Monthly Archives: February 2009

Once was a beach

The skull of a blue tongue lizard, partially mummified by the hot desert air, is a natural sculpture. Jan Learmonth’s “Once was a beach” at Mailbox 141 is a superb exhibition with a strong environmental theme perfect for this record breaking hot summer.

Using found materials and the red sand from the Tanamai desert Learmonth has created beautiful, evocative dioramas in each of the mailboxes. The dioramas of a dry desert world that Learmonth has created are stark and terrible in their beauty.

The scenes include the activities of humans. Humans are clearly responsible for some of the sculptural elements in her landscapes. The bare desert environment makes simple sculptural forms even more powerful. The piles of seeds, stones, the rusting metal and the boats are evidence of their actions. And are humans also the creators of this desert environment?

Boat forms are Learmonth’s sculptural trademark, in this exhibition they are as small as jewellery. They hang or are balanced on wooden poles above the red sand. Learmonth’s boats in the desert are the perfect symbol for a disastrous environmental change.

These miniature worlds depict a harsh desert world where there once was a beach; inspired by the ancient seabed that now forms the Tanamai desert in central Australia. Are Learmonth’s scenes scientific warnings about our future? Has the Australian beach culture of sun, surf and sand created a desert of just sun and sand? 


Just off the streets

I don’t know what is happening with Until Never; Paul McNeil’s Lonely Sea is still on exhibition.  Until Never continues with the wacky and off beat selection of young artists of dubious, debatable quality. The quality of the art is deliberately debatable in a punk street sense as is effort of walking up those stairs.

Paul McNeil’s surfing inspired art is humours, crude but effective. McNeil, the surfboard artist for Sea Surfboards, uses familiar materials fibreglass, resin tint and resin in his art. Some of his resin fibreglass paintings art looks a bit like a surfboards but mostly it doesn’t. There are acrylic paintings on canvas banners and round resin mounds. There are some fun images and dumb slacker jokes, like “Hate Ashbury” and “Prey for Surf”, in the Lonely Sea but is there anything more to the art of Paul McNeil?

In the shopfront gallery space at 69 Smith St. Kristin McIver is exhibiting Dreamscapes, a look at 1970s suburban architecture using two-colour aerosol stencils. It looks like a side project by the ghost of Howard Arkely, the old master of spray paint suburbia; only McIver’s paintings don’t have Arkely’s intense colours or patterns. This is what happens when a fine art student takes up stencil art: there are artful drips running consistently from the bottom of the stencil, the stencils are a bit crude with over spray leaking on the edges and they come in a range of smooth tasteful background colours.

At Neon Parc Alasdair McLuckie is exhibiting some of his beaded totems along with collages by Alexander Oucthtomsky and Alex Vivian’s camp adolescent scatter style installation. Alexander Oucthtomsky’s collages are fantastic, full colour combinations of floral, zoological and ethnographical elements; they rival the best of Max Ernst’s collages. Set in oval frames these 15 elegant figures look like illustrations of elaborate costumes from an alien civilization. Alex Vivian’s installation rocks with a camp metal, Dungeons and Dragons, pathetic aesthetic. It may look half-arsed but it did speak to me.


Junko Go’s exhibition at Gallery 101 is “all about… blooming”. This large series of paintings are all botanically named but even without the titles the charcoal drawings of the roses, spider lily, angel trumpet and other flowers are recognizable. However, these are not botanical, still life or paintings of gardens, there is so much more content. There is even more to the titles of these paintings than just a name, they include short meditations. For example: “Red Hot Poker – Push and poke our inner strength. Sometimes, we need courage to take ricks of confronting pain and loss in order to gain a deep and profound experience.”

The pale grounds of the paintings lift the pinks and orange and blacks. It provides a ground, like a page in sketchbook, for the charcoal and pastel marks. And creates a play of subtle shades.

There is an uncommon mix of qualities in Junko Go’s paintings: beautiful and serene but not bland. They are both relaxed and vibrant with details. Calm and fun at the same time. How is all of this possible?

One artist’s ideas can cross-pollinate another artist’s and produce strong progeny. The moment that I saw these paintings I knew that the form of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings had influenced Junko Go. It is a form that doesn’t restrict the contemporary artists but brings together many ways of creating visual images. To both draw and paint. To create images that are abstract, symbolic and representational. Now there are a lot of differences between of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black American man from NYC and Junko Go, a Japanese woman living in rural Tasmania. And the most obvious difference to point out in their paintings is that Basquiat frequently used a black ground whereas Junko Go uses a white ground. And then there would be different moods, styles and ideas – it really is just the form, the informal way of organizing marks on canvas that they share.

