Monthly Archives: May 2010

Athens Graffiti

“People who want to make me stop make me laugh”

I saw this painted on a wall along the Athens metro line out to the airport.

I could read it because it was in English, in Roman and not Cyrillic alphabet. Lots of graffiti in Athens is written in English, there is very little written in Greek, apart from a few political slogans.

Taggers in Athens use English words for their tags. Graffiti has become an international style with very little regional differences.

I am currently in Greece on holiday but I am trying to write and research about art and culture for this blog as I travel. I have been looking at a lot of classical art and architecture in Greece but I have also been looking at the graffiti and street art.

There is graffiti everywhere in Athens, apart from metro stations and on the ancient monuments where only scratched graffiti survives. This antique graffiti raises different issues about history and conservation than the contemporary graffiti; some of it is already in the museums. It records the interest of 19th and 20th century visitors in these ancient sites, like the temple of Aphaia on Aegina. To remove this antique graffiti would be to further damage the ancient stone and it would also damage the historic record of use of the site. And in understanding that there is antique graffiti of historic value raises questions about the way that contemporary graffiti is buffed, conserved or left to fate to decide on its preservation.

Back to the contemporary graffiti in Athens. With the economic collapse and the riots this year and last year in Athens it doesn’t look like anyone can afford to buff, or paint over, any of the graffiti. Anarchy symbols, tags, bombs and other marks cover every second building, it is all along the metro lines and on the metro cars (although the metro stations themselves remain untouched).

“Even cops die.” The graffiti writers are clearly frustrated with the political developments but I wonder what the point of writing political slogans in a foreign language.

Most Greek graffiti writers are not the experienced crews making masterpieces in aerosol, as in other cities; although I did see a few good pieces on the way to Piresas. The Greek graffiti writers will try anything, pens, paint brushes, paint rollers, stencils (only one colour) – it is a fun but amateurish mix of styles and techniques.

There is a lot of graffiti on the buildings and laneways around the ruins of the Roman agora. “Bicycle revolution now.” reads one slogan. The old buildings in Athens with their accretions of architecture now have a new layer of paint on them. If Athens is an example of how bad and ugly as unrestrained graffiti can get in a city then graffiti, even in its most basic form, is not a disaster for a city it is a fact of urban life and will be with us as long as there are cities. Athens graffiti shows that without draconian legal restrictions on graffiti writers, like canning in Singapore or jail in Melbourne, there are more tags, more political slogans, less quality work by professional street artists and more strange experiments.

Platform – April 2010

Vexta “Extinction in Technicolour” occupies the main set of cabinets at Platform with paintings of flying figures that Vexta is famous for and installation elements.

Who are these figures? Is their extinction from our distant past or the near future? The painted animal skulls and bones made me think of an archaic cult. The animal skulls are often decorated creating a new zoology, where beaks protrude from skulls as if all creatures had the potential to transform into birds. In the paintings I kept on seeing myths from archaic Crete: Icarus with his wings, and Pasiphaë, the mother of the Minator. But that might just because I’m immersed in that mythology.

The images could also be from our future. The psychedelic colours, the scatter of broken glass and mirror cubes that adorn the animal skulls reminded me of the remains of a rave. Those little mirror cubes are so fashionable right now, decorating so many accessories. Is the wax that holds our civilization together melting like the wax holding the feathers onto Icarus’s wings?

Although Vexta comes from a street art stencil background, in Vexta’s images are mostly brush painted. However, the colour separation and design techniques used are common stencil art techniques. There are a few stencils and lots of aerosol spray dots. The paint drips from the aerosol dots and the paint drips from the run down across the black ground. Referencing her street art background Vexta’s large unframed paintings are propped up on aerosol cans, like Chris Ofili’s using elephant dung props for his paintings.

At first I thought that Jordan Wood’s untitled installation in Vitrine was part of Vexta’s show. The scatter of black objects matched the black bones and black background in her exhibition. The objects, the melted black plastic, the black ritual artifacts made from the remains of our own culture, like the cluster of golf clubs, are both threatening and useless.

