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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Surreal Bondage

“The fact is that it is in eroticism – and doubtless in eroticism alone – that the organic bond, increasingly lacking in art today, has to be established between showman and spectator by means of perturbation.” A. Breton, 1959

“Neuropsychosis’, an exhibition of oil paintings by artist and illustrator Karl Persson at 696, explores eroticism with dark visions of S&M, bondage and mutilation, along with a couple of truly surreal visions. In his ‘Shiny Chicken’ a raw chicken is morphed into a toothy grinning fleshy orifice is a surreal study of castration anxiety. Another of Persson’s erotic surreal images is that erect penis nipples enjoying sadistic polymorphic arousal.

The surreal eye of the Marquis de Sade shapes Persson’s goth imagination. It brooks no idealism; it is a materialistic world where happiness lies in the imagination.

Persson’s images are disturbing in that they are private, there is only one implied spectator viewing the subject, the other isolated body. The bound figures twist in the baroque empty darkness. These are alienated lonely isolated visions where all interactions are bound in an S&M relationship. Persson’s self portrait shows the artist struggling to remove the mask of his image from himself.

The many threads depicted in Persson’s paintings are a figurative painter’s bondage theme. The thread is tied tight to the victim just as the painter is tied to the lines being painted. Concentration focused on a single line that separates one area from another and bound to painting it over and over again until the fully realized image appears. For there is bondage and masochism in creating such beautiful, meticulous and technically excellent works in oils on canvas.

696 back gallery room has been transformed for this exhibition. A Turkish carpet lies on the floor. The paintings are hung in dark old rococo style frames on a grey band of paint on the gallery wall. The grey walls bring out the colors in the paintings and the usual sterile white gallery walls would be totally inappropriate for Persson’s style.

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End of the Year

The end of this year brings the usual round of art student graduate exhibitions. And this year a few art sales.

I am disappointed that I missed the RMIT sculpture graduate’s show. I did see at 1st Site RMIT University printmaking graduate exhibition. There is a huge variety of print making techniques from digital prints to linocuts. Lilly Dusting’s etchings “Plate 6” are beautiful delicate views of the bottom of china plates complete with paper sticker and makers marks. In a different direction Kim Hudson’s screenprints “With love to the ones I love” is a punk freak-show, graphically crude but effective.

I also saw at No Vacancy the RMIT Graduate Photography Exhibition. There was very little to get excited about unless you were recruiting a photographer for an advertising agency. Most of the photographers appeared very focused on their careers.

In a sign of the global economic recession this year Mahoney’s Gallery is having a sale. I have never seen a sale at an art gallery before. The red sale signs are out the front and prices have been drastically marked down. Most of the art on sale are prints and photographs from their stockroom. The sale was not listed in Art Almanac; it has not been widely advertised. I have heard that there are other galleries recently having sales, from the Harrison Gallery in Sydney to 696 in Melbourne.

It is a myth of the art market that art does not devalue; it was another myth that house prices don’t devalue that lead to the current economic crisis. Art prices did decline during the Great Depression and it is likely that art prices will fall again in this international recession especially for the very expensive contemporary art. At the moment there are bargains in the art market and on the stock market for those who can afford it.

After this round of exhibitions most of Melbourne’s art galleries will close down until the end of the year. And there is still enough strength in Melbourne’s art market that next year more gallery spaces will open. 


Collaboration Exercise

“Advance/Retreat” is an exhibition at Westspace curated by Brad Haylock and Mark Richardson. “Three experiments in transdisciplinary collaboration” occupy Westspace’s three gallery spaces.

In the middle of the first space, shut off by a chain-link steel gate, a large plant sits in a garbage bag a single root trailing to an empty glass.

The next space subtly vibrates both visually and aurally with fishing-line running in almost invisible vertical stripes across the white walls. (Coincidently my father used a similar arrangement of fishing-line to trap bats in order to study their homing abilities.) This is accompanied by an elegant video of male and female hands collaborating to string the fishing-line. And a sound piece that all worked together in a successful harmony.

The final space contains a scatter style installation by so many artists that it would be hard to imagine them all working together in the small space. “Working space” is a reference to the title of a book by Frank Stella.

“Advance/Retreat”is about lines: minimalist lines, vibrating lines, and dividing lines. Lines area major component of art, from visual lines to written lines, but that does not make them interesting. Lines might be essential for art but I don’t suspect that good art is about the essentials. Searching for creativity in artist-run-initiatives appears to be endless exercises rather than new experiments.

I don’t know if the number of collaborating curators, artists and designers (15+) added to the quality of this small exhibition. I can see the strategic advantage to the collaboration. Collaborations like this allow the artists to record more exhibitions on their CV and spread themselves thinner. However, collaboration should not be a goal in and of itself as it is simply a means of working.


