Portraits of Ben Roberts-Smith

Consider all the dictators, the murders, and the rapists who have been celebrated with bronze statues and portraits. Considering these commemorations, think of the artists who made them and the institutions that acquired them. What happens when Achilles tries to sue for defamation, and exposes himself as a narcissistic killer, a war criminal who murdered civilians?

There are currently three portraits of Roberts-Smith in Australian national collections, a large portrait in fatigues, a small portrait in dress uniform and a half-naked portrait. These were acquired when he was Australia’s most decorated war hero before being exposed as a war criminal and abuser of women. The topless photo by 2017 Julian Kingma is in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The two other portraits are in the Australian War Museum are by Michael Zavros.

I haven’t seen many works by Zavros; I remember seeing some at Sophie Gannon, a painting of a centaur in a tuxedo. Zavros’s art focuses photo-realistic paintings depicting male vanity. Among the things that Roberts-Smith’s defamation case makes clear is that he is as vain as he is violent.

What will the National Portrait Gallery and the Australian War Museum do with these portraits? They can still be viewed on the institutions’ websites (I don’t know if they are still on exhibition). Will they end up in a crate stored in a climate-controlled storage facility? Never to be exhibited again. An ongoing cost with no possible return. An albatross hanging around the neck of the institution, condemned, like the ancient mariner, to carry this ill-made decision with them.

What happens to the artists? Consider Edwar Hydo who once painted portraits of  Saddam Hussain and is now painting Australian prime ministers. He is still painting the powerful but isn’t getting paid as well.  And now there is Michael Zavros; perhaps now, after knowing more about Ben Roberts-Smith, Zavros might want to amend his artist statement about the portrait.

For about Ben Roberts-Smith VC (2014, oil on canvas, 30 x 42 cm, Zavros says: “I like the idea that we see him momentarily isolated, at one with himself, potentially in a moment of reflection. Less the brave war hero, rather a man, singled out and celebrated. It is an honour that sits well on him at the same time that it sits heavily.”

And about, Pistol grip [Ben Roberts-Smith VC] 2014, oil on canvas, 160 x 220 cm: “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.” What Roberts-Smith is capable of the murder of civilians and war crimes.


Fever Dreams of a Critic

The fever dream, only a couple of degrees of body temperature (the same increase projected for the global average temperature) influences both the body and the imagination — the embodied aesthetic hallucinatory experience of the strange — the delirium accompanying a fever. It is also the title an exhibition of ten Melbourne-based contemporary artists (Ingmar Apinis, Naomi Bishop, Mitchel Brannan, Harley Ives, Luke King, Elyss McCleary, Ted Mckinlay, Valentina Palonen, Bundit Puangthong and Paul Yore) at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, curated by Mitchel Brannan.

Bundit Puangthong, Run Wild, 2023

How to describe the neon graffiti obscured fragments of historical references and gestural brushwork in Mitchel Brannan’s two paintings? Or the tumult of signs, symbols, patterns, and blotches in Bundit Puangthong paintings?

Should I describe any of the art in the “Fever Dreams” as “sick” or even “fully sick”? Given the exhibition’s title, would it be appropriate to employ the late-80s skateboard slang to describe the paintings? Engaging with the disturbing, the lurid colours, the ambiguity of using a word for unwell as complimentary. What subtle differences does its meaning have? What baggage from the skateboarding era would the word bring with it? Do the strange nuances of ‘sick’ imply something cooler but less strange? Is a sick colour palette different from ‘feverish’ ones like those in Valentina Palonen’s paintings, where bright colours discordantly vibrate, melt and drip?

Consider the vocabulary used to express approval and the subtle variations in meaning between these terms. These words are not the same as a ‘like button’, and even the meaning of positive emojis varies. “Sick” is not interchangeable with all other positive assessments, for example, “elegant” or “graceful”. It raises the question does a poverty of vocabulary leads to a deprivation of aesthetic experiences? The newspeak world with only “good”, “plus good”, and “double plus good”, or the equally limited like-buttons of social media. And does an extensive vocabulary expand aesthetic possibilities?

