By Derham Groves
A trip to Broken Hill is almost incomplete without a visit to the Pro Hart Gallery. On display are not only a wide selection of Pro’s own paintings, but also hundreds of works by an impressive range of other artists including Arthur Boyd, John Constable, Claude Monet, and Albert Tucker. The paintings are arranged higgledy-piggledy and virtually cover the gallery’s walls. Pro has an interesting anecdote about most of the paintings on display. Pointing to ‘Bishop on a Buffalo’ by David Boyd, for example, Pro told me: ‘The buffalo’s the devil and he’s taking the old bishop for a ride … I think that’s what it means. David reckons it’s one of his best works. Yeah, he’s a great artist, a great painter.’
Most widely represented is the Australian artist Sir William Dobell. ‘I’ve probably got 300 Dobells counting drawings,’ said Pro. On the walls of the ‘Sir William Dobell Room’, located near the gallery’s entrance, are photographs of drawings from Dobell’s sketchbooks, while the sketchbooks themselves are displayed in glass cabinets underneath. The room also contains Dobell memorabilia including his tatty old carpet and his art smock decorated with cartoons by his artist friends. Pro’s quirky curatorship is evident everywhere. The ‘official’ gallery label for a collection of Dobell’s brushes, pallets and paints too generically announces: ‘This cabinet contains painting equipment.’ So to clarify things, written in black pen on white cardboard below it is: ‘Of Sir William Dobell.’
The gallery is also interesting because it is possible to discover things that perhaps motivated Pro’s work. Painting horses with little wheels on their legs is one of Pro’s distinctive touches. Where did this idea come from? The answer may well be found in a glass cabinet tucked away in the gallery, containing three old tin toy sulkies pulled by horses with wheels on their front legs, similar to those in Pro’s paintings.
Pro designed the gallery himself, doing ‘just a rough sketch’ of what he had in mind. The rambling ground floor is the largest of the three levels, while the first and second floors have a large square hole or atrium in the middle of them, so they resemble a pair of misshapen donuts. The gallery is far too small, although plans are afoot to enlarge the ground floor and to fill-in the atrium. However, it occurred to me that designing a new gallery and studios for Pro would make an interesting project for the 140 second-year architecture students at the University of Melbourne, were I teach.
I decided that a new Pro Hart Gallery should have 200 running metres of exhibition space. Also there should be a conservation workshop, a temporary storeroom for exhibits, offices for a curator and a business manager, a coffee shop, a gift shop, a seminar room, and utilities such as a cloakroom and public toilets. Likewise, Pro’s new studios should consist of a painting studio, a printmaking studio and a sculpture studio. In addition there should be a large secure storeroom for paintings and prints, living quarters for a visiting artist-in-residence, a chapel for weddings and funerals, a sculpture park, and a car park. I chose to put the ‘new’ gallery and studios on the bowl-shaped vacant block of land on the corner of Wyman and Bromide Streets, diagonally opposite Pro’s existing gallery and studio. Most of the architecture students’ designs reflected their own interpretations of Pro’s art and personality. Before I describe a very small sample of them, let me emphasize that this is only a student project!
Sian Murray designed a building ‘cut’ by several huge parallel walls that are orange to reflect the colour of Broken Hill’s soil, and wavy to echo the contours of the site. From the front, the building appears to consist of almost nothing but these walls, but they actually ‘hide’ a number of irregular shaped rooms that are plainly visible from the sides of the building. A tangled mass of metal rods and wires pierce the walls and the rooms, like chaotic spider webs. This aspect of Sian’s design was influenced by Pro’s crystalline, maze-like paintings of headframes – the wooden props that prevent a mineshaft from collapsing. The almost infinite depth of field of these stunning, almost ‘psychedelic’ paintings made them particularly appealing to the architecture students. Sian created one gallery for Pro’s paintings and a separate gallery for the other artists’ paintings in his collection, to reflect that Pro is somewhat of an ‘outsider’ in the art world. However, a permeable wall of rods and wires in Pro’s printmaking studio allows him to peep through the gaps into the other artists’ gallery.
Architecture student Katherine Belcher’s design for the new gallery and studios was inspired by Pro’s iconic images of Broken Hill miners with metal heads and no bodies, dressed in billowing white flannel shirts. Pro depicts miners in this way, as grotesque ‘monsters’, because ‘I don’t believe anybody belongs underground … especially me!’ he says. Katherine designed the new studios in the form of a Pro Hart-style miner’s head, and the gallery in the form of a Pro Hart-style miner’s shirt. The head is five storeys high and also represents ‘a sentry’, while the gallery is mostly underground and symbolizes ‘a bunker’ as well. As Pro is notorious for his wild conspiracy theories, Katherine believed that the imagery of a vigilant sentry and a secure bunker also reflected this side of his unique personality.
It is surprising that Pro is not recognised as a pioneer of Australian performance art. He has fired glass balls filled with paint from a canon on Japanese television, built a 20-ton vase of ice in the heart of Adelaide, painted historical scenes on a Rolls Royce and driven it around Canberra, and drawn a dragonfly with food on an Australian TV commercial. In 1978 Pro went up in a hot air balloon and dropped balls of paint onto a canvas on the ground below. ‘It’s a new art form,’ he later declared. This ‘balloon happening’ inspired architecture student Robert Nguyen to design a building that looked like a giant splash of paint. Robert explained: ‘When the ball hits the surface of the site, the impact of the collision causes the ground to ripple and deform. The resulting forms become the buildings that house all the functions of the complex.’ The building is very grand, almost Guggenheim Gallery-like. Nevertheless, Robert designed the building to suit Broken Hill’s semi-arid conditions. The water collected from the dish-shaped roof would be stored and used on site, while the smooth exterior skin of the building would be resistant to dust storms.
Insects are among Pro’s most popular and most identifiable images. Insects are not merely convenient subjects for him to draw and paint, especially in Broken Hill, but they are also a powerful metaphor for society at large: ‘Go to the ant you sluggard! Consider its ways and be wise.’ (Proverbs 6:6) Impressed by Pro’s etchings of dragonflies, architecture student Wan Lee Tee designed a building in the form of a colossal dragonfly. As crazy as this may seem at first, Tee understood that tourism is now the lifeblood of Broken Hill, and that the Big Dragonfly might attract tourists in the same way that the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour and the Big Pineapple in Nambour do. ‘Instead of another austere looking gallery that is visited only by the “arty” crowd, an outrageous looking gallery such as this might attract the “average” crowd,’ said Tee.
This second-year architecture project introduced many overseas students to the work of Pro Hart for the first time. The reaction of both the overseas and the local students was extremely positive, as is clearly evident by their very thoughtful and highly imaginative designs. In the course of designing a gallery and studios for Pro and his art, the students have also produced a different form of biography of the artist.
Dr. Derham Groves is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Melbourne.