Monthly Archives: July 2010

European Masters @ NGV

European Masters 19th to 20th Century from the collection of Städel Museum at the National Gallery of Victoria on St. Kilda Road presents a history of modern art. All the familiar modern art movements are represented from Classicalism and Romanticism to Cubism, along with a few less well-known styles and groups of artists. There is art by 70 German, French, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss artists. And although the exhibition is mostly paintings there are a few sculptures by Rodin, Degas and Renior, There is plenty of variety to see in this exhibition – this variety of styles, trends and tastes is a reflection of the modern predicament.

It was not the introduction of photography that motivated modernism – it was the end of the accepted subjects for art, history or classical and Biblical themes. The great artists of the 19th and early 20th century could have painted anything, so why did they choose to paint these images? What is the subject for art when your world has changed – transformed by revolutions, industry and urbanisation; and expanded by exploration and tourism? One of the first paintings in the exhibition depicts the German writer, Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann H.W. Tischbein. What to paint when traditions and values are under question? For Tischbein the answer was simply a return to classicalism.

The problem of what to paint was a problem for artists at end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It is interesting to see what solutions these European artists proposed for these problems because we can learn about how we can approach similar contemporary problems. The Symbolists have similar quest for spiritual values to our New Agers. The Orientalists, like Eugène Delacoix painting Arabs, have their contemporary analogues in the world travellers photographing the 1001 places you must visit before you die. The Nazarene artists are comparable to contemporary religious fanatics or, given the Nazarenes long hair, 60s Jesus freaks.

And if religion and exotic travel doesn’t interest you what else is of any value? There are Romantics, like Caspar David Friedrich contemplating the environment. Rural landscapes – urban dwellers still dream of a simpler country life in a cottage painted by Van Gogh early in his career. Or, you could have a simple breakfast with the Monet family, which for me was, one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Why be so serious? Why not just paint amusing genre scene with a psychological comic insights? Why not go and join the circus? Or, dance the night away at Café d’Harcoart in Paris with the one of the stars of the exhibition, Henri Evenepoel’s lady in red?

Everyone will have heard of some of the famous artists who have work included in this exhibition. Seeing the exhibition is a way for you to judge for yourself if the European art history books have been praising good artists or emphasising the most important trends in modernism. Perhaps it is time to revise your opinions of artists that you have only read about and seen a few illustrations. Even if you know next to nothing about art history this is a good place to see it for yourself.

There is a small focus in the exhibition on the art of Max Beckman with several of his paintings hung in a gallery painted dark grey. The dark grey emphasises their dark lines dividing the bright areas in his paintings.

Thanks to Alison and the NGV for the free tickets to the exhibition.


Sam Jinks – Sense & Sensational

Hyperrealist sculpture has become part of contemporary art in a way that hyperrealist painting has failed. Contemporary hyperrealism is sensational. It is the contemporary art waxwork museum. It is both a popular and a booming media. There are many Australian artists doing hyperrealist sculptures Martine Corompt, Sam Jinks, Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini.  Ron Mueck’s exhibition at the NGV earlier this year was very popular and was defined as “hot” by Melbourne Hot or Not. Patricia Piccinini has grown more popular since she moved from digital images to hyperrealist sculpture (her hyperrealist sculptures are manufactured by Sam Jinks).

I saw Sam Jinks exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery, Jinks has been exhibiting around Melbourne for the last decade but this is the first time that I’ve seen his work. There are only four sculptures on exhibition but they are all sensational. Not all of the sculptures in this exhibition are hyperrealist – there are two shrouded figures in the exhibition that are not hyperrealist. These figures are part of a symbolist fantasy, a contemporary gothic memento mori; continuing Jinks reputation for spooky sculpture.

There are a lot of sensory aspects to Jinks sculpture in this exhibition. His “Woman and child” 2010, shows an old woman in long nightgown holding a very young baby. The woman’s eyes are closed and the baby’s eyes are just open. It is about the sensation of life and life perceiving sensations. The sculpture is almost a quote from David Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding; for Hume all perceptions are derived either from sensation (“outward sentiment” in Hume’s words), depicted by the baby’s open eyes, or from reflection (“inward sentiment”), represented by the woman’s closed eyes.

Jinks’ sculpture of two entwining snails is also about sensations. It is also very beautiful in an alien way. The greatly enlarged surface of the skin of the monopods is beautifully rendered and their baroque entwining forms make this clearly art rather than a didactic model.

The sculptures are sensational; it is startling to look at the baby’s face in “Woman and child” and find open eyes. It is sensational to see giant hyper-real snails or the shrouded figures with their draped skeletal forms.

Why has hyperrealist sculpture become so popular? (Whereas hyperrealist painting has not had a similar revival in popularity.) It is 33 years after Paul Thek’s celebrated but hyperrealist sculpture “The Tomb – Death of a Hippie”. In 1967 hyperrealism was seen at the time as part of Pop Art but contemporary hyperrealism has nothing to do with Pop Art. Sixties hyperrealism was probably mislabeled by the media, unsure how to classify this kind of art they lumped it in with all the new art. The contemporary generation of artists is more appreciative of the sensational aspects of hyperrealist sculpture. The science fiction and comic book aspects of these contemporary sculptures have been embraced. And the quality of these sculptures has also improved sensationally since Thek’s painted plaster cast.

Van Rudd vs. Julia Gillard

In the upcoming federal election it is a Rudd vs Gillard contest for the seat of Lalor. Artist, Van Rudd is running for the Revolutionary Socialist Party against Julia Gillard, the current Prime Minister of Australia. But this is not simply a story of amusing names and a political sideshow – this is art. I am not a political pundit – I am an art critic interested in art with political content.

Van Rudd is the son of the Prime Minister’s older brother, Malcolm and a Vietnamese immigrant mother. He is an artist with a political focus to his work; he has never held public office. Julia Gillard, the incumbent has held the seat for the last 4 terms, since 1998 and won the last election by 31%.  Will she win a 5th mandate to represent the people of this seat in Melbourne’s west? It is hard to imagine that an artist could defeat her, even if he does have a familiar name and more humanitarian policies. Regardless of the differences in political weight between the two candidates, the poetry of politics makes this a perfect contest. Perfect for the name, the issues and the all important “underdog” status in Australian culture.

This work of art is viral, occurring in the minds imagining this political scenario, reading and seeing the news media. When I heard about his election campaign I started to exchange emails with Van Rudd as I intend to write a couple of blog entries about this art event. Van Rudd was keen to emphasis that running in the election is an art project inspired by Bueys, “ It is not a piss take,” Van told me.

Joseph Bueys is a good example of a politically engaged artist; he invented the name of the German “Green” party, which he co-founded in 1980. He also stood for political office as a Green Party candidate. Beuys created social sculpture, points of interaction that attempted to heal with the application of layers of theory, felt, metal and fat. (This mix of theory, felt and metal is rather like Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator, a device that was also intended to heal.)

I’ve heard about Van Rudd’s art and politics before but I hadn’t seen any of it for myself. This is not the first time that Van Rudd has taken his art to the street and this is not the last time it involved politics. Van Rudd has been courting controversy for years and although the Australian media love an arts controversy they don’t like mixing art and politics. On Invasion Day/Australia Day (pick a side) of this year he and a friend were fined for “offensive behavior”, in what the Age newspaper described (26/1/10) as an “anti-racism stunt”. Both wearing white KKK outfits and placard the word “racism” and the Australian made logo outside Melbourne Park at the Australian Tennis Open. Van Rudd has also had a painting banned by the Melbourne City Council (but nobody noticed because it happened on the same day that the Bill Henson controversy broke). There is an article about it in Peril magazine.

I went to see Van Rudd’s ‘Used Car Part from Afghanistan’. It is on exhibition at Australia on Collins, (level 5 260 Collins St Melbourne) near the “Self Centered Day Spa”. It is part of the Spectrum Migrant Resource Center’s Creative Cultures Art Exhibition, a typical community exhibition in a shopping centre. Van Rudd’s installation stands apart from the paintings, woven baskets and drawings – it is a black rubber shard of a Goodyear car tire on a plinth with text in a silver frame above it. Now you might not believe that this is a piece of an Afghan civilian car destroyed by a NATO AGM-114 Hellfire Missile in the city of Kabul – but did you believe the politician’s reasons for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq?

I will be covering Van Rudd’s campaign as a work of art, a social sculpture with political comment, rather than a political campaign by an artist. This is just the foundations of a social sculpture; see part 2, Political Junkies.

The White Room

Every week I visit many galleries, they are all so similar, with a white walls with art hanging on the walls. The floors are bare floorboards or polished concrete – New Zealand artist and ARI godfather, Billy Apple even has opinions about what shade of grey to paint the gallery floor. People talk about the empty space: the ambience, the light, the aesthetics of the white room. There is track lighting on the ceiling. There are no chairs except for the person gallery sitting behind a desk (in the commercial galleries they are working on the computer, in the rental spaces they are reading a book or talking with a friend). The contemporary art gallery, is an austere, Spartan, minimalist place.

I have been waiting many years for the end of the antiseptic white walled art gallery for a long time. I am not the only one, Swiss curator Harold Szeemann objected to the “pristine sacristy of the white cube” in 1969. There is no reason why an art gallery has to have white walls but now they are ubiquitous. With over 200 galleries (or “projects”, “art space” or “artist run initiative”) in Melbourne you would think that there would be some variety but most look exactly the same, a former shop, factory or warehouse turned into a white walled space. Almost every gallery that I visit in Melbourne is essentially a featureless white room. The galleries are sheepishly following the same fashion, without even being aware that it is just a fashion. Remarkably there is very little creativity shown in exhibiting art.

The art gallery is an aesthetic environment but also de-functionalises the art. No one has to live with the art in the gallery; it can be shut up in an art gallery, in its own aesthetic preserve like an endangered animal. Would this strange creature, art, survive without the space? Or would it find itself an indefinable thing in W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse (Mind v.67).

