Ovid in the time of Covid

By Rhonda Dredge

Everyone is trying to come up with an angle to beat the debilitating impact of the virus and small independent businesses are no exception.

No Vacancy is a gallery in the Queen Vic Centre that is coping with the second lockdown by accentuating its differences. 

Usually galleries follow the white cube model but No Vacancy has a wall of windows and a café. 

The gallery was closed for six weeks during the first lockdown after a booking fell through but they were ready for the second bout of restrictions. 

The gallery had rented out the space on a commercial model with limited control over the quality of the work on show.

After a City of Melbourne grant to “refresh” their online marketing and communications, business partners Matthew Naturani and Hayley Haynes began asking questions. 

“What sets us apart? Galleries are considered cold and sterile but we have a café and we’re in the CBD,” Mr Naturani told CBD News. 

He had the hospitality experience and his partner the expertise in curating but they had only been working together for two years. “Nobody’s drowning from experience,” he said.

“I have a problem with authority. I’ve learned the most from bad relationships,” so the independence of small business suits his personality. “We’re the heart of the city but we would be closed down if it wasn’t for the grant.”

Haynes has curated two online exhibitions with themes related to the pandemic and this has had a flow-on effect in the actual gallery. The result is Sunday Echoes, one of the best shows the gallery has put on which is based on commission rather than rental. 

Nothing is easy during the pandemic. The gallery is closed but the work is visible through the window or from the adjacent café, which is selling coffee.

There’s a big difference between putting on a show with work you think might sell during a pandemic to one that explores the issues.

The paintings by Liam Haley are abstract landscapes related to memories of his home in northern rivers of New South Wales and to the autumnal sunshine of Melbourne.

Those of Elynor Smithwick are more related to her childhood backyard along the Murray, lawn mowers, lush blobs of trees, pink towels. They demonstrate the pulling power of images when fresh material is denied to you through isolation.

As people sink back into their own histories, the stylising effect of simplifying and blurring works well to evoke the mood. Happier times are elevated to the status of art.

“We really considered what we put together,” Mr Naturani said. One of the online exhibitions is called Metamorph, based on a poem from Roman days, a tribute to the transformational powers of Ovid in the time of COVID-19. 

“Too much is driven by fear,” he said, about the pandemic. “There has to be a logic – the capacity of hospitals. I believe there’s a number in a senior office, a set of criteria.”

The gallery uses art money, a system of after-pay in which the artist gets paid but the purchaser can eke out payments in instalments of 10 •

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