Monthly Archives: May 2009

Brown & Green @ Arc One

Arc One Gallery has, “The Approaching Storm” an exhibition of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green’s photography. “And” paintings, the “and” is written on the wall connecting the small side gallery. Brown and Green are best known for their paintings that are cut and paste works based on photographs. Exhibiting photographs could be like an actor appearing out of character and breaking the illusion but it is not like that with “The Approaching Storm”. The photographs are clearly photographs just as Brown and Green’s paintings are clearly paintings, even if they are sourced from photographic images.

I have admired the art of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green for many years. Their faux collage paintings juxtaposing diverse images seemed quintessentially post-modern. Brown and Green have been working together since 1989.

The photographs in“The Approaching Storm” were taken when Lyndell Brown and Charles Green traveled for six weeks through the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf as the Australian War Memorial’s official war artists. Attached to the Australian Defence Force (ADF), they visited various Australian bases. I’m uneasy about this kind of collaboration. How would the hand of the ADF influence their art?

Brown and Green don’t forget why the war is being fought, quoting from the artists’ statement describing the photographs as a “portrait of force, of the hard edge of globalization”. In their paintings Brown and Green are more direct. In both paintings they juxtaposing the newspaper photo of the innocent victim, Dr Mohamed Haneef, “facing uncertainty” with images of Bollywood and mountain passes. In one painting they juxtapose an old illustration of the tree of life that places humans at the top with actual Afghans.

There are enough mass media images of the war in Afghanistan but Brown and Green focus on other aspects, the landscape and the changing light. The hand of the ADF is evident on the bleak landscapes and military architecture. The rows of concrete blast walls are covered in painted insignia and other emblems. The best photograph captures the Australian troops own subversion of the meaning of the war: “ROAD TO NOWHERE” is stenciled on the door of an Australian army vehicle; it’s small flag at half-mast.

I have not seen a great deal of quality art about “the war on terror”; war as the subject of art has lost its ethics, its romance and its purpose. Brown and Green’s paintings and photographs do not glorify, vilify, sympathize or empathize but exist as artistic documents about the war.

Paintings @ Flinders Lane

I saw several exhibitions in galleries along Flinders Lane yesterday; there were a lot of paintings. So this entry is a brief survey of paintings currently on exhibition in Flinders Lane.

The best of these was Kate Bergin’s “Table Top Variations” at 45 Downstairs. I’ve seen Kate Bergin’s beautiful oil paintings before but this was the first time that I’ve seen a whole exhibition of her work. These are fun paintings as well as beautiful paintings that combine neo-baroque manner elements in still life and animal paintings. Bergin plays with the images: an angry penguin with a pistol tied around its neck, a rabbit sits on a fox, a kookaburra laughs at an angora goat. Bergin has some kitsch interests, part of her neo-baroque popularism, exemplified by the flying duck against red wallpaper or the kitsch objects included in some of the paintings. Kate Bergin’s signature is always on a trompe l’oeil tag tied to something in her paintings. There are a few minor problems with these magnificent paintings, as the cut and paste images appear too unreal, betraying the beautiful illusion of her paintings.

Also at 45 Downstairs is a group exhibition of painters – “So the World Appears: Australian Visions of the Land”. There are paintings by Drasko Boljevic, Dorothy Napangardi, Polly Ngale, Mark Stewart and Andrew Trahair. It is an exhibition of Aboriginal and European painters, a rare thing in Australia until this year. There are dot paintings by Polly Ngale and Dorothy Napangardi. Andrew Trahair’s abstract expressionist paintings with a few Pro Hart influences in his smaller canvases. Drasko Boljevic’s lurid, spray-painted scenes have references to European old masters. Mark Stewart’s cloudscapes with their grid of blocks are very beautiful and calm paintings.

Flinders Lane Gallery, “Exploration 9”, is a group exhibition of emerging artists including several painters. David Bradley’s abstract paintings on silk achieve a wonderful relaxed blurred quality to his rhythmic use of colours. Michael Staniak exhibits both an otherworldly sculpture lite from beneath by florescent lights and a large painting of an alien based on elements from the sculpture. Ben McKeown, takes dot painting to a minimal and child-like extreme with a dot outline of a house.

