Monthly Archives: August 2011

Gordon Bennett @ Sutton Gallery

The title of Gordon Bennett’s latest exhibition: “(Abstraction) Citizen” is just waiting to be deconstructed. They are tempting text to use as a springboard for an examination of Australia’s race relationship and representation.

The paintings themselves, Bennett’s series of double portraits invites more critical discourse about the dichotomy between words and identity, abstraction and representation, citizens and non-citizens. In Bennett’s painting the pink lines that make one face are on top of the black/brown X-ray, geometric figures that are reminiscent of figures by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1998 Bennett started to channel Basquiat in his paintings. Bennett saw similarities his Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal ancestry and Basquiat’s Haitian/Puerto Rican, as well as, that Basquiat’s art that was an amalgam of visual images and ideas.

Underneath the double portraits of imaginary people Gordon Bennett has written words on the canvas, titling the portraits with text: “suburbanite”, “burgher”, “indigene”, “citizenry”, “colonist” and “population”.

The philosopher Max Stirner wrote: “…in order to be a real I, a ‘free burgher’, a ‘citizen’, a ‘free and true man’, they too see the truth and reality of me in the reception of an alien I and devotion to it. And what sort of I? An I that is neither an I nor a you, a fancied I, a spook.” (The Ego and Its Own p.225)

Max Stirner argues that identities like ‘citizen’ are alien abstractions; that I am not a citizen, a suburbanite, a burgher, an indigene, citizenry, colonist, or even population. The words that Bennett has written on his paintings are abstractions; they are not representational or representative of an individual. The words suggest a membership of an abstract group. It is also a reference to Bennett’s alternate identity as “John Citizen”.

Gordon Bennett keeps on changing his style of painting. I remember seeing his retrospective of twenty years of art at the NGV in 2007 and being struck by the variety of media, besides painting, that Bennett has used including videos and self-portraits in the form of installations with dressing tables. Bennett’s ‘cut & paste’ aesthetic appropriates everyone; he mixes Pollock with Pop Art, Phillip Guston with De Stijl, going from one extreme to another. He could, at this stage of his career be resting on his achievements and like many other established artists continuing to turn out trademark style paintings but instead he keeps on changing.

Gordon Bennett is a post-modern stylistic master of appropriation mixing Western and Australian aboriginal art with a post-colonial agenda. This sounds very serious but Bennett makes post-modernism visual delight. Gordon Bennett’s art will remain a critical favourite with his references and thought provoking work but his art remains fun and visually appealing.

Commemorative plaque @ Queensland College of Art, Brisbane


On Installation & Grief

Upstairs at the Napier is very quite on a weekday, I didn’t know what was on but I was glad that I paid it a visit. It is an artist run space, just a couple of rooms above the Napier Hotel in Fitzroy. I turned the lights in the gallery on and off myself (it felt interactive and very right for the environment). The white rooms gallery rooms have track lighting on the ceilings but do have some original art nouveau molded tin on the lower walls.

Anne-Marie Kuter has created a fairly standard piece of contemporary art – “Warped Intervention Installation”. A paper mold of a fireplace and ceiling rose, both lit from behind, represent the kind of architectural features that this room would have once had. Why the ceiling was painted green and hung with a multitude of pieces of folded paper was not clear but evocative. Anne-Marie Kuter is on the board of artists who run Upstairs at the Napier.

After this I had no expectations for the next room/gallery so I was surprised by the quality of “The Hankie Project” curated by Julie Barratt. 150 works by 100 artists from 12 countries focused on handkerchiefs as a symbol of grief. It is rare to see an art exhibition with works full of genuine, deep emotion. Of course, there were lots of embroidery and printing on handkerchiefs but Barratt did not allow the exhibition to become repetitive. It is a continuing unfolding experience, intimate, moving and certainly thought provoking about the culture of grief.

