Advertisements

Archibald Prize 2019

 All that a hopeful artist has to do to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portrait painting is pay the $50 entry fee and deliver their painting to the loading dock at the rear of the Art Gallery of NSW at a certain date. Each year thousands of paintings are arrive and if a painting makes the final exhibition it is doing well.

Installation view of several finalists in the Archibald Prize 2019

The portrait must be of a notable in the fields of arts, science or politics (although judging from the entries this is very flexible). It has to be painted from life, meaning that the artist must have actually met the notable person; the subject has to sign the entry form to confirm this. Mostly it is artists painting other artists, or themselves, in a daisy-chain of insider promotion.

It was a relief to see that there were no portraits of politicians amongst this year’s finalists. No of the finalist artists wanted to be associated with any Australian politician. Although ugly, morally bankrupt thugs have been the subject of Archibald finalists in the past, such as Adam Cullen’s portrait of Chopper Reed, there were no portraits of popular criminals this year.

One positive aspect of both of these trends is that there were a lot more small portraits suitable for domestic display.

Kirpy, Dylan

As a focus of this blog is the intersection of street and gallery so I should report on the two street artists in the exhibition: ELK and Kirpy. Both portraits are very large, more than one square metre, multi-layered stencils spray-painted in aerosol paint and use acrylic paint to fill in the larger areas and give weight and texture. And both compositions have strong horizontal elements, in a rather rigid and static structure. Kirpy’s painted Dylan Alcott Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the musical festival Ability Fest. And ELK (aka Luke Cornish) did portrait of businesswoman and media commentator Sue Cato, along with her dogs, Callie and Comet. In 2012 ELK was the first street artist in the Archibald Prize finals and the following year first street finalist in Sulman Prize.

For the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is not just the Archibald but also the Wynne and Sulman prize.These prizes receive far less attention in the media than the celebrity focus of the Archibald.

The Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture is, not surprisingly, dominated by Indigenous artists this year. Figurative sculpture has become far less significant in Australia’s art world and there were only two pieces amongst the finalists.

The changing significance of types of art reminded me that the Sulman Prize is for subject, genre or mural painting. And given the increased significance of mural painting I don’t know why more street artists and graffiti writers don’t enter that prize.  After all Guido van Helten’s Brim silos mural project was the winner for the mural prize in 2016.

I haven’t seen the actual Archibald prize exhibition for many years but as I was in Sydney I can report on it.

Wynne Prize finalist Nongirrna Marawili, Pink Lightening
Advertisements

The Plastic Jewellers

In the foyer of the Counihan Gallery is selection of ear-rings with recycled components, recycled silver and plastic. TempContemp’s exhibition of sustainable jewellery is part of the “Art + Climate = Change 2019” arts festival.

Ann Welton, Flotsam and Simone Alesich, Gelo One

On Saturday one of the exhibiting jewellers and curator, Laila Marie Costa led walk and talk; or rather a talk with a walk to change the location. It started at the Counihan Gallery and continued, not far off, at Northcity4. The reason for this geographically extended talk was that TempContemp was also presenting “The Urban Gleaner & the Plastique Pt. II” another exhibition at Northcity4’s very small exhibition space (also part of “Art + Climate = Change 2019”).

Costa is an advocate for contemporary jewellery to have the same status as ceramics in the contemporary art world. She works with found materials and was exhibiting a pair of dramatic earrings built on inverted glow-in-the-dark crosses.

Northcity4 is a jewellery studio in Brunswick in a factory converted into studio spaces on Weston Street where seventeen jewellers work. Costa gave us a quick tour of the well-equiped studio with a forest of indoor plants. The studio tour was followed by a chat about both jewellery exhibitions and the use of plastic in contemporary jewellery.

Two more jewellers, Regina Middleton and Lauren Simeoni spoke about their work in the exhibition.

Lauren Simeoni uses fake plants as her primary material occasionally sneaking in precious materials into these compositions. In her hands the unnatural stamens, twigs and branches become necklaces and ear-rings.

