Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

The Brian Robinson Mix

Working on culture in a post-colonial world is more than just cultural maintenance. The post-colonial experience of travelling between different cultures is reflected in the visual culture just like the music and stories. Brian Robinson is like a DJ, or a curator, he was a curator at the Cairns Regional Gallery; mixing and making new sense out of diverse elements. He creates a visual culture mix, like a DJ mixing different sources with a beat to create new music to keep on dancing to.

Brian Robinson makes the kind of art that is loved by judges and the people; the kind of art that art writers and curators enjoy to write about and he clearly enjoys tells the stories of his art. Robinson also clearly enjoys making images with linocut, paper, spray paint, plastic toys, wood and even a shell can be the image of a shell. Story-telling, the myths and legends, are based on visual images as well as a words and his pictures often say more than a thousand words.

I went to his ‘floor talk’ Saturday 21 June at the Counihan Gallery. Robinson shines with friendly, informal, relaxed manner and he has a lot to talk about mixing memories of childhood with detailed knowledge of literature, Greek myths, Roman Catholic, Phantom comic books and popular culture. See a video interview with Brian Robinson on Creative Cowboy.

Robinson is not scared to do the masters, he references them in his linocuts; Leonardo, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Hokusai’s Great Wave. Why should he be? Brian Robinson from Waiben (Thursday Island), Torres Strait, of the Kala Lagaw Ya language group. He is doing it Straits style, mixing in his own stories and he was the winner the 2013 Western Australian Indigenous Art Award and that year’s People’s Choice Award.

Robinson’s art is beautiful, often intricate but it can also be scaled up as in his massive, mixed media wall friezes. He a fan of the art of M.C. Escher and pays tribute to it in Dawn Raid Strategy, 2011. There is more to this image than just a tribute piece, it speaks of deadly strategies and games of chess. For above all his art is alive because he is playing – he must be a great dad except when he takes his kids toys to use in his art.

Robinson knows what it feels like to look for lost worlds under the sea. In his 2012 linocut, Navigating narrative – Nemo’s encounter in the Torres Strait, he creates an illustration for the one of the several chapters set in the Torres Straits in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.

“‘Savages!’ replied Captain Nemo in a sarcastic tone. ‘And you are surprised Dr Aronnax, that when you set foot on one of the lands of this globe, you find savages? Where are there not savages, and in any case, are those that you call savages any worse than the others?’”

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, trans William Butcher (Oxford, 1998, p.152)

There is so much to see and enjoy at Brian Robinson’s exhibition Strait Protean at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The title says so much about the way the Robinson mixes images; Proteus is the ever changing adaptable sea god. Much of the work in the exhibition was developed during a twelve month long residency that Robinson had at Djumbunji Press in 2010, his skill with lino cutting has been refined and developed to an amazing level. His adaptable vision makes him not just an artist for the present but also for keeping the past alive into the future.


Memories of the Museo Del Prado

Visiting the Museo Del Prado was an all day marathon event for me – I was close to the front of the line gained entry just after it opened at 9 am. I had been told that it was impossible to see the Prado in one day but I was determined to prove them wrong. I systematically ticked off room after room on my map. I ate like a marathon runner, lots of carbohydrates and sugar.

That day in Prado I fell in love with the Baroque that day, especially Ribalta, Ribera, Valazeques and Meléndez. Ribera’s paintings of people are so human, wrinkles and all and he paints it all with so much feeling.

I had prepared for this visit by reading Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art by Victor I. Stoichita (Reaktion Books, 1995). The portrayal of internal private experiences, such as visions, in a visual media creates a complex visual grammar distinguishing between the real and the imagined.

An American tourist was laughing out loud at Alonso Cano’s Lactation of St Bernard (c.1658-60). He couldn’t believe what he was seeing the clarity of this lactation porn looks crazy to modern eyes. It is not St Bernard who is lactating but a painting of the Virgin Mary. The American has to point out to me – “She is shooting a jet right into his mouth!”

It was not the craziest painting in the Prado created from the fermented and distilled Catholic thought of the 17th century. That honour has to go to Francesco Rossi Salvaiati’s Sacred Family with Parrot presented by an Angel (1543) – what’s next the teenage Jesus presented with a Playstation by presented by an Angel?

Situated in a couple of the galleries there were coin operated machines, like those old chocolate machines on English train stations, selling little Gallery Guide books for major artists available in English, French, Spanish and German. I bought the guides to Velázquez and Bosch (the Prado is the place to see Bosch).

Pieter Brueghal the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

Pieter Brueghal the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

I am particularly taken by Pieter Brueghal’s The Triumph of Death but I wonder what would happen to this zombie apocalypse now that the living out number the dead?

There is a 16th century copy of La Gioconda (aka Mona Lisa) sans the background landscape.

I was disappointed with seeing Goya’s work for the first time, his big brushstrokes were much better in reproduction, but then he did start his career painting the designs for tapestries so they were always, in a way, intended to be reproduced in another media.

