their allotted positions.


Compared with Braund’s “Leap (Pink)” (1967) and the colourful geometry of Julian Martin’s pastel “Michael Long” (1995), for example, Daniel Moynihan’s openly figurative “Picking up the Ball on the Run” (1980-81) seems to have little connection with abstract approaches, while Fred Williams’ rather clumsy drawings of minor Collingwood players of the late 40s are related to gender, apparently because they are non-heroic images.


Eleswhere, the issue of racism in football is neatly encapsulated in Alan Tucker’s narrative painting of the Nicky Winmar affair, and football as a religion is given an ironic slant in Peter Tyndall’s “Saints and Demons after the Triumph of Christianity by Tommaso Siciliano 1585” (1996).


Rose Nolan’s neo-constructivist paintings of dull stripes and ovals bridge the gap between abstraction and footy worship, but could have made the point with half the number. Another imbalance in the display is created by Victor Majzner’s over-large picture “We Still Build Towers” (1990), which hogs a space that would have been better filled by other more relevant smaller works.


*Robert Rooney (d.2017) was the Melbourne based art critic for The Australian from 1982-1999. He was a widely influential artist within Australian contemporary art and his works are featured prominently in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.


“Eyes on the Ball: Images of Australian Rules Football”


Waverly City Gallery 14th July – 8 September, 1996


Swan Hill Regional Gallery, 27th September – 10th November, 1996


National Museum of Australia – Edmund Wright House, Adelaide, 20th December – 1996-10th February 1997.


Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 1st March – 27th April, 1997.


Campbelltown City Art Gallery, 28th June – 28th July 1997.


Geelong Art Gallery 29th August – 5th October 1997.

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