Former curator Ian North is an independent artist and writer based in Adelaide. He is represented in many public collections around Australia including Artbank, National Gallery of Australia and National Gallery of Victoria. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts at the University of South Australia.
Professor Ian North, academic, artist and writer, was born in Aotearoa, New Zealand, in 1945, and immigrated to Australia in 1971. He completed a Master of Arts (Art History) from Flinders University in 1977. He later continued his arts education in the United States of America where he received a studio based Master of Arts majoring in photography at the University of New Mexico in 1986, which he extended to a Master of Fine Art in 1989.
When North was a young man in his late teens—after an earlier ‘conversion’ to art through the work of J.M.W. Turner, found in library books—he became interested in the aesthetics of landscape, particularly that which surrounded him, and from his motorbike he would photograph the streets of Wellington. It was during these formative years that he found the makings of a visual dialogue between photography, painting and landscape. Once committed to this nexus of media and genre, North forged ahead in his art practice, eventually hand printing medium format colour photographs, a medium he pioneered as an art form in Australia during the early 1980s.
In the two years before North moved from New Zealand to Australia, he was Director at Te Manawa, formerly Manawatu Art Gallery, in Palmerston North. He was then appointed Curator of Paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where he worked for almost a decade (1971- 80). From there he took a post at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, where he was foundation Curator of Photography until late 1984. He subsequently served on the Council of the National Gallery for a similar period of nearly five years. Following his time in Canberra, North returned to Adelaide, where he accepted the position of Head of School at the South Australian School of Art, a role he retained until 1993. In 1992, he also became Professor of Visual Arts at the University of South Australia, remaining in this station until 2001. In that year North reordered his academic responsibilities, dedicating himself full-time to his art practice and writing. This resulted in a role as Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts at the Hawke Institute and South Australian School of Art at the University of South Australia and simultaneously, from 2007, as Adjunct Professor of Art History at the University of Adelaide.
Throughout this academic period, North was influential in several significant events. These included establishing a professionally run art museum in 1986, which is now known as the Samstag Museum of Art, and in 1993 securing the return of the South Australian School of Art back to a city-based campus. In addition to these landmark changes to the university, North also implemented postgraduate degree studies at the School of Art and upgraded its artist-in-residence program in which a range of artists, both emerging Australian and high-profile internationals, participated. North is also credited with realising the prestigious Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarships program. He was a co-founder of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, in 1974. When President of the Art Association of Australia in 1997-99, he rewrote its constitution to include New Zealand, creating the Art Association of Australia & New Zealand (AAANZ).
During his career of myriad curated projects, exhibitions, publications, commissions, residencies, symposia and academic roles, North’s associations with other artists, writers and professionals are countless. Some of his collaborative projects include: editing Visual Animals (Contemporary Art Centre, SA), which won the AAANZ Best Book Prize for an Australasian publication (2007); a book written with Christine Nicholls, Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place (Wakefield Press), that also won the AAANZ Best Book Prize (2001); and organizing master classes in 2001 with leading international scholars Professors Ihab Hassan and W. T. J. Mitchell.
North’s exhibition history is considerable, in spite of not exhibiting for fifteen years when a curator to avoid conflict of interest. He had exhibited a little prior to his curatorial activities but in 1985 began to establish a significant exhibiting profile. Within his artistic oeuvre, there are three main areas of note. The first reflects his command of the photographic medium, in particular his black and white gelatin-silver photographs from the 1970s and, later, his urban works in colour comprising Canberra Suite and Canberra Coda, both 1980-81; Symptoms, 2005, and Adelaide Suite, 2008-09. These series show a development of subject matter from early works centred on places and situations, to type-C photographs and latterly inkjet prints that explore the inhabited landscapes of metropolises but are rendered devoid of people. North’s suburban-set images emit a quiet calm from otherwise busy and populated streets and parks.
North is also a successful painter, working with the genres of landscape and (occasionally) portraiture. The series Sail Away, 2001—, is a culmination of childhood memory, imagination, reality and experience, in which sailing ships from a bygone era are shown whipped by wind and battered by ocean waves as allegories of human folly. In 2008 he completed a commission to paint Graham Priest, Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. His 2007 portrait of Festival Director Anthony Steel is in the collection of the Adelaide Festival Centre, and in 2005 he was a finalist in the Archibald Prize with a portrait of Daniel Thomas, then Curator and Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.
A third significant area in North’s practice deals with the combination of photographic and painted mediums. His Pseudo-Panoramas, 1987-88, explore quintessentially Australian landscape scenes. In these works, as in his Manifest Destiny series, 1988-89, conceptually arranged type-C photographs of particular places illustrating rich coloured vistas are enhanced with hand painted synthetic polymer paint reflecting the power of the ‘imperial eye’, while works such as his Home & Away series, 1992, show the interpenetration of different parts of the world, no matter how remote.
North’s experience is manifold and so too his recognition within the arts. In 2006, he was a finalist in the Fleurieu Peninsula Art Prize, and in 2005 a finalist in the Archibald Prize as noted. In 1996 he was commissioned by the Art Gallery of South Australia to produce a large photography-based painting, The Olive Plantation, in 2000 a large painted digital work, The Intelligence of Blood, for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, and in 2005 a similarly mural sized painted digital print, The World is all that is Not the Case, for the Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and research grants, including a Fulbright scholarship and two Van Deren Coke Fellowships in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico, 1985 and 1989.
North’s work is represented in ACT Museums and Galleries, the Adelaide Festival Centre, Artbank, Art Gallery of Ballarat, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, Flinders University Art Museum, Griffith University, Ian Potter Museum of Art, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Queensland Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and Riddoch Gallery.