By the end of the day my feet were sore, particularly my big toes, something about the way that you move in a gallery – walk, stand, walk… Checking my watch I had twenty minutes to see the last four or five small rooms on the second floor but I was sure that now my eye was well tuned and that I could spot the paintings that were worth looking at. I would look around the room and select one or two paintings for a closer look and then move to the next room.

At 6pm the Prado was shutting but I had completed every gallery and I was exhausted, dizzy and disorientated with a bit Stendhal syndrome. I’d had Stendhal syndrome before so I wasn’t surprised by it. I staggering into a bar and ordered a whiskey. I could remember all the paintings but the wet streets of Madrid were almost unrecognisable.

The next day at 9 am I was back in the Prado again, it was free entry on that day and I walked around looking again at my favourite works. Maybe you can’t see the whole Prado in one day.


Dark & Light

Two current exhibitions one dark and the other light.

RMIT First Site Gallery describes this exhibition as “probably the darkest show we have ever had…” on their Facebook page.  The trio of exhibitions at First Site are dark as in obscured rather than dark subject matter; obscured by lacunas, palimpsests and dark spaces. Lacunas and palimpsests were popular subjects at the height of post-modern in nineties because they referred to areas of uncertain and indeterminate meaning.

Eugenia Raftopoulos, Some things last a long time is a series of uncanny and subdued oil paintings that often featuring lacuna, a missing section, a hole in the illusion of the painting. Nicholas McGintity, Parallel, a 47 sec video loop features palimpsests, crossed out black and white pornographic images, shown sideways, out of focus and otherwise obscured as they rapidly click through the loop like a demented slide show.

Wilson Yeung, Trace, features 31 boxes with pinhole photographs using a monotype transfer process. In the darkness of the gallery, the blurry images of the faces are almost unrecognisable as the images in the back lit boxes pulse from light to dark.

No Vacancy’s exhibition Look Mum! couldn’t be more different, it is light like a child’s drawings on the fridge. Look Mum! is a group show featuring eight Melbourne-based illustrators: Eveline Tarunadjaja, Sean Morris, Fiona Lee, Gnashing Teeth, Stevie D, Sass Cocker, Jeremy Ley and Jospeh Keena. Each of the illustrators are showing their mature work next to drawings and toys from their childhood displayed on fridges, just as they were in childhood. Each of the fridges has the artist’s name displayed on it in magnetic letters. Beside each fridge there is a shelf of toys and other memorabilia from the artist’s childhood. The gallery has a domestic feel with a lounge area and a table with paper and crayons for doing your own drawings. It is a great look for an exhibition about illustration and I don’t know why I haven’t seen it before.


Art Vs Reality Fail

Art Vs Reality is a six part YouTube series of videos. “The aim of the series is really to save art from the curse of luxury imposed by a corporatised artworld,” says Peter Drew, the presenter in the series. The words “save” and “curse” is an indication of the kind of magico-religious thinking about art behind this series.

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

There is plenty of this kind of fuzzy thinking in the series. In Episode 3 Peter Drew appears to claim that artists who sell art lack integrity and are basically guilty of simony for selling the sacred. This obsession with money is a popular take on the institutional theory of art and money features prominently in Art Vs Reality right in the graphics at the start of each episode.

The fixation of money is perhaps due because Peter Drew is a street artist from Adelaide and street art is the most commercial of art movements since the Surrealism. From Futura, Kaws and Os Gêmeos marketing Hennessy cognac, to the entrepreneurial street artists selling street fashion, to quasi religious idealists, like Drew, there has always been a focus on money in graffiti and street art. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I don’t begrudge any artist a single dollar that they make, or don’t make, but you might regard it differently if you have a fantasy about simony.

It is the word ‘reality’ in the title that is symbolic of the its simplistic fantasy of art; it continues to measure art on its Procrustean bed. A fantasy based on a rather simple understanding of a largely French focused version of European art history, ignoring art before the 19th century and most other cultures and countries. The ‘reality’ that Art Vs Reality is referring to is an imaginary popular idealised ‘reality’ that frequently has a tenuous relation to the facts.

Facts, like what happened in the creation of Duchamp’s Fountain that Drew blames for the starting conceptualism. Drew is unaware that the New York Independent Show that Fountain was excluded from had no jury (nor as Drew claims judges to “dismiss it out of hand”). How then was Fountain excluded from the exhibition and where the is the first edition of Fountain is far more complex than Drew’s ‘reality’.

Ironically it is the conceptual art of the Duchamp that Art Vs Reality, in Episode 2, blames for what it see as what is wrong with art. With a more complete reading of art history Drew might have been aware that the initial attacks on art institutions and the idea of great artists first launched by the Dadaists, followed by the conceptual artists in the 1960s, weren’t concerned about the influence of money but on the ideological support that the galleries gave to the state/war criminals.

Drew’s light-hearted approach lacks any subtly, depth or understanding of art or social history. He doesn’t take the audience to anything new or offer any new insights. Given the subject matter that he wants to deal with it is a shame that Drew does not appear to have read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or, even the arch and sardonic Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (as Wolfe was at least informed about modern art history when he wrote it). For a much more detailed analysis of the contemporary art market I would recommend reading Judith Benhamou-Huet’s The Worth of Art – Pricing the Priceless (Assouline, 2001).