The difficulty of expressing profound grief in a culture that no longer deals with death with elaborate rituals and protocol, that in many ways denies death. What to do with the period of mourning? In part “The Hankie Project” is Julie Barratt and the artists expressing their personal grief for the loss of loved ones through creation of these small memorials. But these are not just private memorials but art that is expected to seen by strangers. The sensitivity of the Barratt’s curatorship is evident in the delicate balance of the exhibition creating the sense of not intruding on someone’s grief.


Fitzroy to East Melbourne

In my wanderings around the city, searching for art galleries and street art, I walk along familiar and unfamiliar streets. I pass the mural on the wall of Whitlam Place in Fitzroy; it has been there a few years but still looks good. Of course these great public murals on so many buildings in Fitzroy would not be possible without artists working illegally along its back lanes. You cannot have one without the other. And there are so many pieces on the streets.

Anon. Fitzroy stencil

In the back lanes of Fitzroy, along with old stencils by Psalm, Dlux, HaHa, Optic and other veteran street artists, Vandal Spruce has been adding his paste-ups. Vandal Spruce is continuing to paste-up to taunt the Victorian Police with his inverted version of their badge. Vandal Spruce has been doing a great many of these paste-ups; I’ve seen them from Brunswick to Fitzroy.

Vandal Spruce, Fitzroy

Crossing Victoria Parade the municipal boundary between the City of Yarra and the City of Melbourne. Suddenly there is no more street art, legal legit pieces nor any illegal pieces. (Like I said you can’t have one without the other.) The backs of street signs were not covered in stickers, the white cream of all the buildings is fresh and clean. And the streets of East Melbourne are almost empty of people in contrast to the bustle of the streets of Fitzroy.

Tom Civil, 3CR wall, Fitzroy

It is only a couple of hundred meters south from 3CR community radio with its sidewall covered in a two story high painting by Tom Civil, Reko Rennie and others. Tom Civil’s huge section with hundred of figures walking, riding bicycles and sitting around a campfire is a great vision of the idea of community. Victoria Parade clearly demarcates the contrasting patchwork of Melbourne’s inner city and the different policies of its municipal governments. Is this what the City of Melbourne has a dedicated graffiti removal van for? To protect the areas of Melbourne occupied by the Masons, private hospitals, surgeons and the police association headquarters from the dread graffiti.


Time & Tiles

Mirka Mora’s broad brushstrokes and whimsical figures translate well into the medium of mosaic. Wall mosaics were once the popular media for public art in Melbourne and there are some that have aged well, for example, the Flinders Street Station Mural by Mirka Mora, 1986. The mural is on the inside wall at the Yarra river end of the station next to Clock’s Restaurant. The entire wall is not a mosaic, only the central panel is, the decorative upper frieze is painted and the lower border is painted with low-relief outlines. Tiled wall mosaics are expensive undertakings, in materials and time. A single artist cannot be completed a large mosaic without assistants. In creating the Flinders Street Station Mural Mirka Mora was assisted by Nicola McGann, who now works a Victorian company, Tactile Mosaics, and Brandon Scott McFadden, who currently lectures at Box Hill Institute. Mirka Mora also created a mosaic mural at St. Kilda Pier.

Mirka Mora, Flinders Street Station Mural, 1986

detail Flinders St. Station mural

The bronze didactic plaque for the Flinders Street Station Mural refers to the two other major public mosaics in Melbourne: at Newspaper House and the East Hill Fire Station (see my post: The Legend of Harold Freedman). The Flinders Street Station Mural is a typical laughing response by Mirka Mora to the high seriousness of these earlier mosaics.

