Monthly Archives: July 2008

No Reviews

All kinds of things have prevented me from visiting galleries recently. I bicycled to 696, Villain and Brunswick Arts last Friday but they were all closed.

I had a brief visit with my brother Trevor, who is over briefly from Canada. I always wonder what to show international visitors in Melbourne: what would represent Melbourne for an afternoon? I walked with my brother along the Yarra, through Fed Square, the Hosier Lane graffiti to dim sum in Chinatown. We then walked to the Exhibition building and back for cakes and coffee in the Greek Precinct on Lonsdale St. My brother hasn’t been in Melbourne for decades and remembered how quiet and lifeless the city used to be.

When I was showing my brother around Melbourne we saw part of the Melbourne Design Festival when we were in Fed Square. There are a lot of festivals in Melbourne currently spread out in locations across the city from the Design Festival, the International Film Festival and there are more coming up, like the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Melbourne Stencil Festival.

And I have been doing volunteer work for the Melbourne Stencil Festival; it should be called the ‘Melbourne International Stencil Festival’ because there will be international artists, as well as, local artists at the festival. This is coming close to burning the candle at both ends, as the continuing renovations on my house making everyday things that little bit more complicated.

Doing volunteer work for the Melbourne Stencil Festival has been fun. I’ve been coordinating the volunteers, writing lots of emails, painting walls white and many little things. It reminds me that there are many ways of being involved with art from being a critic to hanging an exhibition – being an artist is not the one and only way. The artist is like the front line soldier and for each one another five to ten people are needed working as support in some way.

So these are my excuse for not writing any reviews of recent exhibitions.


No sketching at the NGV

I have sketched in many galleries around the world, even in the crowded Uffizi gallery in Florence with tour groups moving around and the gallery attendants calling out “No flash! No flash!” I have taken copious notes in major art galleries and photographs (without a flash of course). There have never been any problems, it has been common practice for centuries which is why the no sketching, no note taking policy at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is an aberration.

“Sketching and photography are not permitted in this exhibition (no pens or pencils will be permitted inside the exhibition).

Kirsty from the NGV email enquires claims that: “During the exhibition Art Deco 1910-1939, sketching and note taking is not permitted as this condition is set as a requirement of loan from lending institutions for the exhibition. This is to ensure the safety of the delicate artworks on view and to allow visitors a better experience of the exhibition.” In 2004 Corrie Perkin, NGV head of communications, claimed that the no sketching policy for The Impressionists was to obey strict security conditions of private or institutional lenders.

I am skeptical about Kirsty’s claim for a number of reasons (I am skeptical of the claims made by any person who doesn’t give their full name). I can’t prove that the V&A set the policy because the V&A press office will not return my emails however the V&A’s own policy raises doubts. “You may take photographs or use a video camera in the galleries, but not with a tripod, monopod or supplementary video lighting. Flash photography is permitted.”

The idea that this is to ensure the safety of an artwork is absurd because it claims that the standard practice of V&A and other major museums does not ensure the safety of the artwork. And the ‘better experience of the exhibition’ is debatable and not a real reason that the V&A would give for not permitting note taking. There is so little fear that sketching will damage the art that many public art gallery around the world promote sketching. The J.Paul Getty Museum in LA has a special sketching gallery where it provides paper, pencils, charcoal and art sticks to the visitors. This is not unique when I visited the Courtauld Gallery in 2000 there was small still life exhibit with drawing table and materials.

In December 2004 there were protests by Free Pencil Movement against the NGV’s policy. And the NGV responded claiming special provisions for blockbuster exhibitions and over zealous and confused gallery attendants. However, the repeat of this policy for the “exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum: Art Deco 1910 -1939” begins to strain my imagination.

It is hard to find other no sketching policies, most galleries permit sketching on a maximum size of an A3 sketch book with no charcoal or chalks, no sprays or fixatives and an enclosed pencil sharpener. This is because the original purpose of a public art gallery was an educational resource for younger artists and designers. The V&A collection was assembled “to inspire those who shape contemporary design” and “as resource for learning and creativity”. The purpose of an exhibition where sketching and note taking are not permitted is strictly infotainment (and as promotion for the catalogue and other merchandise).

The earliest example of a no sketching policy that I could find was in 1867 when Mr William Colliss, an amateur artist was not allowed to sketch Warwick Castle. Mr Colliss drew a sketch of the incident from memory. I did find that at the Cleveland Museum of Art sketching was also not permitted for temporary exhibitions. This lends some credibility to the NGV’s claims although it doesn’t reduce my skepticism of the reasons behind it and my dislike of the policy.

Street Art Notes – July

Street art is not just aerosol art; the idea of street art has created so many more possibilities: memorials, drawings and sculpture.

The temporary memorials to traffic accident victims, the flowers, messages, photographs taped to poles, that appear at the site of the accident are another form of street art. Nobody complains about this type of street art; there is still respect for the dead.

