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Monthly Archives: December 2009

End of 2009

This will be my last blog entry for the year. 2009 was not a year that I’d want to live through again. 2009 was the year of the zombie. There are so many zombie computer games, zombie computers, zombie armies, zombie movies, even zombie artists. Anne Billson in The Guardian Weekly report on zombies in films. “Lively time for the movie undead” (10/7/09)

The suburbs are full of zombies, the inhabitants look like people but they lack a life. Sure these zombies are animated and often employed, zombie slaves make good workers for menial labour, but they are not living their own life. How to live your own life is an important cultural question. Other people might value your life for their own reasons, some want to eat your brain.

Speaking of dead I’ll segway to mention that Famous When Dead will close after two years, the only remaining question is – will it be famous now that it is dead? And Utopian Stumps is about to up stumps from Collingwood move into the CBD next year. 696 has closed, too. I’m sure that other galleries in Melbourne have shut or moved this year but I don’t want to dwell on the business side of Melbourne’s art world. In the art I am glad to see an increasing trend of artist-gardeners and street art sculpture in 2009 and I hope to see even more next year.

Victoria’s draconian anti-graffiti legislation is impacting on some of Melbourne’s municipalities, like the City of Kingston but not others, like the City of Moreland, where the Don’t Ban the Can group is active and trying to get the council to support street art projects. They are having more success with painting the walls of the local businesses and getting in the local paper.

The best, the worst, the new trends of 2009 are now behind us. Personally 2009 has been a busy year for me with weddings, funerals and travel to Singapore (thanks Kamal, Killer Gerbil and Slac for showing me around the street art scene). I was also kept very busy for a few months as the volunteer and emergency secretary for the Melbourne Stencil Festival, a position that I will be continuing in 2010.

I now have my YouTube Channel featuring videos of my art and exhibitions, as well as, other videos about Melbourne’s visual arts. I have also started a fun blog with my wife, Catherine, featuring the worst window-shopping in the world: Who Buys This Stuff? Typical of Internet weirdness the most popular photo on this blog this year was one of me wearing some fancy Indian clothes. I do have two sets of ordinary Indian clothes that I wear on days over 30 degrees; they are far more comfortable and better looking than shorts with a t-shirt. So here it is once more.

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Cool Cats

The cattery carpark in Collingwood, a collection of images of cats created in a collective and collaborative work by local street artists. The carpark is appropriately next to Cat Cosmopolitan, a cattery on the corner of Langridge St. and Wellington St. in Collingwood.

Taken as a whole work, as a collaborative effort, this is possibly the largest work of art featuring cats since the Sphinx was constructed. To give a short history of the depiction of cats in Western art, and it is a very short history because there aren’t many after the Egyptians. Occasionally a cat is included in 13th century frescos, particularly scavenging scraps under the table in scenes of the last supper. Cats would continue to be included in scenes with other collections of domestic animals throughout Western art but were rarely the focus of artistic interest. When the Impressionists started to paint domestic scenes images of cats became more common but in the 20th century there was an explosion of cat images with the emergence of cartoon cats.


Busker Artists

There are a variety of types of busker artists: the street corner portraitists, the caricature artists, the chalk sidewalk artists, the guys making outer space scenes with aerosol spray cans (using the lids to stencil in planets). There are lots of these guys doing the same routine in all the cities around the world.

The sidewalks of Southbank in Melbourne are covered with the chalk of sidewalk artists. “Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not.” Wrote George Orwell; I re-read part of his book Down and Out in Paris and London to see what has changed in street art since the 1930s. Orwell classifies all street entertainers as “beggars” even the street acrobats. “As the law now stands, if you approach a stranger and ask him for twopence, he can call a policeman and get you seven days for begging. But if you make the air hideous by droning ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’, or scrawl some chalk daubs on the pavement, or stand about with a tray of matches – in short make a nuisance of yourself – you are held to be following a legitimate trade and not begging.”

There are still the occasional street entertainers who are basically begging, like the guy on Swanston Street with his naïve drawings of buildings, but the majority of buskers and sidewalk artists are proficient and professional. Musicians with paid gigs later in the evening, magnificent chalk drawings (generally copies of old masters) on rolls of heavy paper taped to the sidewalk or little craft stalls full of bicycles made of twisted wire.

Living sculptures as a special type of mime busker artist. Their stiff painted clothes and painted skin. These buskers have been around in since the early 1990s. Maybe Gilbert and George, the living sculptures, and their “Underneath the Arches” performance in 1970, inspired the busker living sculptures (or was it the other way around?). Melbourne and Barcelona have the best living sculptures that I have seen. These artists really put effort into their costume and routine. In other places they are little more than begging with a mask and simple costume.

