Monthly Archives: September 2009

Gender & Street Art

Most street artists are male, in Melbourne and around the world. Unlike in other visual arts where the genders are more or less balanced the gender imbalance in street art is evident; there are a few women street artists. Boo asked why at the artist talk at the Melbourne Stencil Festival. Boo was the only woman on the panel.

Rhen Fray found the issue irrelevant: that he wouldn’t care if the gender balance were reversed, and that balance was irrelevant both equality and to the art. However the panel, including Fray, and the audience were keen to explore gender issues in stencil and street art. Boo was not complaining about inequality, repression or sexism in street art. Boo is planning to run some women’s only stencil workshops in an attempt to encourage more women to do stencil art (there are plenty of women doing the workshops at the Melbourne Stencil Festival).

It is very interesting area for discussion because it is not clear why there should be such a gender imbalance. Answers could elucidate gender differences in the way that men and women use the streets and alleyways, proclaim their identity and show off. Speaking of showing off, not one of the other artists on the panel was as well dressed as Boo with her peroxide blond hair and deconstructed style jacket. Fray’s clothes were grey and forgettable.

Perhaps the question should be why there are so many young male street artists? The arts in Australia are regarded as feminine in comparison to the masculine area of sport. Street art is an exception, as well as, the street artists there are a lot more men interested in street art. I know many middle aged men who photograph street art as a hobby and I see groups of young men who admire and discus street art.

What makes street artist particularly interesting to men? Street art combines aspects that appeal to a masculine image: exploration, daring, and large scale. Above all, street art is a public display of bravado, just like a lead guitar in a rock band (and nobody asks the question why there are so many young men aspiring to play lead guitar because the answer is so obvious and phallic). Is spraying aerosol paint a sublimation of the desire to spray on the walls like tomcats?

The nocturnal external urban environment where street art occurs, especially the laneways of Melbourne, is still largely the domain of men. The imbalance in ownership of the street is an issue for women’s groups like Reclaim the Night, as well as, the general public in having a safe peaceful environment. Street art is not a safe activity and young men and women have different strategies for personal security.

What are the young women doing instead of street art? Looking at the organizational side of the Melbourne Stencil Festival you see a different gender divide. The majority of volunteers running the Melbourne Stencil Festival are young women, including both the curators. And it is not just at the Melbourne Stencil Festival; We Make Stuff Good also has a large number of young women running the events.

Thanks for raising the question Boo and I hope that the discussion continues.


Racism Denials

“Australia is not a racist country.” After apologizing for the government’s stealing aboriginal children, after the Cronulla riots, the Palm Island riots, even after two sober assessments by the Indian ambassador and former Telstra chief Sol Trujillo, it is still denied. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initially dismissed it as “ridiculous” rather than acknowledging that Australia does have longstanding problems with racism.

After still more violent attacks on Indians in Melbourne I feel that I have to write something. What offends me most is not the violent outer-suburban racists but the network of tacit support that they receive from other parts of mainstream Australian culture. The support and cover from politicians that denies that Australia is a racist country. The support and encouragement from all aspects of Australian nationalism, for it is nationalist pride that leads to the denials in the first place.

Australia is a racist country, it was established as a racist colonial program and since then racism has been institutionalised in Australian culture. Australia has conducted the most successful program of genocides in the modern world against the aboriginal peoples of Australia, especially the Tasmanian aborigines. Australia’s white immigration policy may have ended but the political sentiment that supported it remains and is now expressed in anti-refugee detention policies and the Aboriginal intervention policy in the NT.

You have to be mentally blinkered to not see the racism in Australian culture. In one of the shared houses that I lived in we had a set of old kitchen chairs that were made in Australia and labelled: “Product of European labour only”. If you don’t believe that there is racist hatred of Indians in Melbourne then let me show you the racist graffiti against Indians scratched in the concrete footpath of Coburg.

There needs to be more action taken on the serious cultural problems, like racism, in Australia rather than denials and public relations management. To deny and mentally repress Australian racism is not the solution and will only create more and new problems. The Australian and Victorian government need to recognize that they are part of the problem rather than deny the existence of the problem. Don’t believe the equivocations, the empty apologies and denials that Australian’s make about racism – look at their actions and inactions.

Melbourne Stencil Festival Opening Night

First off I have a major conflict of interest in this story because I am the secretary of the Melbourne Stencil Festival. And as the secretary I have a warped and biased perspective mixed with exhaustion. I don’t want to be spruiking for the festival or telling the inside story.

Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition

Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition

I could try and report the facts: the winners, the speeches, how many people attended but I didn’t take notes. I know from the door prize raffle that there were over 200 people through the door before the speeches started. I don’t want to make my own speech here. I introduced all the speakers last night: the curator Tessa Yee, the Mayor of the City of Yarra Amanda Stone, Stencil Festival President Phil Hall and the representative from the judging panel Craig Kenny. Craig Kenny announced the award winners:

Emerging Artist Highly Commended

Ben Howe “Centipede”

John Koleszar “Big John”

2009 Emerging Artist Award

Boo “Our Lade of the Transparency”

Best in Show Highly Commended

Pslam “Once a… Always a…”

HaHa “Ned Kelly” & “Nicky Winmar”

2009 Best in Show

Civil “Playground”

I can’t remember all the details. I did take my camera, so here are a few photographs.

DrewFunk painting opening night

DrewFunk painting opening night

DrewFunk's wall the completed

DrewFunk's wall the completed

Stencil festival crowd listening to speeches

Stencil festival crowd listening to speeches
HaHa, Phil Hall, Amanda Stone, Ben Howe, Boo and Craig Kenny

HaHa, Phil Hall, Amanda Stone, Ben Howe, Boo and Craig Kenny

Boo, Avid Consuming

Boo, Avid Consuming

I hope that I will be able to write more about the stencil festival when I recover.

The Drought & Art

Melbourne has been in drought for years and although this has made many physical changes (like rainwater tanks in backyards). There are water restrictions in place (but rarely enforced), water rates have increased, and there is public awareness advertising about water saving on television. These have made the drought present in some of the public’s mind. Old ladies are using buckets to empty their bathwater on their flower gardens. However I have seen very little art about the drought or water conservation in that time (and regular readers of this blog will know that I see a lot of art in a variety of galleries).

In contrast to the many references to the Victorian bush fires in January 2009 references to the drought in contemporary art are few and far between, Melbourne painter Kate Bergin includes an oblique reference to the drought in her still life paintings. In a hopeful illusion she paints kitsch carved wood barometers that indicate ‘rain’.

There have been innumerable works of art this year with references to bushfires and not enough about the drought and bigger environmental issues. Bushfires of Australia are so dramatic that they tempt both artists and writers. The drought is slow, it is not dramatic; Melbourne’s dams go down, plants slowly die and the land dries up. For all their claims it appears that contemporary artists are as shallow as Melbourne’s current dam levels and that street artists are far deeper thinkers, perhaps because street art is more political.

Street artists appear to be the most aware of the more serious problem but even then the references are oblique. At Brunswick train station there is a 2 colour stencil with a political slogan: “rainforest = rain”. The word “rain” in both words is emphasised in blue the connection between rain and rainforests. And last year Aerosol Arabic and local artists made a large mural in the city: Thirst for Change. But even Aerosol Arabic only referred to water conservation rather than the drought.

The Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre

The Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre

The Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre on Albert St. in Brunswick has used their own wall by the railway line for a bit of street art inspired propaganda.

John Mockridge Fountain, Melbourne

John Mockridge Fountain, Melbourne

Melbourne’s fountains and surrounding sculpture have suffered from the drought. In the city square the John Mockridge Fountain has been boarded up and the wooded boards painted (by Ash Keating, see comment) with an image of cracked mud (painting by Ash Keating, see comment). And without water in the pond at the Carlton Recreation Reserve on Royal Parade, the sculpture of the figure and ducks in the ornamental pond, really doesn’t work.

