Tag Archives: Juan Davila

Scandal Shock!

“… as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.” Australian Cultural Terrorists claim of responsibility for the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986.

Melbourne love an art scandal. This is assisted by having some top rate scandals, for example, the unsolved theft of the Weeping Woman. Although sometimes these scandals seem to be borrowed from US culture wars, as in the case of the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1997.

Art scandals have been ruined careers and lives, some of them were crimes and art has been destroyed. Melbourne never gave Vault a fair go. Juan Davila sighs at yet another repetition of the cry of ‘obscenity!’ Some of the unfortunate victims of these scandals and some naive realists might be thinking: “what has this got to do with art?” but this discourse is part of what defines art.

In the wake of an art scandal, even people who have not been to an art gallery in decades will express an opinion. The media is full of the story and more comments and from the informed comments to the mad ignorant rants it is this discourse that, in part, defines art. The year of debate about Ron Robertson-Swann’s modernist sculpture Vault in 1980, although driven by local city council politics, inspired the next generation artists to think hard about art and express their ideas not just in their art but in public forums.

This love of art scandals has created its own artists, CDH and Van Rudd for example, who create their own mass media interactive art works by provoking police, politicians or the public. These artists and their art are well known, although not exactly popular. Creating a scandal that goes viral is not the easiest thing to do and not every attempt succeeds in being both a scandal and art.

It has also helped create the environment that fostered Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene by giving their contentious and audacious actions a wider public eager to discuss them and collect them.

These accidental and deliberate scandals are interesting because they expose the cracks in the facade of our culture and deep divisions in the airbrushed idea of a united society. These scandals raises more questions than they answers prompting further thought, action and creation.


Anti-Catholicism & Surrealism

He who sleeps with the pope requires long feet.

If you see a priest being beaten, make a wish.

For good luck, nail up consecrated hosts in the bathroom.

- Benjamin Péret

Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism needs to be re-examined in the light of the increasing evidence of the extent of paedophile Catholic priests. In the past the anti-Catholic aspects of Surrealism were regarded simply as a provocations designed to annoy the establishment but what if they were expressions of serious revenge fantasies?

The Surrealist most noted for expressing his dislike for Catholics is Benjamin Péret (4 July 1899 – 18 September 1959). There is the famous photograph of Péret insulting a priest in the street. Although most of the Surrealists were raised as Catholics this left them with a low opinion of it. Benjamin Péret received little education due to his dislike of school. Did he dislike school because he was he abused in school?

Marquis da Sade was a favourite of the Surrealists and De Sade’s stories are full of Catholic clergy engaged in sexual abuse. He was educated by his uncle, Abbé de Sade and later at a Jesuit lycee. Was the Marquis de Sade sexually abused as a boy?

There are so many examples of anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists that this can only be a small sample. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were anti-Catholicism and both were raised as Catholic in Spain. As a youth, Buñuel was deeply religious, serving at as an altar boy, but at age 16 he grew disgusted with the Church. There are many reasons why a 16 year old would become disgusted with illogical religious dogma but the prevalence of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy can no longer be ignored as a reason for anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists.

The denial and cover up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church makes it is difficult to properly assess the significance of the Surrealists. It is further complicated by the religious and political judgements interfering (subverting and misleading) with the aesthetic and historic assessments of Surrealism.

Take a very small example of the Viennese Fantastic Realists distancing themselves from Surrealism. Two of the Viennese Fantastic Realists Rudolf Hausner and Ernst Fuchs both moved to Paris in the late 1940s and had contacts with the French Surrealists. Michael Messner writes about Hausner’s “problems subjugating himself to the strict dogma of the unreflected, sub-conscious act of painting as espoused and propagated in the form of manifestos by Breton.” (Michael Messner, Visionary Art, v3 p.28) However, by the late 1940s the dominance of automatist Surrealism was long over. Breton had only just returned from America in 1946 and by 1951 the ‘Carrouges Affair’ had further isolates Breton. Blaming Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism is a popular excuse but his influence at the time was limited to Paris and there are likely to have been other reasons. The obvious but un-stated reason is that Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic convert, must have had problems with the Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism.

Earlier this year I attended a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes.” Juan Davila’s gave the opening address of the conference with a talk and slideshow. David Lomas looked at the Linaean botonical introduction of the word “sexuality” and how this related to Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” and Max Ernst’s floral paintings. Michael Richardson carefully dissected Breton’s attitude to homosexuality and his alleged homophobia. Janine Burke looked at the influence of Surrealism on two female artists and Natalya Lusty spoke about Surrealist masculinity. Sexual abuse and Surrealist anti-Catholicism were not mentioned in any of the papers given at the conference – there is room for much more research than I can do in this post on the subject.


NGV Problems

Some have greeted the news of the appointment of Tony Ellwood to director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with joy. I am more cautious as the NGV has a lot of problems with its space, its collection and its role. Tony Ellwood was the directorship of both the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and we will see what he brings to the NGV.

Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square

“At the beginning of the twentieth century the National Gallery of Victoria was one of the world’s most richly endowed galleries as Alfred Fenton’s bequest made available to it an annual amount exceeding the combined grants of London’s British Museum and National Gallery. Yet money alone could not secure quality or build a collection of distinction.” Elieen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts – The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, (The Miegunyah Press, 2005, Carlton) p.219

Elieen Chanin points to a series of problems with the NGV’s acquisition policy. At the beginning of the twentieth century the NGV was spending a lot of money on replica paintings and sculpture. The NGV also purchased of works of dubious authenticity like the “Rembrandt Self Portrait” in 1933. The NGV collection was focused on public approval and so many opportunities to buy modern art at good prices were ignored; unlike the Americans who leapt at the opportunity. The NGV then paid higher prices to acquire similar work later when public opinion had changed. There was criticism of these acquisitions at the time but the NGV choose to ignore rather than respond to them. Buying from Britain may have been loyal and patriotic when Victoria was part of the British Empire but 19th and early 20th British art has become a sidetrack in art history. And so the NGV’s collection is full of conservative taste, tax dodges and political interference and although this has improved in recent decades the effects on the collection remains.