Living sculptures move in response to a coin being put into their tin. At other times they remain as still as a statue, in this way it has some relation to modelling for an artist. One of the best living sculptures that I have seen is Albert Stone. Albert Stone, as his name suggests, is a Magrittean stone man with platform incorporating roses.  The burgundy baroque lady in Melbourne is another living sculpture of exceptional detail. Perth artist Christian de Vietri has created a sculpture based on living sculptures. Her robot sculpture – “Tim” (2006, aluminium) is in GoMA’s collection. Robots are common image for living sculptures especially as they can combine simple light and sound effects in their costume.

Christian de Vietri - Tim (2006)

Street entertainment is now expected by public, and is licensed, or even funded by local councils. Buskers, sidewalk artists and living sculptures are part of life on Melbourne’s streets; there is more art on the streets than just graffiti. The change in street art may, in part, be due to the romantic focus that George Orwell and other writers placed on them, but there has also been a change in the culture of the street.


Street Art Uncut

Flipping through Matthew Lunn Street Art Uncut (Craftsman House, 2006) is the only way to read it. The book documents Melbourne’s street art scene with lots of pictures and some text. However, there is no structure to the book, no table of contents, a pictography but no index.

Street Art Uncut profiles individual Melbourne street artists and looks at individual pieces and series of pieces. It of explores techniques and themes in graffiti. Street Art Uncut, as its title indicates, has a wider view of street art than just stencils including tagging, advertising vandalism, political graffiti and even handmade house numbers.

In writing about the techniques and qualities of media Matthew Lunn attempts to define the aesthetics of spray paint and other street art. He is not doing this in a dictatorial manner but in an appreciative observant way. He writes about the quality of drips, of paint on different surfaces, of different media and the rich variety of street art. He traces the way that images transform and mutate. And he questions the distinctions between art and vandalism, free art and gallery art.

Another kind of street art that Lunn mentions is trolley art and includes a page of photos of arrangements of supermarket trolleys (p.133). The most complete version of trolley art that I have seen on the street, was “Mobile Home”; a supermarket trolley with a red wooden slate roof. The trolley is hung with lots of keys; inside the trolley is a sleeping bag and lots of cast, clear plastic hands. The message about homelessness is also clear. Mobile Home was by the Artful Dodgers Studios on Gertrude St., Fitzroy. Mobile Home was part of the 2007 Fringe Festival’s Site Unseen program.

Matthew Lunn mentions domestic street art in Street Art Uncut but only in terms of personalized house numbers, car number plates and Xmas decorations. (p.135) He could have mentioned the ornamental welded metal gates that feature in many of Howard Arkley’s suburban scenes of Melbourne.

The text is well written and covers both individual artists and all aspects of street art from tags to street art sculpture. It goes beyond the individual pieces to information on the techniques and the official responses from Melbourne City Council, the police and the Met transport. It does not forget that street art is a mass phenomenon and not just a few famous tags like Phibs, Civil, Ha Ha or Vexta. There is also geographic information about street art including a map of major sites in the city. But mostly it is lots and lots of excellent photographs of street art.

Street Art Uncut is not the definitive book on Melbourne’s stencil art scene; it has yet to be written. The definitive book will be written as an obituary for the street art scene, after the statue of limitations for all the petty crimes, when work can be attributed without fear of prosecution. Street Art Uncut is essentially a picture book for adults; a coffee table art books for the young urban hip.

(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.)


Sophie Hewson @ Lindberg

Lindberg Contemporary Art was dark, black-labels, the black walls with the only light spotlighting the neo-baroque paintings of Sophie Hewson’s exhibition “Solstice – City of the Godless.” It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

The first painting that I am looking at is a large literary painting: “Goodnight Atala.”  Atala is an early Romantic novella by François-René de Chateaubriand, in the novel Atala falls in love with Chactas, her half-brother, but cannot marry him as she has taken a vow of chastity. In despair she takes poison and dies. There were many paintings of Atala done in the 19th Century by Luis Monroy, Girodet and Rodolpho Amoedo. However, this is perhaps the first painting of Atala done for over 100 years.

Another painting of another pair of tragic lovers “Hero and Leander”, Again this is part of early19th century Romantic literature with the poem, “Hero and Leander” by Leigh Hunt in 1819.

There is eroticism to Sophie Hewson’s paintings; the erotic of curve, the twist, the transformation the revelation and, its counterpart, the hidden. It is the mysterious eroticism of white underwear that is featured in many of her paintings. It is an eroticism mixed with the instinctual knowledge of death and darkness. The putrescent flesh of a dead pig or a damp woman humping an inflatable dolphin; Sophia Hewson paints them with the same loving devotion. Her brush caresses and creates this flesh. Her paintings are then covered in thick resin, sealing in the images like insects trapped in amber. The resin fills, flooding the ornately decorated black frames.