I am currently using 61 litres of water a day. Should I discuss my new toilet at this point, with the hand-basin that refills the cistern?

Jason Wing Street Spirit

The naked child spirit, the spirit of street signs, the wild spirit with horns, with bat wings. The cosmic child with the third eye or dressed up as the phoenix flying through space. Jason Wing’s street spirit is omnipresent in his exhibition of paintings, Street Spirit at Arc One Gallery on Flinders Lane.

Jason Wing uses his background to create in an alchemical mix of influences including Chinese spring festival art, Western street art and Australian aboriginal art. He has then conjured this street spirit from the air, with aerosol and stencils.

Jason Wing is a Sydney artist and art therapist, teaching people with physical and mental disabilities at Tallowood School in Kellyville, New South Wales. He has both a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Sydney College of the Arts) and a Bachelor of Graphic Design (Sydney Graphics College) and his works show an appreciation of both disciplines.

Some of the best images in the exhibition are on old weathered aluminium road signs. The images on the road signs appear playfully contrary to the weathered road sign’s contents. A child spirit grows on a warning sign, hangs on a dandelion flower over a bushfire brigade sign and a red sun face covers a round Uniting Church sign.

The stencil art and aerosol splatter space scenes in Jason Wing’s paintings are also straight from the street. Wing’s stencils are effective and well executed. Most are elegant and balanced compositions but there are a couple of sparse and awkward works or where there spirit flies too close to kitsch. This is not surprising for it is Wing’s first solo exhibition. The ephemeral gallery wall painting (that will be painted over at the end of the exhibition) is another common feature of a street art exhibition.

The street spirit is everywhere, on the back of all the road signs in all the cities of the world. In paste-ups, stickers and stencils. It is playful, wild and anarchic.

Croft Alley Project

Don't Ban the CanThe Don’t Ban the Can street art awareness Croft Alley Project on Saturday, September 12th was massive. I was there, being the responsible citizen journalist blogger covering the event. Using my eyes and ears to get a first hand report. The Don’t Ban the Can organizers recognized that I was a member of the media and handed me a blue “Official Media” pass. The pass got me through the queue at the start of Croft Alley. There was a queue because of the limit to the number of people that they were letting in to the alley for fire safety.

Croft Alley off Little Bourke St. in Chinatown is narrow, hemmed in by the concrete walls of the buildings on either side. I slowly work my way down the narrow alleyway around the corner. Past dozen’s of artists at work, the smell of aerosol paint in the air. At the far end of Croft Alley there is the Croft Institute, another one of Melbourne’s laneway bars. The Lab bar, in the Croft Institute has a laboratory décor, with a large lab flask of blue coloured water bubbling on the “Electrothermal”. Upstairs there is a bar decorated like an old gym with old “Acromat” sports equipment and a bar made of old lockers. I make my way to the bar like Hunter S. Thompson and buy a beer, to drink and think.

The Lab decor

The Lab decor

Why I am writing about this? Why do I think that street art is important? “…when there burst forth from one mansion a song of youth and originality, even though harsh and discordant, it should be received not with howls of fury but with reasonable attention and criticism.” Max Rothschild wrote defending the Italian Futurists in 1912. And a century on this is still sage advice in respect to the Futurists, rock music, punks or street art.

The Croft Alley Project was like a futurist wet dream, the artists painting the city a riot of dynamic colors surrounded by adoring crowds. There were many notable Melbourne street artists spraying in Croft Alley. I recognize Braddock from his images even though he is wearing an improvised bandana to protect himself from the fumes (most of the other artists had proper masks to protect them from the paint fumes). Beside him Tom Civil was unpacking his latest stencils.

