The same

In Melbourne, he is called Junky Projects. In Montreal, he is called Junko. Different people, different cities, same street art. The same spirit of the times inspires these artists to make art from junk found on the street and return it to the street.

I saw some of Junko’s work in Toronto in 2016. His work is slightly different to Junky Projects. Junko does animal forms, and Junky Projects does human faces. I’m not sure who the earlier of the two is. Junky Projects work is currently rusting on power poles, fences posts and other supports all over Melbourne.

This is not a case of influence or copying; this is convergent evolution resulting from similar environmental/social/psychological factors. In the natural world, the body plan of dolphins and ichthyosaurs, both adapted for ocean swimming, has many similarities without any close relation between the two.

Self portrait John McCarthy
Fintan Magee, detail of Two Figures Behind Mottled Glass

Another example from the art world of convergent evolution are paintings showing people through thick bevelled textured glass. Both Fintan Magee in Australia and the British artist John McCarthy (not the American abstract expressionist artist John McCarthy) paint very similar images. The resemblance between the two is striking because there is nothing but the optical idea of the image distorted by the glass. Without any other content or meaning to the paintings by either artist, the only variation is the choice of models. There are probably more artists who have painted this same effect that I haven’t seen. 

This time, out of the two artists, I know who was doing the seen through bevelled glass paintings first. I saw an exhibition of McCarthy work at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in NY in 2013. And Magee has only been doing paintings in this style since 2020.

Again this is not to suggest that one artist is copying or plagiarising the other, but that originality is not possible, especially when you have very simple ideas. Maybe Adrian Doyle is right: “You are all the same.” Sometimes I reply to his slogan pointing out that I am not all the same and that my feet are very different from my head. However, perhaps in a broader sense, he is correct and that our idea of unique individualism is false, as demonstrated by the similarity amongst artists.


David Smith in Melbourne

The great American modern art critic Clement Greenberg grandly described David Smith simply as “the best sculptor anywhere”. Although David Smith never came to Australia, his influence on Melbourne’s sculpture can be seen in several public sculptures. There are works by Dan Wollmering, Anthony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett that are clearly influenced by Smith.

Smith had a massive influence on Australian sculpture, a tidal wave of American mid-century modern rolling across the Pacific Ocean. He helped change sculpture’s format from the vertical portrait to the horizontal landscape; Henry Moore’s abstracted figurative sculptures of mothers were already reclining in that direction. He also changed the basic structure of sculpture from a solid core to an extended form, which he created in space and steel. And the source of inspiration from an external model, illustrating the civic consciousness, to the sculptor’s unconscious, connected to the collective unconscious.

You can see Smith’s influence in Geoffrey Bartlett’s sculpture at RMIT (on the right). It almost quotes Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (on the left). It is part of an early series of sculptures and similar to his sculpture that used to be in the NGV’s moat. It is a framed landscape that contains a gravity-defying dynamism. A tension and stored energy in the collection of forms attached to rods that suggest pivot, pitch and spring. I always expect Bartlett’s early sculptures to do something.

Smith wrote clear and concise statements about sculpture. “I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole sculpture appears.” (David Smith “Notes on My Work” Arts, Feb 1960 Special David Smith Issue)

Dan Wollmering Xanthe

This could be the instructions for Dan Wollmering’s Xanthe 1988. It is sited in a garden outside the white neo-classical Glen Eira City Hall (in Caulfield at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads). An energetic 3.5-metre metal sculpture with its curving and angular forms frames the spaces between its metal form. One part responding to next part like a guitar solo.

It is entirely modernist, not only influenced by Smith but the blue edges and white planes colours reference to the Cubist works of Fernand Léger. Xanthe was a brave choice for Caulfield City Council, with the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault still hanging over local commissions of modern public sculpture.

Vault is another example of Smith’s influence. Even though it has the metal planes and colourful skin of Anthony Caro’s sculptures. For Smith’s influence din’t just roll west; it spread across the Atlantic too. He influenced British sculptors like Anthony Caro and generations of English (and Australian) artists through him.