At Gallery 101 Anne Marie Graham’s “Exotic Queensland” appears influenced by Rousseau’s foliage. Graham paints helliconia, pandanus palms, bromeliads and other plants of Queensland. However, her muted colours, carefully designed and artificial nature sucks the life out of Graham’s gardens.

Michael Porter (aka Mic) is well known for his large painted expressionist faces high up on the walls of Melbourne. Michael Porter has an exhibition at Until Never where he works in a variety of media and scales from bronze figures, painting, etchings, ink on paper, carved wood and even burnt and drilled masonite. Unfortunately Mic’s image is almost the same in every case, the same over-worked face and body. The single bronze skull is a relief from this constant repetition, as are the pin bumps on all of the larger bronze figures, a reference to the points used to scale up a sculpture.

I will write about Lyndell Brown and Charles Green’s four paintings at Arc One in a separate entry.

Pranksters & Stencil Art History

There are so many histories of stencil and street art but they all contain gaps. I hope this entry fills in one of those gaps; the prankster element.

The Church of the SubGenius has some responsibility in the stencil art phenomena amongst the pranksters of the world. In The Book of the SubGenius (McGraw-Hill, 1983) they advocated making stencils in order to spread the image of Bob. A cartoon illustration showed how to make stencils with cardboard, a #11 X-acto knife, a wall and “pigment transported in aerosol form by gaseous agent under tremendous pressure”. I presume that SubGeniuses were doing these stencils some years before the publication of their book, making them some of the oldest street stencil artists.

I’m sure that there must have been some stencil artist working on the street with an aerosol can before the SubGeniuses. They have been forgotten because of the anonymous nature of the prank and a lack of contemporary awareness of street art.

Pranksters will do crazy things for the fun of it, to make people think, to show off, or because they are simply not permitted. The trickster is an archetypal figure, the second creator who reshapes the world into its current form. Now, in this crazy mixed-up world with its huge population there are now more pranksters than ever before and they are better organised than ever before. The Church of the SubGenius was just one of many deliberately crazy organizations that have been springing up in cities around the world since the Dadaists in Zurich.

These prankster organizations are mostly made up of artists, writers, musicians and people who are living their lives as if it were art. They are also political in an anarchic, subversive and polemic style employing pranks, like stencil art, as non-violent propaganda by the deed. This subversive content of street art cannot be authorized, as it exists in response to claims of authority, and it cannot be repressed, as the nature of Monkey is irrepressible.

“We are Making the change By our ACTS not OUR Words.” A1one Kolahstudio / Tehran, 22/1/09 

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, in AC/DC Lane, some prankster/s have thrown a large number of plastic buckets tied together over one of the lines that runs across the lane.

Buckets in AC/DC lane

Buckets in AC/DC lane

And another prankster has expressed his sardonic wit in Fitzroy roller painted the message of the media: “Wall”. Not all pranksters have as grand or expansive a vision as the SubGeniuses but the motivation is the same.

"Wall" in Fitzroy

"Wall" in Fitzroy

Spin That Thing @ Famous When Dead

What do you do with Gerry Rafferty’s 1979 album Night Owl? It is a gold record selling over 500,000 units (records, tapes or compact discs) so it is not rare but not as popular as Rafferty’s Baker Street that has sold 5.5 million copies. And if you had listened to it in the last ten years you would be getting more use out of it than most owners. So why not paint it?

The vinyl record has become a popular support for street art paintings. It is symbolic of music and turntables although once painted no longer functional; it is the street art equivalent of turning an old book into art. Spin That Thing at Famous When Dead Gallery is an exhibition of painted 12-inch records by visual artists (not recording artists) from around the world – Australia, Iran, Netherlands, Norway and the USA.

