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November Issue 2004

A Few Words From Down Under
On Marginal Spaces

by Judith McGrath

Remember when we first learned to write, how each page in those little exercise books had a red line down the left hand side? That was the Margin and we were not allowed to write in the space between it and the edge of the page. In high school we used loose-leaf paper and the writing space got narrower as some teachers insisted we draw a Margin down the right side of the paper too, for "correctional annotations". At college a typewriter or computer program was used and the first thing we did when we sat down at the keyboard was to set the Margins - top, bottom and both sides. The space for the text got smaller still.

In school we were taught only the contents neatly contained by Margins was viable while anything outside these borders was, well - Marginal, insignificant. As we neatly wrote our new ideas and bold passions on the centre of the page, those with old knowledge and assumed potency wrote comments in the sidelines. The Margin was a symbol of power dividing master from apprentice; an elitist space forbidden to most of us as only the privileged few could use it. But somewhere along the way, in the art world at least, the status on either side of the line reversed. Today the Marginal space grows wider and more interesting while the space for the main text seems to shrink in significance.

This revelation came to me during the past fortnight when I viewed four exhibitions by prominent artists in three different commercial galleries, venues that guarantee their shows will get text on the pages of art magazines and newspapers, perhaps even a scripted TV spot. In that same two weeks I was invited to; 1) select the winner of a regional art society's annual display of members' works, 2) advise a private school acquisition panel on the purchase of works by artists in the area, and 3) attended the studio of a prolific painter to help him select exhibits for hanging in his third solo exhibition held in a hired hall. Of the gallery shows, I found nothing to excite the eye or engage the mind, despite their being fine exhibitions by well established artists who have presented the same stuff before, and before that, and even earlier. Meanwhile every exhibit I saw in activities 1 - 3 was a good work of art produced by a talented artist. These artists would be called Marginal because they are not represented by a major city gallery and rarely get a mention in any published journal. It was a busy time but rewarding as I rediscovered that more exciting art can be seen in the Margins then in the main.

The periphery of the art world is an expanding colourful place where people with new concepts and bold commentary find room to move. Meanwhile those few who sit stagnant in the black and white text between the Margins, the "in" space, are oblivious of the fact that their world is shrinking. Marginal artists get together, discuss their ideas and methods, listen to feedback from their peers, and generally work in a more creative atmosphere. They confidently experiment with new media and techniques, push their limits or change direction to follow where inspiration leads. They had me pitying the celebrated artist who finds every brush mark scrutinized and questioned by non-practitioners such as gallery managers and art critics. These artists are fenced in by those with vested interests in their work; agents, collectors, competition. They are condemned by the gallery if they take a lateral inspirational step in style and damned by their peers if they don't. It's a case of once their names are in large font on the main page they must remain immobile. Safe within the Margins is a confined, narrow space.

The past fortnight has also brought to my attention how the Margins of the art world are not just creative or practical, they are also geographical. My city sits on the edge of a continent, pressed between ocean and desert. East of the busy urban centre are the hilly suburbs with their attending villages, further inland is the rural sector and its small towns. So I find it ironic that galleries located in the most isolated capital city in the world should discriminate against exhibitions held in suburban or country exhibition spaces. Yes there are the tourist shops that call themselves "art galleries" but there are also viable and valuable venues that cater for their region's serious artists. I can think of two art galleries in this state's rural "wine region" that do very well thanks to national and international visitors. And they often exhibit works by Marginal artists.

Although the art market in the city involves big bucks, the peripheral practitioners have a larger turnover of work and a broader customer base. The Marginalized can access more venues more often while artists locked in gallery stables have one exposure point available once a year at most. During the last two weeks I noticed how few visitors attended the galleries during the time I spent in each, reviewing exhibitions and listening to complaints about business being slow. Meanwhile the Art Society had a fair number of attendees (not all co-oped members of artists' families) and an abundance of "sold" stickers, the artist planning his third solo expects it will be as financially successful as the previous two, and the private school is compiling an eclectic art collection that provides a comprehensive lesson for its students on what constitutes good art.

I have learned anew that those who live and practice their art in the Margins are able to stretch their minds and extend their talents in a fertile space. I've rediscovered how their efforts are recognized by a growing audience of appreciators who buy art for the pleasure it gives not as an investment. The Marginal space grows wider and fuller, my hope is it will one day obliterate the "centre" so all artists can produce their best with the same amount of freedom.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (www.artseeninwa.com).

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