B-side

Daniel Dorall, Ruth Fleishman, Cecilia Fogelberg and Tim Silver have all exhibited at Blindside before. But this time they are showing the B-side of their artistic practice.

“B-side” is an almost redundant term referring to songs released on the 7” single records. Wikipedia lists several types of material found on B-sides http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B_side including different version (e.g., instrumental version) of the A-side or another track, a song not considered good enough for the album and a song that was stylistically unsuitable for the album. Or as B-side’s curator Andrew Tetzlaff describes it as the “edges of art practice.”

Daniel Dorall has a corrugated cardboard maze for the visitor to navigate before they can access the rest of the gallery. This is a very different scale of work from Dorall’s usual architectural models and is clearly a B-side of his art practice.

Ruth Fleishman is best known for her digital environments but in B-side she returns to traditional mediums with her Cacophony installation. Cacophony is a diorama of a play world influence by her work with children it is both grandiose and funky.

Cecilia Fogelberg’s “Three-Dimensional Sketchbook” is a B-side of her sculpture practice, as a sketchbook is preparatory material rather than finished work. Fogelberg’s ‘sketchbook’ is a collection of objects and a beautiful artist book that catalogues the collection.

Tim Silver is primarily a sculptor and photography is B-side of his art practice. Like an instrumental version of the same song, Silver’s photography has a similar theme of decay to his sculpture but this time played in lenticular prints of fire. Lenticular prints are a familiar novelty item; producing images that have an illusion of depth or movement when viewed from different angles. And novelty is another feature of the B-side.

Novelty and fun, rather than major works of art are the objectives of the B-side exhibition. The opening at Blindside on Thursday night felt very packed due to Dorall’s maze taking up most of the floor space. A temporary fence partitioned off Fleishman’s diorama to prevent it from being crushed by the crowd.


Duchamp’s Letters

Other people are a mystery that we attempt to solve by creating a story based on what we know about them. These biographies attempt to understand a person but will always fail. And they will always be subject to revision due to new evidence. Providing new documentary evidence on Duchamp is Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)

As a Duchamp aficionado reading his selected correspondence subtly altered my view of him again. Duchamp research had already reached a fever pitch when I finished my thesis in 1991 and continued through the 90s. Academic careers have been built on studying Duchamp. Affectionately, Marcel raised some controversy even before it was published: “Duchamp Scholars Face Off in Art in America Hate Mail” by Jeffery Hogrefe, (10/1/99) New York Observer 

Affectionately, Marcel is exceptionally annotated, transcribed and laid out with care; with sidenotes including mini-biographies of people mentioned in letters. Most of the letters are in French (translations are provided), Duchamp arrives in New York unable to speak English but later letters show a developing confidence in English.

There is no dirt; the hot love letters to Marie Martins are not included in this book, her family still wishes to keep them private. The letters to his family, friends and other artists provide details about his life and loves. Duchamp is surprisingly patriotic in WWI and although unfit for military service does volunteer work at the French Embassy in New York. His letters tell more about the effect of Prohibition or WWII on his life than art.

Duchamp’s correspondence demonstrates that for most of his life he did not think of himself as an artist. Paris, 19 Oct. 1923  “All painting and sculpture exhibitions make me sick. And I would like to avoid being associated with them.” These letters are about Duchamp as trainee librarian, French teacher, cinema cameraman, chess player, businessman, exhibition organizer and art dealer.

There is some new information in the book about Duchamp’s art. There is a letter to his sister Suzanne describing the Fountain scandal attributes its creation to a female friend. Signing his letters Rrose Selavy, Rose-Mar-cel, Duch etc. Duchamp states that Rrose Selavy’s date of birth is 1920 and it is apparent from the letters that Rrose Selavy was a business name for some of Duchamp’s ventures.

However the information most of interest to art historians concerns Duchamp’s dealings with other artists, collectors and museums. He writes many letters about arranging exhibitions, loans of art, and importing art to the USA (including when Brancusi sculptures were classified as “not art” by US Customs). There are plenty of details about the art business even though Duchamp is continually making disparaging remarks about art dealers.

Duchamp would have preferred emails; he wishes that telegrams were not so expensive. There are a few telegrams in the book including the well-known “Pode Bal” telegram to Tzara regarding Duchamp’s non-participation in Salon Dada. Not so well known is that it is addressed to Jean Crotti.

“It’s very hard to say in just a few words, especially for me as I have no faith – religious kind – in artistic activity as a social value. Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of through and ruins others. To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about. It’s a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser. I do not believe in painting per se. A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing.”

Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti 17 August, 1952


More Clutterbuck

On Thursday I attended the opening of Jock Clutterbuck’s exhibition ‘Hermeneutics’ at Australian Galleries. A very hot Melbourne night but the gallery air-conditioning coped with the crowd that packed the space. Looking across the road I noticed that Australian Galleries are expanding with a “stock room” that will soon be open to the public.