Ron Robertson-Swann Vault

If there was an Abstract Expressionist version of the Village People (an ugly, alcoholic version of the disco ensemble), David Smith would be the construction worker (both shared the same moustache). (Jackson Pollock the cowboy, and you can fill out the rest.) For there is the macho energy of Smith’s background as a car and tank fabricator in his welded metal sculptures. And like disco, it is a style from the last century.

Will David Smith continue to be an influence on Melbourne sculpture?


Liminal Zones

“Gatekeepers are useless; they will either let your enemies in for or lockout your allies. Their only loyalty is to the power that you have given to them for your protection.” To quote a passage that Machiavelli might have written for The Prince.

Some art critics consider themselves to be gatekeepers on a border, quarantining art from being infected or sullied or something. Or to Biblically sort the sheep from the goats as an art world livestock judge. I don’t think that the role of the art critic is to be a defender of a walled-off definition or value judgements. Definitions and values change because art and language are not definitive but arbitrary.

Instead, I think of myself as an explorer of the liminal zones. Not a colonial explorer out there to conquer, rename, loot and pillage like the British in Africa. But as a tourist in an unstable region, a beachcomber of culture walking the tidal zone wondering what will have washed up. For boarders are never perfectly defined. The liminal zones, like tidal zone, are full of varied life in the space between definable borders. Down by the cultural seaside, I explore the tidal pools, look at what has been washed up on the beach and scan the horizon. Horizon scanning is better than gatekeeping because you can see what is coming rather than just assess values in the immediate present.

I wanted to be the kind of art critic that would go anywhere in Melbourne to see art from an industrial park in Burnside. To look at art on the streets, both authorised and unauthorised art. How art works in prison, in courtrooms or in a medical centre. These intersections afford alternate views of art. To enter these places is to engage in a different discourse about art.

Unlike most art critics, I will write about untrained and non-professional artists. Firstly, not everyone engaged in artistic activity has to be a professional artist, especially when they have a street-based practice. And to ignore the bulk of arts or art-related activity is to misrepresent the grassroots of art. It is art not as an item of trade but as a social pursuit, a tonic for mental health and local knowledge. Secondly, the role of an art critic is to provide the public with a context, a perspective to the art. To expand the conversation beyond ‘I like this’. To consider the past and future and not just the present.

I am doing this self-assessment because I wanted to avoid being a zombie art critic, stumbling around mindlessly to the same big name galleries. Or even any commercial galleries. Nor do I want to be a spruiker for national and state galleries, promoting infotainment and cultural imperialism. Instead, I want to cast my eye further afield. Suppose art is like a family tree, as Wittgenstein suggests family resemblance in defining games. In that case, art is likely to have some relatives that aren’t art. Who are art’s in-laws? Who are art’s uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents? Not in an evolutionary family tree sense but like at a birthday party.


Stolen Olympics Discus Thrower

A discus thrower sculpture has been stolen from the front yard of a suburban house in Bunbury Street, Footscray. There is now a sign in the yard asking for the return of the stolen sculpture.

The stolen discus thrower
(photo by Dougall Irving)

Having written about both suburban garden sculptures and stolen sculptures, I am very interested. I was even more curious when Dougall Irving’s email alerted me to this crime suggested that it was “one of the statues from outside Myers during the 1956 Olympic”. He included a photograph from the collection of Museums Victoria that looks like he is right.

Although clothed, the sculpture is based on classical Greek sculptures of discus throwers rather than actual discus throwers in action. And this neo-classical style would be right for a commercial sculpture made in Melbourne in the fifties.

During the Olympics, the Myers Store on Bourke Street was decorated with the Olympic Rings on this facade and on its awning the flags of all the participating countries along with seven statues of athletes, including a discus thrower. Myers Emporium (as it was called then) had every reason to publicise the Olympics as it was the official ticket seller.

