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a woman drese din black jeans and top looks at a white gallery wall at Carriageworks covered in colourful superhero capes designed by First Nations children
Photograph: Zan Wimberley The Future is Here, 2021, Dennis Golding

The best art exhibitions to see in Sydney this summer

As the city's galleries and museums reopen, there's so much to see and do

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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Winter was particularly gruelling this year, but the dark days are over and the shining light of a city reopening lies ahead of us. The brilliant news is that there are already a bunch of intriguing exhibitions planned, presenting exciting new art to culture-hungry Sydneysiders this summer. From a glowing showcase of Henri Matisse, to a funky exhibition of teeny cars, and First Nations kids dreaming big with a superhero-inspired show, there's so much to get excited about.

Read on for our must-see list of the coolest art shows coming soon.

Recommended: Our guide to what's happening in Sydney this week

The best art around Sydney this summer

  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Darlinghurst

After lying in the dark for a few months, the National Art School (NAS) Gallery reopens it's blockbuster retrospective of one of their most renowned graduates in John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, showing from October 29 to November 27.

It traces his creative awakening under the baking Spanish sun, through his darkest hours and on to the peace and prosperity that lay beyond for this larrikin voice of the Australian landscape scene. It was while on a return visit to Spain in 1985, in Madrid’s Museo del Prado, that Olsen fell under the spell of ‘The Drowning Dog’, one of Francisco Goya’s pinturas negras (black paintings). He noted in his journal at the time,  “Goya’s dog – the disquieting animal head, peeping from the earth – dog and earth become interchangeable – dark and solemn, locked in itself, probing the sky like a primitive radar – asking for a sign.”

  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Sydney

Pintupi artists from the Western Deserts came together in 2000 to drive a hugely successful fundraising campaign, auctioning off beautiful large-scale works to help fund The Purple House, a First Nations-run, community-controlled, non-profit health service. Two decades later, that service has grown exponentially, and Art Gallery of NSW salutes their remarkable achievements.

Curated by Time Out Arts Future Shaper Coby Edgar, The Purple House exhibition – on display and free to visit until February 27, 2022 – brings together eight historically significant works by Pintupi artists. Edgar says, “The Purple House is an example of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be successful in developing business models that work for their communities. The Purple House helps people living in remote communities, including some of Australia’s most senior artists, to lead happier and healthier lives, allowing them to record and share their stories for future generations.”

 

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  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • Ultimo

The Powerhouse Museum’s new exhibition Microcars brings together a revhead’s dream of 17 pint-sized vehicles manufactured across Australia, Europe, Japan and the UK from the late 1940s. It also examines the reanimation of that trend in contemporary hybrid microcars. The movement put the petite pedal to the metal in the aftermath of WWII, with the aim of delivering more affordable and economic cars that would appeal to the masses still recovering from the devastation of that time, but who still wanted to reclaim some semblance of how life had been before. These microcars combined scooter engines with small, lightweight bodies, with examples popping up from the likes of BMW, Heinkel and Lambretta in Europe, and Buckle Motors and Harold Lightburn locally. You’ll even be able to see a microcar fit for a king, with a Messerschmitt KR200 on display, as purchased by the late, great Elvis Presley. The one on show was used in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic about the beloved American musician. The Renault Twizy and the Mercedes Benz Smartcar represent today’s innovations on the trend.

  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Paddington

You can get lost in the topsy turvy dreamscapes of Melbourne-based artist Kevin Chin. His astounding oil paintings depict beautiful landscapes that are not quite as they should be, with urban sprawl melding into nature running wild. Australian, American and Asian scenes overlap, and are quite often turned upside down and sideways, a bit like in the movie Inception.

His latest show, Never Closer, brings eight of these incredible reality-warping large-scale works to Martin Browne Contemporary in Paddington, from October 14 to November 7. And they are just the feast for sore eyes that art lovers locked up for too long need to drink in at length. “With borders intensified locally and globally, there’s so much attention on who’s allowed somewhere, and who isn’t,” Chin says. “These paintings mix up cultural references to test whether home can be grounded in just a single place, when so many of us connect on all different levels to various parts of the world.”

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  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Sydney

After the winter that was, we all need a massive dose of vibrant colour in our lives right now. Well, Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) listened and delivered. Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou presents the largest collection of the revered painter’s joyous work to ever wing its way to Sydney, with thanks to the world-famous Parisian home of contemporary art. You’ll be able to soak up the spirit-lifting sight of more than 100 of his brilliantly inventive creations - not just paintings but also sculptures, drawings, cut-outs and more – from November 20 right through to March 13, 2022. The show takes in the scope of his six decade-spanning career, with many of the inclusions having never been displayed in Australia.

A special presentation focused on his work in Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, in the south of France, is at  the heart of the exhibition. It’s considered to be the culmination of his life’s work. Sydney-based architect Richard Johnson has conjured up life-sized maquettes of the chapel windows. AGNSW head curator of international art Justin Paton worked with special exhibitions curator Jackie Dunn and Centre Pompidou’s Dr Aurélie Verdier to bring this glowing exhibition to life.

  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • The Rocks

Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang man Richard Bell is one of Australia’s most impactful contemporary artists and dedicated activists, a force for First Nations rights forged under the under the oppressive Bjelke-Petersen regime in Queensland, and then in Redfern. His illustrious 30-year career to date is celebrated in expansive new exhibition You Can Go Now, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) with whom he has enjoyed an ongoing relationship.

Reopening October 12 and running until November 7, it showcases his incendiary political artworks that use mighty satirical humour to eviscerate reductionist views of First Nations art within a post-colonial history and framework. It’s been overseen by MCA senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections and exhibitions Clothilde Bullen, and draws together nearly 40 artworks created across a range of mediums including painting, installation and video works. A recreation of the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra in 1972, ‘Bell’s Embassy’, is one of the exhibition’s centrepieces, providing a public space for retelling stories of oppression and displacement while imagining a new way forward.

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  • Art
  • Design
  • Ultimo

The ubiquitous gum tree gets the artistic celebration it truly deserves with a new exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Drawing on 400+ objects from the museum's vast collection, Eucalyptusdom explores our changing relationship to the local hardwood, and artists’ many creative uses of the material. Opening on October 11 and running until May 2022, the exhibition takes its title from a 1930s text by Edward F Swain, one of Australia’s earliest conservationists. The show highlights the relationship between eucalypts and First Nations Australians, the trees’ important role in the Federation arts and crafts movement, plus the Powerhouse Museum’s unique and longstanding relationship with the eucalypt. Rarely seen items you’ll be able to have a gander at include over 100 timber specimens dating from the 1800s, botanical illustrations and early glass-plate photographs.

It will also showcase 17 new commissions, including from Trawlwoolway multidisciplinary artist Julie Gough. She documents eucalypt trees situated in the vicinity of sites of conflict and violence between Tasmanian Aboriginal people and colonists from the late 1700s to early 1800s. There’s also a work by Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, working with Wiradjuri Elder Dr Uncle Stan Grant Sr AM, that considers the connection to the guardian ancestor Dharramalin, central to men’s initiation ceremonies. Nicholas Mangan’s new work analyses the complex history of objects in the Powerhouse collection through film and large-scale sculptural installation. Newly established organisation First Nations Fashion and Design presents a collection of nine wearable garments by First Nation Designers.

 

  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Redfern

Curatorial and Co gallery in Redfern will reopen after the long winter of discontent with the glorious colours of Perth-based artist Isabelle de Kleine’s debut solo exhibition Un-Define. The exhibition of 15 large-scale works on paper is all about rejecting the restrictive idea that we should all fit into neat categorisation boxes, exploring gender, identity and beauty in a refreshing way. The collage-like abstract paintings of figures intersected by overlapping geometric patterns in beautiful colours is hypnotising. As de Kleine says, the haunting depictions are all about visualising, “the beautiful chaos that is our minds and the world around us.” Running for ten days from October 13 to 23, the eye-opening exhibition will be one of the first to welcome art lovers back into the city.

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  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • The Rocks

The MCA is really spoiling us with two glorious free exhibitions to mark the reopening of the Rocks institution. There’s the brilliance of First Nations artist Richard Bell in You Can Go Now, and there’s also a major rehang of the collection, dubbed Perspectives on Place.

Curated by Anneke Jaspers, the exhibition brings together artworks that explore the social and physical aspects of place and puts them in a global perspective looking at how we inhabit the world. Featuring the work of 38 Australian artists, the spectacular array includes new acquisitions from the likes of celebrated First Nations artist Gunybi Ganambarr, Janet Fieldhouse and Megan Cope. Roughly a third of the works are on display for the first time. There will also be a new iteration of the MCA’s Artist Room series, bringing together bark paintings by the late David Malangi Daymirringu, a senior elder of the Manharrngu people of central Arnhem Land.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Sydney

We love food and we love art here at Time Out, so when those worlds collide, we are all over it. Consider our tummies rumbling at the sound of Art Gallery NSW's (AGNSW) show The Way We Eat: Celebrating food through Asian art reopening. It presents just over 100 artworks, both contemporary and historical, sourced from the gallery’s collection and borrowed from places like White Rabbit. It will wet taste buds right through to sometime next year.

Divided into four categories –‘Essential’, ‘Exchange’, ‘Excess’ and ‘Enchanted’ – the works include everything from intricately adorned ceramic bowls to big, bold paintings that are a feast for the eyes. The exhibition considers how food is made, stored and consumed. It also traces the design evolution of culinary items, and how food helps facilitate cultural exchange. You’ll also find out more about the ritual and symbolic meanings of food in Chinese culture. Artists on show include Ah Xian, Tianli Zu, Jason Phu and Guo Jian.

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  • Art
  • Textiles
  • Eveleigh

Costumed superheroes have always been a major influence in the brilliant work of Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding. That reference flies high in his latest exhibition The Future is Here. Temporarily derailed by the supervillain otherwise known as the global pandemic, the show is back to fight another day at Carriageworks from November 3-28.

Golding assembled his own justice league of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from Alexandria Park Community School to create 100-plus brightly coloured capes, the perfect superhero accoutrement. He worked with the kids last year as part of a Solid Ground workshop, a collaboration between Carriageworks and Blacktown Arts Centre that provides education, training and employment pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.The capes are the perfect canvas, using the powerful symbolism of caped crusaders to amplify First Nations excellence and set the community free from colonial narratives.

  • Art
  • Sculpture and installations
  • Zetland

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is one of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists, so it’s only right and proper that he has a brand new solo show opening just in time for Sydney unlocking. The Guardians opens at Zetland’s Sullivan and Strumpf gallery on October 14 and will run through to November 13, transforming the ground floor space into a surreal mythological playground of incredible creatures sculpted in ceramic and bronze. Some of these guardians will tower over us, others will see us eye-to-eye, but knowing Sri Lankan-born Nithiyendran’s playfully subversive work, all will be magical to behold. Drawing on the imagery of ritualistic icons designed to protect from evil, their arrival is the perfect way to ward off the bad mojo of the last 18 months. “ The guardian figure’s allusions to ideas around regeneration, renewal and even collapse are particularly pertinent in our current global climate defined by social, environmental and public health shifts and upheaval,” he says. These curious creatures also reflect his fascination with emojis, zoology and queer imagery.

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  • Art
  • Sculpture and installations
  • Western Sydney

Abstract artist Margo Lewers was something of a legend in her lifetime and continues to be so, not only because of the incredible artistic legacy she left, but also because she built a home for it and the work of other inspiring artists at her property in Emu Plains. What became the Penrith Regional Gallery has continued to honour Lewers and her vision of supporting other creatives with the From The Collection series of exhibitions, commissions and interventions. It challenges contemporary artists to work with the Penrith collection and put their own spin on it.

The latest iteration, From The Collection X Abdullah M.I. Syed, is presented by the Sydney-based, Pakistan-born artist and examines the influence of the Bauhaus School on Australian Modernism. He’s particularly intrigued by Lewers' use of plexiglass to create stunning sculptural forms. Her works will be on show alongside Syed’s response that also draws on Islamic geometric design, the use of reflection and transparency, positive and negative space, as well the relationship between art and faith. 

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