Monthly Archives: November 2009

Party @ Blender

They came together on a hot, humid November evening in Melbourne. There were young emerging artist – “aren’t that one of those twins that was on the ABC doco?”  There restless drunks clutching brown paper bags of take-away alcohol or sharing the silver plastic bag guts of a cask of wine; the beer had run out before I got there and the only thing that the very short barman was serving glasses of wine with every $2 donation to the gallery. They were no longer celebrating an exhibition opening but surviving another year in Melbourne’s art world.

There was an exhibition opening earlier in the night at Michael Koro Gallery: “Surface”, an exhibition about the painted surface. Only a few people were still in the gallery and most of those were queuing at the bar. Stephen Giblett was showing two paintings exploring the transition where the representational becomes abstract, as in his painting of paint on a painter’s overalls. He said that he was trying to be less tightly controlled with his brushwork with these paintings. Dan Sibley’s paintings of burning cars are very controlled; using a technique that appeared like Aboriginal dot painting or pointillism. Melbourne street artist, Frederick Fowler (aka NUROC) was exhibiting paintings of spontaneous aerosol single line drawings that filled the surface in his personal style. And, outside in the street, there were cowboys moving on the “Melbourne Propaganda Window”, two digital projectors on the papered upstairs windows of Michael Koro Gallery.

There were lots of exhibition openings on last Friday night in Melbourne. Outside the Yarra Sculpture Gallery there were lots of guys with mohawks and I could see another opening going on through the window of Per Square Metre as I passed by. I couldn’t go to them as I had other business to attend to; earlier in the evening I was at the Melbourne Stencil Festival AGM. I was elected secretary and the rest of the team that ran this years festival were all formally elected to run next year’s festival. I won’t bore you with any details of the meeting; we were trying not to bore ourselves and got through everything in under an hour.

When I arrive people’s attention had shifted to the studios and the alley that runs alongside Michael Koro Gallery and Blender Studios. Most of the studios had a few works on exhibition for the night. HaHa was sitting around in his studio upstairs with conspiracy theory videos running on the TV but no one was watching. A post-graduate social-anthropology student was trying to get 500 responses to a survey about attitudes to graffiti. A very quite techno music duo was playing with a singer wearing a showgirl style black costume with tassels made of garbage bag plastic. I asked Drew Funk what he was going to do now that he has painted the walls of so many bars, cafes and alleys in Melbourne. He told me is moving to Sydney.

It was yet another time that I had left my camera at home – every time I do I miss photo opportunities. The truth is that I still haven’t adjusted to the demand that a blogger is also a photojournalist. Not that I even had my notebook on this occasion, just a backpack full of stencil festival files. So this cannot be taken as an accurate record, it is just my distorted memory.


Street Artists making $

My blog entry Street Art & Galleries attracted a lot of comments some of them espoused a non-commercial ideal for street art. However, much of the free art on the streets appears to be advertising for street artist’s highly commercial enterprises, (see my blog entry Advertising & Graffiti). Street art is the most commercially accessible of contemporary movements; street art is far more commercial than even the Surrealism.  Street artists produce art from the high to low price range, from museum quality pieces to badges, and this allows anyone to purchase the artist’s work. Keith Haring opened shops in New York and Tokyo for his merchandise and generations of street artists have followed his example.

The marketing strategy of street artists is similar to that of KISS, the most commercially successful rock band ever. KISS gave extravagant concert tours at less than cost ticketing, as a promotion for the band’s t-shirts, figurines and other marketing spin offs that is KISS’s main revenue stream. Like fashion designers many of these artists also produce diffusion ranges – the number of sneaker, t-shirts and figurines by street artists is incalculable. Collectable is a sales feature for these limited editions designed by street artists.

