Monthly Archives: July 2009

Art Boutiques

Melbourne has developed a type of small, shop front, commercial art gallery that would best be described as art boutiques. Art boutiques do have temporary exhibitions but their regular stock is their primary focus. Not all of their stock is art but it is significant, in the past they might have been described as ‘gift shops’ but in their latest incarnation the term appears in appropriate for the eccentric stock for sale. Art boutiques do think of themselves in art terms and focus on their art direction. The art for sale is not intended to end up in museums but in the home.

Third Draw Down, in Fitzroy, calls itself the “Museum of Art Souvenirs”. Like all good boutiques, Third Draw Down has a style and design all of its own; the impressive central bench has a series of draws for displaying more of the work. Third Draw Down specializes in affordable art in multiple editions. Especially work on fabric; like t-towels, pillowslips and handkerchiefs. They have a lot of t-towels with prints by artists, a selection of which have been attached to canvas stretcher frames, ready to be hung on a wall as most are purchased as art and not for drying dishes.

When I visited Third Draw Down Kez Hughes (a VCA graduate) has an exhibition of small oil paintings of some of the limited editions works available at Third Draw Down. The still life paintings were displayed above the art works that they depicted.

There are many other art boutiques in Melbourne and I haven’t explored them all (I’m not presenting an exhaustive list of all the art boutiques in Melbourne). They come in a variety of styles and many are not to my taste. Also in Fitzroy, there is Meet Me At Mikes, Charles Smith Gallery and in.cube8r gallery. Charles Smith Gallery, describes itself (in Art Almanac) as a “gift shop” and is one of the oldest of the art boutiques in Melbourne. All of the Fitzroy art boutiques specialize in handmade, Australian-made, art and craft. In the CBD there is Outre Gallery, specializes in multiple editions of low-brow popular art, along with books and magazines on the subject. In Collingwood there is Lucien Midnight that describes itself as “art gallery & other things of your visual and aural pleasure.” In Brunswick there is 696 who specialize in street art influenced art, craft, spray cans, magazines and other stuff.

The growth of these art boutiques implies that there is a new market of art collectors and that the system of patronage for artists is changing. The new art collectors are younger and have less disposable income than the usual art collectors. But they are choosing to buy art and unique craft items rather than mainstream consumer items.

It would be to early to say that the art for the ordinary consumer, long envisioned by the modernists, has finally come of age. These art boutiques are not a mass movement and they thrive their unique merchandise and on not being part of the mainstream.

Cross Currents @ Moreland Civic Centre

Cross Currents, paintings by Wen Jun at the Moreland Civic Centre would be almost entirely irrelevant were it not for the Chinese government currently throwing their weight around with attempts to censor and sabotage the Melbourne Film Festival. And the local debate in Moreland  usefulness of having sister cities. Moreland has three sister cities: Xianyang, in China, Viggiano, in Italy and Sparta, in Greece. Moreland does have a large Italian and Greek immigrant population but the connections with China are far more tenuous.

This is the 20th anniversary of contact between Moreland and Xianyang that was established by Wen Jun, Geoff Hogg and the then Mayor of Brunswick (now part of Moreland City). During this time Geoff Hogg has become an expert in public art and cultural exchanges. In 2006 he became the first Australian to be appointed an Honorary Professor of Art at Xianyang Normal University in China.

Moreland and Xianyang City Councils jointly sponsored the exhibition. At the opening of the exhibition there were of course the usual speeches, first by Robert Dorning, the Convenor of the Moreland and Xianyang Promotion Committee. The mayor, Cr Lambros Tapinos noted in his speech that Council has 2 of Wen Jun’s paintings in the council collections. In such low level diplomacy there is always talk about the benefits of such cultural exchanges without any evidence. It is an old line and probably no longer true in a time when there are many more routes for cultural exchange than just diplomacy. Wen Jun made a speech in Chinese, with a translation delivered by his daughter in English, about his art. About 40 people, including the artist, mayor, and city councilors, attended the opening of the exhibition. There was choice of a Long Vern 2008 Shiraz and Loire 2007 Sauvignon Blanc to drink and plenty of delicious finger food, typical of Moreland Council functions.

The best of Wen Jun’s paintings are reproductions of Tang Dynasty tomb frescos. His watercolor paintings are the same size as the original frescos. Xianyang was the imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty and the location for the famous Terra-cotta warriors. In Wen Jun’s paintings of the frescos every crack, lacuna, faded colors and other blemishes on the frescos are carefully reproduced. There are extensive didactic panels in Chinese and English. His earlier work, described as ‘traditional’ or ‘spring festival’ paintings are chocolate box sentimental images.