“Communication” by M. Napier Waller, 1933, is a large wall mosaic on the first floor of the front of Newspaper House in Collins Street. The slogan “I’ll put a girdle round the world” (Shakespeare, Midsummer Nights Dream) that runs across the top of the mosaic is a reference to  the newspapers, The Herald & Weekly Times and not corsetry. Typical for the time the mosaic’s conservative late 19th Century style incorporates a few modern references including a car and train. A copy of newspaper The Herald is directly behind the central trumpet-blowing figure. Although mosaic was made in 1933 it bears the date 3 January 1840 in Roman numerals (“III January MDCCCXXXX) for the founding of The Herald. There are other murals and wall mosaics by Waller at the University of Melbourne and in Melbourne’s CBD including the mosaic “Prometheus”, 1967, Monash House foyer, William St, Melbourne.

M. Napier Waller, “Communication”, 1933

detail of "Communication"

There are other buildings with less artistic and grand mosaics in Melbourne. Near the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth St. Flinders Arcade has is tiled façade. The tiles have the image of a golden sun that a metal skeletal figure of a crowned merman armed with a trident in front of it. There is a hard edge abstract mosaic on the side of the building on the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders St. in Melbourne, a faded folly of high modernism.

Ceramic tile wall mosaics in Melbourne might appear to be a trivial topic in art history. Most have dated badly, none of them are masterpieces but they draw attention to an ignored part of Melbourne. Melbourne used to have a lot more tiles. The outside and inside walls of Melbourne’s pubs were tiled, making it easy to wash the vomit off. There were tiled mosaics sign for shops, still visible in some of the older shops, like the “Buckley and Nunn” sign above David Jones, as well as, higher up above the second floor windows.

Although mosaics are durable they do require some maintenance  – the Flinders Street Station Mural was restored in 1998. But due to their durability wall mosaics will continue in contemporary Melbourne public art such as Pamela Irving recent mosaics at Patterson Station.


Thursday Research

There wasn’t much to many of the exhibitions at the galleries on Flinders Lane except for Craft Victoria and Robbie Rowlands’ exhibition “The Gardner” at Arc One. Even Robbie Rowlands’ art appeared a little limited in vision; a series of curved limp version of familiar objects with a title that is a bit of a joke or pun like a totem tennis pole titled “totem”. All the objects have a series of repetitive cuts along one edge allowing them to be bent. The selection of an-aesthetic objects from around the garden: the edge trimmers, the ubiquitous Hills Hoist, the wheelbarrow, chairs and a table. Basically it is the soft objects of Claus Oldenburg meeting Duchamp’s readymades in a garden shed.

Robbie Rowlands, "A New Low", 2011, aluminium ladder (image courtesy of the artist)

I have put some time aside on Thursdays to visit galleries, wander, photograph and do other research for this blog. Thursday is a good day for visiting galleries in Melbourne, as most of them are open. I can see a lot of galleries on a 2-hour public transport ticket and then write a post before the weekend. I write this to explain my blog writing practice.

This week I gave a short interview for a journalism studies student, Natasha from Monash University about urban problems like pigeons, rats and graffiti (see my post: Coo-burg). As I was in Hosier Lane I continued up the hill along Flinders Lane looking at the galleries. I have been trying to visit new galleries this year – it is too easy for a critic to visit and write about the same galleries over and over again. I still visit many of the same galleries simply because they are convenient but I want to try to keep a variety in the posts that I write about.

After the usual suspects on Flinders Lane I did get to a gallery that I haven’t visited or written about before. Warburton Lane Exhibits is a converted warehouse loft apartment combined with a gallery – there are always few of these types of galleries around the city. The gallery is a small elegant and intimate space with a balcony overlooking the lane. Joseph Flynn is exhibiting a dozen paintings – “Animal Spirit” Flynn’s art has changed since I first wrote about him (see my post: Fine Arts Education). There is an animal spirit in the exhibition; the paintings are punk and raw with paint mixing around on their metal supports. And there is a clear street art influence in Flynn’s painting, with lots of aerosol spray on the background.


