Where the wild things are: Spot the wallabies along Birrarung Marr

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It’s like a modern-day version of the kids’ song We’re going on a bear hunt, only this time, we’re on the lookout for Australian fauna.

Dotted along Birrarung Marr in the heart of Melbourne are a mob of cheeky, colourful wallabies – but a few have gone astray, so the challenge is to find them all.

Artist Matthew Clarke with his work Wallabies, at Birrarung Marr as part of Rising Festival. Credit: Chris Hopkins

Created by artist Matthew Clarke, the idea for the oversized marsupial sculptures came from a group of real wallabies who regularly greeted him under the clothesline in his backyard. Now he’s bringing a version of these visitors to the city, as part of the Rising Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday. Clearly keen for a party, the native animals are already lining the river bank.

Ranging between 1.8 and 2.8 metres high, the creatures are all different, with expressive faces, painted in a range of bold patterns and colours. Their characters were determined by the frame of mind the 37-year-old artist was in when he painted them, says his dad, Andrew, who helps build the large-scale pieces in the garage at their Warrnambool home.

Matthew Clarke’s Del Kathryn Barton is a good listener was an Archibald Prize finalist in 2021.Credit: Courtesy of AGNSW

The wallabies are reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works, with a neo-expressionistic aesthetic, dramatic and slightly chaotic. Clarke, who has an intellectual disability, is intrigued by the curious native animals who appear and disappear, like mythical creatures. His immediate surroundings inspire his work, with subjects ranging from the natural world to everyday items.

“I am glad to have some extra room in the studio but bit sad to see wallabies go,” he wrote on Instagram the day the sculptures were sent to Melbourne.

It’s been a big year for Clarke: he just heard musical royalty Paul Kelly is happy to sit as a subject for next year’s Archibald Prize. “When I was 18 I used to listen to [Kelly’s] music all through the night, and paint away until 2 o’clock in the morning,” he says.

That news follows Clarke’s shortlisting in the prestigious Sulman Prize, for a self-portrait, and the Wynne, for one of his sculptures, King of the ghost wallabies. He enjoyed the recent event for finalists, held at the Art Gallery of NSW, where he met fellow artists, among them one of his heroes, painter Ben Quilty.

Artist Del Kathryn Barton is another of Clarke’s favourites: his piece Del Kathryn Barton is a good listener was a finalist in the 2021 Archibald Prize. The pair met through Instagram and “we liked each other’s work and became friends messaging online”, Clarke said of his entry. “I went to her studio so I could get a feel for her personality and physical characteristics. She listened and wanted to know about me and my processes.

“Del was wearing a colourful pyjama suit that she thought would match my palette. I only drew two sketches and the rest I stored as feelings and thoughts that ran straight into the painting.”

Clarke’s trip to Sydney has inspired his next series, which will be devoted to birds and particularly the ibis. While Clarke’s family were at the gallery’s cafe, an ibis jumped up to the next table and stuck its beak in the butter.

Describing his style as naive, Clarke fell in love with painting when he was 18, and completed the South West TAFE art course. At that point, he was making a number of text-based works, including his favourite refrain, My way or the highway. His first solo show was at the Warrnambool Art Gallery in 2007, and more recently the regional gallery hosted another of his shows, Wallabies Gambit Club, featuring wallaby-styled chess pieces.

Warrnambool artist Matthew Clarke is lit up by his father Andrew (right), with his Rising Festival work, Wallabies. Credit: Chris Hopkins

A member of his local chess club, Clarke says novelty sets such as the Star Wars version got him thinking about fashioning his own. After the Warrnambool show, he donated the chess wallabies to a nearby state school; he will do the same with the creatures featured in Rising. “Matt and I didn’t have good experiences with art at primary school, so we hope a few kids might be inspired by them,” Andrew Clarke says.

To create the large works for Rising, Matthew Clarke drew what he wanted to paint on paper, his father created a plywood cutout of the drawing, and then Matthew painted on the wood.

Based on a real-life experience and created with his mentor Glenn Morgan, Clarke’s linocut Lost in Melbourne Zoo is part of Melbourne Now at the Ian Potter NGV in Federation Square. “I love my dog, playing chess and my Instagram page,” he wrote in the NGV’s magazine.

Clarke’s work has covered trams in Melbourne and Adelaide and been acquired by ArtBank, the City of Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery. He is shortlisted for the Burnie Print Prize (the winner will be announced in July), will exhibit at September’s Sydney Contemporary and is represented by Mossenson Galleries.

Wallabies are at Birrarung Marr until June 18.

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