Unfortunately Art vs Reality is just another jeremiad, posing as a comedic commentary, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent.


The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).

 

National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?

 


Wrapped & Revealed

Callum Morton’s exhibition Neighbourhood Watch at Anna Schwartz Gallery is a lot of fun. Morton’s art is generally a lot of fun; Morton’s Motel is a familiar sight to drivers on the Eastlink Freeway and would also be familiar to listeners of the Triple M breakfast show where mistaking Morton’s Motel for the real thing has become a long running joke.

The game of Morton’s Neighbourhood Watch is a guessing game. If you have lived in Melbourne and are sighted you should be able to guess the identity of the wrapped statues. All the wrapped statues are familiar public statues that are located in Melbourne’s major streets and parks even if only their feet are visible underneath the brightly coloured plastic wrapping. What might also confuse the guess is that although the statues are a quarter of their actual size, the simplified plinths on which they stand have only be scaled down to half their size.

They are all memorial statutes but do we remember? The exhibition could have been extended into a social sculpture with a survey to find out which of these five statues were most recognised and which had been mostly forgotten.

I could go on about these wrapped statues, with reference to the work of Christo or Man Ray, but I think that I’ll use this to segue to another sculpture exhibition Revelations – Sculpture from the RMIT Art Collection at RMIT Gallery. RMIT’s art collection has the benefit that many of the best sculptors in Australia have at one time been students or staff or both. A lot of what I have to say about RMIT and sculpture can be found in my catalogue essay for Revelations “From Great Men to Landmarks”.

Revealing what is in RMIT’s sculpture collection makes an exciting sculpture exhibition that tells the history of sculpture in Melbourne from plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze, through modernism to contemporary sculpture. The exhibition also supplements the Inge King retrospective at the NGV (see my post) with more work by King and other members of the Centre Five group, so I would urge anyone going to the King exhibition to also see Revelations.

It is a great time to see sculpture exhibitions in Melbourne.


Then & Now

“Like seeing gnomes out of the corners of your eyes, stencils appear and disappear in surprising and crafty urban nooks and shadows. Replicating like most good ideas tend to do, Ha-Ha, SYNC and DLUX took their obsessed stencil messages off the streets and into a gallery in 2003. Outing the mythical icons and images in Melbourne advanced the opening of the gates across the world. Ten years later and the shadows part once more into a painted world of imagination, humor, and collaboration.” – Russell Howze (San Francisco), stencilarchive.org & author of Stencil Nation

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“HaHa is an authentic street artist and poet of the city . We have worked together during my trip in Australia in 2009 and it was really great to have meet HaHa and his beautiful stencils. ” – Blek Le Rat

“This site doesn’t normally do announcements about upcoming shows, as you will know if you have visited it before. But sometimes I like to put up information about a show that promises great things or is by artists who are really significant in the scene.” – Alison Young, Images to Live By

“Now & Then” at Second Story Studios in Collingwood has to be the most overhyped exhibition of Melbourne’s stencil art; so many people are praising this exhibition as a landmark before it has even opened.

The best part of the exhibition were the collaborative works that brought the three artists and some of their original stencils, along with some new ones, back together again. These works were nostalgic for those who remember Melbourne’s streets a decade ago. They are a condensed version of what happens on the street. The accretion of stencils rather than a single stencil, the mixing of style that is an essential feature of hip-hop, is what makes these works outstanding – I wish there was more of it on the streets.

It is well over a decade since this Melbourne street art scene started to happen. Late in 2002 Ha-Ha, Sync and DLux first met at the old Blender Studios. In 2003 they had a group exhibition, “Cut It Out” at Hush Hush Gallery in Hosier Lane. No-one was keeping track of exactly what they were doing to begin with because to begin with it was just a bit of fun. Back when the street art started Ha-Ha, Sync and DLux were spraying their stencils everywhere and writing their name up large with rollers on the walls of the abandoned factories around Macauly Station.

A bit over decade later Melbourne’s street art scene has blossomed and become internationally famous. Digital cameras and photo sharing are now ubiquitous and the audacious, punchy appeal of street artists still captivated a still growing audience. New forms have developed, there are more artists, a larger audience, more collectors and more recognition. Ha-Ha is listed in the top fifty street artists in the world.

The artists have also changed in the decade, what was fun has become their life.

DLux has started to paint freehand combining “sunset palette” with “toilet block graffiti” scrawled across it unfortunately his painting technique doesn’t always match these ambitions. Sync has also abandoned stencils to create ordinary and passé abstract paintings; his recreations of his old stencils on scraps of reclaimed wood were selling well at the exhibition.

Only Ha-Ha has kept working and developing his multi-layer stencil technique. He has added to this with the mixing of different faces and now adding “subliminal text” to his images; the words “magic” and “sex” appear in the hair of Ha-Ha’s Marilyn Monroe.

Then and now and the differences are enormous.

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