I can’t comment on the individual pieces as many were still being painted – I will have to go back for another look. It was hard to see any of the pieces given the number of people in the alley. But there were plenty of people photographing and videoing the event with everything from mobile phones to large video cameras with boom microphones. One cameraman was climbing the walls to get a better shot. These are kind of crowds that you only see at blockbuster exhibitions. One reason for the crowd was the excellent weather, warm with high winds that sucked most of the aerosol fumes out of the urban canyon. Is this really great art or just a passing popular fancy? In the 19th Century Londoners queued around city blocks to see the work of ‘Mad’ John Martin, whose extravagant paintings are now largely forgotten having almost no influence on subsequent painters.

crowds in Croft Alley

crowds in Croft Alley

As I was watching Drew Funk paint, moving and spraying to the drum and bass rhythms of the DJ Kodiak Kid, pausing to clear the nozzle of his spray can. I thought: this is “action painting” like old old New York skool, 10th St. School, commonly known as “abstract expressionist”. It is action painting, it even has an audience, just not as Harold Rosenberg knew it. Further along the alley a woman in short and high heels balances on a milk crate spraying a voluptuous female character onto the wall. She has an audience watching her stretch to spray paint. It was Debs, who is well known for her spray painted sexy female characters, and it gave a new angle to her popularity.

Debs painting in Croft Alley

Debs painting in Croft Alley

This is Melbourne’s street art’s response to the anti-graffiti laws and lobby – a well-organized, legal, well-attended, fun event of propaganda by deed. According to the organizers over 2,000 people visited Croft Alley on Saturday and over 40 artists from around Australia were involved. I will have to go back to Croft Alley to have a look at the art left behind.

Bloggers & Tweeter Drinks

I went for drinks with some of Melbourne’s bloggers and tweeters, unfortunately the whole thing turned into a debacle as Sister Bella’s was closed. It is pleasant to stand around or even eat in some of Melbourne’s lanes but Sinder Lane is not one of them due to the smell of garbage. Trendy as these laneways are with all their bars and street art, the rubbish bins are a reminder of their true function as service lanes for deliveries and garbage collection.

Michael had organized another Melbourne Blogger and Tweeter drinks. Michael writes the blog My Aching Head and at Sister Bella’s on Sinder Lane (off Drewery Lane, off Little Lonsdale) was his choice of venue. I went to the last blogger drinks that Michael had organized back at the end of May. This was the first time that there were tweeters at the drinks. I don’t tweet (too many tweet might make a twat).

I meet up with two women who were also looking for the blogger and tweeters drinks. One of them was Vetti who writes Vetti: Live in Northcote. Vetti writes about life, food, op-shopping and interesting things.

On finding the bar closed the tweeter tweeted this information and an alternate plan. However, even with all this cutting edge communication Michael still had to go and wait at Sister Bella’s for any stragglers. We went to Section 8 in Tattersalls Lane which was open. Section 8 is a container bar; basically two shipping containers behind a chain-link fence on an empty lot in the city. One of the shipping containers has been converted into a bar with a large window cut along one side. It was crowded and the three of us had trouble finding somewhere to sit. There are more Drew Funk murals on the wall. I had just seen him spraying over at Don’t Ban The Can’s Croft Alley Project. On the walk to Sister Bella’s I had seen another one of his murals on the side of Chinese restaurant. The man’s work is all over the city.

Back to the subject of blogging and to blow my own trumpet – this blog has now had 40,000 hits. I believe that I have attracted this number of readers because I have written about other people (generally interesting artists) rather than myself. I have done research, thought, fact checked, asked people, found relevant links and put the leg-work in to see things for myself before reporting on them. There is also very little competition in writing about the visual arts and so much to write about. I wish that there were more bloggers writing about the arts and culture.

I noticed that my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne, has been closed by its host, Arts Hub. I will consider republishing some of the entries on this blog and rewrite others.

%d bloggers like this: