Monthly Archives: October 2008

A Thirst for Change

 

Aerosol Arabic, Thirst for Change, Sparks Lane, Melbourne

Aerosol Arabic, Thirst for Change, Sparks Lane, Melbourne

“A Thirst for Change” by Mohammed Ali aka Aerosol Arabic is a legal 2 story high piece at the dead-end of Sparks Lane. It is part of the Melbourne International Art Festival and was sponsored by the British Council Australia. Aerosol Arabic is a British artist from Birmingham who merges graffiti and Islamic art. 

The piece is divided into two sections; the upper section is dominated by the words “A Thirst for Change”. Behind these words are motifs from graffiti art and Islamic geometric patterns. Underneath this slogan is generic scene city at night by a river framed by a dripping wet blue cloud. The scene is captioned with “Do not waste water even before a flowing river” – the Prophet Mohammed. Melbourne should take this message to heart.

Melbourne is currently in very low on water. There are water restrictions and people are trying to save water where they can. However, as Australian politics is restricted by a paranoid mob mentality that cannot understand water purification, Melbourne does not have water recycling.

Street art often strives to be propaganda, to deliver a message, to speak to the people in the street. Aerosol Arabic’s piece “A Thirst for change” has echoes of the slogan “change” in Obama’s US presidential campaign. There is nothing wrong with Aerosol Arabic’s propaganda message; Melbourne does need to conserve water. And there is a need to raise awareness of Islam as a religion that cares about the environment.

If this is such a good and timely message why hasn’t the Victorian government embraced this beautiful piece? The piece is hidden away from the public. Sparks Lane is rarely used by anyone apart from delivery drivers. Street artists rarely venture this far up Flinders St. and there only a couple of stencil works in the lane. There is controversy about this piece because street art, even legal street art, is politically charged in Melbourne. Unfortunately small-minded philistines who can’t see the big picture dominate Australian politics. 


Susanna and the Elders

I hate having to preach from the Bible but as there are so many evil people who call themselves Christian railing against Bill Henson, David Hamilton, Sally Mann and Jock Sturges that I am moved to such speech. The story is Susanna and the Elders, from the Book of Daniel is about a virtuous woman who is seen naked by two old men. The lustful old men try to blackmail Susanna by claiming that they saw her commit adultery with a young lover. Daniel, the judge finds inconsistencies in the old men’s false evidence and Susanna’s innocence is established. Scenes from this story were popular in art in the 16th to 18th century because it shows that nudity is not a sin and not to believe the slanders but the evidence.

Just as in the story of Susanna and the Elders, the evidence has never backed up the allegations of those people who have seen these nude photographs as pornographic. The so-called Christians who condemn these photographers are willing to bear false witness against their neighbours, slandering them without evidence.

This year’s attack in Australia on photographer on Bill Henson follows a familiar pattern. In 2005 work by photographer David Hamilton were classified as indecent by a British Court but this was left in confusion and Hamilton’s books are still legal in Britain.

In 1992 Sally Mann’s book Immediate Family, which included nude photographs of her own children, was condemned as pornographic by American Christian groups. And American photographer Jock Sturges was raided by the FBI for his photographs of nude children taken in naturist communities but the case was thrown out by a grand jury.

Australia is part of a trend in the U.S. and Britain to engaged in war crimes and to censor photographers for taking photographs of naked children because it is obscene. This moral confusion is a major difference between the Anglo-American culture and European (along with NZ and Canada). Perhaps there is something seriously wrong with Anglo-American culture. “The fascination of girls in childhood and adolescence has appealed to many English artists” Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts (London, 1982) Webb mentions photographers, Lewis Carroll, Peter Widdison and David Hamilton who all produce work focused on nude young girls.


Street Art Influence

Melbourne’s street art is having an influence on art on exhibition in October at various galleries. There are powerful, fresh artists as diverse as Peter Daverington and young, emerging artist, Hayden Daniel. And Cathy Tipping’s embroided nude, on exhibition at First Site. Tipping used Photoshop for colour separation to determine different threads in the same way the stencil artists use colour separation for separate stencils.

Peter Daverington is exhibiting at Arc One Gallery. Daverington’s style combines the aesthetics of mystical geometry, Nietzsche high-altitude snowy-capped mountains, and hedonistic disco black. This could be a tacky combination in the worst possible taste but Daverington makes it look cool and elegant. His paintings are vast with dynamic geometric forms, reflective mirror planes and glacial mountain views.

The mirror planes divide the space, presenting a mirror opposite view of the same imagined geometry. The mirror is a metaphor for reflection, meditation on the infinite space that Peter Daverington depicts in his paintings. In the exhibition at Arc One Gallery a large dark shiny block in the middle of floor in the gallery reflected Daverington’s wall painting at the far end of the gallery.

The large temporary wall painting in the exhibition is an indication of Daverington’s street art roots. Peter Daverington has been involved in Melbourne’s graffiti art since the 1980s Last year Daverington’s exhibited Reflections of Hyperspace at Until Never. 

High-school student and emerging artist Hayden Daniel is exhibiting in the Sample cabinet at Platform. Splaterdash is a scatter-style exhibition. Daniel’s works in a variety of media: paintings and drawings and a pyramid of plastic creatures. Including a brush in jar of water and spray-can nozzles shows the means of Daniel’s art production. This is scattering is brought together with the main character of this exhibition – Daniel’s chicken man. Daniel previously exhibited at the Lenko Doodle Art Show at No Vacancy.

Melbourne’s street art is a dynamic creative force and will continue to have an influence on a wide variety of artists for many years.


Not Making Sense

Katie Lee, Bridie Lunney and Harriet Turnbull, Making Sense, Bus Gallery

Katie Lee, Bridie Lunney and Harriet Turnbull are involved in artist-run-initiatives; between them they have exhibited at most of them in Melbourne. Katie Lee and Harriet Turnbull are both on the committee of Conical Inc. another of Melbourne’s artist-run-initiatives. The “artist-run culture” as described in Conical’s website is an aesthetic preserve mostly for post-graduate fine arts students. Artist-run-spaces are not a culture, perhaps a sub-culture, but I doubt that it is even that, more of a clique, a circle or set of people aware of contemporary art.

As I moved around the exhibition I thought about what the exhibition could mean. The relationship between an artist’s practice and exercise; the logistics, movement, the exercise of mounting a contemporary exhibition like this compared to other kinds of movements. Making Sense is definitely contemporary art following the now academic history of contemporary sculpture from 1960s on. Bridie Lunney’s use of the artist’s body as a sculptural medium and Katie Lee’s deconstructing of the art gallery are serious features of contemporary art. I was then given the artists statement and had a second look at the exhibition.

Climbing around the gallery and finding the connections in the artists activity could have been fun. Katie Lee’s taking the gallery apart; cut a hole in the wall to show the space behind the ubiquitous white gallery wall. Climbing over the obstructive white plinths piled up in the doorway to the third gallery. However, any sense of play and fun is negated by the Spartan space and the neutral colors. And although this is a serious exhibition ultimately it appears as pointless as hoping on one foot on a spot, a motion that is repeated in the exhibitions videos.

Why bother replicating some types of interactions (unsuccessful collaboration, unstable interactions) in the world? It is not much of an end in itself. Especially if it “soon degrades into something that whilst resembling its origin, begins to make a lot less sense.” (Making Sense artists’ statement). Interacting with the exhibition is disappointing because in the end because Making Sense does not make sense, nonsense or fantasy, it just makes contemporary art.


James Gleeson (1915 – 2008)

“’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’ might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilization.” Proclaimed James Gleeson in his paper “The Necessity of Surrealism” read to the Contemporary Art Society in 1941.

James Gleeson, the “father of Australian surrealism” has died after a long life and creating many great works of art. He enriched culture in Australia in many ways and I hope that his life and art serves as an inspiration for many more artists and critics. The world, especially Australia, still needs Surrealism; civilization is still in a desperate condition with war, imperialism, racism and repression. The suicide rate in Australia is still high, but this is rarely interpreted as an indication of a defective society or civilization.

My first encounter with Gleeson’s art was at the NGV when as an adolescent I saw his early small painting – We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit (1940). When I saw the Surrealism: Revolution by Night exhibition in Canberra I encountered Gleeson’s large impressive The citadel (1945). However, these early paintings with their apocalyptic ideas did not have big impact on me. Gleeson appeared to be another Surrealist inspired by Dali’s paintings.