The sculpture looks like fibreglass or some kind of plastic, which would explain its long life and durability. Given this material and this blog post reducing the chances of it being sold as Olympics memorabilia, there is some hope that the thief might regret the theft and return the sculpture. I hope so.

Thank you, Dougall Irving, for alerting me.


The Unofficial Sculpture Park

About a dozen contemporary, non-figurative site-specific assemblages, created from locally found material. Rusted metal springs blossom like a bouquet on top of another pile. A truck tire is supported by a log. A mobile of rusted metal hangs from the branch of a tree.

The unauthorised public sculpture park just off the Capital City Trail in Royal Park. The sculptures are large enough to see them from the train between Royal Park and Flemington Bridge on the Upfield Line. I’m not sure how many years, probably before the last two years of COVID lockdowns. A wide dirt path goes past the sculptures, people walking their dogs and enjoying the  spring sunshine.

Except for the path, the site is overgrown, strewn with building rubble, concrete, and granite ‘bluestone.’ Why is it here? Is it the location of the demolished building from who knows when? I look back 30 years in old Melways and can’t find anything marked. It is strange that this waste-ground is so close to the centre of Melbourne, DCM’s Melbourne Gateway “the cheese-stick” can be seen poking above the trees.

Two blue male superb fairy-wrens flit around. Something moves in the long grass. I wonder if I am in danger of stepping on a snake. I stamp my feet to send warning vibrations. Google maps notes that it is a “white skink habitat”; maybe all the rubble is their home.

It looks like it is all the work of one anonymous artist, someone with a background in contemporary art. Much effort has gone into these sculptures, both psychic and physical, as there is evidence of planning and heavy lifting. Notice that each of the three blocks piled into a column has been turned 45 degrees to the previous one. Carefully positioned blocks keep a rusted lid hanging on a concrete pillar.

Is this a revival of the 1960s Italian art movement Arte Povera? There is the use of unprocessed “unartistic” materials and rejecting the usual sculpture techniques, aestheticising and commercialisation. The anonymous creator of this sculpture garden is doing all of that. However, unlike Arte Povera, there is no social criticism evident in the work.

Perhaps if these sculptures were in a garden or even an official sculpture park, I would critique them differently. Question their heroic architectural intentions or zombie formalism. I have some sympathy towards unauthorised public sculpture.


The Unnamable Present

I walked to Dan Murphys, my local provider of alcohol this morning, past this poster. I have plenty of lemons; everyone in Coburg has a bumper crop of lemons. If you don’t have a lemon tree, someone in the street will have a basket of lemons out the front of their house to give away. So I bought the cheapest bottle of vodka that I could find because I’m only interested the alcohol. (I am using this recipe for my limoncello.)

“When life gives you lemons make limoncello – make lots”

This post is a result of a Twitter poll that I posted on September 14 where incautiously I asked: “Given that I will be in lockdown and I can’t go to any art exhibitions for the next who knows weeks, what should be the subject of my next blog post?

20th Century Music

Drinks from Dan Murphys

Philosophy book reviews

Walking in my suburb”

I suspect it was sabotaged as the votes were evenly spread; it only received 4 votes, 1 comment and 6 total engagements. Anyway, I will accept the challenge and write about all of them: my first paragraph covers two of those subjects.

Currently I am reading Roberto Calasso The Unnamable Present. The first chapter is titled “Terrorists and Tourists”; these two contrasting figures, one demanding certainty and the other expecting a different experience. He does find one point in common.

“When describing a place, people immediately say whether it is unblemished or disfigured by tourism. They talk about tourism like a skin disease. And yet the ideal tourist would like to visit places unmarred by tourism, in the same way that ideal terrorist would like to operate in places unprotected by security measures. They both encounter certain difficulties. And to put the blame on their fellows who have gone before them.” (p.61)

The second chapter, “The Vienna Gas Company” starts in 1933 with various writers, tourists in Europe, including Samuel Beckett, Virginia and Leonard Woolfe, Celine, George Simanon … as state terrorism rises. If you have faith in anything, spiritual, intellectual, secular, or physical, this book is not for you; it is only for those prepared to be uncertain in the unnamable present.

