Sydney

Anne Zahalka, Flocking flamingos, 2018, pigment ink on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 59”. From the series “Wild Life in the Age of the Anthropocene,” 2018.

Anne Zahalka, Flocking flamingos, 2018, pigment ink on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 59”. From the series “Wild Life in the Age of the Anthropocene,” 2018.

Anne Zahalka

Anne Zahalka broke onto the Australian art scene as one of a number of talented women artists who rode the wave of postmodernism in the 1980s. Her early work combining photography and appropriation is typically viewed as debunking stereotypes of place, identity, and culture, and as showing photographic verisimilitude to be a theatrical construct. One of Zahalka’s best-known early works refigures the Australian modernist Max Dupain’s famous black-and-white photograph Sunbaker, 1937, which highlights the impressive musculature and oiled skin of a male surfer soaking up rays on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. Zahalka’s The sunbather #2, 1989, substituted for this idealized image of Australian manhood a slight, redheaded female whose freckled limbs rest gingerly on a mound of sand in what is clearly a studio set. The image cheekily undercuts the status of Dupain’s picture as an emblem of Australian identity.

Zahalka was also an early convert to what’s been called the tableau form, associated with Jeff Wall and the Düsseldorf School photographers. She has hinted that her attraction to tableau photography arose from its combination of classical composition with the precise capture of engorged detail the medium makes possible. Zahalka has adopted this approach in both her much-admired portrait series and her panoramic views of crowds gathered in the public spaces of Australian leisure: casinos, theme parks, sports arenas, and tourist hot spots.

The title of the artist’s latest show, “Wild Life in the Age of the Anthropocene,” signals a commitment to the currently popular artistic theme of environmental degradation. The works revisit the scenography of natural history museum dioramas featured in earlier works from Zahalka’s “Wild Life”series, 2006–2007, with a group of imagesin which the artist used Photoshop compositing to import anomalous details into photographs of taxidermied animals in simulated nature. The modestly scaled color print on rag paper Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear, 2017, messed with the scientific accuracy of such habitat displays. Here, Zahalka confectes a “mixed marriage” between a polar bear and a grizzly, set against a sublime Alpine backdrop.

Also on view were eleven large pigment ink prints on canvas from the 2018 series that lent the exhibition its title. These melded historical dioramas Zahalka recently documented at a natural history museum in Mumbai together with digital inserts referencing destructive human incursions upon the frozen displays of pristine nature. In Flocking flamingos, 2018, a dense cloud of the elegant pink-tinted birds filled the middle ground, with the horizon dominated by an oil refinery and the foreground littered with discarded plastic water bottles and shattered eggs. In another image, There will be no more rumble in the jungle, 2018, two Indian rhinos were brutally divested of their horns through digital means. In A craw of carnivores, 2018, the most threatening creature among a collection of unspectacular feral meat eaters was a domestic cat dropped into the scene.

In some respects this show felt like a children’s guide to ecological awareness. Perhaps this approach was deliberate, but sometimes the political virtue assumed by Zahalka’s art seems too obvious and easily digestible in ways that may detract from the recognition of her deft manipulation of compositional poise, nuanced color, and rich detailing, which is capable of satisfying the hunger for visual complexity possessed by both adults and children.