Geoff Dyer’s article in the The Guardian Weekly (6/6) made me aware that with the ghostbike project. These street art memorials have become type of political street art in the USA and Canada. A white ghost bike chained to a location with a sign as a reminder that a cyclist was killed at this spot. This is an excellent street art project as it goes to core elements in traditional art, the memorial, and street art, political content. And, as a bicycle rider, myself, I believe it is a very important message.

There are a lot of beautiful things to see on the street. Maxcat has drawn on a vacant white billboard on Sydney Rd. north of Bell St. showing that a simple black marker pen can create beautiful work. Maxcat’s innovative use of lines and the sense of poetry with the bird on the figures head reminded me of Picasso. Not that the drawing is a copy or imitation, but the bold, confident and yet whimsical lines of this drawing are similar.

And there is Crateman, Melbourne’s best street art sculptor who creates figures using the ubiquitous plastic milk-crates. I have seen his work on the Williamstown line and on a rooftop in Richmond but I have been told that there have been other figures in other locations.


On a slightly different topic, the Melbourne Stencil Festival will be on August 1st to 10th. I have volunteered to help hang the exhibition and do a few other things. Last night I meet up with Coop and other volunteers for pizza and drinks. The range of ages and backgrounds of people volunteering to help at the festival surprised me; the volunteers are not just street artists. If you want to become more involved and volunteer just contact the festival (and you will probably end up in contact with me as I am coordinating the volunteers).

Videos, Lies & Language

‘Forms of Deceit’ at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is a group exhibition of emerging artists curated by Dunja Rmandic and Edwina Bartlem. The exhibition catalogue asks a lot of questions and the invite asks more questions, unfortunately the questions are unconnected. “The exhibition asks: Why is it that in the presence of visual art we ultimately resort to language? Can images and language be trusted? And can artists themselves be trusted?”

After many years of study of philosophy I know that there are great complexities in the morality of lying, in semeiotics and interpreting images. Perhaps all I know is that blundering into this territory without a guide is not going to be productive. The exhibition, ‘Forms of Deceit’ does nothing to clarify but through its collection of art further confuses the issues. It appears that many contemporary artists and curators would greatly benefit in study of sociology, anthropology, philosophy and semeiotics.

Individually the art is good but taken as a whole the exhibition is just confused.

I particularly enjoyed Joseph Griffiths following in the footsteps of Gavin Turk with his fine graphite drawings of himself in various guises; it is more playful than deceitful. Maria Stolnik’s untitled printed veils with illusionary smiles create uncanny images, but as she is exhibiting both the illusion and photographs of the illusion it is only the printed illusion of deceit. And Mutsumi Nozaki’s sound installation ‘A Role Reversal’ used the very familiar illusion of surround sound.

I liked but I didn’t believe Brant Haslough’s installation: “Discover Scandinavia presents: In a Norther Light: painted light globes from Alajarvi, Finland, Curated by Brant Haslough”. This kind of false mock-exhibition has been popular for many years; the Museum of Modern Oddities is one of the most complete examples that I have seen. Haslough’s display is a fine example of artistic deceit.

Taking the exhibition in an entirely different semiotic direction was Jon Orth large word made of banana peels nailed to the wall, Kiron Robinson’s ‘This is not a sign’, Sam George’s ‘press’ and bcmp. When I was visiting the gallery bcmp (Sam George and Ace Wagstaff) were doing a demonstration (or performance, depending on your level of suspicion) of their project to create a new language. The project raised Wittgenstein’s rule following and private language considerations.

Finally Kate Hodgetts’s video ‘Birds’ and Marita Lillie’s artists book ‘With and Without Consent’ took the exhibition in other directions.

Northern Suburbs Photography

Melbourne’s northern suburbs are changing; there is construction everywhere. Derelict factories are being converted into blocks of flats. And ironically, at the same time, shops selling tiles, heating and hardware are closing down and moving to cheaper locations further out. The type of shops along the long Sydney Road shopping strip are changing, older business are closing and there are more boutique clothes shops, more restaurants and new coffee shops.

For many years Brunswick was without an English-language bookshop, aside from second-hand bookshops and the anarchist bookshop, Barricade Books. So Brunswick Bound is a welcomed change. Brunswick Bound is a great bookshop, with very good selection of art books and magazines and an impressive counter made of stacks of old books. And upstairs there is a large carpeted room for exhibitions; the bookshop brings additional visitors to the gallery (I was not the only person viewing the exhibition noon on Wednesday).

I was hoping that the InnerNortherns Photography Exhibition at Brunswickbound Bookstore would have found defining images of the northern suburbs or document the changes to Brunswick and Coburg. Not that any of the photographers aspired to be documentary. The InnerNortherns is a group of 10 photographers “inspired and working in the northern suburb’s of Melbourne.” I couldn’t see much of this inspiration as many of the photographs could have been of anywhere. The exceptions were the photographs of Andrew May and Rhys Jones where I could recognize some locations or felt a local presence.

