Monthly Archives: April 2008


Beau Emmett and Carmen Reid “Semi Detached” at First Site is an excellent exhibition. The familiar domestic objects and fixtures used in this exhibition are made uncanny rearranged with a playful logic that places carpets on the ceiling and plumbing in chairs. It is creates a new curious world of improvised scrounged materials. The materials have been detached from their original setting and reassembled to create new structures.

There are some impressive sculptural work, “architectural fragments” as Emmett and Reid call them, and some wonderful small works, mostly involving plumbing or wiring. There is a great cone of house bricks, an old door and door-jam (the door has carefully curved in an arc and is unable to shut), a bed in a box under a pile of earth, two chairs that have been plumbed with taps, and much more. Most with a wonderful worn aesthetic and the nostalgia of early 20th domestic materials. Some of the works didn’t work as well as the others. I thought that the carved wooden hammer and bent nails were too arty and new, compared to all the other materials used. But these are minor quibbles about an exhibition that on the whole is great fun.

The exhibition uses ambience the basement of Story Hall at RMIT as a feature and the subdued lighting highlights the architecture. Some of the features are as quirky as the objects on exhibition, especially the stairway that goes nowhere. Other features contributed to the exhibition as the ventilation caused the carpet squares to flap eerily.

Upstairs at RMIT Gallery German artists (with a lot more profile and money and bigger studios than Emmett and Reid) are doing similar sculptural art with domestic interiors. “Come-in” is an international touring exhibition showing “interior design as a contemporary art medium in Germany”. This exhibition demonstrates that Emmett and Reid’s art is in tune with contemporary European art trends and have a comparable quality. Seen together these two exhibition make excellent pair of contemporary sculpture.



Naeem Rana is exhibiting at the Eisenberg Gallery, again. Rana last exhibited there late last year during the election campaign. Again it is an exhibition with political content, not surprising really for an artist making poster-size digital prints. The exhibition is a questioning “Rejoice” in Australian nationality, the ‘rejoice’ taken from the first line of the national anthem.

Along with the powerful patterns and colors of the kind of Pop Art digital prints that Naeem Rana usually exhibits; there is also a series of photographs in the exhibition. I always enjoy seeing artist’s work that is different from their usual work because it is either an indication of a new direction or a revelation of another aspect of their art.

The photographs illustrate the story of refugees coming to Australia and being put in a detention camp using toys. Three birds are in a paper boat made of immigration forms. It looks like Naeem Rana’s young son is having a good influence on his father in getting him to tell the story with toys clearly and effectively.

The exhibition touched me; the idea that one can change of identity at a nations border is something that has haunted me most of my life. I have two nationalities: Canadian and Australian. I still feel like asking my father what I should put down to questions about nationality: if it is South Africa in the 1970s then I must be Canadian and if it is Australia then I’m Australian, if anyone asks. It really depends on who is asking and for what reason – my nationality is an uncertainty principle (very apt for the Eisenberg Gallery).

In the artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition Naeem Rana writes: “We promote individuality and respect individuals’ way of life as long as they are not of ethnic origin.” Australian national identity has long been the subject of serious discussion and art, like the bombastic composition by Scotsman, Peter Dodds McCormick (Advance Australia Fair, 1878).  I prefer the less serious discourse of artists, like Rana, on the subject for in contemporary art there is less certainty and a greater nuance of ideas and emotions.

Across the road a way there is a rare piece of nationalist stencil graffiti: “Be Proud” it proclaims with a Southern Cross and map of Australia. Underneath someone has written in pen: “Of what?”

Northcote Galleries

I went to Northcote to see Advanced Vandalism by Johnny Duel at Kick Gallery. Duel an aerosol artist who started out doing graffiti in the 1980s have moved on to commissioned pieces has now moved into the gallery. His hard edge abstract forms are a mix between wildstyle aerosol art and modern abstract art. In the exhibition Duel’s style is expressed in both 2D works and 3D sculptures, not an uncommon practice for street artists exhibiting in galleries.

Kick Gallery was one of the few galleries open in Northcote when I visited. Vanguard Gallery on the opposite side of High Street has closed and looks like it is having a garage sale and Synergy looked like it was between shows. Kerala, further north on High Street, is a relatively new and not listed in Art Almanac, “art and photography gallery”. It is a well-lite, white cube shop-front gallery with a group show of contemporary flower photography on when I visited.

When I returned home from my visit to Northcote galleries I emailed Eugene von Nagy who ran Vanguard Gallery to find out why it had closed and if he wanted to make a comment for my blog. Eugene von Nagy kindly replied: “Vanguard Gallery was a great experience for me, a great learning experience, a lot of work and a real pleasure too. “

“Although my personal art production suffered because the gallery took the lions share of my time, the entire gallery for me was like a giant art project in itself.”

