Sutton Gallery: Reluctant Star - Art Collector

Issue 24 April-June 2003

For the first time Irene Sutton lets the focus shift from gallery to gallerist. Story by Alexie Glass.

Melbourne gallerist Irene Sutton, of the Fitzroy-based Sutton gallery, is a very private person. She has never before agreed to be interviewed, preferring to let the high standard of work produced by the artists she represents – artists including Deborah Paauwe, Stephen Bush, Helga Groves, Lindy Lee, Rosslynd Piggott and Jon Cattapan – remain the focus of attention on the gallery. Sutton is aware that by venturing into terrain that makes visible the person facilitating the exhibition of work, the viewer can be distracted from the point that the artist’s vision is why we’re here. In talking about yourself in a tête-à-tête scenario there’s a risk of courting a situation that could inadvertently be interpreted as an exercise more about personality than art.

Conversely, Sutton is also aware that by discussing the ways in which the parts of what you do congeal and communicate – by opening up the ways of explaining how ideas and objects have arrived at your destination – you can allow for a deeper understanding and reading of the whole. That’s why on a hot Thursday evening in late January she agrees to return from her holiday – to Melbourne and to the gallery – to discuss for the first time since she opened the doors of Sutton Gallery in 1992, what the gallery is to her, her background, her artists, and her vision for the future.

We start by getting two coffees, and then I look around while she finishes up a few unspecified things before we settle in for what I realise is going to provide a lesser pleasure for her than the prospect of root
canal surgery. I am struck by my surprise at how unremarkable the space is. The walls have a wizened appeal,
they seem all at once buffed, sanded and shiny, like the subtly uneven surfaces of a favoured leather brief
case that has aged with use but is dignified. The shadows of exhibitions past are present. Equally the grey
linoleum tiled flooring adds to the atmosphere, while the remnants of the now-gallery once-fashion-factory
remain overhead in the form of the unfinished roof beams.

And it is the idiosyncratic nuances of the space that could well articulate what Sutton perceives to be
her role as a gallerist. A role that is at once pragmatic but intuitive. A role she wants to remain as free of affectation and pretension as possible in order to allow for the art to speak itself.

Or, as she explains it: “I heard someone talking to Susan Sontag on the radio recently and they asked her about ‘lifestyle’ and she replied, ‘Life is not a style’. This is not about a style. While a gallery has to present something of the person who runs it, for me that’s always been very much secondary, and the space I have here typifies that because it actually changes significantly with whatever show is on. It’s not a space that shouts: ‘look at me, I’m a gallery, I’m a white cube and I’m perfect’. This is a space that’s just really empathetic with whatever you put in it. For example you can put one good Eugene Carchesio on the main wall by itself because a good one will hold the space. And that’s enough.

“For me art is not about making something special by putting it in a gallery. And that to a large extent is the way I’ve wanted to run the gallery. I think what I’ve learnt from my friendship with Peter [Bellas] is that he runs a great gallery, with a real passion, without pots of money behind him. He does it as a serious business, and I think that’s what I liked when I met him and what inspired me. Art isn’t about impressing with gorgeous clothes. It’s about the work and the people you’re involved with.” And in Sutton’s case, it is particularly true that the people you meet can alter the direction you follow.

Arriving relatively late to the art world, in her previous incarnation, Sutton earned a PhD in pharmacology from London University and worked in scientific research at Melbourne University, only leaving the profession in 1987 after she completed several art history units at Melbourne and Monash Universities. Then, in 1988, after a chance introduction to Brisbane dealer Peter Bellas, a friendship developed and Sutton found herself encouraged to open a gallery.

“When I met Peter I had no idea I was going to open a gallery. None at all. But Peter had a wild idea and I went to bed and I thought about it. ‘Maybe? Maybe!’ And it evolved and it was crazy … you have to understand I was in my mid-forties and I really knew no one in the art world, or what the networks were. I didn’t know anybody so it was a stupid thought really. But then I thought, ‘what have I got to lose?’ And I started in 1992, which was the height of the recession, I could never believe I would sell anything and the first thing I sold was to a friend of mine. I was so grateful I can’t tell you.”

