Category Archives: Art History

Jericho to Jerusalem

There is always an exhibition of classical antiquities on the first floor of the Ian Potter Museum of Art and it forms a significant part of the museum’s character. The current exhibition, “Jericho to Jerusalem” is of Bronze and Iron Age pottery from excavations by Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) in Jericho and Jerusalem. The artefacts are all from the Melbourne University’s Classics and Archaeology Department’s collection that is used for hands on teaching and research.

Biblical archaeology has a bad reputation connected with the religious mania of evangelical Christians and political justification of Zionism but the work of Kathleen Kenyon is not of that kind of archaeologist. Kenyon, one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th Century, is notable for refining archaeological techniques, in particular her stratigraphy of the Middle East. Her stratigraphy has subsequently been largely backed up by radiocarbon dating. You might have heard of Jericho and Jerusalem from the Bible but there are no Biblical references in this exhibition.

This is an exhibition of ordinary domestic pottery from the Bronze and Iron Age. There are no masterpieces, the antiquity of the exhibits are the main attraction. Although this is just plain pottery I was particularly taken by a small gypsum (alabaster) juglet from Bronze Age Jericho 2200-1750 BCE and three jar handles from Iron Age Jerusalem 100-586 BCE stamped with the maker’s flying eagle stamp on them. The maker’s eagle stamp is a trademark that any modern company would be proud to have as their logo.

The didactic panels accompanying the exhibits are clear, informative without being too technical or over burdening the visitor with excessive information. A reproduction of Kathleen Kenyon’s hand drawn stratigraphy from one of her Jericho trenches makes a great backdrop to one of the display cases.

The archaeological interest of the pottery is in shapes, surface treatments, attachments and evidence of use, for example the carbon burn marks on the lamps. The existence of ceramics indicates social aspects: established settlement, specialized skills and trade.

I normally don’t write about ceramics or ancient art so I was pleased that I went to the exhibition opening by my old friend and archaeologist, Geoff Irvin who gave me a great deal of background on Kenyon’s work and the archaeology of the Middle East.


Capon needs a Spanking

“The Art of Australia” is a three-part series television documentary by ABC presented by Edmund Capon. Part one, “Strangers In A Strange Land”, was a disappointing start presenting the same old story of 19th Century Australian colonial art. The couple of references to some contemporary art in an attempt to freshen this stale history didn’t help or hinder. There was too much about landscape art emphasizing the traditional view of Australian art as all about the landscape. Capon’s narrative is full of too much hyperbole, clichéd metaphors (describing Australia as “coming of age” as if a country is a person with a body, heart and head) and contradictions.

Australia can’t be defined as Capon tries as “a unique and diverse culture” because one (unique) cannot be many (diverse). The assumption of the documentary is that Australia has an Australia art, when in the 19th Century the British and Australian art world was basically the same. Capon only examines the art of Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania as if the history of the SE corner of Australia is representative of the rest of Australia. How art and artists helped to shape Australia’s national identity is assumed rather than demonstrated; if art in anyway shaped Australia’s national identity it played a very minor role.

Capon avoids saying anything negative; he avoids the using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the attempted extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals and he avoids the mentioning the Australian banking crisis of 1893.

To describe the Heidelberg School as painting “Australia as it was” ignores the fact that Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine. Although Roberts rebelled against Eugene Von Guérard at the National Gallery Art School he apparently absorbed romanticism from his former teacher. Capon’s description of Robert’s Shearing the Rams as an “icon” is made apparently oblivious to the religious meaning of the word.

Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of NSW and his expertise is in Chinese art. Capon needs a spanking as an embarrassing punishment for his sloppy thinking in this glib and very ordinary history of art in Australia.

Two and a half stars.


DADA at MUMA

“Reinventing the Wheel: the Readymade Century” at MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art) pays tribute to Duchamp’s conceptual invention. A century after Marcel Duchamp’s lost Bicycle Wheel, 1913 and Bottle dryer, 1914 it is a difficult challenge to sum up the impact of this seminal work of contemporary art, even if this is only from public and private collections in Australia, but this exhibition has succeeded.