Sophie Hewson’s paintings are similar to those of Sam Leech with their resin, dark backgrounds and evocative neo-baroque sensibility. Many contemporary Melbourne artists have a neo-baroque sensibility. The baroque could be seen as a re-examination of the meaning of a metaphor, as a shifting image. Before the 17th century the meaning of the metaphor was defined by established social conventions, the world was the metaphor of the Christian god. But amidst religious schism and other social changes metaphors become a puzzle, a cipher with double meanings, perhaps even an unsolvable mystery.

It is an impressive first solo exhibition for Sophie Hewson and I am looking forward to seeing more.

Along with renewed the artistic interest in the baroque there has also been academic interest. There is Angela Ndalianis, Associate Professor and Head of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, New Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment and Gregg Lambert’s The Return of the Baroque in Modern Culture.


Leonidas @ Sparta Place

Now Brunswick has a statue of King Leonidas of Sparta in Sparta Place off Sydney Road. The statue has been the subject of local controversy,  it is disliked by the local traders, and created as part of the junket politics of sister cities.

Petros Georgariou – King Leonidas 2009

Greek artist Petros Georgariou sculpted the bust of King Leonidas, in a retrograde and conservative nationalist-realist style. The modeling of the bust is crude and stiff. The statute’s black marble plinth, a material alien to the local area, makes it look like a tomb. Not content to leave the 2005 remodelling of Sparta Place alone, the statue has been erected right in the middle of the mall. The placement of the plinth and style of the statue clashes with the existing contemporary style statue in the mall, New Order by Louise Lavarack. There are a lot of things wrong with the statue but not as many as the things wrong with the politicians who commission it.

Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony argues that Sparta could not be understood before Stalin. “Lycurgus was the first to compose a world that excluded the world: Spartan society. He was the first person to conduct experiments on the body social, the true fore-father all modern rulers, even if they don’t have the impact of a Lenin or a Hitler, try to imitate.” Sparta always acted in their “national interest” and would kill and enslave to achieve this end.

Mayor Lambros Tapinos said the statue symbolized “the contribution of the Greek community and its vibrant history within our municipality”. Other local politicians, like Cr Ange Kenos, have also praised King Leonidas for his defense “of human rights.”  To dismiss these politicians as stupid and ignorant is to be generous or sympathetic to them, these are the kind of people who would help another Hitler and Stalin to power. I’m sure that as a politician Mayor Tapinos has learnt the highest rule of Sparta society: you can do anything; steal, rape and kill, just don’t get caught. Laconophilia may be popular but it is also amoral and delusional.

I have written about Coburg’s multiple sister city junket politics before in regards to the use of the arts: see Man of the Valley and Cross Currents @ Moreland Civic Centre.  I have been unimpressed with the artistic standard of these exchanges and I have seen no other evidence of any value to the City of Moreland’s three sister city relationships.


Cultures @ Brood Box

Wandering around the laneways west of Elizabeth St. has not been a regular feature of my exploration of Melbourne’s art galleries and street art. After all most of the art galleries are east of Elizabeth St. along Flinders Lane as are most of the laneways containing street art, or so I thought.

I was looking for Brood Box, a new gallery on Rankins Lane, “off Lt Bourke Street between Queen and Elizabeth Streets”, which narrowed it down to a couple of laneways. At first I thought that Brood Box, might have been a renamed Mahoneys Gallery, but I found that Mahoneys had become a framing service in the corner of another restaurant that fill these laneways. A strange combination – the meal was so good that I think I’ll have it framed.

There are other galleries and art dealers in the area but most are by appointment only. In Warburton Lane I saw there is a new gallery space but again by appointment only.

Paste-ups by Miso

On my walk I also saw a lot of street art, paste-ups by Miso and others, aerosol art by the Everfresh crew and others, and lots of street art sculpture. (See my entry on Street Art Sculpture.)

Rankins Lane has enough street art to draw attention to it. Brood Box is a big space with a trailer parked inside selling coffee and cakes, combining an art gallery with a coffee shop. The coffee-trailer has been painted by the ubiquitous Drew Funk. There are tables and chairs but also enough wall space for a contemporary art gallery. I was looking for Brood Box because Joseph Flynn was exhibiting. I had interviewed Joe for my entry on Fine Art Education and I wanted to see how his career was progressing with this exhibition.

Joseph Flynn’s exhibition, “Cultures” is two series of drawings on large sheets of paper. I found my self steeping back across the laneway and looking through the entrance of Brood Box to get far enough back to taken in one of the drawings as a drawing of a face. Up close the intensity of the lines that form the pictures look like circuit diagrams, cultures of bacteria or star-maps. There are many star and psychedelic references in the images and titles of this main series of drawings. The second series of drawings are more colourful with outline drawings of faces overlayed on top of one another. Flynn shows a great deal of confidence and skill in the execution of these large images.

I saw a few other exhibitions on my walk around the city but Cultures at Brood Box was the best that I saw that day.


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