Although they are using plastic as their primary material the horror of plastic covering the planet in a colourful layer of toxic chemical junk is very present in all their minds. Middleton describes an encounter with a Thai beach covered in plastic rubbish and the “tragic beauty of plastic” as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Middleton creates displays of these tiny, weathered fragments of plastic collected from beaches; elegant display boxes of poisonous, anti-magical, gems.


The great gallery joke

At first glance I thought that Blindside was completely empty. I looked around for the ‘closed for installation sign’; nothing. There was something hanging on the wall of the second gallery, so I went inside. It was only after I entered the gallery that I saw the paintings.

Jan Murray, Chute (Old Police Hospital) 1, oil on linen, 2017

Three paintings of air vents hung on one wall. There are more tromp l’oeil paintings of hatches, grilles, chutes and ceiling vents. Jan Murray exhibition “Unseen” at Blindside in October 2018; oil paintings of the overlooked architecture of the Nicholas Building and Old Police Hospital. It is the opposite of the old cartoon of the middle aged couple mistaking the gallery’s air vent for a work of art.

The Irish art critic, Brian O’Doherty wrote:  “The box, which I have called the white cube, is a curious piece of real estate […] However roughly treated, the white cube is like a straight man in a slapstick routine. No matter how repeatedly hit on the head, not matter how many pratfalls, up it springs, its seamless white smile unchanged, eager for more abuse. Brushed off, pampered, re-painted, it resumes in blankness.” — Brian O’Doherty, “Boxes, Cubes, Installation, Whiteness and Money” A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution (2009)

The double act between the art gallery and the artist gives the art its comedic meta concepts. It is a double act as old as Dada. Consider all the art spawn from Duchamp’s readymades that require the gallery to be present. All the readymades, all the installations, all the interrogations of the gallery space from Tracey Emin’s Bed to tomorrow night’s contemporary art exhibition opening.

As in comedy this double act is an uneven relationship; the gallery has all the power but takes the comic artist’s jokes with good humour. This power relationship is questioned, ridiculed, knocked about is at the core of so much modern and contemporary art. Playing on the tension of does the artist or the gallery, the frame, the plinth make the art? The art gallery is the antithesis of the artist, a space without personality.

If the institution displaying the object removes itself from this double act and no longer accepts being the butt of jokes then it becomes a museum, a temple or a palace. In such an arrangement any authority that the artist had over the object is replaced by the authority of the institution and ‘by royal appointment…’ becomes a measure of quality. And both royal and popularity as authority expose the arbitrary and an-aesthetic aspects of such power.

And now I have explained the great gallery joke; a terrible thing to do to any joke.


Art in the face of a climate emergency

I don’t expect that many of my readers will see the photographic artist Anne Zahalka exhibition “Wild Life/Australia” at Arc One Gallery. The exhibition is part of CLIMARTE’s ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2019 festival. It is another way of raising a critical issue, just as this blog post about the exhibition is yet another. For, at its best, art criticism is another way of exploring important issues.

In her series of photographs Anne Zahalka is trying to capture the dubious realist aesthetic of museum’s zoological habitat dioramas. Painted backgrounds that merge to become samples, taxidermy specimens, of the actual in the foreground, a form that Zahalka has adapted into a photographic collage of images. In her photographs the didactic intention of these modernist dioramas have been turned to teaching a new lesson about climate change. Fruit bats fall dead from their roasts in a tree in the extreme heat.

Along with her photographs, displayed on two plinths were plastic recovered from the Lord Howe Island. Both of these were included in her photograph depicting the sea bird colony of on Admiralty Rocks at Lord Howe Island.

Arc One Gallery is a commercial gallery that represents mid-career contemporary Australian artists. It is not putting this exhibition on as an act of charity; the importance of issue is evident to all who don’t have an ideological commitment to oppose them. I was expecting to see more evidence of this climate emergency in the city aside from this exhibition. I was looking for it but all I’ve seen is a couple of pendants and some painted bollards from Extinction Rebellion.