Coo-burg

To the west of Jewell Station looks like a scene from the Hitchcock movie “The Birds”; there are hundreds of feral pigeons along with a dozen seagulls. Coburg’s intersection of Victoria Street and Waterfield Road presents a similar scene; some parts of the Victoria Street mall are completely unusable due to pigeon droppings. And now there are pigeon paste-ups in the Victoria Street Mall renaming the suburb: “Coo-burg”. These paste-ups rats of the sky make street art references to Banksy’s rats and Blek le Rat.

Coburg does not have a lot of street art or graffiti compared to Brunswick, just the occasional paste-up or sticker run and the odd tag. These paste-ups raise the question: are pigeons more serious urban problem than graffiti? In a word: yes. Pigeons make more than just a mess they make an unhygienic mess; pigeon dropping can spread diseases to humans. There are expenses incurred by local councils and traders to prevent pigeons roosting and to clean up pigeon droppings: anti-roosting devices and netting ruin the look of architecture. For more on the problem of pigeons in an urban environment see Pigeon Pest Control For Beginners.

There is legislation to prevent feeding pigeons but it goes on – some people dump bread by the loaf to feed them. But unlike graffiti the people who feed pigeons are not regarded as socially disruptive and the laws regarding feeding pigeons are not enforced nor are they a focus of public concern. Maybe Coo-burg needs a pigeon trap/roost like the one at Batman Park, Melbourne or other forms of population control. Expecting politicians to prioritise their response to problems based on evidence rather than prejudices would be too much.

Jail bird at the former Pentridge prison


The moral meaning of the wilderness

In the wilderness personal identity is not defined – I like artists who keep on changing rather than one that keeps on churning out the same trademark work. So don’t expect more of the same from Juan Davila when you go to his exhibition that summarizes the last decade of his paintings at MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art). The exhibition is like going to one of those concerts where the band only plays songs from their latest album.

In three galleries of paintings at MUMA Davila takes the viewer from works that are familiar through to new directions in new paintings. Starting with the artist’s studio, with remains of his cut-up style but there is a change to Davila’s palette; it is lighter and the colors more subdued. The artist’s studio is the subject for the revolutionary realist Courbet but also for old Picasso endlessly painting nudes in an isolated loop of studio production.

Then in the next gallery there is an escape from the studio to painting en plein air. These Australian landscapes continue Davila’s change in palette along with a dramatic change of genre for Davila but not a change in political interest. What is the moral meaning of the wilderness? What is the moral landscape of Australia? Landscapes are the legendary great painting tradition of Australia, another way of conquering the land. Australians love the land, they love to mine, burn, despoil and finally turn into a nuclear waste dump. In Davila’s “Australia: Nuclear waste dumping ground” (2007) the bush runs out half way across the canvas then there is just a vacant sky and earth.

In the final gallery there are paintings of abstract, surreal forms hanging in fields of light paint. These inscapes, these psychological landscapes are another wilderness of paint and unknowable signs, a place between surrealism and abstract expressionism. Has Davila in these recent paintings attempted to revive the spirit of the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta? (And, perhaps also, some of the late paintings of James Gleeson?)

This keynote exhibition of Davila’s recent paintings has previously been in Brisbane and Canberra. The exhibition also provides a platform for a new publication and a documentary video about Davila. The video was showing in MUMA’s lobby but I couldn’t see much of it on Saturday when it was crowded with people for the official opening of this and two other smaller exhibitions. “Collected Collaborations” a project based exhibition initiated by the Artist’s Book Research Group. And “The Devil Had a Daughter” printmaking with an allegorical, theatrical and macabre imagery; the exhibition takes it title from a dark and brooding monoprint by Janson Greig.

MUMA on the Caulfield campus still has that new gallery smell and an unfortunate name joining MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art), GOMA (Gallery Of Modern Art), MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), IMA (Institute of Modern Art), MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) etc. All these acronyms are making taking about galleries sound like a Kurt Schwitter’s poem with a limited alphabet.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 949 other followers

%d bloggers like this: