Big spooks
Children’s Gallery | 2 October 2004 – 6 March 2005

Image: Richard Bosman Drowning man 1983Richard Bosman Drowning man 1983 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Big spooks is inspired by the dramatic qualities of big, bold – and scary – paintings. Drawn from the collection of Australian and International art, Big spooks features large paintings which have been enhanced by the use of spooky sound effects and dramatic lighting. The exhibition is reminiscent of a fun park ghost train ride, where scary images emerge from the darkness accompanied by atmospheric sound effects. Like that attraction, Big spooks will thrill and engage young viewers. (But be warned, if you don't enjoy ghost trains, you may not like Big spooks ).

Many of the paintings are Neo-expressionist or have been inspired by surrealism, and have a dark, eerie feel. Neo-expressionism attracted attention in the 1980s as a worldwide phenomenon in the visual arts. This style was characterised by figurative subject matter, intense colours and expressive use of paint. Some of the artists represented in Big spooks explored Neo-expressionism for only a brief period, others turned to it after success working in abstraction, and some established themselves as dedicated Neo-expressionists and continue to work in the style today.

Well-known as an abstract painter, Peter Booth shifted his practice to figurative painting in the late 1970s. Untitled 1978 describes an apocalyptic underworld where beasts and mysterious symbols surround a benign figure who appears to have stepped into the scene to observe it. The intense colours, thick paint, odd placement of the figure and dramatic use of light heightens the painting's strangeness and generates a disturbing tension.

Image: Ken Unsworth Arcadia 1985Ken Unsworth Arcadia 1985 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Ken Unsworth is best known as a sculptor and installation artist. In the painting Arcadia 1985 Unsworth refers to Nicholas Poussin's Et in Arcadia ego 1647, a painting about the transitory nature of life, and also to Aesop's fable about the crow and the pitcher. The crow or currawong in the painting drops a stone into the tomb just as Aesop's crow dropped stones into an almost empty pitcher to get a drink of water. The heavily symbolic and melancholy image conjures up associations with ‘B grade' horror films and clichéd stage sets.

Richard Bosman is an American artist who has exhibited in Australia. Drowning man 1983 defines a life-or-death moment where a desperate man pleads for rescue as he sinks beneath the waves. Bosman shows only the figure. Is he about to be rescued by some out-of-frame boat; or is he doomed? The painting's power lies in its ability to generate strong emotion in the viewer.

Susan Norrie's paintings of the 1980s resemble collages of unrelated scenes suspended in unstable landscapes. In Sublime and the ridiculous a subterranean water-world is inhabited by what seems to be a crazed monster, a torso and some small floating figures which, viewed together, conjure associations with 19th-century Gothic novels or horror films.

Image: Susan Norrie Sublime and the ridiculous 1986
Susan Norrie Sublime and the ridiculous 1986 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia  more detail

The mystery continues with Louise Hearman's Untitled, a menacing painting which asks more questions than it answers. Who is the smiling figure? What has befallen her and her dog? What is the figure doing with the pitchfork and hay – or is it a tree? The other symbols surrounding her compound the mystery rather than solve it. Perhaps visitors to Big spooks can solve this mystery?

Big spooks exploits the mystery and intrigue of these large, bold paintings displayed together to optimum effect in the intimate space of the Children's Gallery.

Please be aware that some children may find Big spooks scary. It is recommended for children eight years and older as it contains images of horror and death.

Philippa Winn
Educator, Youth and Community Programs