Urban Instabilities by Caren Florance

Posted by anca in Articles, Blog

Phil Page and Katie Hayne
Urban Instabilities

7 February – 25 February 2018
ANCA Gallery, Canberra

Not quite divided down the centre of the gallery, the paintings of Phil Page and Katie Hayne gaze across at each other as not quite binary investigations into architecture, power and social theory. Both are postgraduate painting students at the ANU School of Art + Design, and these works follow the path of their research.


Phil Page presents a deeply personal meditation on Canberra’s planned existence, constructed from his experience of working in the Parliamentary triangle as a Bauhaus-trained architect.


Using plywood boards to represent the constructed nature of this city, each image is an individual layering of thought and memory, worked into series across the left wall. We are drawn in close by the thin black ink lines that loop and trace recognisable shapes through his bright colour washes, but do take the time to stand back and let your eyes move around the central grouping, Axial Instability (2017), to see how he has turned the lake back into a river, flowing in and out of view, pulling with it the many ideas that made the Parliamentary Triangle what it is today, and the many more that weren’t realised.


Canberra was built to a plan deeply influenced by European architecture. Some of these are threaded by his pen into the contemporary landscape: St Peter’s Basilica hovers over Commonwealth Park where a Catholic cathedral was never built. Athen’s Parthenon echoes iteratively under the National Library like a perspectival shadow. The Foundling Hospital of Florence with its ribbon of arches is doubled, standing on either side of the city’s spine as the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings.


They unfurl themselves again in Here Comes the Tram (2017), which is a large gridded overview of the northern end of the city centre, block after block from the arched colonnades through to just past Haig Park. Vibrant washes of layered colour create blocks of buildings shifting and merging over underground plumes of geometric patterning. The new light rail/proposed tram line zips through the middle, undoing the park-like spine of Northbourne Avenue, and the trees in Haig Park are ominously blocked as green buildings. Nothing is stable, everything is negotiable.


Moving back to the first six works on this wall: they are a line of small images that layer contemporary sites with their rural origins. Each has faux gold-leaf embellishment, used by Page to query value: has it been worth it? What is more valuable, good arable land or imported public servants? All of his works are full of questions, puns and references, many of which might take an experience in architecture and town planning to unpack, but happily there is much pleasure to be gleaned from the looking. 


Across the room is another series of meditations on value. Katie Hayne spends a lot of time thinking about the way bureaucratic Canberra makes and loses communities. In an interview on ABC 666 on 6 February, she talked about coming to Canberra fifteen years ago and experiencing its apparent emptiness, before discovering that the city’s social life exists inside people’s houses. That sense of having to seek out a community lingered with her, and it combines with her background in design and anthropology to make a painting practice focused on the social experiences of home and housing.


You may have seen her work in the recent Inner North Art Prize, where she was joint Student Prize winner for her recycled cupboard door painted with the words SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR INNER NORTH LIFESTYLE. The door was salvaged from one of the many Government houses being demolished near the city, to be replaced by designer apartments. Another such painted door is in this show, saying YOUR DREAM HOME AWAITS YOU.


The houses she’s painted for this show were, once upon a time, dream homes: they are from the Northbourne Housing Precinct, and specifically the ‘pair houses’ and ‘garden flats’ of Lyneham’s De Burgh St complex. They were built in the early 1960s to a Bauhaus concept, with their very visible placement along the central drive into Canberra a deliberate move to feature the latest in European theories of affordable social design. At the time there was a lot of consultation around them, including with the National Council of Women.1




As the title of this joint show suggests, style and theory are unstable things. These houses are now considered both an eyesore and a waste of valuable real estate. Hayne decided to capture the buildings before their demolition, visiting the site to make sketches and take photos for her paintings. As she sat drawing, residents would come out and talk to her, and she became part of their community, listening to stories and integrating them in her work.


They are small, gentle paintings, some focused on things around the buildings, others zoomed into almost abstracted detail, others with a disconnected tableau floating in a yellowed space like a topsoil dust cloud. There are few people, but when examined, many signs of life. Where the stories appear is in the titles of the work: #26 is Kolka and Darcy’s Home. Others are snippets of conversation or reactions to the paintings themselves when given a preview: Ivy – they never come and cut it back (#30); Didn’t you know the roofs are flat? (#35); I should have brought the bins in (#25).


The houses and flats are in the process of being emptied, ready for destruction. A compromise deal made by the ACT government in 2015 means that representative examples will be left as features within the new construction, but what this all really means is the continued movement of government housing tenants out of the central, ‘valuable’ part of the city.2 The sentiments of some of the current tenants are encapsulated in painting #23: My little urban forest, planted 40 years ago, woodchips soon, sad. Another, positioned in the exact centre of the series, features a double-headed street sign, pointing across its fellow paintings in two directions, Janus-like, stating ‘No Stopping’ and ‘No Parking’ (#28).


There are many connections between these two artists, made within the ‘fruitful exchanges of high level conversation’ found when immersed in communal studio practice, as pointed out by ANU SOAD Associate Professor Ruth Waller when she opened the exhibition on 7 February to a keen crowd. She talked about mappings of the city, with Phil Page projecting out through time and place, inflecting his real-life experiences with poetics, and Katie Hayne bringing us down to street level, finding individualisation in a standardised model of Modernist idealism.


It’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking experience, moving outwards and inwards and sideways, evading attempts to situate binary interpretations, and helping us to see how complex this planned city has become as it increasingly escapes its master plan.


Caren Florance

ANCA CiR February – July 2018


1  For more information on the Northbourne Housing Precinct, see http://www.environment.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/770487/Northbourne-Housing-Precinct-Representative-Sample-Background-September-2015.pdf

2  http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/northbourne-housing-precinct-heritage-compromise-reached-20150903-gje9bb.html. See also https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/news/latest-act-national-trust-statement-on-the-northbourne-housing-precinct/




Images (from top to bottom):

Katie Hayne Beware of the dog 2017 Oil on board 27.8cm x 35.5cm

Phil Page National Library/Acropolis 2017 Acrylic, ballpoint pen on coated board 30cm x 23cm

Phil Page Sydney/Melbourne Building/Foundling Hospital 2017 Acrylic, ballpoint pen on coated board 30cm x 23cm

Katie Hayne No Parking 2017 Oil on board 27.8cm x 35.5cm

Katie Hayne My little urban forest,planted 40 years ago, woodchips soon, sad 2017 Oil on board 27.8cm x 35.5cm