Toys, miniatures and street art are not something that I’ve paid a great deal of attention to although I know that many well-known street artists make limited edition toys. It is not that I don’t understand that models making and miniatures are an art, especially after painting many models in my teenage years, it just isn’t my scene anymore. Dean Christ, who I met when he was exhibiting at the Melbourne Stencil Festival, sent me a link to some of his toys. These are not cute, they are very much boys toys. Dean Christ combines military vehicles with insect forms.

Street artists make many other promotional deals: from minor deals like putting a business’s name or logo on a legal work to major deals like local artist, Phibs’ YouTube video promotion for VB Raw. These many different income sources means that street artists, unlike most other artists, are not entirely dependent on gallery sales, arts council grants or other institutional funding.

Now I’m not opposed to artists making money and I am not criticizing these street artists mentioned for any of their commercial work. I am opposed to the idealism that generates the denial that street art is not commercial; a denial that is not unique to street art but is encountered in so many areas of the arts. Parts of the art world are reluctant to talk about money, as they want to be seen placing certain ideals above financial concerns. Medieval knights and royalty were not meant to engage in business or industry and some artists ape these antique manners. However, this is to deny the reality that art is connected to life, where artists have to live and make a living.

I am impressed with the marketing of street artists; many artists in history would envy their success. Many modern art groups wanted to be able to market their art democratically so that people of different income could afford it, however the technology and distribution market often did not support these enterprises. Marcel Duchamp tried producing men’s shirts, travel chess sets and picture discs (records with op art images) but there he was no internet to help generate international sales for him and none of these enterprises made a profit. The success of street art, an art movement that has spread around the world, is in part due its ability to be commercial successful.

Graduate Exhibition @ VCA

The VCA School of Art Graduate Exhibition 2009 is huge. Space after space filled with art: video installations, sculpture, paintings, drawings, printmaking, installations and things that defied classification, but were called “spatial practice” on the invite. If you are going to see this exhibition, and it is worth seeing, then give yourself over an hour to see it all. It is at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery (named after the Margaret Lawrence Bequest who supported the exhibition); which is all of the studio and workshop spaces at the VCA turned into a gallery.

The entrance is at 40 Dodds St., Southbank, it looked like there was a cue to get in when I arrived shortly after 6pm. It must have been the biggest thing happening in Melbourne’s art scene on that a mild Monday night. There were two long bars in the courtyard with a DJ and hundreds of people. Free wine or buy Mountain Goat beer (a strange kind of sponsorship). Young men with haircuts from 80s new wave bands, fashionably dressed young women, the artists, their parents, their friends, etc. There were thousands of people at the opening doing the gallery shuffle and demonstrating their “spatial practice” by not bumping into people after a few glasses of free wine.

Carmen Reid had sent me an invite to the exhibition (I wrote about her June exhibition at Brunswick Arts ) and I was pleased that I could find her exhibits. Her latest works continue to be enjoyable, the accordion doors “(Fidget) Neither Here Nor There” is like Looney Toons architecture made real. Unfortunately I did not get to talk to Carmen – I think that she was cleaning up broken bits of glass from her work “Limbo” that had been damaged by crowds of people.

Seeing the opening was like stumbling into an art fair, overpowering and diluted at the same time. It was hard to take in all the art because:

a)     there were so many people at the opening

b)    there were so many works of art (the invitation said over 1,000 works and I believe it).

c)     there were so much variety of quality art

The list of “School of Art Awards” ran to two sheets of paper – not that there was any information about the various awards beside the award-winning work.

All the current contemporary art moves are on show, the heat from lights, video projectors, art stirring up dust, plants trying to survive an art installation and visual puns from desperate art students. Although there is likely to be one or two very successful artists amongst this year’s graduating class. This doesn’t mean that they are doing great work now or that all the work in this exhibition is great. Much of the art is going down the plughole. Clare Scalan was painting studio plugholes prognosticating a future for so much paint and artist’s careers. I overheard someone in the crowd saying: “90% of video artists are rubbish.” It is probably true of all the arts graduates.

Still there is plenty of art to enjoy at this exhibition; I liked Graham Brindely’s sculptures. They are elegant, they are like physics experiments and drawing in 3 dimensions. In Brindely’s “Gravities” a plumb bob hangs over a circular pile of black sand.

Contemporary Craft – politics & blogs

Contemporary craft in Melbourne is street wise, informed about art history, political and fun. It is not fluffy, twee granny craft, but radical, cool craft. To understand how radical contemporary craft can get see:  Radical Cross Stitch, “seriously seditious stitching”.

“A more interesting role for the word ‘craft’, perhaps, rather than leave it marooned as a pejorative cultural refugee, is to return to it updated to its function as a politicised response to modernization.” Paul Greenhalgh The Modern Ideal (V&A Publications, 2005) (p.93)

In this political response craft is: un-alienated labour; it is vernacular/ethnic rather than global; and eliminating perceived class hierarchies in the arts and society. Craft is still seen as a political resistance or a personal antidote to the worst effects of modernism. Contemporary craft is often marketed as an ecologically responsible form of production and a way of creative recycling. The variety of recycled materials used in contemporary jewellery is amazing. Contemporary craft is also marketed a way of showing support to an ethnic group or a local artist by purchasing their vernacular versions rather than a modern globally available Ikea version. (In an extreme version of this political vision, another hierarchy emerges where craft is ethical and the fine arts are, in contrast, amoral.)

To make a living from their craft hobby is the ambition of many workers. Some do ‘down-size’ their lifestyle to become full-time craft workers in preference over a larger salary. The more professional of these contemporary crafts are for sale in Melbourne’s alternative art boutiques (see my entry on Art Boutiques). There is a great variety of unique jewellery, accessories and other craft items of fashion in Melbourne. But it is not just the professionals who are doing crafts; many women are doing crafts as a hobby (and it is mostly women as most of the young men are doing street art see my entry on Gender & Street Art, not forgetting that street art emphasises many craft techniques from calligraphy to stencils).

How much of the idealistic politics of craft is a reality? Morris & Co. hand blocked printed wallpaper merely replaced one form of repetitive work with another. The industrial work places of the ancient and medieval world are not good models for a good life. The art/craft distinction is interpreted by socialists as a class hierarchy and by feminists as a gender hierarchy but the hierarchy of arts and crafts has largely disappeared in contemporary art galleries, they are often seen side by side in the same gallery. However there still are hierarchies within crafts (that are still being challenged by both contemporary art and craft): the hierarchies between respectable crafts and other crafts, for example, imagine the outcry if a high-school needlework class swapped sewing needles for tattoo needles. And although craft does promote the regional, the vernacular styles and technique there has also been international modern and contemporary craft styles, from the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau onwards, that replace the vernacular.

Political arguments, aside, due to the interest in contemporary craft there are a lot of really interesting craft blogs, The Melbourne Stiches and Craft Show 2009 had a craft bloggers corner, where people could talk to craft bloggers and look at the craft blogs online. Here are a few craft blogs that I’ve found interesting:

Melbourne Jeweller – information, reviews and thoughts about Melbourne’s jewellery scene.

Craft City Melbourne – a directory of local crafty favourites, written by a number of authors (they welcome contributors) and organized by suburb and pursuit.

Polka Dot Rabbit – another interesting craft blog from Melbourne.

Embroidery As Art – for the textile artist.

Glass Central Canberra – more than just glass art

Page 63 of your Manual – Sayraphim Lothian artist’s craft blog

Thanks to my wife Catherine, who enjoys cross-stitching and greeting card making, for the inspiration and additional research.


Who cares about this pseudo-medieval influenced folly and what significance does it have to Melbourne’s culture? I have been to Montsalvat on a couple of occasions to see a concert or just to look around at the faux medieval architecture.

The idea of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement was that a return to traditional work practices would end the alienation of the worker by a creative anachronistic medievalism. Although the arts and crafts movement did produce some beautiful art it did not fulfil its utopian dreams and neither has Montsalvat. It is unique, an unsuccessful mutant that wasn’t viable, couldn’t adapt and didn’t reproduce any offspring.

Unlike Heide, the former house of art patrons John and Sunday Reed, Montsalvat is not significant in Australian art history. It has produced no significant artists as a look at their permanent exhibition of the resident’s paintings demonstrates. And unlike Heide, Montsalvat has been unable to adapt to the changing world because of its anachronistic ideal. While Heide can add a new gallery and sculptures; Montsalvat has become a quaint attractive setting for up market wedding receptions.

Another problem with Montsalvat’s cultural vision is that it is a bucolic rural vision and if there is a future for culture then it must be an urban vision. Suggesting that the solution to our cultural problems is to retreat from the urban environment is short-sighted and environmentally destructive however superficially attractive it might appear.

So who cares about Montsalvat and its financial problems? Nobody commented about my blog entry about Montsalvat’s financial problems but when I came to mention Betty Roland’s book about Montsalvat there were comments. As one correspondent wrote: “Montsalvat still stirs passions just as art does. Mention Meldrum or Jorgensen in certain circles and you will be shunned as some sort of leper.”

If one person can make a difference then Justus Jorgensen’s (1893-1975) contribution to Melbourne’s culture has to be negative. Melbourne’s artist colony at Montsalvat in Eltham by Betty Roland, The Eye of the Beholder, (Hale & Iremonger, 1986).

It is the history of a group of minor Melbourne artist, writers and hangers on, first centred on the painter, Max Meldrum but then the bullying personality of Justus Jorgensen takes over. Justus Jorgensen appears oblivious not just to the rest of the world, to history, to anyone who he does not dominate. “Jorg (Jorgensen) has a radio and listens to the news but does not discuss it. He is more interested in the love-life of his pupils than the fall of France.” (p.181)

Jorgensen, a student of Meldrum, copies both Meldrum’s personality cult and his artistic technique. Both Max Meldrum and Justus Jorgensen are conservative painters hanging on to 19th century tonal techniques. Jorgensen’s vision of an artist’s colony at Montsalvat is equally conservative as is his architecture. The extent that he and his followers archived letters and other documents, sure of their place in history, is unnerving and reminiscent of a cult. And Jorgensen’s ego is recorded in numerous self-portraits.

Montsalvat pseudo-medieval buildings were built with donated labour and money. Jorgensen appears to be a master at toadying to wealthy donors and exploiting his disciples. He appears to be more interested in controlling people than painting. His followers thought him a genius but he avoided contact with anyone who might damage this delusion. I felt no pity for those that he did manipulate, seduce or bully because they wanted it, they wanted someone to order them and give their lives meaning. If Jorgensen hadn’t controlled his or her lives somebody else would have.

Betty Roland is not a historian but one of the small circle that lived at Montsalvat. Her book is full of details of the infidelities and other love affairs of the group but becomes dull with all the details. It also suffers from being both an autobiography and a biography of Justus Jorgensen confusing the narrative. Ultimately the book it isn’t that interesting due to the group’s insularity and conservative artistic vision. It is hard to describe how boring, conservative and parochial this group of would be bohemians were; they were off to the pub at 5pm like everyone else in Melbourne.

(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.)

Street Art Forgeries & Plagiarism

Street art involves a lot of appropriation (stealing) other people’s images from the mass media, art and elsewhere. Appropriation is part of the cut and paste, Dada to hip-hop, lineage of which street art is a part. A sample, appropriated from some other work of art or design, can be used creatively to create new and original works. (I could expand on the history of sampling in music, art and literature but this is not the point.) Appropriation, sampling, homage, tribute, plagiarism, copy, whatever you want to call it, are all the various degrees of lack of authenticity and originality. And this leaves the door wide open for many kinds of abuses.

Forged Banksy

Not a real Banksy

I saw a fake Banksy gangster rat on the street of Brisbane, I’m pretty sure that Banksy never went to Brisbane but if he did this would have faded in the sun by now. It has been copied from a photograph of a Banksy gangster rat but it has left out details on the ghettoblaster. This fake Banksy is different from the forgeries on sale in auction houses or on Ebay. (In April 2007 auction house Christies withdrew two alleged Banksy paintings from sale. And The Art Newspaper reported (1/10/07) that unauthorized Banksy prints with forged signatures are for sale on Ebay.) Legally it is hard to actually be a forgery when you are free and anonymously created on the street as no claims are being made about the authenticity and nobody is suffering any financial loss as a result of the deception.

Street art is frequently not just copying or sampling but plagiarizing with copies of copies of copies. (See my review of Swifty’s show and see his reply in the comments). I do not want to see another Warhol imitation or any famous high contrast black and white image reproduced in stencil-art. Copying Warhol is just repetitive and it does not make the copyist another Warhol. On a full colour sticker by Mask is a reproduction of Roy Lichtenstein’s painting of an artist and his girlfriend saying, “Oh Brad, soon all the galleries will be clamouring for your art”, only “Brad” has been replaced by “Mask”. This sucks all of irony out of Lichtenstein’s appropriation of the original comic frame. A copy of art will not alone make a work art.

Mask sticker

Mask sticker

There are many reasons for copying: for learning and practicing, for ironic or satirical parody, for all kinds of reasons – but copying for it’s own sake is not one of them – it is just plagiarism.

Ricky Swallow @ NGV

I liked Ricky Swallow’s art from the first exhibition that I saw. It was one of Ricky Swallow’s first solo exhibitions: “The Lighter Side of the Darkside” at Grey Area Art Space in 1998 the year after he graduated from the VCA. The exhibition was very funny. It combined record players, themes of space exploration and evolution with plasticine models the put a Darth Vader helmet on a Planet of the Apes face. I was not surprised that he went on to have a stellar career.

I was even more impressed when I saw his actual sized carving of whole table with a still life with seafood: Killing Time (2003-4). This work refers to history of still life painting and the common theme of death that Swallow frequently uses. The art history references along with the beauty of the carved wood make Killing Time a masterpiece.

So I was looking forward to Ricky Swallow’s exhibition “The Bricoleur” at the NGV Fed Square but when I saw it I was under-whelmed. There was so little on exhibition that I felt as if I’d missed something. Two sparsely hung galleries with mostly recent work; there was none of his older works that used record players. The two series of his watercolour paintings in the faux naïve style did nothing for me. They appeared to be a cruder version of Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings of British celebrities applied to Californian rock icons.

There are beautiful and fun works in the exhibition. The “bricoleur: is a tinkerer, a bodger, a modifier of found objects and this is a good description of Swallow’s diverse approaches to finding subjects and making art. The carvings of ephemeral objects like crumpled paper in hardwood, Fig 1 (2008). The combination of barnacles on balloons echoed in casts of archery targets, the arrow holes look like barnacles. It is playful and fun, even when dealing with the theme of death.

Swallow’s art has courted the attention of two both sub-cultures: goth (with all the skeletons and other references to death) and hippy. I think that the hippy side has dominated. The influence of California was evident in the movie themes that Swallow used at the start but after he moved there it is much stronger. This is not just in the paintings of Californian rock icons, but the increasing play superficial aesthetics like kitsch, corny or sentimentalism.

Much of Swallow’s work questions the status of woodcarving as fine art. If kitsch is the inappropriate translation of a work of art to another media, like a Mona Lisa beach-towel, a Clement Greenberg argues in his seminal essay on kitsch. The question that Swallow’s work raises is woodcarving an appropriate media and what is an appropriate subject to carve? Woodcarving is often a kitsch or corny art technique with its folk craft traditions. And carving the Woodstock logo of a bird perched on a guitar neck, as Swallow has done, is definitely corny if not kitsch.

See also Artkitiques blog entry On Ricky Swallow.

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