This changed when I saw Gleeson’s post 1984 paintings; it was my first experience of Stendhal syndrome. The turgid liminal land-and-seascapes of these paintings created vertiginous sensations with their ambiguous details and subtle references to the composition of European masters. These large oil paintings were full of images created using classic Surrealist techniques of collage, decalcomania, automatic drawing and ‘psychic automatism’. Gleeson is the one Surrealist painter who can paint as well, perhaps better, than Dali.

In remembering the art and life of James Gleeson it is important to remember that he was not just an artist but also an important art critic, writer, teacher and served on the council of the NGA from 1976. As a critic for the Sydney Sun (1949-74) and Sun-Herald (1962-74). He also wrote several books, Australian Painters (1964) and William Dobell (1964). Gleeson was not a partisan critic arguing for a certain type of art, instead Gleeson described his criticism as a guide, an explorer in a new land. In this respect I hope that he will influence my own writing about art.

Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born and Gleeson carried it forward beyond the Cold War politics that shot at it from both sides; beyond the internal bickering of the Parisian Surrealism; to an international movement and into the 21st century. Gleeson’s late career paintings were his best and a demonstration that Surrealism is not a dead historical movement but a contemporary muse.


Stencil Art 1930s

Here are a few details about stencil art techniques in 1930s gleamed from the letters of Marcel Duchamp. At that time stencils were used as an alternative to expensive color printing processes to produce add colors at an affordable price. Duchamp was using professional stencil men in 1934 preparing a stencil reproduction of the Large Glass for his Green Box and, in 1937, to arrange printing of Katherine Dreier’s 40 Variations.

To Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, 18 May 1934 “…with my stencil man. We’re having a lot of trouble and I have to make him another tracing of all the stencils he’s to make in order hopefully to achieve a result.” (p.189)

To Katherine Dreier, Paris 25 June 1937 “The news are good but slow – Naturally the printing in black of the lithograph was finished long ago – and the 3200 prints taken to the ‘colorist’ who expected to finish in a month. I called him up yesterday and I am to see, in a few days, half of the whole work cut our and ready for color-brushing. This means that his main work consists of cutting out in the zinc foil the areas for each color – The actual brushing of the color does not take much time. Anyway we will have to wait until August before his work is finished.” (p.212)

It seems safe to assume that a “colorist” and a “stencil man” (“homme du pochoir”) are the same. The use of “zinc foil” for the stencils makes sense given the number of prints to stencil and plastics were still being invented. The color is brushed through the stencil and not sprayed because aerosol paint cans were not invented until 1949.

All quotes are from Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)


Anzac Biscuits

“Chocolate box art” is another way of saying a schmaltz painting; the decoration biscuit tins and tea tins used by Anna Davern have a similar aesthetic quality. However, Anna Davern tin collages at Craft Victoria are not just an exercise in playing with kitsch aesthetics. Combining the exaggerated sentimentality of images of England and Australia emphasizes their disconnection. Davern creates absurd, surreal images with humor and fun commenting on a post-colonial Australia. The images of England are as alien as the images of Beefeaters in Australian landscapes.

The Buena Vista of the title, the beautiful view is watched over by absent aboriginals. The silhouette or cutout and therefore absent figures of aborigines watching the scene remind the viewer of the genocidal practices of colonization. The indigenous people are removed or disconnected from the scene. The silhouette figures and the reworking of traditional media with post-colonial themes that Davern uses is similar to the art of Nusra Latif Qureshi.

Davern asks in some of the pieces what if Australia had colonized England? Would there be platypus swimming in the Thames and aborigines in English flower gardens? The Beefeater wearing a Ned Kelly helmet is another of the strong images from this show.

The Anglophile obsessions with the ‘mother country’, England are illustrated in these old biscuit tin lids. It is an obsession that still influences Australian politics. This week Tony Abbott MP has chosen to highlight in criticizing the draft national history curriculum prepared by Dr John Hirst, of La Trobe University for not being focused on England. (The Age 16/10/08) So Davern’s exhibition is a timely, expanding our view of the current ‘history wars’ in Australia. Davern has not simply jumped on this topical issue but has been developing it in her craft/jewellery making practice for several years.

Australia needs more intelligent craft like that of Anna Davern that explores and plays with national identity rather than producing props for nationalists.


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