In the Sample cabinet there is an installation of digital prints by Kumiko Michishita. Conversational phrases are painted in white on the glass of the display cabinet, like “It’s getting cold and harder to get up in the morning”. In the background amidst the mosaic of color digital prints are more eccentric statements: “sleep in blue”, “wear orange”, “breath in green”, and “eat red”.

In the two glasses cases at the Majorca Building there are two enlarged photocopies of a hand making a V sign in both directions. One is palm front, a symbol for “peace” the other, with the back of the hand, a symbol for “fuck”. It is Carl Scrase’s work “The Generative Power of Opposites” – crude but effective.

Joel Gailer & Printing

I first saw Joel Gailer’s art when he established Brunswick Arts in 2004. I didn’t think much of it at the time; back then he appeared to be searching for a direction, his own voice, for a style of image making that was his signature. Now he has found it in one of the most traditional of art forms – printing.

Joel Gailer’s style is conceptual, minimal and pushes on the boundaries of printmaking. Gailer isn’t attacking the boundaries of printing; he is not trying to escape the limits of printing. Gailer is pressing hard up against the boundary to get a good print of its relief; like one of his prints where 2 wooden beams print by pressing the sticky ink onto the heavy paper that the beams hold up against the wall.

Using the definition of boundaries to make prints on is both obvious and cheeky. There is no respect for the boundaries, as Gailer gets too close for respect. He boldly states the obvious in his titles. And this cheeky wit has won him awards including in 2008 the Fremantle Acquisitive Print Award for Hot Process, a page in Art Almanac that Gailer had paid to be included in the magazine.

Gailer’s solo exhibition, “Why buy when you can make your own” at Michael Koro Galleries is a bold statement of his style of printing. Many of the prints on exhibition are made using printmaking techniques that are not considered artistic: commercial offset lithograph printing in two art magazines, commercial sign writing, digital print, and photocopy. But these are all undeniably forms of printing; as are the two car tires (with white rims to match the overall colour scheme) that have been used to print phrases on the gallery floor.

It looked like Michael Koro Gallery had been painted specifically for this exhibition. The black floor, white walls and white plinths matched the black and white of Gailer’s printing. Of course, it is the other way around; Gailer’s printing is influenced by the aesthetics of the gallery space, the art magazines and the art world.

The title of the exhibition, “Why buy when you can make your own”, is a question that many people have about extremely minimalist art that requires few technical skills to produce. It is also a problem for emerging artists to sell this kind of work. Gailer has a solution for this sell the copyright of the piece, attractively mounted in a perspex tubes on perspex plinths ready for display.

Problems with Art History

Too much of popular art history is not history; it is hagiography or jeremiad. The stories of the lives of progressive artists with their trials, tribulations and triumphs are comparable to the lives of saints (hagiography). Or a jeremiad, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent. Art is not a religion and art history should not be religious doctrine.

If art history is history then it is often a ‘whig history’, as defined Herbert Butterfield The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), with a belief in the progress that praises some artists as ahead of their time while condemning others as obstacles. The crucial fault of a ‘whig history’ is that the past becomes an anticipation of the present. Like Robert Hughes Shock of the New, these histories tell a story that concludes with the most progressive, modern art. No wonder Hughes thought that later artists, like Jeff Koons, were frauds because they were subverting his history and not perpetuating it. These new artists were new obstacles in a race that had already, in Hughes opinion, been won.

Andre Breton’s list of precursors to Surrealism, like Arcimboldi or Bosch, forms a similar retrograde model of art history. Instead of trying to understand the historic forces that give rise to the play of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creation of fantastic images Breton distorts history to tell as story of with visionary artists anticipating the general rise of Surrealism.

The curators of early art museums adopted an even more antique system of periods from the classical to the modern. This system is without historic or scientific validity; the strata are not always clear, they are not universal and do not form neatly deposited periods. However, the collections of museums were developed to illustrate these periods or styles and current curators continue to distort art history with these collections and exhibition. The blockbuster exhibitions in particular that celebrate certain artists in the canon of significant artists; and once again we are not dealing with history but hagiography for ‘canon’ is the word for the official list of saints.