Junko Go was still working on the wall painting of roses in the gallery when I visited on Wednesday afternoon. Wall paintings are becoming more common in all kinds of painter’s exhibitions. Perhaps these ephemeral artworks are another influence that street art has had on the art galleries.

Marcus Bunyan has written a review of this exhibition on Art Blart.

Paper Cuts

Last night the ABC showed, in their Artscape timeslot, Tony Wyzenbeek’s Paper Cuts – the Art of Ghostpatrol and Miso. This 30-minute documentary concentrated on the street artists, Ghostpatrol and Miso, their art and attractive photography of the streets of Melbourne. Director Tony Wyzenbeek previously directed The Art of Bill Henson, (2003) and was a producer of Love is in the Air (2003) a six part documentary series on Australian popular music. In Paper Cuts, like his documentary on Bill Henson, Wyzenbeek concentrates on the artists and their art in a calm, meditative exploration.

The documentary does mention both the illegal nature and the economics of some of Ghostpatrol and Miso’s activities. However, it does not explore either of these subjects, as neither are normal topics for arts documentaries.

The ABC was more concerned with warning people about “language” than the issue of the documentary facilitating and promoting minor illegal activity. I don’t know if it would have helped Paper Cuts to include the views of any of the many politicians who support of the current draconian anti-graffiti legislation. But to avoid this issue distorts the background; just as a history of art in Australia in the 1950s that failed to note Menzies had banned the importation of modern art distorts the story by that very omission.

The subject of money was also hinted at but the documentary chose to focus on the gratuitous side of Ghostpatrol and Miso’s activities. This is unfortunate as the story of the how these two young professional artists make a living is different from the usual economic plan for artists and incorporates making free art for the community. Currently Ghostpatrol has two large furry creatures with child’s faces in the window display at fashion boutique, Meet Me At Mikes, 63 Brunswick St. Fitzroy. Ghostpatrol’s style translates well from the drawings to 3D fabric creations. In the display one of the creatures has a newspaper crown tied around his head; the hierarchy implied in this image is that of a game’s as the crown is an improvised affair. Window dressing is only one of Ghostpatrol’s diverse income streams that include illustration work, along with the traditional commissions and gallery sales. Street artists, unlike their contemporaries in artist-run-spaces, are not afraid of working in shop windows, along with the shop’s stock, whereas, their contemporaries in artist-run-spaces have a royal dislike for common commerce.

For more about Ghostpartol read an interview with him by blogger, Steve Gray.

The Secret Philistines

Australia is the most outwardly philistine of all countries; there is a deeply held contempt for all culture in Australia. Suburban Australia, where the vast apathetic majority of Australians live, is quintessentially philistine. Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy used the word ‘philistine’ to define the middle-class as ignorant, narrow-minded, devoid of culture and indifferent to art. To have wider tastes than meat pies, football and cars is considered in Australia an elitist insult to the majority.

So it is not surprising that within the minority of cultured Australians and even artists there is a trace of these philistine attitudes. Is “Cryptophilistinism”, curated by Amita Kirpalani at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, about this phenomenon?

What exactly is a crypto-philistine? Have the secret philistines of the art world taken over the art space and are the de-valuing art? Are they neo-Dada anti-art artists who, ironically don’t value art? Or, are they artists with non-artistic agendas? Perhaps it is the secret philistine in all of us that is being referred to; Kirpalani does not explain but she does give examples.

Are the social politics of Stuart Bailey assemblages more important than any artistic quality? “The Nimbin Victims”, “Shameless” and “These filthy dreamers defile the flesh” do look as ugly as improvised road signs. James Dodd’s work is similarly political and as ugly as a roadside stall with all the fluoro colours. Sarah Goffman makes art about the excess in society; her “Iso Mass Xtreme Gainer” is a minimalist circle made from wide waisted jeans. Scott Morrison celebrates the passions of the middle class, as expressed in audience shots from the Oprah Winfrey Show, in his 2003 DVD “Oprahagogo”. But it is Justin Trendall’s screen prints with the lines of influence connecting artists and thinkers that, for me, expresses the crypto-philistinism of contemporary art. The pseudo-intellectual past time of creating theoretical art family trees, as a representation of culture, is truly crypto-philistine in its indifference to the actual art and culture. And Trendall makes them look so artful.