“I really enjoyed opening it from scratch and improving the facilities and decor as I developed my skills as a curator and manager.”

“One of the best sides of running the gallery was that I met a great deal of interesting people at all levels in the arts industry. I also enjoyed engaging with radio and print media to promote various events, and working with the local arts community to create the annual ‘Northern Exposure’ arts festival.”

“I plan to continue the gallery website and develop it in a more personal way to reflect changes in my career. Eventually I will sort and post a larger collection of photos from the many exhibitions and events held throughout the life of the gallery. “ And explained that he had to close the gallery as he is “moving to Brisbane to paint full time while my wife finishes her studies at UQ.”

The Northcote arts scene will miss Eugene von Nagy’s energy and Vanguard Gallery.

Why Street Art?

Someone found my blog by Googling: “why is there a high interest in street art?” I sometimes ask myself why I am writing all of these entries about street art.

Street art is the only art movement currently around; there are trends, sensibilities and groups of artists but street art is the only one that could really count as a movement due to its thousands of participants. To put it simply all the Surrealists could meet in a Paris café but you would need a stadium to fit all the street artists. Art movements are rare. There were only a few in the 20th century, perhaps, as few as two: modernism (the international style) and punk. And like, punk, street art is a youth art movement.

In the last couple of years I have seen street art in every city that I have visited, with the exception of Singapore, from stencils in the back streets of Malacca to blockbuster pieces along the Rhine. It is an international art movement.

In common with most art movements street art is controversial, it is even despised by some and considered vandalism. Modernism was also hated and considered the hoax by some, Churchill and Hitler, for example. This controversy generates more interest even from those who dislike street art.

There was a growing interest in street art throughout the 20th Century by artists looking for authentic urban expression. Early graffiti artists were seen as primitive, raw artists whose creative energies inspired many modern artists from the Italian Futurists to David Hockney. Now this interest has taken root and produced fruit.

Contemporary street art is a relief from the exceptionally dull, process-style contemporary art in that street art is figurative, decorative and theory-lite. Just as in physics, in art for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, unlike physics this reaction may take 10 to 20 years to occur. Contemporary street art is revolt, armed with fresh attitudes and styles from the street, against a moribund contemporary art gallery system.

Ghostpatrol, a notable Melbourne street artist, believes that the high point for Melbourne street art was in 2003 and that since then it has been in decline for a number of reasons, including the large amount of attention that it received. This attention includes the numerous photographs for everything from private collections to online collections, advertising, wedding and publications. Several books came out about Melbourne street art: Jake Smallman & Carl Nyman Stencil Graffiti Capital Melbourne (Mark Batty Publisher 2005) and Matthew Lunn, Street Art Uncut (Craftsman House, 2006). And along with the books came tv documentaries and more attention. And there are now several galleries specializing in street art. All of this is both a response to the high interest in street art and creates more interest in a feedback loop.

In 1910 someone might have asked: “why is there a high interest in modern art?” In 1979 someone might have asked: “why is there a high interest in punk?” Looking back the answers are obvious.


Son of Pop Art

Anna Caione’s exhibition Ingresso at Gallery 101 looks good at a distance and survives a quick glance. On closer inspection the surfaces of digital print, oil paint, mixed media and beeswax appeared over worked for no other reason than to look arty. The choice to enlarge and replicate European entry tickets to the Guggenheim Venezia or Italian Lire is also arty. And there is not much else to Caione’s exhibition apart from this arty quality and a reference Rauschenberg’s Pop Art paintings.

Is this the end result of Pop Art? Making the ephemera of capitalist culture arty? This is not the progeny of Pop Art that I was hoping for when, as a youth, I saw the cool images of Warhol and Lichtenstein.

Meanwhile, the bastard children of pop art (or are they the legitimate heirs?) the stencil artists have found many new uses for old pop art techniques. These are on exhibition at Famous When Dead’s current exhibition Stencil Festival Unplugged. Artists like Homewrecker or Sloth, from Tasmania, are clearly influenced by Pop Art but they are also clearly contemporary stencil artists. Perhaps street art needs a new name – ‘the new graphic style’ or ‘the second wave of Pop Art’.

The Stencil Festival Unplugged has stencil artists/street artists from around Australia and the around the world: Norway, Brazil, USA and New Zealand. The exhibition is kind of divided between two types of street art. On one wall there are realists like, Kenji Nakayama from the USA, who produces beautiful duotone urban landscapes. Or Joey from Mooroolbark, Victoria is also producing fine urban realism and even history painting with “War is Over” using the famous dancing man celebrating the end of WWI in Melbourne. And on the other wall works by images from the imagination of artists like Shida’s dynamic cartoon style or Cultural Urge’s powerful black and white tattoo-style designs. But this is not a complete division and there were many works that fell in between. I particularly enjoyed Celso Gitahy stylish work.  Miz Cery and ZKLR, from Brisbane, had intense images on skate decks and wooden crates but most of the other artists preferred canvas or board for their surfaces.