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

There are over forty artists – from internationally renowned artists of art history textbook fame to notable Australian artists. This is an important exhibition for anyone interested in the history of the last century of art. It takes the viewer to some of the most important works of 20th Century artists: Duchamp, John Cage 4’3”, Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast, Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculptures and Martin Creed’s Work No.88. The art alternated from the sublime to the ridiculous, the sacred to the profane, from transfigured value to ordinary stuff. I particularly enjoyed seeing Meret Oppenheim Eichhörnchen (Squirrel) 1969 because I hadn’t seen it before, Rosslynd Piggot’s etched glass because I haven’t seen her work for a while and pages of Peter Tyndall’s blog, Blogos/HA HA because I’ve seen it often (there is a link in my blogroll in the right bar of this page).

At the opening of the exhibition, once the noise from the bar and cheese table had subsided, there were a number of speeches including one from Scott Tanner, Chief Executive of the Bank of Melbourne. Tanner commented on the work by Andrew Liversidge IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009. Liversidge consists of 10,000 $1 coins that the Bank of Melbourne had loaned for the exhibition. Tanner talked about the coins or art “going in and out of circulation.” This an important point about readymades because they do not exist at all times, they go in and out of circulation. We take chocolates from Gonzalez-Toress’ Untitled (a corner of Baci) but there is an endless supply as long as the factory keeps manufacturing them. Martin Creed’s Work no.88 A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995 exists in an unlimited edition of which this was #625. The readymade art on exhibition does not necessarily exist in W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse as distinguishable objects. (See: Kennick, “Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake?” Mind v.67 1958) It does not necessarily exist in a real studio as Susanna Duchamp demonstrates when she threw out the original Bicycle Wheel and Bottlerack when cleaning out Marcel’s Paris studio.

The idea that a readymade is not be warehoused or the art might return to the circulation of ordinary objects is a not a mistake. As a banker Tanner would know banks do not actually have all the money on paper sitting in a vault. That Liversidge’s art exists, like money, in the documentation and the power of the authenticating signature and the physical instance, when required. That money exists in the same way the Michael Craig-Martin’s An oak tree, 1973 exists in the exchange of the idea represented by the tokens of the exchange.

“We do not so much need the help of friends as the certainty of their help” – Epicurius. This was the message wrapped in the Baci chocolate that was part of Felix Gonzalez-Toress’ corner. Readymades do need the help of friends but not the certainty; they need the galleries, the plinths, the curators and gallery attendants for without them we might trip over them or shovel snow with one of them (a gallery worker really did shovel snow with Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm). Once again praise to the curatorial team of Max Delany (former MUMA director), Charlotte Day, Francis E. Parker and Patrice Sharkey.


Urban Folk Art

Notes towards a history of graffiti….

Graffiti has been around for millennia; it has been recorded as far back as the Sumerians (1500 and 1800 BC). But in the last few decades of the last century it suddenly changed. One of the reasons for this change was developments in technology but spray paint cans and marker pens doesn’t explain all the changes and rapid growth of graffiti/street art. Lee Newman invented the felt-tipped marking pen in 1910 but it was not until the early 1960s that they were refined or common. Aerosol spray paint was invented in 1949 Edward Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois. Other reasons for the change in graffiti are best explained by a re-examination of folk art in an urban world.

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In trying to position street art in art history, it is not useful to understand it as the feral younger brother of pop art, as it is a kind of urban folk art. Folk art is often ignored in art history except when folk traditions and outsider artists influence modern and contemporary art.

Is it realistic for folk art in the urban context have to remain un-influenced by academic or fine art? Is it realistic for all folk art to remain the activity of amateurs? Is it realistic to expect that all folk art will be cosy, apolitical and conservative? Or is more realistic that urban folk art to attempt to actively engage in trying to change their world. Urban folk art is not outsider art; the artists are as well informed about art as they want to be. They have access to the same technology and materials as professionally trained artists. Due to this crossover of fine art ideas, materials and technology, urban folk art can be artistically progressive and even avant-garde.

Consider the single most important development in the visual arts in the last century – collage. Decoupage was a popular activity for upper and middle-class women in the late 19th Century. Commercially produced images for decoupage were available in the late 19th Century and these were cut and pasted on dressing and fire screens. It is a short step from decoupage to collage or photomontage. It should not be surprising that a young woman would make progressive artistic collages. That woman was the Berlin Dadaist artist Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) whose photomontage and collage art used images from magazines.

