Documenting the pandemic, season by season

Fox Galleries launches 'Modern Seasons: the Great Curve', a publication and exhibition series exploring the four seasons lived under COVID.

Australian artists were hard hit by COVID-19. Melbourne’s Fox Galleries rose to meet the challenges early in the pandemic by creating a publication project to potentially replace its exhibition program in the face of expected disruptions. The project supported staff and engaged artists over the year of rolling lockdowns. Its result is a powerful record of that unprecedented time.

Five well-known local artists were invited to explore the four seasons of the uncertain year ahead and create work within the prism of their 2020 pandemic experience for a quartet of books and exhibitions. As anticipated, each of the exhibitions experienced COVID disruptions, but all four books are now published, with the complete series titled, Modern Seasons: the Great Curve, being officially launched on 5 June. A supporting exhibition will showcase select works from across the series.

The Modern Seasons: the Great Curve book series draws together artwork from renowned painter, sculptor, printmaker and Roar Studios co-founder Mark Schaller; master ceramics sculptor Barry Tate and outsider artist Matthew Clarke; widely collected artist Esther Erlich, known for her distinctive portraits; and landscape painter Shannon Smiley.

 All four book covers from the Modern Season, the Great Curve four-publication box set. Photo Manon Mikolaitis.

Adjusting to strange times

The series title extends the notion of the four calendar seasons, reflecting the strangely altered and protracted sense of time brought about by lockdowns and restrictions, and also refers to the exponential growth curve of COVID, which the community successfully flattened.

The approach of each of the artists to their designated theme reflects their season living within and responding to a COVID-constrained world, resulting in some noticeable shifts in artistic practice and alterations in mood and stylistic form. Fox Galleries Curator Rebecca Agnew says, ‘I think the work leans into that postwar era of art where there’s some kind of rawness coming through or some kind of magical thing the artists are doing. There’s a sense of escapism in all the artworks, which I found quite interesting.’

‘I think the work leans into that postwar era of art where there’s some kind of rawness coming through or some kind of magical thing the artists are doing. There’s a sense of escapism in all the artworks, which I found quite interesting.’

Rebecca Agnew, Fox Galleries Curator

The COVID year, refracted through the seasons

For Botanicus Fantasticus (Autumn), Mark Schaller adopted an en plein air studio, painting in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens and investigating how people on their insatiable quest to be outside the home within a natural environment during lockdown actually interacted with the gardens. His playful sculptures and paintings explore the human figure in contact with nature.

In The Winter of Disconnect: The Great Indoors (Winter), master ceramics sculptor Barry Tate and outsider artist Matthew Clarke provide social commentary and meditations on the increased fragility of the Australian environment and on the geographic, political and psychological impacts of COVID-19, highlighting the question of who suffers and who will be saved.

Barry Tate, Noah’s Ark, from The Winter of Disconnect: The Great Indoors. Photo Manon Mikolaitis.

Esther Erlich, in An Intimate Distance (Spring), responds to easing social restrictions and springtime weather by marrying the aesthetic of Baroque and Flemish portraiture to an energetic contemporary mix of fantasy, cinema and fashion to investigate ideas around intimacy and how to create it when it’s not accessible.

Esther Erlich, Beautillion Ball, 2020, Acrylic on canvas. Photo Rebecca Agnew.

In Current State (Summer), a series of landscape paintings, Shannon Smiley looks at urban environments and how a feeling of deep nature can be experienced in pockets of suburbia. His newly loose and hyper-idyllic style of painting and use of song titles that reflect universal sentiments articulate hope and offer a glimmer of dreamlike reprieve from the global sense of unease.

Books as beautiful objects, cultural records and teaching tools

Across the book series, each artists’ vision is sumptuously documented with 20-30 full-colour images of their artwork, accompanied by an in-depth essay by Fox Galleries Curator Rebecca Agnew and a foreword by respected art historian and lecturer Dr Helen Hughes which provide cultural and theoretical context for the work.

The books, printed with organically sourced ink by Melbourne’s Ellikon Fine Printing (known for their museum and gallery publications), range from 64 to 68 pages and beneath their dust jackets boast a spectacular full-cover-to-cover image.

The publications, which can be purchased individually or as a limited edition box set housed in a clamshell box, are intended not just for art lovers and collectors but also as an educational resource for universities, schools and public libraries. They are both art object and social history document, capturing and interpreting the first year of this COVID pandemic through these artists’ eyes and framing opportunities for ongoing conversations about this extraordinary time.

Join Fox Galleries for a special panel discussion to celebrate the launch of its Modern Seasons: the Great Curve book series and companion exhibition which has been temporarily postponed due to lockdown.

The books are available for purchase as individual titles ($59.95 each) or a box set of four ($225) via the Fox Galleries website.

Robyn Kinsey
About the Author
Robyn Kinsey is a freelance writer, editor and digital communications specialist who has worked across the cultural, travel publishing and not-for-profit sectors.