The glorification of certain canonical artists is endlessly repeated in TV documentaries like Simon Scharma’s The Power of Art. I never wanted to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso before his series was even made. (How about a Vincent Van Gogh action figure?) Art history, even in its popular form, could still have a strong narrative but look at the commissions, the exhibition venues, the media, the collectors, the public and non-canonical artists.

The idea that artists are the driving force in art history ignores so many other forces at work on its development. It is as absurd as to consider politicians and royalty the driving force of history. This idea of artists as the primary actors has then influenced the development of art history. The conclusion that if artists could invent art styles then they could end them created the modern art history of isms based on artists’ proclamations; and when artists and the public tired of the fashion styles were described as “dead”.

The didactic family tree of art styles is a pruned version of illustrations of evolutionary tree of life, as if art styles were determined by survival of the fittest. The typical tree of styles is pruned for purposes of didactic clarity although many of these styles continue, as do many early life forms. Styles do not become extinct when a new style appears (many species continue in their niche as others evolve around them). Byzantine style continues in the creation of Orthodox Church icons, folk art styles continue and as do many other styles.

Popular art history, academic art history aside, is in a sorry state principally because it has not been genuinely separated from religious thinking.

Coburg 2010

“Coburg – it’s beautiful. Look around. It’s a great place to live.” The young man said leaning out of his black car as he drove slowly past me.

This is Coburg, not the city in Germany, but it’s namesake, Coburg, a suburb in the north of Melbourne, Australia. The sky was blue, the bottlebrush trees were in flower, covering the sidewalk in drifts of yellow stamin, but it is just a suburban street. He must be high on something but he is right.

“It great place” I replied and he drove on.

Coburg is a friendly area; people still talk to each other on the street. The northern suburbs have a great street culture because people use the street, people walk, people shop on the Sydney Rd., rather than the hyper-reality of shopping malls. The 19th century architecture of the longest shopping strip in Melbourne is part of the reason why Brunswick and Coburg has a good street culture.

When my Lebanese neighbour’s son got married I knew about it. Part of the festivities took place in the small front garden of their house. There was drumming, dancing, bride and groom held on people’s shoulders, ululation, car horns, rice thrown… a real wedding, not a hyper-real wedding at a wedding reception place where everything is perfectly contrived. Certainly the autumn weather wasn’t perfect but it didn’t rain on the festivities.

And the street culture is improving; in recent years there has been a marked increase in cafes on Sydney Rd., a greater variety of restaurants than the Turkish restaurants that Sydney Rd is famous.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

Along with the prison a large amount of 19th and turn of the century buildings were constructed in Coburg. There is the oldest school building in Melbourne along with other old buildings around the old Pentridge Prison. There are also magnificent turn of the century mansions on The Grove and The Avenue. And there are pieces of heritage listed architecture scattered around Coburg’s streets one of my favourites is the American Cottage on the west side of Moreland station at 21 Station Street.

19th century school building on Sydney Rd. Coburg

The Moreland City council has a bold ambitious $1 billion plan, the Coburg Initiative, to remodel heart of the suburb. Lorna Edwards reported on Coburg’s “Extreme Makeover” in The Age (18/3/10). So far the only materialization of this plan has been the redevelopment of the front of the Coburg’s railway station, the redevelopment of the former Pentridge Prison and the construction of more medium and high-density housing. Every possible old building in the suburb is being converted into flats.

The new entrance and surround to the city bound entrance to Coburg’s 19th century, gothic revival train-station. It isn’t much just a few steps, paving stones and landscaping but the bicycle path is now safely separate from the train-station entrance. The new entrance replaces the bodged railings, paths, the over-grown shrubs and scraggly trees that formerly surrounded the station. However, the other side of the station is still a neglected gravel parking lot with a large open drain and no lighting.

I had a dream that I was returning home to my street in Coburg from a long journey. I found that my street has been grassed over and that my neighbours were playing cricket and having BBQs where there once was tarmac. The biggest problems in Coburg are the cars, the vast expanse of ugly parking lots that accommodates them and Melbourne’s poor public transport.