Too many species have become extinct in the half century of my life and many more are endangered or threatened by climate change, pollution or habitat loss. This includes humans, we are just another species on this planet, a species that future alien archeologists might refer to as the stupid ape.


Anti-Modern Art Ideological Idiocy

It is hard to believe that the Australian Communist Party and Catholic Church in Australia in the 1950s and 60s shared a position on anything. But, as I discovered when I was searching through old newspapers, they both hated modern art.

Newcastle Sun ran the article: “Vatican Slams Modern Art” on Thursday 11 March 1954. Quoting the Vatican magazine, Faith and Art, Cardinal Celso Constantini said that abstract art “is dying out. Why should the church accept such a repulsive near-corpse?” Cardinal Constantini also declared that Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugin, Roualt and Corbusier produced “blasphemous religious works.” (Chagall was Jewish and many of the other artists now have work in the Vatican Museum.)

Eleven years later, in the Tribune (the official newspaper of the Australian communist party) on Wednesday 15 December 1965, the Australian social-realist artist, Noel Counihan declared that abstract art, Pop Art and Op Art were over. According to Counihan Australian artists were “reacting against the recent spate of mediocre imitations of overseas fashions.” Aside from trend following Counihan’s main warning about abstract art was that “the newly rich achieve social status with an abstract on their walls.”

“Op Art I feel will prove the most ephemeral of the latest fashions despite its immediate appeal to novelty mined youth.” wrote the communist Counihan advocating a reactionary nationalist position.

It is probably pointless to further unpacking these two short articles to point out errors and inconsistencies. It is clear from both articles that neither had a coherent argument and were simply appealing to the predefined reactionary prejudices of their groups.

I find the confluence of prejudices expressed by these ideologically opposed groups a proof of the lack of both group’s ability to reason. The intensity of both writers commitment to their ideology reduced their ability to critically think about their subject. If both writers had put aside their ideological based, rhetorical dog whistles and actually thought, and researched abstract art, they probably could have come up with better reasons to explain their dislikes. Unfortunately these reasons may not have appealed to their readers as much as their prejudices did. These reasons may have simply exposed them for only wanting art that expressed their ideology.

Would Australian Catholics and Communists today be interested in reading warnings about zombie formalism? 


Melbourne Street Art Past and Future

In Centre Place there are a couple of relics of an earlier era of Melbourne’s street art. Both the City Lights and Heart Lock are now covered in layers of paint and stickers. Centre Place was once a prime location for graffiti and street art, now after a new building it is now too small for more than one or two pieces.

The heart lock is still there but has lost its heart and I think that it has been moved from its original location. I guess that Melbourne walking tour guides no longer tell the love story about Paula Birch’s Sacred Heart of Centre Place (See Demet Divaroren’s Blog for the legend). Andy Mac’s City Lights Project were photo light boxes; you can still see the now redundant cables for the power. There were two sets installed in Centre Place and Hosier Lane back in the 1996. (For more see my blog post from 2009.)

Appearing to go further back in time; I spotted these initials carved into the bluestones along the bank of the Yarra. At first I thought that they might have been stonemason’s marks. However, if they were stonemason’s marks I would have expected them more widespread amongst the stone embankment rather than concentrated in one place. If they were stonemasons would also expect greater quality in the carving of the initial. So I suspect that they are mid-century modern tags but they could be earlier.

I photographed some more stencils around the city; not surprised that this time they are in the laneway leading to the new location for Blender Studios. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti appears to have entered a holding pattern. Instead of any developments or new directions there is an almost steady state where we can expect more repetition. No new developments, just new walls with the same kind of stuff on them. There are so few innovators currently on the scene that I’m not even aware of any disruptors, like Lush. In another old street art location, Presgrave Place, there are new works by Tinky, Phoenix and Calm.


The sculptor and the swan

Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.

The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’. 

Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.

Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.

Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.

Cookie, the black swan memorial drinking fountain

In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3)  “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.


%d bloggers like this: