Tag Archives: National Gallery of Victoria

Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.

2012 Reflections

This will be my last post for the year, as I need a break.  So here are some reflections on my year of blogging.

Write locally and read globally.

I have been intrigued, and a little bemused, by the global views of this blog. I knew that there were some international views but I thought they weren’t that common.  This is a very local blog with a focus on the visual arts in Melbourne. When WordPress introduced the stats of views from countries I realized how many of my views come from countries other than Australia – I’ve had readers from almost every country in the world. I’m not sure why I have relatively so few readers from New Zealand or why anyone in Africa would be reading it but thanks for reading where ever in the world you are.

Snyder pasting up in Hosier Lane.

American artist Snyder pasting up in Hosier Lane.

This year I have been doing some professional development as a critic going to a lot of art history talks and workshops this year; bloggers do need to do a bit of “professional development” and I’ve certainly been doing that this year. I find out about most of them on Melbourne Art Network. The best were a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes” and the “Workshop on the Human and the Image” at the Centre for Ideas, Victorian College of the Arts (I gave a paper at there – I don’t know if that added to the quality). It has been great getting back to my love of art history and philosophy, although they remind me that I’m glad that I didn’t pursue an academic career especially considering the end of art history department at La Trobe University. The end of the art history department at La Trobe will impact on Melbourne’s visual culture for decades into the future. Studying art history at Monash University was a life changing experience for me – I wouldn’t be writing this blog without it.

The NGV’s new director, Tony Ellwood has been an improvement from what I’ve seen so far; acquiring Juan’s Ford’s “Last Laugh” and exhibiting the Trojan Petition in the NGV’s foyer for a week.

Baby Guerrilla at Union Dinning Terrace

Baby Guerrilla at Union Dinning Terrace

The Trojan Petition brings me to the subject of street art. The big change in street art in 2012 has been street artists competing in mainstream art prizes and being included in the prize exhibition (like E.L.K. in the Archibald) or winning like Baby Guerrilla. Major events in Melbourne’s street art in 2012 included Project Melbourne Underground and the Andy Mac Auction. Hosier Lane has changed since Andy Mac decamped; there has been major construction in the lane and in the adjoining Rutledge Lane (like so many other places around Melbourne) but the art goes on in spite of the now averted/delayed installation of CCTV cameras.

It has been a fun year. Cheers Alley Chats.

“Last Laugh” Recent Acquisition

It is good to see that the National Gallery of Victoria has purchased “Last Laugh” from Juan Ford’s recent exhibition at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery. The NGV has given me several pleasant surprises recently and I am warming to its new director, Tony Ellwood (see: The Trojan Petition).

Juan Ford, Last Laugh, 2012 (oil on linen, 107 x 92 cm)

“Last Laugh” is a realist painting about painting, a painting of paint – modernists do not have a monopoly on uniting materials and subject. The red painted paint is marking and smothering the plant as the man-made smothers the planet. It not easy to paint something that comments on the slow destruction of the planet but this painting comes close. This is not exactly Henry Lawson’s “blood on the wattle” as it is paint and not blood, and the botanical specimen is a eucalypt not a wattle; there are twists and turns in the narrative of all of Ford’s paintings. It is not a joyous image even though the sky is still bright blue for Juan Ford is an intelligent man and understands what sciences forecasts. The last laugh is the longest but also bitter and twisted.

Juan Ford’s “Last Laugh” is representative of many of Ford’s recent paintings as it is part of a series of similar paintings in his current exhibition and is similar to several paintings featuring Australian plants in his last exhibition. And there is no doubt, after a long string of awards, grants, commissions and group institutional exhibitions that Juan Ford is an artist that should be included in the NGV’s collection

The oil painting will fit into NGV’s collection in several ways and continue its narrative into contemporary painting. The question of genre is raised by these paintings, are they still life or landscapes or portraits of the nation through its flora emblems? Genre is one of those great post-modern subjects and genre mixes are a feature of post-modern art. “Last Laugh” is so much of this time and yet it obviously has many lasting qualities that will serve the NGV’s collection well in future.

As a long time fan of Ford’s work I wish, like all fans do, that he did more like his early work with engrave anamorphic images. His ability to paint that once was great has improved so much since then. (See my earlier post on Juan Ford.) But I can see why the NGV decided to acquire this strange and beautiful painting.

See also “In the Studio with Juan Ford” on Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/46172316

Geoffrey Bartlett’s Public Sculpture

Remember Geoffrey Bartlett’s “Messenger” 1983 that stood in the NGV ‘s moat? It is now located at the back of the NGV in their sculpture garden’s moat. Geoffrey Bartlett should be better known as a sculptor in Melbourne. “Messenger” was from a time when Bartlett was influenced by the American sculptor, David Smith. It looked like a kind of Rube Goldberg device; I kept wishing that it would move to release some of the tension in it. There is an obvious reference in “Messenger” to Smith’s “The Letter” 1950.