Perhaps Dada should be considered, in part, as a radical urban folk art movement. Dada emerged from the home printing press movement of the 1890s (L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was an early home printing press enthusiast). Although there were trained artists in the Dadaists there many of Dadaists were neither trained as artists nor went on to a career as a professional artists like Richard Hulsenbeck was a medical student at the time he joined the Zurich Dadaists, he went on to practice psychiatry.

Stencils on back of a truck

Other urban folk art movements followed including Mail Art and punk. Mail Art movement worked with a folk art tradition of decorating envelopes, examples of which can be seen from throughout postal history. To this tradition the Mail Art added an artistic and a utopian intention that the future of art would not be high-end art objects but multiple edition art mailed to insiders. Punk took to the streets with bands using stencils and spray paint for publicity.

There are many folk art/craft elements in street art and graffiti from automotive spray painting to yarn bombing. The interior decorating craze for stencils in the 1990s lead into Melbourne’s street art stencils in 2000, it was a familiar craft technique. Street art and graffiti emerged as an urban folk art movement and due to the internet became the most international and visible urban folk art movement so far.

Yarn bombed bicycle Collingwood


Seven Years With Banksy

This post is about the curious case of Banksy allowing people around him to exploit their relationship with him. For example Mr. Brainwash and his part in the film Exit Through the Gift Shop or Robert Clarke’s book Seven Years With Banksy (Michael O’Mara, 2012). I suppose that Banksy has no choice given that he wants to keep his identity anonymous but to tolerate these exploitations rather than face exploitative exposures. Being an anonymous artist clearly has it drawbacks.

Robert Clarke’s Seven Years With Banksy is a terrible read, even with low expectations. Like Mr. Brainwash and Exit Through the Gift Shop there is more of Clarke in the book than Banksy. Clarke spends two or three chapters just meeting Banksy. He actually has very little and sporadic contact with Robin/Banksy. If Clarke were honest the book’s title would be Seven Years of occasionally meeting Banksy.

I stopped reading the book the first time when Clarke started to recount his dreams about Banksy; it was too self-indulgent. In the words of Wm. Burroughs: “Such dreams radiate a special disinterest. They are as boring and commonplace as the average dreamer.” (Burroughs, My Education: a book of dreams, 1995 p.2)

I put the Seven Years With Banksy aside and read a couple of other books but when I came to the end of Daniel Farson’s Gilbert and George – a portrait (Harper Collins, 1999) the author wandered into a dream he had about Gilbert and George. I started both at the same time and enjoyed reading G&G more – G&G are so charming. And Farson’s occasional meanderings were forgivable because they showed his systematic commitment to the project. There is real content in the book about G&G, the people that they worked with and the people who bought their art.

I thought that maybe I was being too harsh on Clarke, so I went back to Seven Years With Banksy but I think that I should stopped reading the first time as it didn’t get any better. My opinion, don’t bother reading it in the first place. I’ve read it so you don’t have to.


Person of Interest – Keith Haring

The art of Keith Haring first came to my attention when he visited Melbourne (see my post Keith Haring in Melbourne). Haring was like a pop star, except that he was doing visual arts rather than music. I didn’t get to see him in Melbourne but he was everywhere for the next few years; I saw him on TV and in magazines and not just the art magazines.

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

In the early 1980s Keith Haring along with other East Village artists, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger used ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups/wheat-pasting). Haring’s paste-ups were fake news headlines like as: “REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP”; cutting up headlines was a strategy adopted from William Burroughs. Haring also used stencils in his early street work stencilling “CLONES GO HOME” on sidewalk borders in the Village. This early flowering of what would later be known as street art heralds an art movement.

“The galleries at that time were still dominated by people over thirty and mostly Conceptual and Post-Minimal art.” Keith Haring commented on his influences (Notes from the Pop Underground, Peter Belisto, p.99) Haring went the opposite direction, appealing to people under thirty, like me at the time, and creating art that didn’t depend on art galleries for their meaning. Haring’s line drawings worked on subway walls, t-shirts and even Grace Jones’ naked body.

In 1986 Haring collaborated with Brion Gysin in “Fault Lines”; Haring’s art is connected to Gysin’s tagging calligraphy (see my post). In 1988 Haring collaborates with Burroughs for “Apocalypse.” The great centipede with a television head in the Collingwood mural is an image clearly inspired by Burroughs who writes about giant aquatic centipedes in many of his novels.

