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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Street Art & Galleries

Every time street art enters the gallery the question is raised about the definition of street art. The Melbourne galleries most associated with street art doesn’t want to use the term “Street Art” because it is a contradictory term for art in a gallery, But it is the term that we are stuck with. Maybe some future art historian will find a better name for the art movement.

When I want to use a word like ‘movement’ I refer to the “Afterword” in Stewart Home The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, London, 1988) “’Movement’ has military connotations and implies a mass of adherent. For something to merit the title ‘movement’ it would seem to require several thousand participants at the very least.” (p.106) Art movements are very rare; Home lists the Sixties Underground (taken as a whole), Punk and Mail Art as the only post war art movements. The rest, Situationalists, CoBrA  Fluxus, etc. are just groups.

Like other movements, street art is, in part, a reaction to previous art movements with a radical change in artistic paradigms. Instead of art dependent on gallery space to make it art, street art is independent of the gallery setting. Walking through W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse of all the objects in the world and trying to pick out the art you may be confused by Duchamp’s readymades but not by the street art. (Kennick, Journal of Philosophy, v.81) Street art is designed to appear as art without the museum, you would know that it is art anywhere.

If you know that street art is art anywhere why is there any doubt about it still being street art in an art gallery. How can one identical image, for example a stencil, be street art when sprayed in the street and not when shown in a gallery? Unless “street art” is merely a geographic description that would also include any art found on the street, (e.g. public sculpture etc.) Although street art is a rejection of the influence of the anesthetizing environment of the contemporary art gallery that dominated so much of late modernism and contemporary art it does not follow that street art ceases to be street art in an art gallery.

Perhaps the question would be better put is it appropriate to show street art in art galleries? But this does not make sense as it would make art galleries only appropriate for a very limited amount of art. For most of human history art was not made for art galleries – Leonardo da Vinci never thought that his paintings would hang in an art gallery because the idea of art galleries had not been invented. Very little art is therefore appropriate for an art gallery, however, currently a lot of art does end up being exhibited in art galleries from sacred art intended for churches and temples to street art intended for the street. However, the contemporary art gallery is the site for displaying and selling art and design as diverse as Amish quilts to street art.

Street art has become a term for a new graphic arts movement that started in the early 1980s and continuing into the 21st century. It is a calligraphic and figurative art movement that developed on the street. Instead of art that requires no talent, no technique, no skill (aside from theory, publicity and management skills), street art emphasizes illustrative drawing skills and other talents. Instead of art that is dependent on art theory, that was becoming, in Arthur Danto’s terms, philosophy; street art is independent of current art theory (this is not to say that street art is theory free). Street art may be independent of art galleries but that doesn’t mean that they are antithetical.

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Juan Ford

I meet Juan Ford in 1999 over several LookSmart staff lunches when he was doing his masters; his then girlfriend was a colleague of mine. Juan Ford is gregarious and we enjoyed talking about art when everyone else was talking about the internet. I saw many of Juan Ford’s exhibitions in Melbourne, the openings were always packed with people. At first these were at artist run or rental spaces and then major art galleries like Dianne Tanzer Gallery in Melbourne and Jan Manton Art in Brisbane.

The first painting of Juan Ford’s that I saw was his 1999 exhibition at TCB art Inc. “The Way It Is”. The exhibition consisted of a single canvas on an easel that faced away from the small gallery’s shopfront window; on the canvas was a view looking out of the gallery from that spot, it was like a Magritte image brought to life.

After that Juan Ford started to exhibit anamorphic images engraved through the paint onto the aluminium support. Anamorphic images are images that are not their own shape because they have been stretched or otherwise distorted. Anamorphic images are an old painting trick for creating a hidden image; most famously know with the distorted skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) and Salvador Dali continued this optical tradition with a few lithographs in 1972 that have to be viewed in a reflecting cylinder, a bottle of Ponche Caballero, to be precise. Ford’s anamorphic paintings are like The Chemical Bros in paint, distorted images are scratched with a groove cutter across portraits of Juan’s friends in a daring display. And the anamorphic images produced a special kind of audience interaction with the paintings as people stood on the extreme sides of the paintings trying to find the viewing point for the anamorphic image.

Ford’s early paintings were full of darkness and chiaroscuro lighting. He put excitement and drama in figurative painting with excellent painting technique and playing with optical distortions. However, this changed with his 2002 exhibition ‘Clone’ where his images were full of a lot more light and informed by a lot more science, like clones, hybridisation and the environment.

In 2006 I saw an exhibition of Juan Ford at Dudespace in Brunswick. Juan Ford was back from a residency in Rome courtesy of the Australia Council to study severed heads. He thought that these would be the severed heads in the paintings of Caravaggio but instead he found himself painting the broken disfigured marble heads of antiquity, heads that have been broken off statues of Neptune, Venus and Hestia, with their missing noses and other chips.

 

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Juan Ford - The Shaman (Image courtesy the artist and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane)

After that Juan Ford started to paint eucalyptus leaves, or their shadows on people’s skin. Images that are obviously Australian landscapes and baked in sunlight. I asked Juan why he wanted to paint obviously Australian images? Juan Ford replied: “I’m not sure there’s an entirely obvious response to that. I did want to tap into the rich history of Australian painting, but in an oblique way that said something about our times. Also I am conscious that a lot of art strives to emulate the ‘international’ aesthetic of the biennale circuit, or that shown in Frieze or e-flux. I really didn’t want that, I don’t find that kind of approach very interesting at all. I often that work with a local flavor has a greater dimension or depth.”

 

In his latest exhibition Juan Ford continues to paint images of Australian flora and to develop the ideas behind them. Bundles of gum leaves or Banksia flowers bound up in electrical cable, cellophane packing wrap or gaffa tape. The encroaching banality of modern hardware materials on the poetic flora is shown in complex but elegant images.

 

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Juan Ford - Busted Bouquet (Image courtesy the artist and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane)

Juan Ford wrote about his 2007 exhibition in Queensland that: “The vanitas tradition used the skull to warn the viewer of the work that their soul was forever in danger from their thoughts and acts while alive. Well these are secular versions of that kind of thing, environmentally focused. I want to say that our arrogance can undo us, but life will keep going despite us. We do not own life, and never have – it flows though us, and then moves on. Wanting a 4wd and a huge plasma screen tv is just bullshit; each time this happens we a collective step closer to environmental catastrophe and subsequent annihilation.”

 

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Juan Ford - Misunderstanding Everything (Image courtesy the artist and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane)

 


Sydney Rd. Window/Art

“This nugget is a symbol of the dream common to all those who travelled along Sydney Road on their way to the Victorian gold fields.” The bronze plaque reads; unfortunately the bronze plaque look more golden than the pathetic green bronze lump bolted near the entrance to a carpark near Albion Street. The idea of casting a giant ‘nugget of gold’ in bronze is stupid and pointless as this public memorial that is almost hidden from view.

No one travels along Sydney Rd. to the Victorian gold fields now; the highway is a more direct route and the gold rush is history. Sydney Rd. is now a very long shopping strip from Brunswick to Coburg with cafes and restaurants serving food from around the world.

Each year the Moreland City Council and the local traders association has as community art exhibitions in the shop windows. This year it is called Window/Art. I have been in a few of the past exhibitions and seen others because I live in the area. They never really work either as community art exhibitions or as attractions for Sydney Rd shops. The problem is that Sydney Rd. is too long and the shops exhibiting work are spaced too far apart. The general amateur standard of art on exhibition does not attract much of an audience. There is nothing wrong with community art exhibitions but the amateur art on exhibition would be better in a local gallery rather than in a shop window amongst their window display. The gold ribbon frames taped to the shop windows did make the art more clearly identifiable but did look tacky and didn’t always frame the work.

I did not meticulously survey the first part of Window/Art between Victoria St. and Moreland Rd. but have seen it in parts as I went past in the tram or walking along a particular block while shopping. I had my lunch at Tabet’s Bakery for Lebanese pizzas: oregano, sesame seeds and fresh tomatoes and capsicum – a very tasty.

Robert Waghorn - It Ain't Heavy

Robert Waghorn - It Ain't Heavy

There are a few stand out pieces on exhibition, including: Ben Howe (who was highly commended in the Emerging Artist Award at Melbourne Stencil Festival), Rachael Miller (another artist who exhibited at the stencil festival), and Robert Waghorn, (whose sculpture I wrote about in Victoria St Mall Coburg) who is exhibiting two painted wooden sculptures in the window of the Edinburgh Castle Hotel. And at Gowns Evening Wear Ri Van Veen raku clay works are certainly in good taste; her “That’s a Wrap” is simple, elegant and effective. Gowns Evening Wear was involved in past window exhibitions and generally makes a good selection. (You would hope that the manager of a shop selling evening wear would have good taste in art, as well as, fashion).

Ri Van Veen - That's a Wrap

Ri Van Veen - That's a Wrap

However, the quality and quantity of street art along the Upfield railway line and bike path, that runs parallel to Sydney Rd., makes that my preferred local community visual art experience. But that is another story.


Alternative Exhibition Spaces

When you mention alternative spaces in Melbourne people generally think of bars, cafés, restaurants that have art for sale on their walls, for example the Kaleidoscope Café. There is more than that. All kinds of other spaces used for temporary exhibitions. Besides these obvious alternatives there are also exhibitions spaces in people’s house, for example Dudespace or Albert’s Basement.

I went to Dudespace in 2006 to see an exhibition of Juan Ford’s paintings. Dudespace is an irregular gallery in an empty room in a shared house in Brunswick.

Dudespace is a real alterative to the traditional art gallery, an informal place with the stereo on and people having a beer out the back.  It is the perfect venue for Juan Ford to quickly and easily show his recent works for one day before the paintings go to a gallery in Brisbane. Juan Ford normally shows at commercial galleries like Diana Tanzer Gallery.

According to the dude, Geoff who lives there he has been hosting exhibitions and other art events for the last three years. Dudespace is an ordinary private suburban house in Brunswick with a t-shirt bearing the name “Dudespace” hung out the front. The exhibition room has the same old light fittings as my own living room; the lino squares in the corridor and carpet are also familiar.

It was a little after 12 noon on Sunday in 2007 when I visited a run down terrace house in East Brunswick. The house is home to six people living but I was there to see the exhibition in their corridor and living-room. There was a cardboard sign on the door: “Alberts Basement – Ring My Bell”. I rang the bell and Kurt answered the door. Kurt explained that he was standing in for Mitch, the curator who was still asleep. Kurt went to turn on the exhibition as I took a look at the art in the hall. There were works by HaHa, Braddock, HaHa vs Braddock, Tom Hall and Cecilia Fogelberg.

The exhibition occupied the hallway, the stairwell, the upstairs hallway and the upstairs living room with a DVD on. The art was densely hung but the walls of shared houses are normally a dense clutter of images, with interesting items stacked up on the mantelpiece along with Sean’s shoe with teeth in the toe, so it felt different from a densely hung gallery. It reminded me of so many artistic shared houses that I have visited. There was no catalogue, the names of the artists were written on the wall in pencil, and I didn’t ask if the works were for sale.

I was making lots of notes, because there was no catalogue, and Kurt, feeling a little paranoid, asked if this was a house inspection. I assured him that I was an art critic and he replied that some of the artists need a lot of criticism. Kurt was right; much of it was the kind of work that you find in a student exhibition, derivative, angst and theory. There was a great variety of art from aerosol stencils, paintings, drawings, etchings, photographs, photocopies, sculpture, collage, video art and textile art.

There were two other visitors to see the exhibition when I was there and it was worth a visit. It was a friendly and intimate experience, unlike the anaesthetic white space gallery. And this kind of exhibition is also less expensive for young artists than a rental gallery space. Melbourne would have an exciting art scene if there were more exhibitions like this one.

Having an exhibition in a shared house is not unique. These exhibitions happen on an informal basis all the time in artistic shared households. In mine, we had installations in vacant rooms and the “R. Mutt Memorial Gallery” in the toilet.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)


Melbourne International Arts Festival

Art involves a risk, a risk for the artist that they might fail and a risk for the audience that they might not enjoy it. Sports, strippers and stuntmen are risk free entertainment for the audience; you will generally get what you expect. Art involves an investment by the audience that might not return value for their time, money and emotional investment. Not that the risks posed by art are that great, a waste of time, money and thought. I have been bored far more often than shocked and rarely hurt (use ear protection when going to live bands or night clubs).

A critic should take more risks in what they see than ordinary members of the public. A critic should be an explorer of new territory, as well as, being aware of the established areas. I have not been taking many risks recently going to events at the Melbourne International Arts Festival as they have been programmed by festival directors and praised by other critics. Arts festivals attempt, with their selection and discount ticket packages, to ameliorate the risk of sampling new work. In this respect I feel a bit negligent in my selection of items to report in this blog. I excuse myself as I am still recovering from all the secretarial work for the Melbourne Stencil Festival.

Seeing a production of Chunky Moves has become a safe bet for me, after the last three of their productions (Glow, Two Faced Bastard, and Mortal Engine) that I have seen. I know that they will take risks in new and daring dance productions. I know that they consistently produce excellent performances and I never know what to expect from a Chunky Moves performance except that it would high-energy contemporary dance. Certainly their production Black Marrow lived up to expectations in that it defied my expectations all the way through. Just when I expected not to see a face for the whole performance, a man in a three-piece suit emerges from the mass of bodies and starts to talk to the audience. I laughed, I cried, it was grotesque – it was life in all its swampy blackness. The sound, lighting and other stage effects combined brilliantly with the dance. The Merlyn Theatre at the CUB Malthouse, is well equipped for these effects and is an excellent venue for Chunky Moves.

I had less of an idea what to expect of Ray Lee’s Sirens at the Meatmarket even though by the time I saw the second last performance there had been a few published reviews. It was clear from the festival program that this did not fit into a conventional artistic format of a play, concert or exhibition. It was worth the risk its of ambiguity and minimalism as there was a lot of beauty in it. Sirens is low-tech, drone installation and performance. It required a meditative mind, a person capable of keeping silent and listening to nuances in sound to appreciate. The machines, tripods with a rotating arm with a speaker and LED light on either ends are turned on and tuned. A single oscillator provides the sound to each pair of speakers. Then a motor turns the arm creating a Doppler effect as the speakers swing around. The shadows projected onto the walls of the Meatmarket of Ray Lee on a ladder turning one of the taller tripods as other arms rotated around was surprisingly beautiful. In the darkness at the end of the spinning LED lights are another beautiful image. All of this made me keep on moving around the installation to see and hear it from a different angle.


Advertising & Graffiti

Defenders of graffiti often point at the visual pollution of advertising, arguing that only economics separates the two and that graffiti if often more aesthetic than advertising.

Increasingly advertising campaigns are using graffiti as part of their campaign. In 2007 there were stencils advertising for the Borat movie in Lt. LaTrobe St, in Richmond and in Centre Place. The publicists for the Borat movie thought that they could grab some hip free space but were greatly mistaken. Their ad was quickly covered up with “No Ad” in marker pen and “John Howard killed the Glasshouse” in a purple and yellow stencil. This zone of “extreme tolerance” towards graffiti is not going to tolerate the invasion of advertising. The advertising dollar might rule in the rest of the world but its images will be resisted in temporarily autonomous zones.

Well, that is the idealistic version but some advertising does sneak through. The first stencil graffiti that I saw in Melbourne was the 1984 publicity campaign for the movie, Dogs in Space. That publicity campaign was a copy of the graffiti publicity campaigns that bands had used earlier (there is the notable use of stencil images from Crass and Black Flags).

There are lots of viral advertising campaigns employing street art techniques, including advertising stickers posing as street art. One of the most sophisticated of these was Adidas’s Zero Tag campaign (see my blog entry and the comments on Lex Injusta) From the comments it appeared that this advertising campaign did not impress many street artists.

Fly-posting of posters is just as illegal as paste-ups/wheat-pasting but because they are advertising they are tolerated more than art – there aren’t organizations against fly-posting but there are anti-graffiti organizations. The poster gangs of Melbourne quickly paste over any material that encroaches on their territory. The current use of chalk stencil advertising on footpaths is just as illegal as fly posting and graffiti. It has been used increasingly in 2009 to advertise universities, soft drinks, the Dali exhibitions, plays and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases.

Advertising for the play "Optimism"

Advertising for the play "Optimism"

The street artists are advertising themselves in their work, the signature tags write large. In 2007 there were lot of myspace addresses amongst the art in Hosier Lane. And, in the case of legit legal works the image will advertise business that commissioned the work and supplied the paint. Street art has always been a form of alternative advertising. Jason Dax Woodward points out that “the standard size of a billboard is much like that of the side of a train.” (Woodward, How to read Graffiti , p.12)


The Velvet Underground film

After about twenty minutes into the film parts of the audience started to walk out. Either the camera work had got to them or it was clear to them that the Velvets weren’t about to break into a chorus of Sweet Jane. What did these people expect from an Andy Warhol film? Hadn’t they heard The Velvet Underground playing Sister Ray? People continued to walk out throughout the film. I was chilled in the front row with TC, tranced out with the droning electric guitars that seemed to have more in common with the dust and scratches on the film than the black and white images of Nico or Lou Reed.

The Velvet Underground and Nico: a Symphony of Sound was filmed at the Factory in January 1966. Even though music video clips had not been invented yet this 67min film features many of what have now become clichés of music videos, including the use of rapid zooming and panning in time with the music. Even the plot for a music video is remarkably familiar: band is playing live and the cops turn up. One NYC police officer suddenly appears in shot, smiles at the camera and turns the music down. The band plays for a bit more – “that’s still too loud” says a voice off camera. The cops talk to Andy and Gerard Malanga, his studio assistant, And the band packs up.

Eventually the camera runs out of film, end of film. Although the camera remains in a fixed position throughout the film and there is only one shot. It appears that Andy, or who ever was behind the camera (because Andy is in front of the camera at the end), was endlessly playing with the camera rather than doing what Andy Warhol was famous for a static shot with no pans or zooms. If only they had done a fixed shot the film would have been a lot better.

The Velvet Underground and Nico: a Symphony of Sound was part of a series of films by Andy Warhol showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). I went with my old friend TC who played guitar in a garage band with me. We are both fans of the Velvets; we used to play cover versions of Sweet Jane and Venus in Furs. Later I played in a Velvet Underground cover band, Edie Sedgwick’s Overdose with Ron Rude. Although, we were both fans of the Velvets, neither TC nor myself had seen the film nor heard the music. This was a rare screening of the film. Except for footage from their revival tour I have never before seen The Velvet Underground playing. I have seen a few still images from this film but never the moving picture.

Although I had never heard the “symphony of sound” before the music was not unfamiliar. It was not unlike Sister Ray but without any vocals and an hour long – something like the performances that the Velvets would later do in the afternoons of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Mo Tucker’s ever steady drumming was holding the droning sound of guitars and electric viola together. At one stage John Cage appeared to play some amplified long steel springs with a table knife but it was difficult to see what he was doing as the camera was mostly on Nico (tambourine) or her 3-year old son, Ari (maraca).


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