The opening on Friday night was busy and numerous records sold before I arrived. Toby and Melika, from 696, were waiting outside for Catlin Rigby to tell her that both her pieces had sold. The prices are reasonable, most were between $100 and $200; J.D. said that next time he does an exhibition of painted records there will be a standard price. I talked with a few people (hi Fray and Doyle) as I worked my way around the crowded room, first with a beer in hand, the second time with my notebook.

It is a good exhibition, there are 75 12-inch images to look at, but it is patchy. Only a few of the artists (mostly from Melbourne, Australia) used the format of the record in the art. Liz Racz used the round 12 inches diameter piece of black vinyl form with a spindle hole in the middle effectively. Racz uses the nail supporting the record in the middle to puncture the painted hands in both her images: “Sister Clancy Bernadette obeys Her Master’s Voice” and “Sister Clancy Bernadette’s DIY Miracle of the Other Hand”. Adi makes reference to the content of the Rick Wakeman album that it is painted on with her image “The Tree That Whispered A Secret To Merlin”, as well as, on another record using paper cutting on an album sleeve to reveal the image painted on the record. On a less attractive note, Paul Wain simply broke records and glued them on top of others.

A few of the artists have made musical references, like Mark Whatson from Norway remixes the iPod advertising images, or Megan Dell from Melbourne “Not the Beetles”. But most just used the record as a support for art, like the powerful psycho pop images of Miz Cery and ZKLR, from Brisbane. Harddrive from Stanton, USA ignores the format all together and glues 5 or 8 records together to create a larger surface. Most of the art is aerosol stencil but there are a few brush paintings and a few collages (including two beautiful ones by Papermonster from New York).

And finally it appears that Gerry Rafferty has disappeared.

Fractals @ Platform & Sutton

The beauty of fractal geometry is that it is naturally beautiful, as well as mathematical interesting. So it has a lot of appeal to artists, as well as, mathematicians and weather forecasters. Amongst the many artists currently attracted to fractal geometry is Brett Colquhoun, exhibiting at Sutton Gallery, and many of the artists exhibiting this May at Platform.

Colquhoun is an established Melbourne artist with a long had an interest in science and symbols. In his current exhibition at Sutton Gallery Colquhoun uses the fractal geometry of bifurcation is present in cracks, lighting and roots in a series of black and grey canvases. The field of paint on the surface becomes a surface to compare lighting and roots or simply to crack. Colquhoun’s flat paint appears methodical and cool. There are also paintings in the exhibition that explore the more complex fractal geometry in magnetic fields or flames but they don’t work as well.

At Platform New Zealand artist, Kate McIntyre’s Growth, uses cracks and roots as well, but they don’t work as well as Colquhoun’s. This is because the square roots are made from cubes of drawing paper and the cracks are made from chrome vinyl. This surreal installation plays with its location beneath Flinders Street and imagining the strange roots of the city.

In the Vitrine is a Brisbane-based textile artist Sue-Ching Lascelles installation I’m Lichen You a Lot. Lascelles uses multiple pieces of colored felt to create an artificial surface with the fractal beauty of a lichen-covered surface. It is a simple idea that has been beautifully executed.

There are fractals in the illustrations of the branching tree heads in the prints of Ness Flett’s A Pictorial Essay of Devolution. And there are natural fractals in the cracks of the brunt logs and grevillia leaves of Matt Shaw’s third underground garden. Shaw’s underground gardens are Melbourne’s smallest and most unusual and they are works of art. Shaw’s garden is the simplest, eloquent and life affirming of all the recent artistic references to Black Saturday bushfires that I have yet seen. Now that I’m looking for fractals I am seeing them everywhere.

John Brack Retrospective

The John Brack retrospective exhibition at the NGV is an opportunity to re-examine the issue of was John Brack (1920 – 1999) a modern Australian artist or a reactionary and what relevance his work has to contemporary art. If he just created popular iconic, albeit slight satirical, images of Melbourne then is he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design? Progress in modern art, along with the partisan struggle between the progressive modernists versus the ‘passéist’ (the Futurist term for passé art movements), was largely assumed. Although the questions of what direction the progress should take was under debate. Was the future of art primitivist, abstract, machine aesthetics, surreal, realist or what?

