Not Too Shabby

Currently celebrating forty years of gallery operation, Roslyn and Tony Oxley need little introduction. But perhaps their Magistretti couch, used as a resting spot for some of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, is due for attention.

Words: Felicity Fenner

Photography: Nick de Lorenzo

Roslyn Oxley believes that “if you want the business to be a success, you’ve got to have a good couch”. The couch is a modernist Italian icon designed by Vico Magistretti in the late 1970s. It was purchased in 1982 for the office of the new Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in McDonald Street, Paddington, and since 1990 has graced the gallery’s subsequent premises in nearby Soudan Lane. In relation to business success, Oxley says the same about artists, a favourite mantra being “It’s all about the artists”.

In 2022 Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary. Over the course of four decades, Roslyn and Tony Oxley have presided over more than 900 exhibitions, shown their artists’ work at 67 international art fairs, helped realise 53 public art commissions, and ably navigated the fallout of two police raids. Two police raids? Of the enormous contribution to Australian visual art since the early 1980s, it is perhaps the very politicised police raids that best illustrate the fearless agenda and tenacious loyalty to their artists that distinguishes Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. When police forcibly removed Juan Davila’s Stupid as a Painter from the gallery’s 1982 Biennale of Sydney exhibition, Premier Neville Wran personally intervened, declaring that “art has nothing to do with the vice squad”. A generation later, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd weighed into the controversy around Bill Henson’s 2008 images that included children, declaring on national television that they were “revolting” (despite not having seen the exhibition himself). In both instances the Oxleys stood their ground, protecting their artists from the media bruhaha and ensuring that the seized artworks were returned to the gallery walls.

More than 350 artists from around Australia and the world have at some stage exhibited at the gallery. They include well-known international figures such as Yayoi Kusama, represented in Australia by the gallery for a decade in the early 2000s, British filmmaker Isaac Julien who has exhibited with the gallery for more than 15 years, and the late Robert Mapplethorpe. 28 artists have featured in the Biennale of Sydney and 19 at the Venice Biennale. No other gallery in Australia has a comparable international track record.

In addition to fostering the careers of some of Australia’s most recognised artists, the gallery manages the estates of leading artists they formerly represented, including Robert Campbell Junior who in the 1980s was the first of many Indigenous artists taken on by the gallery, and sculptor Bronwyn Oliver who forged a close friendship with Roslyn.

Less publicly acknowledged is the gallery’s role as an exceptional training ground for curators (including myself). Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery alumni who have graduated into leading roles in the public sector include Nicholas Baume, Suhanya Raffel, Wayne Tunnicliffe and Russell Storer.

Literally supporting the many and various players who have contributed to the evolution of what is arguably Australia’s leading contemporary gallery is the Magistretti couch. It enjoys a love/hate relationship with artists who have sought its refuge during long, drawn-out days of exhibition installations, and by the art world family of collectors and curators who regularly drop into the office for a chat. Today it is looking a bit shabby and Tracey Moffatt is advocating for it to be replaced, but others have a sentimental attachment: Kathy Temin, who joined the gallery fresh out of art school 30 years ago, has fond memories of sharing it with Spot and Spot, the Oxley’s beloved Cattle Dogs; while Jenny Watson relies on it, as she has since her first overnight bus trips from Melbourne in the 1980s, for a nana nap before Sydney commitments commence.

Watson joined the gallery in 1982 and is one of around 20 of the 40 or so current gallery artists to have been represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery since last century. She insists that the strength of the business is the Oxley’s belief in the art itself, having learnt very early on that for Roslyn and Tony “the artist is the accessory to the work, not vice versa”. Nevertheless, while the Magistretti couch might take some credit for the gallery’s success, Roslyn still insists that “it’s all about the artists”.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 101, July-September 2022. 

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