Monthly Archives: August 2009

More Street Art Exhibitions

I was passing through Melbourne Central when I encountered part of the ‘Two Block’ Festival. It was a couple of temporary exhibition walls in the clock-tower foyer and a platform decorated with aerosol art. The freezing wind blowing into Melbourne Central was destroying some of the illustrations on paper but the other works were secured with cable ties. There were some stencil art piece by Floh, Megan Dell, Nicole Tattersall and others. I was particularly impressed with the collage of signs by Laser Fist; it was rugged and gritty but had formal beauty. There are many street art and street inspired exhibition on in Melbourne and I have only been able to sample some of them in the last month.

A Mugs Life by Scale at 696 combined street aerosol and illustration techniques to create paintings of arthropods (insects and spiders). This combination of techniques creates some beautiful results including the use of stencils to create a fly’s compound eye. The two paintings of dragonflies with their weathered wood supports were the best in this small exhibition. In other paintings Scale’s inventiveness has over stepped taste with the expanding foam maggots with the squash blowfly. Or has become corny, like the spider and fly or the person with raised hand reflected in the mosquito’s eyes.

Intergalactic Alchemy by Adi at Famous When Dead are paintings from the abstract end of street art influences. Painted in oil and acrylic on canvas, Adi uses aerosol spray creating blends and chaotic splatters and drips. Tom Wolfe asked: “Can a spaceship penetrate a Kline?” (The Painted Word, 1976, p.79); if a spaceship tried to penetrate an Adi, it would get entangled in the web of dynamic black graphic line work. The mystical is never far away from the abstract; in this exhibition Adi has a “Zodiac Series” of 12 small paintings and a triptych forming the Illuminati pyramid. But it is in the larger paintings that Adi captures ethereal beauty.

Guessing the gender of the artist from looking is a fun game to play, especially when, Tesura, the nom de rue (nom de rue = street tag) gives no clues. Looking at the whimsical and delicately detailed illustrations of Tesura I was sure that this was the work of a woman. This time I was wrong; Tesura is a big man from Canberra and this is his first solo exhibition. Famous When Dead Gallery Director, JD Mittman had first seen his work in the Melbourne Stencil Festival 2008. Along with a series of drawings on paper there were a four mixed media works on found supports; a common strategy for street influenced artists. I talked with Tesura at the opening about his illustrations and the theme of people in animal costumes. He told me that it represented the secret, alternative night-life; a life where he worked in IT by day and was an artist at night.

It is not easy to define what makes a street art influence, as this brief survey of recent exhibitions demonstrates. It is not simply techniques and materials like stencils, aerosol spray-cans, or found supports. What all of these street influenced artists have in common is a strong graphic style.

Gangster Aesthetics

I walked around a corner and a little boy pointed at me and said: “Look mummy, a gangster.” I was dressed in all black with a black overcoat – I hadn’t realized until then that I was wearing gangster drag. I live in part of Melbourne that is central to Melbourne’s gangland war but I never thought that I was part of it. But, the cultural influences of Melbourne’s gangsters are all around me. It is rumoured locally that the house behind mine was part of the gangster Tony Mokbel’s assets. All I know for certain was that they had a large dog in the backyard. It was auctioned late last year and the interior was decorated in the worst possible neo-rococo taste.

Melbourne’s gangland is more than just crime and corruption of police and politicians, like former Shadow Federal Attorney-General Kelvin Thomson, my local MP, who gave a reference to Tony Mokbel in 2000. Thomson  wrote that Mokbel  had made “significant contribution to the community” and had “unblemished conduct”.

Melbourne’s gangland is also an aesthetic and cultural influence, creating some excellent crime TV series, most recently Underbelly, and crime movies. True crime authors Andrew Rule and John Silvester wrote the Leadbelly series of books based on their journalist experience of the gangland. Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 movie of Macbeth has a design influenced by Melbourne’s gangland that contributed to a great interpretation of the script. I haven’t read any of celebrity criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s books but I have seen his inimitable foray into visual arts along with the variety of signed axes for sale in a Collingwood shop. ‘Chopper’ Read uses the theatre and showmanship to build on his own publicity.

Battle-axe signed by Chopper Read

Battle-axe signed by Chopper Read

Melbourne’s stencil artists have commented on the gang wars with lots of gangster images. This is in part because street art is an illegal activity and also because street art reflects popular culture. The best example of gangster influence on street art is by HaHa of Mario Condello.

HaHa's portrait of Mario Condello

HaHa's portrait of Mario Condello

HaHa’s series of repeated stencil portraits Condello is appropriately placed behind bars in Hosier Lane.  HaHa is also well known for his stencil portrait of the Australian colonial bushranger Ned Kelly. There were images of Al Pacino from Scarface trackside along the Upfield line. These gangster images work well in b&w high contrast and so a perfect for single colour stencils.

Melbourne’s gangland war continues to play itself out in the theatre of court and the mainstream media. It is also reflected and commented on in the arts and in Melbourne’s overall culture. What other subtle cultural impact does Melbourne’s gangland have in the arts, fashion and culture?

Art Zombies

Avant-garde artists may push the boundaries of art in one direction and often people will remark: “That’s not art”. But what about the other direction, when does that cease to be art? I don’t mean popular arts, lowbrow or folk arts as these have life and fun in them. They aren’t dead. The stuff that I’m considering is too safe, too stale, too dead to be art. This is a brief entry on the atrophied appendix of Melbourne’s art world; enter the realm of the living dead, the art zombies.

What I mean by too safe and too stale to be is art are artists who are so passé or conservative that they are dead – the zombies of the art world. Like, Artuno “oil painting from your photo” on the corner of Russel and Lt. Londsdale St. Along with selling paintings copied from images by Dali, Keith Haring and Australian aborigines.

One of the largest concentrations of the art world zombies in Melbourne is the Victorian Artists Society. There is no hope of any revival as the Victorian Artists Society, as its rules are drafted to inhibit change. Membership of the society is restricted to a thousand members and that figure was reached in 1979.

The Victorian Artist’s Society’s original 1874 bluestone art gallery was replaced with Richard Speight’s 1893 building in a Romanesque revival design. This architectural design sums up the conservative nature of the Victorian Artist’s Society. The building is located on Albert St. opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne. If it were not for the Victorian Artist’s Society this heritage-listed building would have long ago been put to a better use and enjoyed by many more people.

Victorian Artists Society

Victorian Artists Society

The Victorian artists society has an early controversial history for being conservative, male chauvinists but they have not even managed to generate a mummer in the last sixty years. Their last notorious achievement came in 1937.

When Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies opened the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937 he singled out for attack a wall of modernist paintings. In the same year Hitler made a speech inaugurating the Exhibition of German Art and, like Menzies, attacked “so-called modern art.” (This is not the only similarity between Menzies and Hitler – both were genocidal racists.) Menzies’s attack led to the formation of the Contemporary Art Society in the following year. An attack obsequiously described as “perceived conservatism” in the history that the Contemporary Art Society has on their website.

I’ve been in the Victorian Artists’ Society’s galleries a couple of times over the years but the paintings have always been so pathetic that it never encouraged me to return. The last time I looked in at the Victorian Artist’s Society nothing had changed. It is from a bygone era of polished wood. There are a couple of rooms for galleries with offices and other facilities tucked away behind a magnificent staircase. Somewhere in the building they give art classes. An old gentleman invigilating rattled away about the exhibition, which consisted of a few pathetic still-life paintings along with some landscapes and portraits. If I keep moving then he can’t eat my brains.

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