What is the public to conclude from this display of petty diplomacy hiding behind art and culture? That is all about putting on a good face and political junkets. That art and tourisms celebrating China’s imperial past are favored by China but documentaries critical of China’s imperial present are not. Is there any evidence that after 20 years that such diplomacy there has been any positive benefit for the ratepayers of either city? There is currently a local debate about the expense of Moreland City Council’s gift of a statue of King Leonidas to another sister city Sparta. I think that the debate should be about which local sculptor will receive the commission.

Street @ Ochre Gallery

Although I hadn’t been to Ochre Gallery before I was familiar with many of the artists in it current exhibition: I’m Here: Stencil + Street Inspired Art. I have already reviewed Adrian Doyle’s suburban landscapes (Landscapes @ Michael Koro) and Ralf Kempken’s op-art stencil images (Kempken & Shiels @ Famous When Dead) in early blog entries.

Ochre Gallery is a commercial gallery on the edge of Collingwood’s gallery district. The gallery is in a barn of a building with polished wooden floors and a wood ceiling with exposed beams. An office area and a stock room allow the large space to be divided into a large front gallery and smaller back gallery.

Mimmo Cozzolino is showing a series of photographs of rubbish washed up on the beach. A lot of Australian photographers have done this including Narelle Autio in the “Summer of Us”, 2009. Cozzolino’s photographs do more than just enjoy recording the natural patina that the ocean gives to objects they comment on ocean pollution. Her photographs of crickets (lighters), ducks (toilet ducks bottles) and fish (soya sauce containers) are described as, “Not Endangered”, in their titles, reminding of all the endangered species that are not photographed.

Trevor Flett has a series of oil paintings that use stencils to create the intense variety of textures and text. The stenciled textures form a surface of planes of paint, it is a whole new use for stencils. The paintings appear to appropriate or repeat modern art from futurism to expressionism but in Flett’s own style. Trevor Flett’s painting “Ripples”, of an expressionist image of an Australian aboriginal man with Flett’s stencil style taking over the picture, allows the exhibition to transition to a few traditional aboriginal paintings and sculptures that appear to be Ochre’s gallery’s usual stock.

The exhibition pushes the definition of ‘street inspired art” in new directions, from the technical explorations of Kempken and Flett, to the passing references in Doyle’s paintings and Cozzolino’s photographs. It is an indication of how powerful the term ‘street art” has become.

Street Art Sculpture

Street sculpture, or 3D graffiti, is the most difficult of all the street art mediums but when done well is also one of the most popular street art form. The Crate-man Collective of Melbourne is very popular with the general public who see the men made of plastic milk crates from train windows. The public does not associates street sculpture with vandalism and admire their creativity, especially the creative use of rubbish.

To create a sculpture that can withstand the outdoor environment is difficult enough but then add the usual problems for street artists. And what distinguishes street art sculpture from public sculpture is that street sculptures are unofficial.

Junky Projects in Fitzroy

Junky Projects in Fitzroy

I met the guy who does Junky Projects at the BBQ for the MSF and we have been exchanging a few emails since. I had seen his Junky Projects on the street, creations of junk with a “junky projects” stencil sprayed on them attached to poles. I asked him why he got into doing street sculpture? He replied by email:

“I guess I started because I was looking for a new medium to engage the public with my street art. Too many people just pick up a scalpel and a cheap can of paint and decided that they are a street artist. I have been a graffiti artist for over ten years and I have played around with all types, pieces, tags, stencils, paste-ups, and stickers. The thing is it’s all too tired for me. Sometimes I see things on the streets that inspire me or keep me interested, but mostly there is a lot of rehashing old ideas. The junkyprojects was something I knew nobody had ever done before. I get a huge rush from it, more than I ever got from bombing tags or other types of graff. Plus it engages all types of people; they all get something out of my work.”

Mal Function in Brunswick

Mal Function in Brunswick

Another of Melbourne’s street sculptors is ‘Mal Function‘ who does little gremlin faces that he attaches to walls and poles in the street. These gremlins in the system bring folk myths into the city and remind us of the malfunctions of the urban environment. ‘Will Coles’ is a sculptor from Sydney who has exhibited in galleries and Bondi’s but he also has some street sculpture in Hosier lane. Will Cole created concrete remote controls and televisions that he glues in the street. And including, street fabric art in this short survey, there is also the Melbourne Revolutionary Craft Circle (see: Radical Cross Stitch, “seriously seditious stitching”) who used cross stitching on the chain-link fence around vacant land in Footscray to create the slogan: “I wanna live here”.