The addition of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square has improved the way its collection is displayed and along with the NGV Studio for street art and the NGV Kids space the NGV continues to expand in useful directions. However space is still an issue for the NGV, for example, their fashion exhibitions are still divided between galleries at the NGV International and NGV Australia (disrupting this distinction).

“There are 32 curators at the NGV but not one major exhibition” Juan Davila (talk 3/2/2012 “Dispersed Identities”, University of Melbourne)

Issues of space and the display of the collection in that space ultimately lead to the question of what is the purpose of having a public art gallery. The idea of the art gallery has been under-examined compared to the extent that it influences on the art it exhibits. Especially once the state had acquired all that valuable art. There is assumption is that an art gallery is educational housing a high quality collection to educate the next generation of artists and designers. However this educational assumption would exclude most contemporary art from the collection or force the gallery assume about the place of contemporary art in future education. Or is the role of a state gallery to enhance reputation of contemporary artists represented by Australian commercial galleries? Should its collection include examples of Melbourne’s burgeoning street art? Or, is it simply a location for infotainment, for host travelling international blockbuster exhibitions that can be measured in visitor numbers and revenue?

(See also my post about State Galleries & Politics and Arts Diary 365 for a 7 part examination of the NGV’s collection. Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7.)


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.


Bloody Awful

For an artist to produce a bad painting is inevitable, it happens all the time. There is even a Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Massachusetts. The curator of the Museum of Bad Art, Michael Frank says that bad art “must have been created by someone who was seriously attempting to make an artistic statement – on that has gone horribly awry in either its concept or execution.” And a good artist can still create a bad painting – creating bad art is a risk that every artist must accept.

Gordon Hookey “Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” 2009

Gordon Hookey’s oil painting “Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” 2009 has gone horribly awry in both its concept and its execution. It is possibly the worst painting created in Australia in 2009 and yet it is in GoMA’s collection. I have, unfortunately, seen a couple of uglier paintings last year, exhibited in artist run spaces but none of these had the size, the lofty ambitions nor the important subject of Hookey’s painting.

“Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” is a terrible painting because it should have been Australia’s Geurnica. At approximately 3m x 5m, it almost has the size of Guernica. It is intended to be a great history painting to mark the homicidal, racist and unjust behaviour of the Queensland Police Force on Palm Island in 2004.

In 2005 and Robert Nelson (in a review of Gordon Hookey’s exhibition at Nellie Castan Gallery) wrote: “Gordon Hookey has fun with his medium, his ideas and his background.” ‘Fun’ is one of my favorite words for art and I have no doubt that in the paintings that Nelson was reviewing Hookey was having fun for Hookey is capable of having fun with images, as I’ve seen it in his other paintings. Perhaps the horror and injustice of the events on Palm Island are too awful a situation for fun images.

The painting itself has problems from its design of a V shape dividing the mob of kangaroos from the Tazer wielding force arrayed against them. The mix of literal and metaphorical images has been poorly thought out. There is blood dripping from a palm tree but where it has come from is not clear. The mob of kangaroos is well armed with gun/spears and appears a formidable force in tightly packed wedge. These mutant aggressive kangaroos appear to be something out of the comic book Tank Girl. In the foreground there are few menacing figures with their large sparking tasers; why these figures are not shown in police uniforms is a mystery when they are meant to represent the Queensland Police Force. It appears that the painting avoids representing any of the people or any of the events.

Hookey’s painting crudely illustrative style of painting with its dark outlines and bright colours has its inherent risks – it can easily become ugly. The colour in the painting have been chosen for their illustrative quality, the kangaroos are in a variety of different colours of brown to help define one from another. I presume that the kangaroo’s eyes have been painted blue to make them a different colour from the brown.

The didactic panel at GoMA did much more to explain the horror and injustice on Palm Island than the painting. It did not explain why the artist had chosen to represent the events in this peculiar way. I don’t want to blame Gordon Hookey entirely for this very ugly painting; it is not entirely his responsibility that I was exposed to such an ugly painting, it might be decaying in storage. It is the curators and acquisition committee of GoMA that are responsible for its exhibition. I presume that GoMA purchased it for historic references rather than artistic merit.

It is a shame that the events on Palm Island, yet another death of an Aboriginal man in custody, part of the continuing genocide in Australia, is trivialized with a bad painting. If only Hookey had seen Juan Davila’s scathing versions of Australian history paintings. But the first solo public gallery exhibition of Juan Davila in Brisbane only took place at Griffith University in 2009.  Davila’s history paintings are full of transgressive references to art history and Australian history. They are full of details that build a complex of ideas about the historic event and relate it to the contemporary world. Hookey has simplified the history into a ‘them and us’ position; the painting becomes a simple partisan illustration. The title “Blood on the wattle” is a Henry Lawson reference that falls as flat irony in the face of the current Queensland Labor Party government. This is not a rally to insurrection that the line in Lawson’s poem proposes but a way to support the state’s image of being a liberal democracy by having critical art in GOMA.

“Like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Wm. Burroughs commenting on John Hartsfield’s photomontages.


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