‘Hermeneutics’ is an exhibition of of Clutterbuck’s recent small sculpture and drawings; currently there is also an exhibition on at the Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum of Clutterbuck’s sculpture and drawings 1990-2008. It is an efficient marketing strategy to capitalize on the interest generated from a public gallery retrospective.

Clutterbuck is best known for his patinated cast bronze sculptures of abstract geometric forms. Clutterbuck’s sculptures rise up from a recognizable plinth. On the plinth contained within a perimeter is a form. The perimeter of the sculpture, the cartouche is a band that frames and constrains a defined form. In some sculptures the band twists and loops or steps; in others it is a simple circumference.

There are orientalist references in the titles of the sculptures from dervishes and the Surat Luqman from the Qur’an, as Clutterbuck makes a nod to the Islamic influence on geometric art. Other sculptures are named after exotic cities like Araxa, Qom, Qotur and Zamas.

Clutterbuck’s drawings are a further means of exploring those same forms and, in marketing terms, a more affordable defusion range. Clutterbuck is not drawing copies of his sculptures but drawing on the same forms and orders. His recent ‘stencil drawings’ are far richer than his earlier pastel drawings. The colours and the use of gold and silver leaf make these drawings richer in materials alone. These rich materials are in keeping with their drawings orientalist titles.

At the Thursday night opening the marketing strategies were working, even in these very uncertain economic times, and the red sales dots were going up.


Witch-hunts & Pogroms

Witch-hunts and pogroms are not confined to medieval times but occur with monotonous regularity today. The form of the witch-hunt is similar with a number of clear elements. I will compare two local contemporary witch-hunts the attacks against Bill Henson and the claims of ritual satanic abuse (mostly from the 1990s). 

One organization, Bravehearts, will appear in both witch-hunts.

At the start of the witch-hunt the agitators, who are devout Christians, repeat an old slanderous and salacious story in a current context. There is popular enthusiasm for the story due to long-term and short-term economic and political pressures. The story is then repeated and amplified by the media and politicians.

The story of ritual satanic abuse has a long history dating back to the blood libel of medieval tradition, the new twist was using ‘repressed memories’. Sensational media stories from the USA were copied and repackaged for an Australian audience. Senator Bill Heffernan, better known for his unfounded attacks against High Court Judge Justice Kirby, and New South Wales MP Franca Arena repeated these stories and drew more media attention. The ritual satanic abuse hysteria has been likened to witch hysteria by Edward Ogden in his thesis for Advanced Studies in Criminology “Satanic Cults: Ritual Crime Allegations and the False Memory Syndrome’ (University of Melbourne, 1993).

The story of an artist having sexual relations with their models is also a very old story. Sensationalised stories about artists and underage nude models have previously appeared in the USA with attacks on photographers Jock Sturges, amongst others. And so the attack on Bill Henson followed a model copied from US media and Christian organizations.

The Australian organization Bravehearts has been involved in both Bill Henson controversy and allegations of ritual satanic abuse. Bravehearts don’t have a reputation for dishonesty, but they should have as their members have consistently tried to fuel witch-hunts. In 2005 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) sued Dr Michaelson, who runs Bravehearts Victoria, for claiming that it conducts ritual satanic abuse. The terms of settlement from the Victorian Civil And Administrative Tribunal state that: “Dr Michaelson has not produced any proof that OTO members are or have been involved in such practices.”

The subjects of allegations are generally successful, upper middle class men. These men appear to be ordinary respectable members of society. But, it is alleged; behind closed doors they abuse children. It is further alleged that these men are protected in by a vast evil conspiracy (Satanists or the arts elite) further enhancing their power. Targeting upper-middle class men who have some power, or at least success, in society is evidence that the intention of the allegation is a grab for power.

Other examples of subjects of such allegations drearily come to mind: Jews in Nazi Germany or Tsarist Odessa; communists in the Cold War, and the unsubstantiated allegations of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, although in this case the accusers are devout Moslems whom I’m sure have a similar morality to their Christian brothers and sisters.

Encouraged by politicians and the media police, mob or military violence is taken against the subjects of allegations. Subsequent investigation finds no physical evidence to support any of the allegations. However by then irreparable damage may have already been done.

What is frightening is that very little is learnt in the aftermath of these witch-hunts. The same people, especially the politicians, who expressed enthusiasm for taking action against Bill Henson would have, in other times, expressed enthusiasm for witch-hunts and pogroms. Their irrational beliefs make them a stupid and brutal force that can easily be manipulated.

Bibliography:

Richard Guilliatt, Talk of the Devil, Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt (Melbourne, 1996)


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