Anon street sculpture in Hosier Lane, Melbourne

Anon street sculpture in Melbourne

Most street sculpture is still rather flat, low relief sculptures, objects glued to walls, like the ubiquitous ‘space invader’ mosaic creations. Or high-top runners hanging from an overhead wire, the street art equivalent of tagging. However, this is just the beginning street sculpture is a growing trend and there are going to be better works, like Junky Projects, coming to a street near you.

(Thanks you Junky Projects for your help with this article.)

Peter Churcher in Barcelona

Australian figurative painter, Peter Churcher has been living in Barcelona for the nearly three years after a three-month Australia Council studio residency there. I met Peter Churcher recently at an opening at the Counihan Gallery; he was back in Australia for his exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries. I had met him before when I did some of his CAE portrait painting classes. So I arranged to ask him, via email, about what had attracted him to live and paint in Barcelona.

Peter Churcher replied: “The main lure of Barcelona for me, artistically, is the continuous throng of ‘human traffic’ that exists on the streets, day and night. I find this unceasing flow of human activity and ritual that plays out before my eyes inspiring and central to my work.”

To get an idea of the scale of this ‘human traffic’; Barcelona has a much higher population density than Melbourne, with 15,936 habitants/km² than Melbourne’s 1566 habitants/km². And Barcelona also has a lively street culture with Las Ramblas, a pedestrian mall running up the center of the old city close to where Peter Churcher’s has his living space and attached studio.

“I was equally interested in exploring the human condition in my painting in Melbourne before I left for Barcelona, but there is one important difference in the way this theme manifests itself in the studio in Barcelona compared to my earlier studio in Melbourne. In Melbourne the studio was a “bubble” I would disappear into each day. Once I was inside I felt quite isolated and cut-off from my source inspiration out on the “streets”. When I got a street-kid into my studio, for modelling, I felt a bit like he or she had become a specimen in a glass jar which I was inspecting. In Barcelona, however, there exists a much more fluid flow between the studio and what I see on the streets.”

The last exhibition of Peter Churcher’s that I saw was at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art in 2001. His paintings were of realist figures, ordinary people, like Craig, the Butcher or Monique, a goth woman with a studied choker and pierced eyebrow. So I asked Peter if he was working with local models in Barcelona?

“In terms of working with the life model, I am doing that more than ever in Barcelona. At first when I arrived I was the “outsider” with no contacts or access to classes/models etc. This quickly changed when I was introduced by a local to the wonderful old Artist’s club Sant Lluc of which I am now a member. This particular club is not just an Artist’s watering-hole where artists sit around and drink and talk about making art but rather is a “working” club. Life-models are employed morning and evening 6 days a week in life-drawing sessions, life-painting fixed poses for a whole week, etc. The member is free to come and go and work in whatever studio he or she chooses. I go regularly to this club to draw from the model and have made contact with many wonderful professional models who now work for me privately in the studio.”

It would be easy to draw comparisons between Peter Churcher’s painting painters of the Spanish Baroque because of Churcher’s “simple and direct” painting and the sense of drama in his groups of figures. Churcher sees these comparisons too but his thoughts remains on the streets of Barcelona.

“I feel the subject matter of my recent Barcelona work is really starting to tap into the contemporary street culture that surrounds me. The groupings, for me, are now skate-board dudes, rap dancers and old, withered ladies with their dogs. I am enjoying this easy and natural flow between my own, everyday world and those scenes from the masters of past.”

Peter Churcher has had three exhibitions of his paintings from Barcelona in 2007 and 2009 at Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane and in 2008 at Australian Galleries, Melbourne.

Kempken & Shiels @ Famous When Dead

Ralf Kempken‘s  current exhibition Now Screening is at Famous When Dead. In this exhibition Kempken’s explores the eye, cinema images and perception with his amazing hand-cut paper and canvases. By removing thin slices of canvas he can create whole images from subtle variations in the width of the slice. Up close you can see only ribbons of stretched canvas but stand on the other of the gallery and the images are revealed.

There are lots of images of eyes in this exhibition because, as Ralf Kempken explains in his artist statement, this is “an exploration of the process of perception…that all incoming sense perceptions are filtered or screened according to our own individual life experiences.” The cunning play between the screening of perceptions, the cinema screen and Kempken’s canvas screens of vertical stripes further adds to their meaning.

