Last night (6/6/08) I went to the end of construction and unofficial opening of the Famous When Dead, Melbourne’s newest gallery space. It was a grand affair with a huge spread of wine and nibbles, an acoustic guitarist playing in the corner and a video crew filming. I felt a bit underdressed in my Andy Warhol t-shirt and cargo pants but I this had far exceeded my expectations. There I was keeping it real with a glass of red wine and shrimp canapé.
JD Mittman is the director of Famous When Dead. J.D. Mittman has had a long involvement in Melbourne’s stencil art scene, starting with organizing the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2004. I had previously reviewed exhibitions of street art, Urban Art Agenda #1 at Shed 4 of the Docklands organised by JD Mittman. JD told me that he had taken my comments about the location and hanging of that exhibition seriously; I probably wasn’t the only one to make such comments. Famous When Dead is the result.
Famous When Dead is a street front, white-walled, converted shop gallery specializing in stencil art. The gallery is located in Victoria St. West Melbourne, a block up from the Victoria market. It has all of the components of a serious commercial gallery: two rooms, a professional hanging system, track lighting and seriously excellent art.
The art is fantastic, some of the best stencil art that I have ever seen from both local and international artists. There were familiar works by HaHa. Amid so many excellent work, the large canvas by Brisbane artist Guz, ‘Love is a four-letter word’ stood out. It wasn’t the most technically brilliant of all the art but it was the most beautiful, with a bikini clad angel amidst a pattern of roses.
To use the term ‘street art’ to describe this work appears wrong, the stencil work is so fine and the art so well presented, that it is a long way from the street. And not all the artists exhibited would call themselves street artists. I spoke to Ralf Kempken who said that he had been working with stencils long before the current fashion. But Kempken’s urban architectural theme in the Coates Building Multiplied into an endless, modernist grid did not look out of place. Many of the works had an urban theme from Joey’s Vinegar Girl to Kenji Nakayama’s Concrete Jungle. And there were the paintings of Reko Rennie-Gwybilla with their strong themes of justice for aboriginal Australia. So for reasons of technique and content I would still want to call it ‘street art’.
I hope that Famous When Dead succeeds as a stencil art gallery. There are other galleries in Melbourne specialising in, or regularly showing, stencil and street art but Famous When Dead is trying to set a higher standard in both art and gallery. I like ambition, aspiring for high quality is admirable, and that is what JD Mittman is doing with Famous When Dead.