Missing Statue

Loretta Quinn “Within Three Worlds” 1995 in memory of Angela Jane Esdaile (1969 – 1993) was located by a pond at the north end of Princes Park in Princes Hill, near the intersection of Royal Parade and Park St. It is has gone now; I haven’t been able to find out any more information, so I assume that it has not been stolen but removed by city council. If anyone knows the reason for its removal please leave a comment. (So much for my assumptions, it was stolen. See Lorretta Quinn’s comment for more details.)

Loretta Quinn “Within Three Worlds” 1995

This whimsical bronze sculpture of a little girl with her hair blown back is typical of Quinn’s sculpture that frequently feature children. The little girl was once looking at three metal boats that were earlier removed from the now empty pond. The pond being empty due Melbourne’s long running drought and subsequent water shortages. The sculpture was paid for by Angela’s family and commemorates the contribution to the community of childcare workers like Angela.

I was going to write a longer entry about the whimsical little statues in some of Melbourne’s gardens but since this statue has now gone I thought that I should post this short entry as a reminder.

P.S. Within Three Worlds has been restored.

Gustave Moreau Museum

Every time I have visited Paris (all 3 times in my entire life) I have visited this small museum, a favourite of the French Surrealists, the home and studio of Gustave Moreau. Visiting the museum is a great experience and an education for any painter. The Surrealists were the first to recommend the museum but their advice wasn’t popular. When I first visited in the winter of 1984, there were prostitutes working the street and I was the only visitor at the museum. But now the area is more sedate and the museum is even crowded with groups of art students.

Moreau’s symbolist paintings may be less out of fashion now but his fantastic visions of Biblical and classical scenes are still strange. His paintings are bejewelled, ornate, detailed and full of strange symbolist psychological overtones. For this reason his paintings are sometimes included in books of fantastic art but Moreau is a conventional late 19th century painter, a professor at the Paris’ École des Beaux Arts, who lived a comfortable bourgeois life.

In his formal parlour, located underneath the two floors of studio. There is his own art collection, works by Tournour, Burne-Jones, Berchere, along with a portrait of Moreau by Degas. There is also his collection of butterflies, tiger cowrie shells, stuffed birds, a few books, medals and his personal effects. The clutter and extravagance of late 19th Century taste. You can even use his neo-classical toilet with pull-chain to flush; the original ceramic bowl and hand basin are still functional. It is a unique toilet experience.

Toilet at Gustave Moreau Museum

Handbasin at the Gustave Moreau Museum

The studio is hung salon style full of finished and unfinished paintings. It shows every stage of the development of his paintings. You can follow the development of paintings from plaster casts and preparatory drawings, through the rough studies, clay or wax models to sketch figures from, half finished and on to the finished full sized paintings of the same composition. I am particularly interested in his underpaintings that are often wildly different in technique from the carefully finished work.

unfinished painting by Gustave Moreau

To visit the studio is an education in 19th century painting techniques. His importance as a teacher continues after his death in this museum; during his lifetime he taught at the École des Beaux-Arts.

In many it is clear that Moreau starts his paintings on canvas onto which he draw the outline in charcoal or pencil. He then adds the basic colours of the underpainting in a bold manner, although light areas remain untouched to allow the white gesso to reflect light back through the semi-transparent oils. After this he adds his black line drawing, or a white line if the background is very dark, fills in colours and glazes, working from the background to the foreground. However his technique varies between detailed classical colouring in of ink underpainting to loose impressionist brush and palette knife work. In these variety of techniques there are the beginnings of all kinds of modern figurative techniques. It is worth considering that his most famous students were Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.

There is so much to see in this small museum that it would take days to see all the drawings, to take in the meaning of huge clutter of objects, to absorb the painting techniques. It is part of rare type of art gallery that is the work of one person: in London the equivalent is the Sir John Soane’s Museum (amazing architectural ideas), in Milan the Fondazione Artistica Poldi-Pezzoli (with collections of art, lace, watches and more) and in Dijon the Musée Magnin (home of a family of art collectors). These former residences show art in a more intimate manner, surrounded by period furniture and other collections. They show a particular tastes and interests and not the work of curatorial committees. They may not contain the most famous works of art in Europe but they are amongst my favourite museums.

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