Review: 9 by 5 Exhibition, Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre

Paul Isbel

The equivalent of an open mic for artists, 9 by 5 Exhibition places a premium on participation and values diversity and inclusion.
Review: 9 by 5 Exhibition, Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre

Turning Tides, digital print, Mark Richardson (detail) for the 9 by 5 Exhibition presented by Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre. Photo by Eliza Bell. 

If you have thoughts of making art, here is a start. You could call it the "have-a-go show", which places a premium on participation above all else. 9 by 5 Exhibition is open to all people, of all ages and abilities, and styles, no questions asked, no judgments cast. There are no prizes or awards; there are no acquisitions. No one asks of your artistic past or of your formal credentials. It is the visual equivalent of an open mic night.

If you’ve got $15 and an eye and a vision, you’re in and up. It is absolutely egalitarian: all work submitted is accepted for what it is and gets a gig on the wall. Yet, for all its openness and freedoms, 9 by 5 Exhibition succeeds as a strong and even statement of artistic intention and invention.

The idea harks back to the original 9 by 5 Exhibition held in Melbourne in 1889 to introduce colonial viewers to Impressionism Aussie style, featuring Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin, where the artists produced uniform artwork on cigar box lids measuring 9 by 5 inches.

And here is the secret sauce for success in this update of the original: it’s the simplicity of the format - of the standard size - that ties and unifies the diverse works, which might otherwise look loose and unrelated.

Night Stalker, acrylic, Wendy Grace, 9 by 5 Exhibition presented by Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre. Photo by Eliza Bell. 

Here’s how it works. Sometime in September look for a call out to contact the Walker Street Gallery to register for the exhibition and pay $15 for your art board (or for each of your boards, because at least a third of the artists on the walls have multiple entries).

The City of Greater Dandenong mails you the art boards with a Reply Paid envelope to cover that expense. You have until the week before the exhibition to return your work or works, and presto, a week later you’re in a group show and probably at the opening night with all the trimmings: the drinks, the spread, the speeches, the photographs and the buzz. Normally the art world doesn’t move so fast, but 9 by 5 Exhibition writes its own rules.

And now to the works, 141 of them in 2018, which is a big jump from the 100 on show in 2017. Again, because of their compressed and compact size, they are all works in miniature. The effect is to impose a general quality across the exhibition, extracting the excellence of the obviously more practised artists and flattening the inexperience of those finding their form and style.

Like the City of Greater Dandenong itself, 9 by 5 Exhibition is inclusive and extensive in form and style. There are abstracts, portraits, collages, skyscapes, landscapes and seascapes, night scenes, Australiana, naïve and Asian and African ethnic styles, and inventions of the imagination. They come in pewter, pen, pencil, mixed media, gouache, textiles, resin, oil, acrylic, spray paint, digital print, ink, embroidery, enamel and laser cut wood.

Island of Thought (Red Rudder), ink on paper, Helen Sturgess 9 by 5 Exhibition presented by Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre. Photo by Eliza Bell. 

The eye travels and alights where it will. Nothing is out of place because here they all belong. So there are companion pieces of oil on board by Janice Mills called Historic Treks through Dandenong I and II that are tributes to pioneering Australia, and close by is a classic inkjet print of a city lane by Ros Pach called The Line, which is a perfection of perspective and composition.

A series of three acrylics by Anastasija Komarnyckj called Shorelines 1, 2 and 3 uses creams and greys and greens and white to conjure a fragile world caught between earth and sea. Christine Mellor also has three pieces on show, one in oil and two in oil and resin, with the oil Pteropus poliocephalus stunning in a paradoxical composition that is at once dense and delicate.

The opposite is Geopelia humeralis, which is the stark skull of a dove rendered in a mute background of greens and blues and sealed in resin. For black and white simplicity there’s the ink on paper Island of Thought (Red Rudder) by Helen Sturgess, which is immaculate in its purity of line that has hints of Beardsley and Heath Robinson in its composition. Bold colours announce works like Danni Potter’s acrylic A Flinders St Expression, which had a red dot early on opening night, and Marilyn Townsend’s work in mixed media, Pilbara Rocks.

Pilbara Rocks, mixed media, Marilyn Townsend 9 by 5 Exhibition presented by Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre. Photo by Eliza Bell. 

Accessible and affordable, these works are offered as original Christmas gifts and can also form the foundation of a collection, year on year, as 9 by 5 Exhibition has become something of a tradition, now 17 years strong and drawing on submissions from interstate and outside of Dandenong and the ranges.

Given the welcoming and encouraging nature of the exhibition, there is no good reason for more of the artistically inclined not to give it a go in 2019. I might just be one of them.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
9 by 5 Exhibition
Curator: Every submission is selected for showing
29 November – 20 December, 2018
Walker Street Gallery & Arts Centre, Dandenong

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Paul Isbel is a former ArtsHub contributor and a publicist for the Australasian Arts and Antiques Dealers Association. Most recently he was a course designer for an entry-level vocational training program for the arts sector.