This play on the visual screen allows Kempken to do a little bit more than the usual Pop Art appropriation and translation images into another media. There are many images from the cinema: from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Dziga Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera, Luis Bruuel’s The Andalusian Dog along with images of Marylin Monroe and Andy Warhol. A long dissolve from Man with a Movie Camera featuring both the cameraman and the audience forms the image for the largest work in the exhibition. This double image is a display of Kempken’s mastery of his technique.

This is not the first time that I’ve seen Ralf Kempken’s amazing spaghetti stencil technique, it has been shown before at Famous When Dead and at last year’s Melbourne Stencil Festival. For the last two years he has been refining this approach to stenciling and in this latest exhibition he continues to develop his technique. He has moved away from the all black canvas, there are also red and rusted iron finishes to some of his canvases. He has also created double screens with intense optical color effects from the diffusion effects.

There are more works by Ralf Kempken currently in a group exhibition: I’m Here: Stencil + Street Inspired Art at Ochre Gallery in Collingwood. This exhibition has more of Kempken’s spaghetti stencil work along with a few of his earlier aerosol stencil paintings of modern Melbourne buildings.

Also at Famous When Dead, in the small backroom gallery, is an exhibition of photographs by Julie Shiels “Writing in the street”. Street art is an ephemeral art form and by documenting her ephemeral street sculpture pieces with photographs has created something that can be hung in a gallery and enjoyed at home. Using abandoned furniture and cardboard boxes found on the street with the addition of spray painted slogans. The slogans: “I’d rather be somewhere else”, “The last thing”, “All that remains” and “Will you catch me when I fall?” are similar to those of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer with their provocative, truthful, statements to the reader. Julie Shiels in this series of photographs has given a melancholy voice to the detritus of a culture that has been abandoned on the street.

Len Lye @ ACMI

“An artist in perpetual motion, Len Lye” is a retrospective at ACMI’s screen gallery. Filmmaker, poet, painter and kinetic sculptor or should that be kinetic sculptor, filmmaker, photographer, batik artist and doodler? There are many sides to the work of Len Lye.

I have seen Len Lye’s art in various exhibitions, art fairs and museums for the past two decades. Sometimes in surprising places like in the Belgium Centre for Comic Strips where he is noted for his pioneering abstract color animation. One year at the Melbourne Art Fair the gonging from his sculpture could be heard around the Exhibition building at regular intervals. Len Lye was this strange phenomenon of an artist going off in all directions simultaneously.

The Len Lye retrospective at ACMI helped me to get a view of this moving subject. Even as I looked at the exhibition I didn’t know if I was going to write about Lye’s connection with the Dadaist filmmakers, his kinetic sculpture, his interest in indigenous art or something completely different.

The exhibition, as you might expect from ACMI, shows many of Lye’s short experimental films. Lye’s short animated films with their jazz soundtracks are enjoyable to watch, there is plenty of movement and color. The exhibition also displays some film stock, the tools and techniques that Lye used to create them. Len Lye’s ‘direct filmmaking’ techniques of scratching and painting on the film owe their freedom to Dadaist’s like Man Ray, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling. Lye was in contact with major European avant-garde filmmakers as early as 1929. Before this exhibition I didn’t know about his connections with Dadaist filmmaker Hans Richter, demonstrated by Lye’s photogram of Richter in 1947 and a group photograph including Lye and Richter from 1929.

The artistic freedom and novelty of abstract kinetic sculptures, combining movement with geometry, was a high modernist ideal. Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures are amongst greatest kinetic sculptures along with the mobiles of Alexander Calder. The formal beauty of Lye’s sculptures in motion can be easily appreciated in the large dark space of the screen gallery; they are well light and the moving steel sculptures stands out against the dark walls.

There was surprise of the exhibition, for me, as I am interested in the history of stencils in art due to Melbourne’s stencil art. Len Lye used stencils in his ‘direct filmmaking’ techniques used in Rainbow Dance, 1936 and also in Musical Poster, 1942. Lye used both metal (tin or lead sheet metal) and paper stencils. Using stencils allowed Lye to paint repeating patterns onto celluloid film. Lye also used stencils and sprayed lacquer on plywood in Ice Age, 1938.

After this free major retrospective exhibition I now have a much better appreciation of the art of Len Lye. This is not a review of the retrospective exhibition; there are so many facets of Lye’s art in this exhibition that someone else will find different topics to focus on. The subject of Len Lye keeps on moving.

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