Monthly Archives: November 2009

Galleries & Museums

Modern and contemporary art is often aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work art. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning even existence. Modern art was also dependent on gallery spaces; it was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient.

Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to exhibition. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject; I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier.

Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first post-French revolution art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.

Although the neo-classical architecture has mostly disappeared art museums haven’t changed their function from that of the proto-art gallery, a display of the state’s wealth and power. As displays of power political allegiances are on display in major art museums where the international collection will reflect the countries geo-political position. Those countries firmly in the American camp following the American version of art history in their collections, the Europeans having a slightly different version of art history and post-colonial countries another version.

And if articles about the aesthetic impact of art museums are rare, articles about art galleries are non-existent. This is why I pay particular attention to current gallery practices and to describing art galleries, counting the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm?

(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 Notes – Nov 09

“Cherry pickers, with satin brushes big as a door, inch through Wall Street leaving a vast souvenir postcard of the Grand Canyon. Water-trucks slosh out paint. Outlaw painters, armed with paint pistols, paint everything and everyone in reach. Survival artists, paint cans strapped to their backs, grenades at their belts, paint anybody and anything within range. Skywriters dogfight and collide and explode.”

William S. Burroughs (“Apocalypse” from an illustrated catalogue in collaboration with Keith Haring, 1989) Amongst his many crimes and peccadillos, William Burroughs was caught doing graffiti on a NYC subway. He had written: “Ah Pook was here”, Ah Pook is the Mayan god of destruction.

Unknown artist - St. Kilda Rd.

Van Rudd - St. Kilda Rd.

I have seen some street art using trees, is very uncommon, this one on St. Kilda road had charcoal marks applied to it. Trees are a common feature of the urban environment; they are rarely touched by street artists but I have seen some good site-specific art on trees by street artists. And after much talk about the possibilities of street art with moss I finally saw some near East Richmond station however it had not been grown but glued to the wall.

unknown artist

unknown artist - details of moss antlers

After lots of comic book characters the aerosol street artists are now doing lots of large realist faces, mostly images from cinema history. Some of the best of these faces can be seen along Hoddle St. in Collingwood.

facesI went back to look at Croft Alley in Chinatown about two months after the Don’t Ban the Can event. There was one graffiti writer at work in the alley when I visited on a warm Saturday afternoon on my way to yum cha. It was hard to see all the walls because of all the garbage bins, but they are, along with other services why these alleyways have been constructed. It looked good and fresh, in contrast to the smell of garbage. There are a great variety of styles from the old school, wild-style, characters and beyond. I say “beyond” because there were also work there that really pushed the techniques and ideas of what aerosol art could be. I could see more of it and there was more to see then when I was there for the painting.

Croft Alley - Civil detail

Croft Alley - unknown (detail)
Croft Alley - Phibs“Style in ornament is analogous to hand in writing, and this is it literal signification.”

Ralph Nicholson Wornum (The Principles of Ornamentation, 1858)

Wanda Gillespie @ Seventh

“The Museum of Lost Worlds presents: Swi Gunting (reconstructing artefacts from the lost island of Tana Swiwi)” must be the longest title for an exhibition that I’ve seen this year – it is on at Seventh Gallery and it is worth seeing.

Swi Gunting are carved and decorated wooden scissor-lifts constructed by the Jatiwangi Arts Factory from Jatiwangi West Java. The craftsmen at the Jatiwangi Arts Factory have produced beautiful carved and painted work. And the wooden scissor-lifts do actually work; they are capable of being cranked up and down with an adapted bicycle chain and sprocket wheel. Since these scissor-lifts are too small and decorative to have a practical use archaeologists would classify them as ceremonial objects and we know that they must be contemporary art.

Wanda Gillespie is the artist behind this spectacle of the Museum of Lost Worlds; her website has images and details of the sculpture on exhibit. For more information about her residency see Creative Journeys.

I like imaginary museums like the Museum of Lost Worlds; I have also seen the Museum of Modern Oddities and the Museum of Soy Sauce Art. The idea of a museum, the older relative of the art gallery, has an aesthetic impact on the art displayed. The artist becomes the curator and gallery director of their imaginary gallery. Unfortunately “The Museum” part doesn’t really work, it didn’t make me believe in a museum, and feels like an excess of words. Some didactic cards, a website, other exhibits or souvenirs from the imaginary museum would have helped make it more complete.

Wanda Gillespie is a Melbourne based-artist who mixes the conceptual and sculptural. I first saw her exhibition “Flying For Dummies and failed attempts” at Blindside in 2006. I thought that it was a good exhibition when I saw it but Swi Gunting is much better. For two years Gillespie was the secretary for Seventh Gallery, an artist run initiative, in part explaining why Seventh Gallery consistently has good exhibitions of quality contemporary art. She was also founding director of Twentybythirty, a miniature gallery, in Melbourne’s CBD.

Triforce Advances @ Gorker

“The triforce advance team promise to deliver a set of new work to help you hyper-teleport to other dimensions. 
As well as a new set of individual new work form each artist there will be a set of unseen collaborative pieces set amongst large treehouse installations.” – Quoted from Ghostpatrol’s email.

They were still washing the glasses from the wine tasting the night before when I visited Gorker on Thursday afternoon. On the black walls of Gorker’s main gallery there were over 60 small images along with three wooden “treehouses”. There was a crash of glass coming from the kitchen. In the white kitchen there were more works.

