Sydney Syntheses

When I hear the word synthesis used in a discussion about art my interest always sharpens, as it indicates a keen understanding of what may be at stake when an artist is at work. Synthesis is the action of bringing individual components together to make a new whole and while the equation of synthesis with alchemy wouldn’t wash with scientists, in the visual arts the word can carry almost mystical connotations. When Cézanne told Maurice Denis, “what I wanted was to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museum” it was not a simple matter of this-goes-with-that but a tilt at the impossible: drawing two apparently opposed tendencies into unity.

In Sydney during December, a solo show in one of the city’s longest-established commercial galleries and a group exhibition in an artist-run space approached the matter of synthesis from utterly different starting points. Their outcomes, not easily reconciled, point to the breadth of practice that goes on in this city, each tribe living virtually unbeknown to the others, their ways barely documented in our museums.

At Australian Galleries, Dale Miles’ Wanda Special picked up where his very strong presentation of sculptures left off in 2021, giving free rein to the weird distortions that occur when the human body becomes the subject of sculptural codification. The reference to Wanda Beach signals the works’ genesis in the superstimuli of a summer holiday: near-nudes found melting on the sand in the harsh light of midday.

Miles’ sculptures are syntheses of multiple viewpoints and ideas, drawing equally on observation and artistic archetypes from many traditions. They lampoon the pictorial representation of life yet use representation to render a complex dialogue between the self and the other. Attraction is in constant dialogue with revulsion; base impulses are set alongside highly refined perceptions, but even at their most bizarre Miles’ figures are never monstrous like Picasso’s.

Among the new works there are several that continue his treatment of the full-length figure and some new thematic developments in smaller, partial bodies: extreme brusqueness in Watching Thoughts, 2023, the metamorphosis of a human to a sea animal in Orca, 2023, and a painless halving of the head in the introspective Diver, 2023. Miles is choosing to leave some passages of his sculptures in a raw, unpolished state that aids the sense of hybridity between viewpoints and keeps the eye moving between spatial zones.

At Sydenham International, a world away from Paddington’s gallery precinct, Expanded Synthesis brought together six artists with backgrounds in electronic and kinetic art. Curated by Ben Denham and functioning partly as a tribute to Joyce Hinterding, teacher and talismanic artist of the group, the exhibition’s title refers not to Cézannian alchemy but the electronic synthesiser, a technology that all of the artists employ to turn sound – as it occurs within an electronic circuit – into actions. 

With a heavy presence of black boxes and cords, the room could initially have been mistaken as the site of a private experiment but the disentangling of each artist’s contribution revealed distinct works, each tethered in its own way to environmental elements. Laura Woodward’s transparent wheel of salt grains offered the most immediate delight, the synthesiser ensuring that the wheel’s slowly turning, delicate formations never quite repeated. Sean O’Connell’s synth produced a sonic correlate for a meteorite’s fine-grained, four-billion year old crystals and Hinterding’s work drew parallels between plant life and electric energy. Paul Greedy generated sound (audible to the human ear) based on temperature shifts while Ben Denham orchestrated the movement of objects in response to changes in the room’s air pressure. Vicky Browne’s poetic work utilised the resonance of raku bowls to bounce graphite powder upon the surface of a drum.

Expanded Synthesis’ concentration on forces that are not always perceptible to the human senses suggests a future for art that looks utterly different from Dale Miles’s humanistic sculpture. In a world where the rampant sating of human appetites is responsible for catastrophic damage, the determination to shift the emphasis away from our habitual preoccupations to the existence of other energetic fields is understandable and valuable. If this is the point that the artists of Expanded Synthesis want to make, they have planted their flag. But for their ideas to become the energised, poetic propositions that they could be, and to invite the audience in, they will likely need to find a larger exhibition space and, in some instances, a fuller articulation of visual thinking. Expanded Synthesis was an encounter with the very rare phenomenon of an art form that is still in an early state of its evolution.

Finally, a word about the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s (AGNSW) exhibition brick vase clay cup jug. In what seems like a synthesis of the Powerhouse Museum’s recent exhibitions A line A web A world and 1001 Remarkable Objects, guest curator Glenn Barkley entered the five keywords that are the show’s title into the AGNSW database to assemble a massive array of works. Helped by a generous exhibition space, the presentation of ceramic objects, sculptures, and pictures in various media made for a satisfying example of the let’s get everything out and have a look at it school of curating: a simple premise, offering many points of comparison and resonance, with a couple of very comfortable lounges.


Dale Miles: Wanda Special
28 November – 17 December 2023 
Australian Galleries, Sydney

Expanded Synthesis
2 December – 16 December 2023
Sydneyham International, Sydney

brick vase clay cup jug
1 July 2023 – 7 January 2024 
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

A Line A Web A World
1 July 2023 – 4 February 2024
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 

1001 Remarkable Objects 
1 July 2023 – 4 February 2024
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 


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