Photography is the perfect media to capture urban landscape and the unnatural light of city at night. It can make ugly urban decay features aesthetic and the northern suburbs still have plenty of abandoned factories and empty spaces. Rhys Jones photograph of a tram passing a coffee warehouse at night is amongst the strongest in the exhibition. The shining tram rails, road-markings and power-lines fill the lower and upper thirds of photo with the motion blur of the tram in the middle.

I hope that this will be just the first exhibition for the InnerNortherns group and that they refine their focus.


Sharon West subverts the Australian culture war’s reactionary revisionist histories of Australia’s colonial era. West’s revision of this alternative history is more fun.

Gubbaworld is a humorous retrospective utopic view of Australian history. Sharon West, the artist, describes it as “colonial pseudo-histories and other follies”. It is, as if the bloody genocidal invasion never happened, instead it was Enlightenment folly that brought the English to Australia. It is an Australia full of strange fauna, like a giant budgie. It is an artistic Australia full of statues and romantic ruins. It is an Australia where colonials encounter Aboriginal campsites complete with caravan and beach umbrella.

Art is a form of artifice: we want to be told stories, we want to be lied to, and we want to be shown attractive images. Sharon West Gubbaworld is a perfect exhibition for Platform; it is fun, it is relevant to the public and uses the display cabinets to advantage playing with the idea of museum displays. The exhibition combines small dioramas made of toys and model materials and large photographs of views more models. Gubbaworld might be controversial if it wasn’t so obviously fun.

Along with Sharon West there is a group exhibition, Koori Allsorts, celebrating NAIDOC Week. The exhibition features recent work by Jarrod Atkinson, Mandi Barton-Travis, Andrew Travis, Charlie O and Carol Wright and shows the great diversity of art practices in Koori art.

Daniel Dorall tackles the big themes of life and death at the Majorca Building. The cabinets in the Majorca building are too thin for Dorall’s usual architectural-style models. Instead Dorall’s exhibition, like Sharon West’s, features large photographs of 3 dimensional models. Dorall created these models to be photographed, they are graphically striking, a skull and a cross section of a heart. Most of the figures are crushed in, trapped at two points in life and death. In this small exhibition Dorall has taken his usual architectural model and created a new range of imaging making possibilities.

In Vitrine “Continually Genuine” is an elegant video and installation playing with signs and signified. In applying for Australian residency the artists, Kubota Fumikazu and Tania Smith were obligated to prove that their union was “genuine and continuing”. However, signs like the video in the installation are never genuine although they may be continual. In the installation potatoes signify a western diet to contrast the rice that signify the eastern diet (more celebration of the International Year of the Potato 2008, the potato as art). The rice has the additional symbolism of being thrown at weddings.

Victoria Stamos work in the Sample cabinet is only one large photo, an enlargement of her Greek grandmother’s practice at writing the English alphabet. Symbolizing the migrant experience with the change from Cyrillic to Roman alphabets is a good idea. But the cool documentary aesthetic felt to minimal to engage with the passing public. 

Happy anniversary 70th CAS!

The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) of Victoria is celebrating 70 years with an exhibition at Fortyfive Downstairs. 70 consecutive years is impressive for any arts society, a great deal changes in the art world in that time. CAS has survived the philistine conservatism and retrograde arts policies of the Menzies. It was an artist-run-initiative long before the idea became popular in the 1980s. And the choice of ‘contemporary’ in the society’s title shows remarkable presence.

The CAS has an important place in Australian art history but it is not being recognized with an historical retrospective in the NGV or other major gallery. And this is because it also a history of the declining importance and relevance of the society (at least according to Gwenda Robb and Elaine Smith’s Concise Dictionary of Australian Artists).

The CAS was founded in 1938 with a committee of artists that has since become major names in Australian art history. George Bell was president, Rupert Bunny was vice-president and Adrian Lawlor was secretary. However, within two years these notable artists had left the CAS because of the domination of the society by amateur artists. But this is not the end of the story. In the 1950s CAS was lead by John Reed and Georges Mora. In 1961 David Boyd was president and John Perceval was vice-president.

The CAS organises many group exhibitions for its members like the one celebrating its 70th. However this anniversary exhibition also included a display of the history of the society; a collection of their newsletters and exhibition catalogues including a notice about an Anti-Fascist Exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in December 1942.

At the exhibition opening Fortyfive Downstairs was packed with people as you might expect for a large group exhibition. Current president of the society, Robert Lee made a short speech and then prizes were awarded. This included a prize for the innovative use of materials showing that CAS is still encouraging innovation.

Some of the art in the exhibition is good, especially the sculptures, and some of it is bland, derivative or overworked. That is to be expected in an open entry group exhibition. The quality of the work is somewhat irrelevant; the CAS is important to the ecology of Victoria’s art world in providing affordable entry-level exhibitions for artists for 70 years. 

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