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Messenger”, 1983, steel

Melbourne based sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett first solo exhibition in 1976 at the Ewing Gallery, University of Melbourne, seven years later his sculpture stood in front of the NGV. Artists emerged quickly in those days. Back in the 1980s the sculptors Geoffrey Bartlett, Augustine Dall’Ava and Anthony Pryor shared a studio on Gertrude Street.

Personally I prefer Bartlett’s later sculptures, after he was influenced by Henry Moore and added more volume and mass to his sculptures, and there are plenty around Melbourne. These later sculptures have fusion of elements organic and metallic with the individual parts united into a whole complex form. There is a biomorphic appeal of his sculptures, like “Nautilus, Study with 2 Legs” 2010, 24 George Street, East Melbourne. There is also the appeal that his sculptures show their construction process, you can see the bolts and rivets that hold his stainless-steel sculptures together.

“Bartlett intends to disclose, rather than hide the construction process, believing in providing the viewer with an honest impression of the nature of the structure.” [Caroline  Field, “Geoffery Bartlett: The Art of Refinement” Geoffrey Bartlett – Silver Cloud (Deakin University, 2001, Toorak) p.9]

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Orion”, 2008, stainless steel

Geoffrey Bartlett is inspired by astronomy – there is his “Orion” 2008 at the Lucient Building, 430 St. Kilda Road (or his “Orion, Study 2,” 2011, 20 Straun Street, Toorak), “Aurora”, 2006, named after the Greek goddess of dawn on the corner of Harbour Esplanade and Bourke Street in the Docklands and, in collaboration with Bruce Armstrong, “Constellation”, 1997 along the boardwalk at the Yarra Turning Basin.

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

“Constellation” sees the return of maritime themes in Bartlett’s work but  in other ways a departure from Bartlett’s usual style. Seashells, like that of the Nautilus, have long inspired Bartlett. In 1988 Bartlett created “Mariner” for New Zealand’s Trans-Tasman Shipping.

Other sculptures by Geoffrey Bartlett in Melbourne include: “Landscape at Moyston”, Price Waterhouse Coopers, 215 Spring Street, 1996, and “Obelisk” for the City of Melbourne, Focal Building also on Spring Street. There are also public sculptures by Bartlett in Auckland, and Newcastle, NSW.

Geoffery Barlett “Aura”, 2006, stainless steel, Docklands

The Trojan Petition

When the National Gallery of Victoria’s new director, Tony Ellwood was asked for his opinion of street art, Ellwood said it was “a very real, a very present art form” but he probably wasn’t expecting a present from Melbourne’s street artists. The Trojan Petition organized by CDH featured panels by 20 people involved with Melbourne street art was delivered to the gallery late Sunday night.

The Trojan Petition at the NGV

Full disclosure: I am one the participants in this action, sometimes a journalist has to take sides and I was an embedded reporter working with the front line troops. I am not a street artist but I did want to record the impact of the internet on street art on the panel the CDH asked me to do – so I included a piece of text from this blog about the internet and digital cameras on my panel. (For the full text see my blog post Street Art, the Internet & Digital Cameras.)

Not since Ivan Durant dumped a dead cow in the forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1975 has such a large work of art been dumped so provocatively in that location. Melbourne writer, Barry Dickens explains: “I recall turning up to The National Gallery of Victoria when it existed in St Kilda Road, and enjoying the bizarre but perfectly natural sight of a butchered cow draped over the arch, like an invitation to take up butchery instead of Impressionism. But folks were nauseated, and the media courted Mr Durrant, called him several things, but not genius. Dr Eric Westbrooke was then Minister for the Arts, and he purchased a new Durrant, which was the perfect model of a fibreglass butcher’s shop window, complete with replicant pigs’ snouts, imitation Black Pudding, or Tubular Pig Blood – bloody delicious they are; and trays bearing mounds of dead-spit cutlets, right-on-the-money lamb chops and lambs’ brains you wanted to crumb and sizzle upon the spot.” (ABC Radio National 11:45 Sunday 23/05/2004)

It wasn’t such an easy mission for CDH and the crew that including Fletch and Calm. The huge work had to be bolted together in the park opposite and by that time the NGV had sent over its spy, Sylvia to find out what was happening. Sylvia works in “assets and facilities” at the NGV and after some initial bullshit she did enter into a 30+ minutes of negotiating with CDH about where the petition could go. CDH slowly wore Sylvia down and a compromise was agreed to: the petition could be left on the forecourt (but not standing up for reason of health and safety) after the wedding party at the NGV departed. Taking the petition across St. Kilda Road proved to be one of the easier parts. Tomorrow morning the curators will have to decide what to do with it – throw it in the rubbish or take the Trojan Petition into the bastion of gallery.