Triforce Advance are playing their exhibition, “The Neverending Masterquest” like a video game with a “Bonus Level” along with a wine tasting on Wednesday night. The “Bonus Level” is another new set of watercolor collaborations by Acorn, Nior and Ghostpatrol, works by the newly formed “Forest Force collective” (Acorn, Alpha-ray and Ghostpatrol) and a triptych by Sean Wheelan and Ghostpatrol. Collaboration is a very important feature of their creative process, a street art process that Ghostpatrol has successfully brought into the gallery.

Ghostpatrol, Acorn and others spent the last two weeks out in the country collaborating and creating these new works. There is real depth to all of the collaborations in the exhibition. The artists play with each other’s images; the hand-shadow puppets and other images unite the exhibition. I am not familiar with his collaborators but I have been seeing Ghostpatrol’s work on the street for many years. And Ghostpatrol is the uniting force behind both “Triforce Advance” and the “Forest Force collective”.

Like Ghostpatrol, Acorn and Noir are both skilled illustrators. Acorn creates landscapes with techno-savage child inhabitants. And Noir specializes in depicting animals along with geometric forms.  Their individual styles are clear in their collaborations but a shared childhood aesthetic unites their efforts. This not a cute childhood vision but something closer to savagery of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The “treehouses”, cubby houses, the childhood forts are symbols of the temporary autonomous zones of children. It is this wild-child freedom is the inspiration for Acorn and Ghostpatrol’s aesthetic – Ghostpatrol has named his studio “Mitten Fortress”. The “treehouses” have pitched roofs and are beautifully constructed from old wood and other found material. They contain all the equipment, the collections, the weapons, and the trophies, the drawings needed for life of freedom and art. One of the tree houses contained an animated digital picture of Ghostpatrol’s drawings.

Culture @ Brunswick St. Fitzroy

How did Brunswick St. Fitzroy become Melbourne’s alternative cultural centre? The place with the significant galleries, boutique shops, music venues and cafes; over the decades the unofficial cultural centre of Melbourne has moved St. Kilda and then Chapel St. were once that kind of unofficial cultural centre but over the years, as market pressures increase the rental costs, the cultural centre moved to Fitzroy. Now this trend of north-western movement of the cultural centre is continuing and Northcote and Brunswick are competing to be the next cultural centre.

What is it about its environment? Why is the location of the cultural centre important? A lot of money in real estate depends on it, as well as, as local businesses because it is part of the urban regeneration process known as gentrification. But this is only the monetary evaluation of the improvement in the quality of life in the area. It is more fun, more interesting and more exciting to live in place where there is music, good food and things to see and do.

In part this is a story about gentrification of a former slum. Brunswick St. is a long shopping strip with a tramline running up its middle in Fitzroy is an inner city Melbourne suburb. This is a brief history of how it became established as an alternate cultural centre with art galleries, pubs with bands, bookshops and restaurants.

Brunswick St. started with live music in many of these pubs and bars along Brunswick St that made its reputation. The pubs that made Brunswick St. an alternative cultural centre were the T.F. Much Ballroom and the Punters Club.

Polyester Books also contributed to Brunswick St. alternative culture status. Polyester Books was born when Polyester Records expanded into books and magazines. It became notorious for its underground content; with a variety of zines, along with other alternative publications. But it was its window painting that attracted the most attention. The window once featured a manga painting of two clothed girls with bondage and lesbian themes, now used as the store’s logo. At 3:00am one morning in 1998 its front window was smashed with a brick. Polyester Books had received anonymous threats before to remove the image or have it destroyed. Polyester Books offered a $1000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the offenders but no one was ever apprehended. This was the same year that a Catholic vandal destroyed artist, Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ. There are other independent bookshops with special focuses along with second-hand bookshops.

Although most of the galleries in Fitzroy are now concentrated in Gertrude St. In the 1980s and 90s there was Roar Gallery, just off Brunswick St. Roar Gallery was Melbourne’s first artist run initiative. It was a small upstairs gallery with two gallery spaces with bare floorboards and an office. Roar Gallery was established in 1982 by 20 young artists and named after the neo-expressionist paintings by founding members David Larwill, Sarah Faulkner and Mark Howson. (Reported by Robert Rooney, The Age 9/6/82)

Currently there are two galleries on Brunswick St.; Sutton Gallery, established in 1992 and, at the other end of the spectrum, Brunswick Street Gallery, a large rental space. Sutton Gallery is a commercial contemporary art gallery that has exhibited many notable and established Australian artists. It has never been cutting edge and tends towards a safe commercial minimalism. Although there is a sign for the “Catholic University Art Gallery” I’ve never seen it open and I doubt that it contributes to the culture of the Brunswick St.

There are many alternative exhibition spaces on Brunswick St. from the walls of furniture shops (MoorWood), hairdressers (Unpretentious Underground) and the Black Cat Café. The Black Cat Café has an urban garden of pot plants on the sidewalk and a maze of artists’ studios in the back of the building. In the past the following alternative spaces in Fitzroy had regular art exhibitions: The Artist’s Garden (now Fitzroy Nursery although the original decorated metal gates remain), Bocadilo Bar, Café Ravoux, Hares and Hyenas Bookshop, Hydrometers, Joe’s Garage, Mario’s Café, Mermaid Pancakes, The Vegie Bar and many others (please contribute to this history with comments if you have any additional information.) Upstairs at Rhumberellas Café there was Scope Gallery, established in 1995, which was formally The Botanical Gallery, established in 1991.

These businesses and galleries, along with the artists, musicians and writers all contributed to making Brunswick St. a centre for alternative culture. A controversy and other media attention have also helped to build its reputation.

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