What do Australian artists Inge King, Reko Rennie, Phil Price, Janet Laurence and Allen David have in common? For one, they’ve each had remarkable careers and all have practised in sculpture. But you might not know that each also has a major sculptural work on display in La Trobe’s Art Collection.
To take you inside the University’s incredible collection of contemporary art, there’s no-one better qualified than Karen Quinlan, outgoing Director and Professor of Practice at the La Trobe Art Institute. Here, she reflects on La Trobe’s ongoing commitment to public art and shares some of her sculptural favourites.
Art and education: a proud history at La Trobe
La Trobe has long recognised the important role art can play in an educational setting, and acquiring art has been embedded in the University since its foundation.
In fact, the La Trobe University Act 1964 notes the importance of objects in enriching cultural and community life, promoting the University’s educational, scientific and artistic development, and encouraging free thought, critical enquiry and informed discourse.
Likewise, part of La Trobe’s original master plan was to have works of art in public places around the campus, for the ‘embellishment of the University for the enjoyment of future students and staff’. Today, these artworks are freely on display across our campuses – let's take a look at Karen's top five.
1. The Borchardt Library’s Glass Screen, by Allen David
Laminated glass, coloured glass, gold leaf, metal; nine panels: 335 x 1107 cm. La Trobe University Art Collection, commissioned 1966. Image: La Trobe University.
The University’s Master Architect, Dr Roy Simpson, commissioned this work in 1966 for the main entrance of the Library as part of the University’s Master Plan for Bundoora. Installed in 1967, this monumental architectural glass screen is the only example of such a work by the artist in Australia.
‘While the artist never gave the work a title, you can see a stylised phoenix in the overall design, made up of colourful swirling expressionist forms very typical of the 60s. Sourcing Greek mythology and referencing his birthplace of India and the Australian desert landscape, the ‘exploding’ sun, phoenix bird and totemic motifs recur in David’s drawings, paintings and sculptures as personal and creation myth symbols,’ says Karen.
Today, La Trobe holds more than 60 artworks by Allen David – mainly works on paper – in our Collection.
Where to find it: The screen was originally the dominant feature at the Library’s entrance. Today, it’s been incorporated into the very structure of the Charles La Trobe Lounge, found on level 2 of the Borchardt Library at our Melbourne Campus.
2. Inge King’s Dialogue of Circles at the Moat Theatre
Welded steel, paint; two parts: 520 x 450 x 350 cm overall. La Trobe University Art Collection, commissioned 1976. Image: Wikimedia.
Inge King’s (1915-2016) position as Australia’s premier female sculptor has spanned decades. During the 1970s, King completed many monumental site-specific commissions for architectural and urban settings, and we have several of her works across campus at Bundoora.
‘Dialogue of Circles is a fine representation of the artist’s signature minimalist style – one which continually explored the rhythmic and gestural potential of geometric devices,’ says Karen.
‘The sculpture is literally installed in the moat at our Melbourne Campus, as the backdrop to our open-air Moat Theatre. Both the theatre and King’s sculpture were established in 1976, in recognition of the work accomplished by the University’s inaugural Vice Chancellor David Myers, on the occasion of his retirement.’
Where to find it: In the moat beside Moat Theatre, near Union Hall, Melbourne Campus.
3. Murri Totems by Reko Rennie at LIMS 1
Aluminium, enamel paint; four structures: dimensions variable. La Trobe University Art Collection, commissioned 2012. Image: La Trobe University.
This striking group of structures, Murri Totems, was created by contemporary Indigenous artist Reko Rennie and commissioned in 2012 for the new La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science building. The bright, geometric sculpture combines traditional indigenous culture, contemporary art and Western science.
‘My colleague, alumnus Dr Vincent Alessi, helped explain the scientific and cultural elements of the work,’ says Karen.
‘According to Dr Alessi, each ‘pole’ has been designed with the five platonic solids in mind – icosahedron, octahedron, star tetrahedron, hexahedron and dodecahedron – considered to be the building blocks of nature within the canon of Western science and philosophy. The Murri design, a traditional Indigenous diamond shaped pattern, has been handed down for use to Rennie by his father and grandfather.’
Born in Melbourne in 1974, Reko Rennie is of Kamilaroi ancestry. An interdisciplinary artist, Rennie explores his Indigenous identity and uses his practice to provoke discussion about Indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments. The installation is the first large scale sculptural work by an indigenous artist in the University’s Collection.
Where to find it: At the main entrance to LIMS 1, home of the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science, Melbourne Campus.
4. Phil Price’s Chrysalid on the Academic Lawn at Bundoora
Carbon fibre, industrial paint, stainless steel, metal bearings; height 1080 cm. La Trobe University Art Collection. Donated through the Australian Government Cultural Gifts Program by Claire Mitchell, 2016. Image: La Trobe University.
Chrysalid is a somewhat surreal kinetic sculpture that references the John Wyndham novel from 1955, The Chrysalids. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic town where nature evolves permutations of itself.
‘The sculpture moves with just a hint of wind, which means that the majority of the time you’ll see the eleven-metre high ‘branches’ in motion; it is almost a rare treat to see them immobile,’ Karen says.
‘Price’s sculptures are highly engineered and seamlessly created works, ones that aim to defy the rational, and that they move without any automated assistance further enhances the feeling of fantastical motion.’
Where to find it: Outdoors on the Academic Lawn, beside La Trobe’s lake, Melbourne Campus.
5. The Healing Wild by Janet Laurence at Bendigo’s Rural Health School
Digital print on adhesive on glass, 26 panels; dimensions variable. La Trobe University Art Collection, commissioned 2013. Image: La Trobe University.
La Trobe has continued the tradition of commissioning new work for its campuses, with Janet Laurence’s The Healing Wild created especially for the Rural Health School at our Bendigo Campus.
‘The artist’s practice focuses on the natural world, particularly botany. In this instance, her ready use of the translucent medium of glass to explore the forms and colours of our native flora pays homage to the healing qualities of our natural environment,’ Karen says.
All of the plants featured across the 26 panels are indigenous to Victoria and have been recognised as having medicinal qualities. Laurence’s work is an excellent example of a crossover between art and science.
Where to find it: La Trobe Rural Health School, Bendigo Campus.
Between them, these five works reflect key movements and trends in contemporary Australian sculpture. And with La Trobe’s grounds open all year round to the public, they’re definitely worth coming back to campus for.
Want to learn more about La Trobe’s contemporary art collection? Discover the La Trobe Art Institute online.