Sylvia and CDH reach an agreement

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Trojan Petition, photo by CDH

The full text of the petition on the central panel reads:

We didn’t say please. Does that void artistic merit?

Melbourne’s street art is consistently ranked among the top in the world [1-6], unlike any of Australia’s fine art institutions. Street art is also inherently egalitarian and freely accessible. However, rather than being endorsed with substantial tax payer subsidies [7] street art is actively stifled by the State Government; the Graffiti Prevention Act (2007) requires artists to provide lawful excuse if caught carrying a graffiti implement (aerosol can, sharp object, pencil) and thus reverses the burden of proof, to a presumption of guilt [8,9].

For the State Government, propriety in street art begins and ends with property rights. We believe the hallmarks of urban neglect (extensive tagging, peeling paint, cracks) demonstrate an owner’s tacit indifference to a site’s appearance. Formal permission is unnecessary; it is already implied. Unsolicited mural painting of a dilapidated site doesn’t damage the property or the community aesthetic. As community stakeholders, civically minded citizens have a right to intervene to restore dilapidated sites, to the betterment of the community. As we hold this alternate philosophical view on community enrichment, the State Government deems us vandals, criminalizes us and denies any cultural value or artistic merit in our efforts.


1. ‘The 9 best cities For street art spotting’. The Huffington Post. [Online] 03 09, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bootsnall/the-worlds-best-cities-fo_b_1327741.html.

2. Five great cities for street art. The Guardian. [Online] 01 29, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/jan/29/street-art-cities.

3. The World’s Best Cities for Viewing Street Art. Internaltional Business Times. [Online] 10 08, 2010. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/69974/20101008/best-cities-street-art.htm.

4. The Best Cities for Street Art. Travel and Leisure webzine. [Online] 06 2009. http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/the-best-cities-for-street-art/1.

5. Cities that bring art to the streets! Total Travel. [Online] http://au.totaltravel.yahoo.com/travel-ideas/galleries/g/-/13073266/1/cities-that-bring-art-to-the-streets/?src=y7homepage&fb_source=message.

6. Best street art cities on Earth. Travel Glam. [Online] http://www.travelglam.com/best-street-art-cities-on-earth/.

7. Funding Summary 2009-2010. Australia Council. [Online] http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/about_us/strategies_and_policies/funding_summary.

8. The Graffiti Prevention Act [2007] s.7. [Online] http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/Domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/PubStatbook.nsf/edfb620cf7503d1aca256da4001b08af/39F11E47CBDA184FCA2573A000165AAF/$FILE/07-059a.pdf.

9. Clamping down: The Graffiti Prevention Act [2007]. Images to live by. [Online] 09 16, 2008. http://imagestoliveby.wordpress.com/2008/09/16/clamping-down-the-graffiti-prevention-act-2007/.

P.S. 10th Sept. 2012

Trojan Petition inside the NGV

The following day the Trojan Petition was moved inside the NGV International and installed in the foyer where it will stay for a week. The NGV has a policy not to accept donations from living artists so could not accept the Trojan Petition as a gift. After it has been displayed in the NGV the Trojan Petition panels will be auctioned and the funds used to support street art projects in Melbourne.

Top Arts Top Artists 2012

Every artist is influenced by proceeding generations of artists – who are the artists that influence local young artists?

I’m at the annual Top Arts exhibition of final year high school student art on the 3rd floor of the National Gallery of Victoria Ian Potter Centre (Federation Square). I’m trying to think of what I will write in this blog – I’ve written about the exhibition in previous years, it is worth paying attention to young artists but it is always so hard to write about group exhibitions. Praising the exhibition for its youth and talent is obvious, mentioning a couple of artists that catch my attention would not improve it and vague statements like “the drawing and photography were strong” wouldn’t help either. So, I looked at who are influences on these young artists.

I looked at the artists named in their artist’s statements. Not all the young artists named artists in their artist’s statements but at least a third did. Some artists mentioned two artists. (This may not be a complete list of all the artists named.)

Ansel Adams was the only artist named twice. The following photographers are also named as influences: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Larry Clark, Bill Henson, Annie Leibovitz, Duane Michals, and Edward Weston.

The local artists named as influences are: Abdul Abdullah, Howard Arkley, Del Kathryn Barton, Bill Henson, Carlo Golin, Jeffery Smart, Stelarc, Justin Lee Williams (fashion designer), Brett Whitley and Ah Xian.

Young video makers in the exhibition named film directors, Tim Burton and James Cameron as influences.

The other artist’s named as influences are: Audrey Kawasaki, Käthe Kollwitz, Rene Magritte, Nam June Paik, Paula Rego, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Gaun Wei.

As would be expected, this generation of young artists are not influenced by any old masters; many of the artists are still alive, all are 20th or 21st century artists but still not that many women artists make the list. It is good to see so many local artists named as influences. Americans photographers dominate photographic influences but the rest of the international artists named come from around the world.

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.)


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