Review: COFA Annual 2011

I passionately unenrolled from COFA a few years ago. Frustrated with the lack of technical training and the ‘art is anything and everything’ attitude, I sailed to the promising shores of the Julian Ashton Art School. Swapping the glossy studios of COFA for the creaky floors of Ashton’s was the best decision I made as an artist.

When I was asked to review the COFA Annual, I was both excited and sceptical. Who better – or worse – to review the show, I thought, than myself? Without wanting to be jaded from the start, I saw the request as an opportunity to have my low views of COFA disproven.

Pushing through the humidity of a curious crowd last Friday night as I descended the spiral of the Roundhouse, adorned with streamers, miniature houses, balloons, spot lights and giant car air fresheners, it was immediately apparent that the COFA Annual was very big, very diverse and very hit and miss.

2011 saw a flock of over three hundred and fifty students graduate COFA, and their displayed works reflected the evolved product of their artistic progression. The massive exhibition showcased an array of photography, drawing, painting, digital media, sculpture, jewellery, installation, textiles, printmaking, video works, environments and illustration.

The immensity of the show guaranteed that whether you love or hate the idea of a graffiti house dripping with fluorescent puff-paint, woolly embroidered body parts, or a metallic mannequin with matching silver goon bag, there would be at least something that’d engage you.

The design works were, on the whole, well designed and conceptually very strong. Despite the show’s diversity, there were noticeable themes drawing from different disciplines. Textiles was one of them, environmental sustainability the other. For textile designer Diya Dasgupta, whose energetic and colourful prints incorporated sailing boats, emu heads and intricate organic patterns, these two themes are symbiotic: “A lot of designers look to nature for inspiration”, said Dasgupta. Having grown up in India, nature for Dasgupta also relates to her cultural environment, as seen in her Ikat weave-inspired prints and use of vibrant quintessentially Indian reds, ochres and purples.

Similarly, artist, illustrator and designer, Victoria Garcia’s Surrocodelia offered an intensely detailed and effervescent depiction of flora and fauna. Lining the walls of a lit room, were watercolour and ink drawings of snakes, deer, birds, huntsmen spiders, insects, armadillos, mushrooms and lush vegetation. Standing in the space, the effect was simultaneously intriguing and overwhelming. Each blade of grass, feather’s spine, follicle of fur and reptilian scale is drawn with such precision and delicacy that the eye is propelled into overdrive. This overstimulated effect is exactly the intention of Garcia, who amalgamates her favourite art styles – Surrealism, Rococo and Psychedelia – into an intensely mesmerising ‘wunderkammer’ or ‘cabinet of curiosity’. One stunned viewer summed up the experience in a single utterance – acid.

Equally exciting were the products of designers who tackled environmental problems in innovative and aesthetic ways. From planters that collect and drink air-conditioning condensation to re-upholstered and re-designed used furniture by ‘Nine Lives’, the environment seems to be in reassuring hands with this new generation of up and coming designers. One such designer, Rachel Wong, collaborated with Natalie Lysaught to develop an educational course for high-school design and technology students, which ‘inspires students to realise the potential of recycled goods and furniture.’

Yet, traditional Fine Art viewers beware! The Fine Arts component of the show was at times disheartening, or for parents, possibly nostalgic – like walking through their child’s kindergarten. I wasn’t sure when, but at some point during the show my feeling of being underwhelmed crept into unshakeable irritation. Cliché subject matter made me reminisce high-school days, and some portraits lacked serious anatomical understanding. Abstract works made me wonder whether the artist’s decision against realism was a conscious or necessary one, based on skill level.

However, there was an undeniable altruistic focus to many artists’ and designers’ works, which was genuinely refreshing and evocative. Janani Sarath-Kumara’s stunning prints, which feature 2D patterns metamorphosing into a 3D manifestation of the design, explore the shift from the visual to the tactile, reflecting the process of going blind. Clothing items made from her textiles support people with cataracts. Similarly, Alice Lam’s The Design. Nature. Aspiration Project aimed to promote lung health, increase awareness and foster financial support for medical research through a range of exhibition based, charity jewellery for the Australian Lung Foundation. Lam’s lung-cells inspired brass-casted necklace was unusually exquisite.

Other works were exquisite in different ways. The beautiful yet harrowing photographic works of various photographers bought the viewer into an eerie moment removed from the cacophony of the general exhibition. Depicted in Luke Stambouliah’s Betwixt was the blown-up silhouette of an elderly woman’s profile, her tiny hairs illuminated by a back-lit halo of cool, electric light. Despite omitting all detail save the subject’s outline, the portrait was surprisingly characteristic and intimate.

Rachel Wallace-Hor’s photographs of the human body emerging from darkness were reminiscent of Bill Hensen’s unsettling blue-tinted nudes, rendered all the more dramatic by the effective use of chiaroscuro typical in a Caravaggio composition. Wallace-Hor’s images were subtly chilling and visceral, appropriately expressing the artist’s intent of exploring the physiological effects of repression and unconsciousness upon the human psyche.

Ultimately, against the subtly and technical finesse of some works, by many talented artists who have not here been mentioned, certain works were jarring and underdeveloped. No matter how clever or powerful the concept, without highly trained technical skill, the artwork will collapse. After all, art is visual – if a person wants to express a message without this consideration, they should write an essay, not paint a picture.

Previous experience at COFA has indicated to me first-hand that here technique is secondary to ideas, a philosophy that is deeply detrimental to the overall aesthetic quality of the works. Although at times underwhelming, the exhibition redeems possible feelings of dissatisfaction by works that are strongly developed and produced with great care and aptitude. Visually digesting all the works in one go was exhausting, but worth it. Some works were good, some amazing, and others neither.

Harriet Levenston