Pop art can be a kind of realism. Pop art can be an artistic celebration of the ‘non-artistic’: the advertising illustration, tattoos and comics. Pop art can be a critical and humorous response to popular consumer culture. And stencil art can be all of these and more.

Location & Exhibition

Some art in non-gallery exhibition locations work with the location and the alternative exhibition space successfully, others do not, and others have the poor locations forced on them. Traditional gallery methods of hanging art and even conventional gallery art will not work these locations. And, due to the mass public exposure of these spaces a successful exhibition has to appeal to a broader population than the art in most galleries. Many of these locations are ARI (artist-run-initiatives) whereas others are commissions for public art.

Lori Kirk’s “The Door Snake Project” at Platform is a fun work, involving 16 artists making snakes and using the glass cabinets at Platform to maximum effect. Kirk was the winner of the 2006 Freedman Foundation Traveling Scholarship. Kirk’s “fake replicas of natural environments” are the best part of the exhibition; the snakes by the individual artists vary in quality. Kirk has turned each of Platform’s cabinets into a terrarium for her fake snakes. Her creative use of fabric to replicate plants, stones and water makes the perfect environments for fabric door snakes.

Also at Platform, the Sample cabinet has an exhibition, “The Book of Proverbs” by Erica Tarquinio and Madeline Farrugia. Farrugia’s whimsical illustrations are well supported by Tarquinio’s collection of proverbs. However, the delicate installation is too small for the space in the cabinet.

Rachel Ang’s photography exhibition “Framed” does not use the glass letterbox spaces in the lobby at 141 Flinders Lane to any great effect. The quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window does alter the way that the mundane actions in the series of photographs is viewed but not enough to make it exciting. Frances Johnson in The Age (4/4/08) gave the exhibition a tiny but favourable review.

On the trains I saw a Peter Burke’s “Commuter News” poster. It isn’t as good as the real newsprint posters that Burke used to paste-up around the city. The poster version on the trains had been Photoshopped, the shadow effect is too obvious and it ends up looking just like more advertising. The location on the trains makes it hard for Burke’s poster to look like anything but clever advertising copy.

Abstract & Figurative

I often wish that group exhibitions did not have a theme. Jenny Port Gallery is currently showing artists from its stockroom and I have no complaints about that. Sophie Gannon Gallery was also showing a group exhibition of “contemporary responses to architecture” (also work from their stockroom?). There were a variety of responses to architecture in a variety of media from marker pens to tapestry. Matthew Shannon’s curatorial notes didn’t help and eventually became waffle. Another gallery showing a group exhibition is Flinders Lane Gallery, with new abstract works by the gallery artists. The Flinders Lane Gallery’s group exhibition was the best of these group exhibitions because of the theme that focused on the art.

I was thinking about contemporary abstract and figurative painting before I even got to Flinders Lane Gallery. It is odd that about century ago art theorists assumed that either abstract art would dominate the future of art or it would just be a passing fad. And it turns out that neither is the case; both abstract and figurative art co-exist in the contemporary world without conflict, rivalry or separation. I was thinking about this as I looked at two galleries in Albert St.  John Buckley Gallery has “New Works” by op-artist Lesley Dumbrell and Lisa Roet is showing figurative work at Karen Woodbury Gallery.

Lesley Dumbrell’s paintings are intense; the colours, the geometric lines creating optical effects like watching laser lights at a rave. Good optical art creates not just an optical effect but also beauty and a trance-like revelry. And Dumbrell is a good op-artist, she has been painting op-art since the classic op-art era in the 1960s. This is the first exhibition from Dumbrell in a long time; one reason for this long absence from the galleries is that Dumbrell is now a Bali resident.

Lisa Roet’s exhibition of large-scale charcoal drawing and bronze sculpture at Karen Woodbury Gallery is impressive. It took my breath away when I first saw Roet’s monumental bronze fingers and feet of our close relative, chimpanzees. These are not mawkish or allegorical apes, but real and as individual as their fingerprints or chipped fingernails. Roet has made a career using apes as her models, their figures and fingers so close to and yet alien to our own.

To complete this small survey of figurative and abstract art with two more galleries on Albert St. one showing an exhibition of figurative art the other abstract.

Anita Traverso Gallery is showing Pamela Rataj paintings and sculptures titled “Greenwich Mean Time”. There is a surreal edge to Rataj’s paintings; the flat chequer board plane filled with people and exploded architecture is classic, but not stale with Rataj’s elegant illustrative style. I didn’t like Rataj’s sculptures, they were not as elegant as her paintings and the ideas were more obvious.

Alison Kelly Gallery, a gallery that specializes in aboriginal art, was closed. It was within the opening hours, maybe there were too many red dots for the dot paintings to be bothered to open.

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