The issue of figurative painting versus abstract art loomed large in the early career of Brack. In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art. Does this mean that the John Brack and the Antipodeans were reactionary, figurative painters? The Antipodeans Group staged a single exhibition in August 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Victorian Artists’ Society is still in existence and still teaches and promotes conservative painting. The Antipodeans were challenging Clement Greenberg claim of the centrality of abstraction to modern art. Had they recognized it as American propaganda or were they expressing conservative anti-American Australian attitudes? Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position encouraged the NGV to acquire several of his paintings early in his career.

Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (The University of Chicago Press, 1983) provides a very detailed account of American art and Cold War geopolitics. The unique individual (American) abstract artist painting pure art was removed from class struggles or other political discourses. It is worth noting in this history, that that the first pure abstract paintings were not done by an early 20th century avant-garde modern artists but by an English mystic, Georgina Houghton in 1861. Following in this trend was Annie Besent, a theosophist. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian would have seen Annie Besent’s abstract paintings, as both were members of the Theosophical Society. Abstract art might have remained the interest of eccentric artists and mystics were it not for geopolitics.

There are other elements of modernism in Brack’s paintings: his many cityscapes and his interest in the machine aesthetic in his paintings of slicing machines, sewing machines, surgical equipment, modern flat surfaces and shop fittings. However, there is no political nor references to any current events in Brack’s paintings.

The John Brack retrospective exhibition is certainly popular but it is not just for the history or the iconic images. There is much in the art of John Brack that is relevant to contemporary art in Melbourne. Brack’s illustrative narrative style is still popular and is now common in contemporary art. And a visually literate population increasingly understands his references to art history. Brack’s later still life paintings with pencils and pens show elements of post-minimalist sculpture, like Melbourne’s Carl Scrase or Tim Sterling. And his anti-abstract and pro-figurative painting position is similar to Stuckism that has supporters in Melbourne’s street art scene.

Sirum One @ Studio 7A

Two basic four letter words: love & hate. Some artists choose subtle themes but Sirum One goes for these two powerful emotions and he manages to do it without being bombastic. In a dozen freehand, calligraphic, aerosol graffiti-style paintings on canvas Sirum One explores love & hate.

Half of the paintings are about love, creativity and peace, the other half, are about hate, destruction and war. Sirum can create images with beauty and humour about hate. In “The Art of Destruction” a tank, its military green partially covered with a graffiti ‘bomb’, begins to crush a car on a city street. Equally his love images are neither weak, nor sentimental, but beautiful and powerful as his freehand aerosol image of a tiger-lily attests. In “Graffiti Love & Hate” Sirum has loaded the canvas with layers to tags, definitions and finally his calligraphic piece. It is a work that is aware of the strong emotions around this art but graffiti is definitely one of Sirum’s loves.

The images are not shallow nor are they simply based on graphic style. Sirum combines aerosol graffiti with cartoon illustration, stencil and collage elements building up layers in his images. To build up these layers Sirum collaborates with Peazer for two canvases and on one canvas with stencil artist Kirpy  Kirpy has created a fine urban stencil image as the background support for Sirum’s piece.

I hadn’t been to “Unpretentious Underground”, Studio 7A before, it opened at the start of the year, and I’m glad that I’ve found it now. It is located through the first door to the right, down the first lane way behind the Black Cat Café on Brunswick St., Fitzroy. Entering this door you find yourself in a courtyard and a maze of studios in the back of the Black Cat Café. There are a lot of studios behind the Black Cat; painting classes were being advertised in Studio 18A. At the far end of the courtyard there was the “Unpretentious Underground” stencil logo on the wall and an open door.

Inside Studio 7A is a hairdressing salon and a gallery. The hairdressing equipment is moved out of the way for the exhibition openings but they don’t distract from the art. The large mirrors provides another view of the opposite wall and open up the small space. Do I need a haircut? I haven’t cut my hair in decades.

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