And from there Sutton Gallery has gone from strength to strength. In the early years her friendship with Bellas forged an unofficial partnership whereby the two independent galleries would hold exchange exhibitions of artists from both stables, displaying a collegiality, which bemused some bystanders. “While the exchange between Bellas and I lasted, it was very good for the artists that showed here because they had an opportunity for a show in Brisbane and vice versa. At the time when I opened, I showed a lot of the people he showed in Brisbane and over a period of time that’s changed a little. While I still show some Brisbane artists like Gordon Bennett and Eugene Carchesio, it was always my intention over time that the emphasis would be on Melbourne artists and on young artists and that’s happened but it’s taken time.”

And if the cliché all good things in time holds true, now, ten years after opening with her first show (an exhibition of work by a then emerging artist, Kathy Temin) it’s a good time indeed. Presenting a broad diversity of work and forms of expression that cover not only (subjectively speaking) conventional media such as painting, photography and works on paper, Sutton Gallery also frequently shows 3-D installation work, new media and site specific installation.

That’s why when you enter Sutton Gallery prepare yourself for anything from a video installation by emerging Melbourne practitioner Kate Beynon; to an installation of quasi-erotic and amorphically challenged sculptures by John Meade and an exhibiton by the (until recently commercially overlooked) artist, Peter Kennedy.

“When people ask me what kind of work I show I say ‘serious’ because I think serious is quite a reasonable description. I don’t say ‘cutting edge’ because it comes with so many flimsy connotations, so I say serious, because it has some substance to it. When I walk into my house at the end of a long day, there’s not a single piece of art that I don’t see. It’s never muzak or its equivalent. There’s no way I could walk past a Stephen Bush and not look at it. I sit here and stare and I don’t even know what I see, but you just know when you’re dealing with artists who are highly intelligent, highly intuitive and who see the world in a way that the rest of us don’t, you gain something from it.”

Aside from her role as a commercial gallerist, Sutton is also something of an avid collector herself, not just accumulating works by artists she represents but those by Indigenous artists – she has a very fine Emily Kame Kngwarreye purchased in 1991 – and pieces by other contemporary artists. “The first work I believe I bought that was ‘serious’ I bought from Bill Nuttal (Niagara Galleries). It was a Vicki Varvaressos, I bought it in 1985. It’s a painting and for me it was a significant purchase. I still have it and I think it’s a really good work. After that and as I learnt more and more, I realised the important thing is the more you know, the better you buy. There’s nothing wrong with learning and changing.” Which is why her collection now also features works by Robert Hunter and Tim Johnson, and to her credit, she encourages her collectors to be informed of the wide myriad works available. “I don’t have the thought that somebody has to buy only here. There are people who run that way but I don’t. I have some good clients who have bought a lot of artworks and I help them find others and I give them advice because you really build up a friendship and respect. You want them to have a really great work.”

However, prior to ever conceiving of Sutton Gallery, and years before pharmacology, Sutton says the first art she recalls becoming aware of was at the age of sixteen. Raised in Melbourne, the only child of European immigrants who arrived in Australia after the Second World War, she describes an incident when her parents had been in Australia for several years (and had developed a business and built a house) and decided “that it was time to put something on the walls.” Enter Ivanyi Gallery. “There was a man called Andrew Ivanyi who had a gallery on Toorak Road South Yarra, and I don’t know where they knew Andrew from but he arrived with things in the boot of his car and I remember my father bought three pieces with my help, although I knew nothing, and he knew nothing! We bought a 1947 Donald Friend gauche on paper, a Louis Kahn painting and the third one was a European watercolour, which was just beautiful. That would have been the first time I looked at art.”

Knowing that her exposure to art early on was limited at best, it could be simple at this point to posit her background in science as holding the key to an understanding of how she developed her exacting affinity to art and ability to interpret complex works. But it wouldn’t be a complete picture. “I broke away from empirical proof being the essence of how you made your assessments to something that was much more organic and humane and human. But by the same token, I didn’t try to lose everything that I’d learnt.”

An additional exemplary quality Sutton has – a quality which is invaluable in negotiating the exhibition and display of rigorous contemporary art – is a belief in art and its connection to life. And this belief, when fused with a discerning eye, is all the convincing required to ensure Sutton Gallery is a regular exhibition destination. “I think art needs to be about the world we inhabit as individuals. What do artists try to do if not work out
what living is all about? Each artist is trying to work out what it is to be alive and human from their own point of view, and while that might be simplistic it’s a privilege to be present for.”

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