When Keith Haring died in February 1990, followed by the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, it felt like the art of the 1980s had died. Both Haring and Basquiat were, what we would call today, street artists who had become international art superstars. Street art would have to wait another decade before its full flowering.

After that I would look out for Haring’s wall every time I went that way in Collingwood. Now, finally after decades of inaction there preservation work has started on the site. It is a difficult issue, preservation or restoration, both will have loses – a restoration would lose the authenticity of Haring’s brushstrokes and preservation loses the vibrancy of the original but better either than the loss of the whole mural.

“I just want to be taken seriously. I would like to think that someday there will be drawings next too a Lichtenstein, or beside a de Kooning drawing in a museum.” Keith Haring said. (Belisto, p. 111)

This year Keith Haring is finally receiving the recognition that he richly deserves. There is a major retrospective “Keith Haring, the Political Line “ at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and a very small exhibition about his 1988 Tokyo Pop-Up Shop at the New York Historical Society. (It was a very small, just a display case, a painted lantern and video shot of Haring discussing the lighting for the Tokyo Pop-Up Shop.)


Wandering Seoul’s II

After being thrown in at the deep end of Korean Art on my visit to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (see my post). I’m trying to learn more by reading Youngna Kim’s Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey). The first thing about Korean modern art is that it is only a century old and most of it happened after 1953 when the Korean War ended in the present stalemate. In South Korea artists through themselves into the deep end of modern art and before they had finished with working through modern art post-modern art appeared.

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

I am considering Kim’s book in relation to the life of Kwan Yuk, an artist that I met on my wandering around Seoul. I saw a couple small galleries in the streets in the Insa-Dong district of Seoul amongst the antique dealers, the artist supply shops and second hand bookstores. In one of these modern commercial galleries, Gallery 500, I saw a solo exhibition by Kwan Yuk, it was a mini retrospective of his work. Kwan Yuk is an old artist with a young mind. I want to look at his art and life as a random sample of a post-war Korean artist, to test the accuracy of the Youngna Kim’s history against the life of this artist.

I like an artist who continues to change throughout his life and in the exhibition I could see that Kwan Yuk has roamed from Chagal like expressionist paintings to collage with spray paint.  Kwan Yuk and I could only communicate with gestures but when your subject is the art in front of you this rudimentary sign language comes alive. And he generously gave me both the two-volume book of his work.

I have put together a short history from Youngna Kim’s history and Kwan Yuk’s short year-by-year resume in his book.

Like many Korean artists Kwan Yuk studied in Japanese art schools. This was in part the legacy of Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and that Japan had the most progressive modern art education in the region. Kwan Yuk exhibited in Japanese University alumni association between 1952-57.

In 1961-64 Kwan Yuk then exhibited in the National Exhibition. The National Exhibition was another legacy of Japanese occupation. It continued under the post-war government until 1981 when the national exhibition was privatised. There were breakaway exhibitions from artists of the Art Informel movement in the 1950s when they were included in the National Exhibition in 1961. It doesn’t look like Kwan Yuk was one the hard core of Art Informel abstract artists and not because he was frightened to attempt it.

Kwan Yuk had his first of many solo exhibitions in 1963. He worked as an art teacher and exhibited in the Seoul Teacher’s Art Exhibition between 1974-82. He has won awards and participated in various invitational exhibitions. It looks like Kwan Yuk has worked his way through European modernism in his own way. And ending up with his most recent works are collages that use candy-wrappers and nude photographs with a light bondage theme. Are these elements the Minjin influence on Korean art or sexy interpretation of Matisee’s collage?

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I refer back to Youngna Kim’s book again to consider the Minjin, folk art movement. In describing Korea’s introduction to modernism Youngna Kim discusses the introduction of the idea of an artist, the continuity of tradition in modernism and the change of the role of Korean woman. And briefly looks at the Soviet-realist direction that modernism took in North Korea. This different history of modern and contemporary art full of references to tradition while seriously engaging with the modern, both international and local in focus and all happing very quickly.

Kwan Yuk, my random artist must have seen much of this history in his life and had an influence on a younger generation of Korean artists. And his art continues to develop becoming more colourful, playful and sexy.


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