Dale Frank, National Art School

Dale Frank is synonymous with contemporary Australian painting. He has always been a trailblazer and an enduring force in experimental studio practice. This energy has caught the eye of the international art world, and his paintings have been included in exhibitions in PS1 in New York and the Venice Biennale. he also has representation in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Greece.

His latest exhibition, however, is in a learning institution – the National Art School in Sydney – which arguably is a great choice to take a close look at a long-track, cohesive practice of expanded painting, and encourage a next generation of makers to push the boundaries.

Frank’s new survey, titled Growers and Showers, picks up from his 2000 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia, and presents 45 large-scale paintings that have been painted since that exhibition and span the period from 2012 to 2024.

They also include nine new works that, yes, play with and push around a new material, blending translucent dyes into his resins. As always, the colours are brilliant and pop with an intensity, yet remain unshackled to the surface structure, puddling and spilling with a fresh eye.

They are scattered and interwoven with the other pieces across the exhibition, underscoring that continuity and commitment to breaking familiarity, and surfing the edge of the unknown and the challenging. One of the lining elements would be the surface of these works, rich in lustre and impeccably finished.

The exhibition is presented across the gallery’s two levels, and each has a very different tone and energy.

Downstairs is largely a hang of similarly sized paintings in a landscape format, and are typical of Frank’s highly viscous abstractions with their glossy pours of paint and resin, which have become such a signature across his career. Walking into the space visitors are confronted with a wallop of colour and energy, the kind of rush of a favoured drug.

I have always found something enigmatic about these enormous fluid works of Frank’s, and that is perhaps because he is as much a conceptual artists as he is an abstractionist. One only needs to read the titles of his works, with their epic tone of surreal story-sharing, to recognise his practice comes from a very layered place.

This exhibition is great for opening that door in understanding, to have such a volume of works rubbing shoulders. The downside of that, however, is that the space feels super congested and, given the scale and intensity of these works, I would have liked to have seen a little bit more culling at play.

blue cat sculpture and abstract paintings in gallery. Dale Frank
Dale Frank: ‘Growers and Showers’, installation view, National Art School, 2024. Photo: Peter Morgan.

Central to the lower gallery space sits a lone sculpture of two cats. It feels weirdly at odds in its realism (despite its blue hue).

In a rear corner is an artwork created from a shattered glass, which gives a hint for what lies ahead upstairs.

The ride up in the lift gives a moment to take breath, because this exhibition has a dizzying impact – both in its psychedelic dervish-ness and the kind of hyperventilating joy it offers being surrounded by these works.

Upstairs, the works take on a more multidisciplinary approach, pulling from an array of readymade or found materials – everything from bras and knickers to butt plugs, foil insulation tubing, CDs, wigs and clown masks.

Frank has always been interested in that three-dimensional quality of how paint and resin can sit and settle and pool on the surface. These works push that dimensionality to an extreme, caught between wall-mounted embellishment and sculpture.

These are arguably less successful than his more celebrated paintings, coming across as “one-liners” or too gimmicky.

Anchoring the upstairs gallery is a large mural that extends the length of the 22-metre gallery wall. Three paintings sit over it, and their content almost feels as if it is spilling over onto the surface behind.

Dog sculpture, mirrored paintings and abstract wal painting in gallery.
Dale Frank: Growers and Showers, Installation view, National Art School, 2024. Photo: Peter Morgan.

There are other clusters of sculptures and parts of installations or performance, pointing to the breadth of Frank’s practice. On the opening of the exhibition, a durational performance titled A Grand Canyon, which Frank calls a ‘behavioural sculpture’, was presented.

While viewers walking into the exhibition don’t see that part of his practice, ever-present is a soundtrack that picks up the vibe of the paintings – the two permeating or setting one’s mood. This plays with notions of immersive art-making – be it this holistic connectivity across a space and making – to the very works themselves that pull you into their fluid mass.

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Frank burst onto the scene in the 1970s and, over the ensuing decades, his career has shifted and adjusted, pushed and expanded – always fluid like his paintings. This painting is just as fresh as those early moments, and is also testament to his prolific studio practice.

One thing that surprised me was that, gazing around the show, it is amazing the number of works held in his personal collection. While it may speak to that volume and sheer tenacity to paint with such vigour, it is also a great reminder to artists to hold back work from each of their series.

Dale Frank: Growers and Showers
NAS Gallery
Darlinghurst, Sydney
Until 1 June

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