Now that they have been named and exhibited can they really be secret philistines?

Alister Karl’s Drawings

Alister Karl draws pictures. I have known this ever since I first met him at life drawing at Brunswick Arts back in 2005, when Joel Gailer ran it. In 2006 Alister Karl and three other artists took over the running of Brunswick Arts.

Alister Karl exhibits his drawings. This is, surprisingly, not a common artistic practice in contemporary art world where a traditional media like graphite pencils are rare amongst the photography, videos and installations. And it is not that he is some conservative traditionalist hanging on to pencil drawing regardless of current trends. He does not ignore trends when it fits with his artistic practice, like wall drawings.

Alister Karl draws pictures of large back-hoes, those machines for excavating. “This machine is a tool that we use to create the places we live in and destroy the places we live.” Writes Karl. Karl, like Francis Picabia and other Dadaists, admires the machine aesthetic. It is an aesthetic of alien functionality, caterpillar tracks and hydraulics. Are these real machines or Tonka toys? The aesthetic of boy’s mechanical toys has been marginalised by mainstream art.

Alister Karl draws with precision but he is not so obsessive that has to finish every detail. His completed drawings deliberately look unfinished, like works in progress, and with such mechanical drawing it would just be a matter of time to complete it. The incomplete is a major feature of his drawings as it emphasises the human who makes the drawing. In one of the largest and most complete instantiation of Karl’s backhoe drawings, exhibited at Brunswick Street Gallery, the drawing is on 4 large MDF panels leaning up against the gallery wall. The panels do not form a rectangle, they overlap and one panel is raised up on a couple of bricks.

I have known Alister Karl as an artist and as part of the curatorial committee of Brunswick Arts for the last four years. I have seen his art develop and focus over this time, however I have only mentioned him once or twice in my blog writing. So this entry is to, in part, redress that imbalance and also to provide a bit more depth to an examination of his drawings.

4 Photography Exhibitions

‘Birds’ by Marian Drew,  at Dianne Tanzer Gallery, is a small series of large-format, colour, still life photographs. Drew has become well known for her beautiful, hauntingly lite, still life images featuring dead animals. In this series it is dead birds. There is a fairy penguin with an enamel jug, a kingfisher’s blue plumage contrasts with strawberries, a beautiful multi-coloured bird lies on embroided cloth, and an emu lies next to a tiny finch smaller than a single toe of the emu. These photographs refer to the tradition of still life with objects on a table with tablecloth against a dark background. Marian Drew’s images of dead birds are not celebrations of hunting or eating in the way that traditional still life used dead animals. Drew uses animals that have died and in her photographs the dead birds symbolize our own mortality, another older tradition in still life.

The huge, empty landscape of Lake Eyre’s salt flats is the subject of “Salt” at Arc One Gallery by photographer Murry Fredericks. Fredericks’s photographs are large pigment prints on cotton rag. They could be mistaken for abstract paintings because of their abstract formal qualities. The photographs taken at sunrise or sunset show the white salt flat reflects the colour of cloudless sky, earth and sky separated by the thin line of the horizon. To document this strange inhospitable landscape and the heroic effort to take these photographs Fredericks has included a photograph of his campsite and bicycle in the exhibition.

At Shifted Terence Hogan is exhibiting a series of photographs, “(out the back)”. Hogan’s photographs are macro images of nature; images of the repetition and variation in nature are best shown in photographs. I presume that Hogan took the photograph out the back of his house but they could be out the back of beyond. I preferred Hogan’s double photograph images with subtle combination of two images to his single photograph images because they seemed more artful.

Fiona Dalwood’s “Cell”  is a large series of photographs documenting of defunct prisons, from Alcatraz to Ararat. These are photographs of the architecture of despair and institutional brutality. Along with the photographs are several didactic panels about prisons, unfortunately the photographs didn’t really illustrate the didactic panels and the information on the etymology of the word ‘panopticon’ is wrong. Dalwood wants to show Michel Foucault’s argument on how the architecture of correction shapes the lives of its inmates. Dalwood’s photographs are on exhibition at 69 Smith St.

I don’t know how to conclude this short review of four photography exhibitions, so vastly different are the techniques and subjects in them, except that the photographers who understood the history of painting produced more beautiful photographs.

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