Penguin Books classifies The Unnamable Present as Philosophy, and I’m not going to debate the point for whatever philosophy is; it is certainly a form of literature. Calasso is not an academic philosopher, and he is not presenting a thesis or argument in his books. He is a writer and who worked for Adelphi Edizioni, a publishing house in Milan.

Unfortunately for me although Calasso writes about everything, he hardly ever mention music. This absence only becomes apparent because I struggle with this segue to my final topic, 20th-century music.

So now I’m left without a segue and the limoncello sitting in a dark cupboard for the next two weeks. I could try to emulate Calasso and find a quote about music for the final paragraph. I read a couple more pages of his book and find one on p.143 from Gobbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda: “At midday the state funeral of Field Marshal von Reichenau took place. Prepared by Supreme Command, extremely poor, psychologically clumsy, with an absolutely amateurish music. After the national anthems pupils of the army music school perform the first movement of the Fifth Symphony so far as they can. I agree with General Schmundt that in future Wehrmacht state funerals be substantially entrusted to our Ministry, since only we off er the guarantee that they can be carried out in a form worthy of the State.” (A note from 24 January, 1942 in Tagebücher Aus den Jahren 1942-1943, edited by L.P. Lochner, Atlantis, Zürich, 1948, pp.52-53) Music, like all the arts, was subsumed by the nation state’s need for propaganda.


Go Crazy

It is always a mystery about the identity of graffiti writers and street artists. I walked around a street corner in Coburg; there was Anime Flower at work with pastel crayons. Anime Flower has been writing things like “be kind” around the neighbourhood in colourfully decorated block letters. All I should say is that the writer was not from the usual demographic of taggers, graff writers and other artistic miscreants found on the streets. I didn’t want them to feel intimidated by my presence, so I didn’t stop. I just said, “Hello,” all friendly-like behind my mask and sunglasses and kept walking.

The great rock critics Lester Bangs and Nick Kent were proponents of the proposition that rock’n’roll was for losers. That it was a great failure gesture. At its best, rock’n’roll was a bunch of losers who managed to create great art and, at its worst, was commercial sabotage of all that is human and decent. Likewise, street art and graffiti are for losers. Like playing in a band, doing some street art will probably be amongst the best things that they do for themselves.

During the lockdowns, I have become more familiar with the work of many local graff writers, including the local UBM/WWW crew. I love the WWW crew, the self-proclaimed World’s Worst Writers – who will take that jester’s crown away from them? Calypso is so friendly, with a smiley face along with the tag.

Bootleg Comics and Cale Jay Labbe collaborating on some intensely crazy black and white paste-ups. Bootleg Comics is a Melbourne visual artist known for using pop culture iconography. Savage reflections of images and tropes: horoscopes making as much sense as an anti-vaxer but with way more insight.

“You know there ain’t no devil, just god when he’s drunk”, crones Tom Waits. God© may be drunk. I’ve seen a lot of God©’s work around Coburg. There is plenty of bad craziness (like anti-vax slogans, Lush mural upskirting Marilyn Munroe, any mural by Lush… fuck him) along with good craziness evident on the streets. Bad craziness and good craziness, like bad taste and good taste; do I want to be Polonius and distinguish between different kinds of madmen? Here Lester Bangs distinguishes between the alternatives of: “working to enlighten others as to their own possibilities rather than merely sprawling in the muck yodelling about what a drag everything is.” (Bangs “The Clash” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 1987, p226) So I’m glad that Anime Flower, the WWW and God© are out there on the streets of Coburg. And to quote Prince’s eulogy “for this thing called life. Let’s go crazy!”


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