Such are the fever dreams of a critic; I hope I’m not coming down with something.

Installation view of Mitchel Brannan paintings

The Art Investigator

You can easily picture the scene, the cliche start of a film noir detective story. A door with a frosted glass panel, like the ones in the corridors of the Nicholas Building, and a sign ‘Art Investigator’. The door slowly swings open, like the curtain at the theatre, and the muse is standing there. She is now in trouble. No surprise, people don’t come in that door when life is fine and dandy. I offer her a seat, and she sits down and starts to cry. Who is this weeping woman?

Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

Everybody expects me to solve the Picasso theft at the NGV as if I stood a chance of finding the culprits in one of the greatest unsolved art thefts. What, I am some kind of art investigator? No, I’m a blogger, an independent researcher and a writer, and I’m trying to promote my book with this post. And I did find about Picasso taken from the Queensland Art Gallery, when forgeries of Jackson Pollock appeared in the Woman’s Weekly and other evil art crimes.

I wanted to read a paperback true-crime collection of stories about art. So I had to write one – The Picasso Ransom—true crimes from Australia – all about art, with none of the blood, gore or copaganda.

“A most excellent book that I’ve devoured in the last twenty-four hours.” Andrew Rule

So now I’m a true crime writer, given that I have been on Life & Crimes with Andrew Rule (“High crimes with paint brushes” podcast 13/5/2023). Andrew Rule liked my book because there were “new and fresh” stories about old criminals, like Murray Farquar and Steven Sellers. And because, as he put it, “a sly turn of phrase and a sly wit.”

Two people have emailed me in the hope I could be an art investigator. Requests to help find a stolen garden statue with an Olympic connection and also to find an artist and inmate of Pentridge Prison, J. G. Cust. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help in either case.

Melbourne Design Fair

The Melbourne Design Fair at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (Jeff’s Shed) is part of Melbourne Design Week. Furniture, lamps, jewellery, collectable limited edition or one-of-a-kind pieces. They are grouped into themes of transparency, currency and legacy. Much of it screamed, “I’m a limited edition design piece of conspicuous consumption”.  

There were stalls from individual designers and organisations like Craft Victoria, Jam Factory, Australian Design CentreAustralian Tapestry Workshop and Canberra Glassworks, as well as high-end art galleries in Melbourne that sell in this market: Mars Gallery, Neon Parc, Sophie Gannon Gallery, Oigåll Projects and Sullivan+Strumpf, reminding me that they also sell design.

There were things that I never wanted to see again, like the crystal wings of Christopher Boots; the combination of the cliche, kitsch image made out of stone was contradictory. 

I was interested to see a Meret Oppenheim, Traccia table from 1939 at auction house Leonard Joel’s booth, as I’ve seen so little of her work. Footprints of the bird’s legs are visible on the tabletop.

Burnt wood is in, this was one of several examples in different booths.

I have two questions suitable for almost all these occasions: What is being done to decolonise the event? And What is being done to make the event carbon-neutral? There were nods in the direction of both of these questions, a “sustainability partner” Acciona but little else, a bit like NGV director Tony Elwood’s brief acknowledgement of the traditional owners at the start of his speech.

The slogan for design week is “Design the world you want”, just as long as a car company sponsors it. Is any of this going to change my life? Where is the doing more with less? Design more with less. And “decoupling design from consumption” that I have heard about on architect Antony Di Mase’s podcasts By Light: Cities & Architecture? There are probably other parts of Melbourne’s Design Week that address ecological and political concerns, but Design Fair doesn’t.

Award winner Paula Savage posing with the fair’s major partner’s car.

Urban Folk Art in Melbourne

Just as there is rural folk art, there is urban folk art. The urban scarecrows, topiary, handmade grave markers made by relatives, scratches in wet cement… So here is a look at various urban folk arts in the vast metropolis of Melbourne.

Folk art is made by amateurs, not professional artists or even students, and there is no intention to be taken seriously or do anything but satisfy themselves. (In this respect, graffiti is a folk art). It is not intended to be assessed, discussed or traded. It is not an art form that is mediated financially or academically.

However, urban folk art shouldn’t be ignored because it is not professional. It is done for pleasure, not profit or glory. It is part of our visual culture. The aesthetics are simple, a face or other resemblance or a decoration. If there is a message, it is a direct message to a limited audience; there are no references or tributes.

The critic’s role in discussing folk art is not to examine technique, taste or quality but to look at the diversity of decorative items and their relationship to the community. In the urban world, where almost everything is done by professionals with standards, urban folk art stands out, like the homemade grave markers I saw at the Coburg Cemetery. And in this diversity, there will be impressive works because of their scale or technique — for example, the sizeable grotto and mixed media constructions at the Veg Out Garden in St Kilda.

The Moreland Free Library is a miniature version of the original train station. This was constructed during the lockdown when various urban folk arts flourished, along with spoon gardens and chalk sidewalk drawings. The impressive carpentry is the work of one local amateur. There are other miniature buildings as libraries in parts of the US.

Although some folk art is impressive, we should not ignore small juvenile urban art projects like spoon gardens or painted rocks, like the Coburg Primary Painted Rock City. Their painted rocks are the opposite of monumental sculpture, an almost hidden sculpture with multiple creators of small units where each builds the rock community.

Most urban folk art is on private property, particularly in gardens. What is public property is mostly unauthorised but tolerated, like yarn bombing, guerilla gardening, or the painted rock city. (Only graffiti seems to be objected to.) Or, the Gnome Village in Keilor Park, listed on Google Maps, is just off the Calder Freeway. Or, the toy tree in Coburg, where toys that would have been thrown out hang from a tree.

For long before recycling was a word, long before Arthur Danto wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, folk artists have used found materials. Up-cycling has the cornball appeal of a something-for-nothing sales pitch. In a corny part of this urban folk art, there is the use of readymade/fly-tipping as street art.

Ten years ago, I wrote another blog post about Urban Folk Art. In it, I considered whether graffiti is folk art, as well as considering mail art, punk DIY, and Dadaist collage. Rather than examining urban folk art, I was distracted by its influence on art.

The politics of prison art

The Glen Eira City Council Gallery is in the white neo-classical Caulfield City Hall, constructed in 1885, symbolises colonial imperialism. Is it appropriate for this symbolic architecture to house an exhibition of incarcerated Indigenous people’s art, The Torch’s annual exhibition, Confined? Perhaps not. Perhaps nothing has changed from the colonial era in how white Australia views Indigenous art.

At the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition of 1888, the art of five Larrakia artists was on display at another neo-classical building, the Exhibition Building. The men had all been prisoners in Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin when they were somehow (unlikely to be entirely ethically given the carceral environment) convinced to produce art for an exhibition titled Dawn of Art.

This was the first public of Indigenous prison art, attracting both interest and admiration from Melbourne’s colonial inhabitants. Indigenous Australians have been imprisoned for almost as long as the English have occupied their land, and for almost as long, non-Indigenous people, like myself, have been expressing an interest in Indigenous prison art.

There are still colonial attitudes to prison art. Art in prison is part of the good-prison-bad-prison routine, distracting the public from the inhumane conditions and creating a semblance of benevolence and reform. There are feel-good aspects that appeal to the WASP middle class: rehabilitation, therapy, education and job training. What about culture, politics and pleasure? Aren’t those three things meant to happen in prison?

The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapeutic, educational, recreational, cultural or a business? (These same different approaches to art exist outside of prison; only prisons institutionalise the definitions.) Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art, music or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.

My one criticism of The Torch’s program is its focus on the business of selling art. We all know that there are more reasons to do art is more than business. That it is also therapeutic, educational, recreational, and cultural. And, as all decent people would know, there are some things you don’t sell. (And yes, that last comment was directed at you, Jeff Kennett AC, former Premier of Victoria and Chair of Board, administering The Torch since 2015.)

I understand this is the neo-liberal political and economic situation it is established in and the kind of people who have made it possible. But as a critic, my role is to point out that it is not the only way nor the best way to do it. To look at the big picture, including politics, history, and culture. And, in doing so, recognise the connection between colonialism and neo-classical architecture — classical and neo-classical architecture symbolised colonial, slave-trading empires (Greek, Roman, British or American). The structural irony is that The Torch’s new building is the former Carlton Post Office which has a neo-classical facade.

That said, The Torch’s annual exhibition is the most ethical way to purchase Indigenous art, where 100% of the artwork’s price goes to the artist (simply the best deal any artist could ever get). And with over 400 works by Indigenous people currently in prison or released in recent years in Victoria, there will be plenty of choices.

Confined 13, 2022, Glen Eira City Council Gallery

Barry Humphries & Dada in Australia

“Big: Barry Humphries: Dada Artist”, at the National Gallery of Australia in 1993. I remember seeing the small exhibition in the foyer as I stood in the long line for tickets to the blockbuster exhibition “Surrealism: Revolution by Night.” Behind me, in the line, there was a mother with her pre-literate daughter. The girl asked her mother to read each gallery card that went with Humphries’s works. 

“Pus in Boots, 1953, reconstructed 1993 ‘custard’, leather workman’s boots, flies”

After each one, the girl would say, “Yuk!” and then move on to the next piece. She was definitely getting her yuks. The exhibition now strikes me as little more than prop comedy and a shitload of dreadful puns.

The cosmic convergence of ANZAC day and the death of the comedian Barry Humphries brought these memories back and created more context for Humphries as a Dadaist artist. An examination of which strikes at the heart of Australia’s imaginal national character.

Dada was an anti-art movement created by Germans and Romanians escaping military service in Switzerland. It rejected all logic, civilisation and artistic conventions that had led to such a massive and senseless slaughter of people. In the aftermath of the war, it quickly spread to Europe, the Americas and even Japan, but not Australia.

Australia was not just behind the times; Dada was antithetical to the Australian national character. As an anti-war movement, Dada is deeply abhorrent to Australian culture and national identity, with its foundations in the Australians fighting and dying in World War One. For Australian nationalism, the slaughter of the war made mythic sense as a sacrifice.

Humphries had read Dada Poets and Painters, edited by Robert Motherwell, in high school. Then as a first-year student at Melbourne University, he held “The First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition” in 1952. After this first exhibition, Dada became a one-man show for Humphries; there was no movement, group or imitators. The other artists were Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer, but there is no detail of what either contributed. Pugh, who exhibited under an assumed name, would later recant his involvement.

Although this was the “First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition”, it happened while neo-Dadaists were emerging in Japan and the USA. And it was very different to both Dada and neo-Dadaism.

This was not the anti-war Dada; Australia’s participation in the Korean War was not mentioned. Nor that Humphries was a private in the Melbourne University Regiment. Nor was this the anti-art Dada, with Humphries claiming to be part of art history with the first “Dada exhibition”, the pop art painting (Wheaties cereal box image) and experimental music recording in Australia.

“Wobboism” or “Wubboism”, with its comedy routine explanation of taking its name from a garbage collector or a pseudo-Aboriginal word, does have elements of Hugo Ball’s anti-semitism and Richard Huelsenbeck’s “negro poetry”. But these are not the celebrated aspects of Dada.

Humphries’s fascination with Dada led to him incorporating aspects into his early performances. What Humphries took from Dada was its superficial form, shock value, and use of random, absurd humour. Rejecting the nihilism at its core. Dada was just an act he took on and off like Dame Edna’s dress, not an existential statement.

One startling conclusion from examining Barry Humphries’s Dadaist art is that it indicates that Australia is more militaristic and conservative and less accepting of dissent, change and nihilism than Japan. Australians will tolerate the absurd, but only if they find it funny, and Humphries was.

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