Historically art has rarely been displayed against a white wall; mostly art has been shown on walls of various colours. Even fauvist and cubist paintings were shown on brown sackcloth in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s gallery; a former tailors shop, in Paris. But with the purity of high modernism came the white gallery wall and the removal of comforts.

In researching Kahnweiler’s sackcloth walls I have to note that he states: “There was nothing – no publicity campaigns, no cocktail parties, nothing at all and I will tell you something even stranger: I didn’t spend a cent on publicity before 1914, not one cent. I didn’t even put announcements in the papers; I didn’t do anything.” (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler My Galleries and Painters, Thames & Hudson, 1971)

The word “gallery”, that “art gallery” has inherited, comes from the long corridors of renaissance places. The art gallery is a bourgeois adaptation of the noble’s galleries and other rooms in their palaces. Post-revolutionary France used the art gallery/museum to transform the artistic treasures of the monarchy and church into art. Later, at the start of the 20th century, anthropological collections of ethnographic artefacts started to be displayed in art galleries. Since then, anything can be displayed an art gallery and made ‘art’ as Duchamp and many curators have proved.

I am a bit bored with the white room, with the concentration on the space rather than the art exhibited in them. If the art is any good then it doesn’t matter if it is exhibited in a laneway full of garbage bins. If you want to change the type of art exhibited in art galleries then you are going to have change the gallery, or at least the colour of its walls.

“Whiteness is filthy.” – Julian Torma (1902 -1933)

Street Art Notes July

There are plenty of fresh new pieces of street art around Melbourne. Hosier Lane is always a great place to look for fresh new work. I didn’t get to see Tuvs Day’s 72m living room piece because it had already been painted over. That was quick. I met Tuv when he was doing volunteer work for the Melbourne Stencil Festival last year. He sent me this photo of the huge piece.

Tuvs Day piece in Hosier Lane

I did see a large collaborative piece by Paton, Jason, Deb, Amek, HaHa, Bradd, CK, Monkey, GMO, Madre and Russia. With this many artists there is such a mix of styles and techniques in this collaboration. And there is a series of Obey posters by Shepard Fairey in City Lights (the series light boxes in Hosier Lane) mixing Soviet style posters with contemporary political themes.

Hosier Lane collaboration

The recently removed Banksy’s rat has been remembered in a number of ways on the walls of Hosier Lane. There are some fresh pink and blue stencil copies in the same place that the old original parachuting black rat had been sprayed. There were also a couple of more creative responses to the buffing of Banksy.

Tribute to Banksy's rat in Hosier Lane

Paste-up tribute

Away from Hosier Lane I saw a great spray painted van in Collingwood near the former Per Square Metre gallery and studio. I should put a collection of photographs of trucks, cars and vans with street art style decorations – not that I’ve seen that many. And bit of guerrilla gardening going on around Flanagan Lane – this is one of the best examples that I have yet seen.

Guerilla garden

I had my eyes tested before going to the Banksy film – Exit Through the Gift Shop – everyone should have their eyes tested every two years. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film about why there isn’t a documentary film about Banksy – so this review of the film isn’t about the film.  I remember one of my housemates coming into the house just after Hardcore Logo had started – seeing Joey Ramone talk about the Canadian punk rock band it took my housemate a long time to realize that this was just a movie. Orson Wells’s film, F for Fake lives up to Well’s promise to tell the truth about fakes for the next 60 minutes and then runs for over an hour. My eyes still feel a bit strange and I do need glasses for reading.

Laneway Galleries in July

Melbourne’s gallery scene is moving northwest, into the laneways off Elizabeth Street, away from Hosier Lane and the ‘Paris end’ of the city. The old blue-stone factories that once operated in these lanes have long closed and their large rough spaces are being turned into art galleries including: Brood Box, Utopian Stumps, 1000 Pound Bend and Guildford Lane Gallery. Many of these spaces also operate cafes and other function spaces in combinations with the galleries.

On Friday I was walking around these laneways looking at several exhibitions and the street art in the laneways. Graham Brindley had invited me to an opening at Guildford Lane Gallery the night before, but I couldn’t make it due to a meeting for Sweet Streets (the re-branded Melbourne Stencil Festival). Graham Brindley had invited me after I reviewed some of his work in 09 VCA Grad Show. It was a group exhibition called “Substance” at the top floor of Guildford Lane Gallery. The show proposes to explore “materiality through process”. Veronica Cavern Aldous did this wonderfully with her “Speed and stillness 5”, a LED light box mounted behind a larger block semi transparent yellow Perspex. It looks like a small, animated Rothko as the colours subtly changed. Graham Brindley’s work, “Counterpoint” was one of the strongest works in the show and deserving the centre of the gallery. The white and lead grey paint boxes stood dramatically opposite each other, the positive and the negative, the materials determining the process of creation and exhibition.

“Discreet Objects”, a group exhibition at Utopian Stumps (also in Guildford Lane) was worth a look to see Lauren Berkowitz’s “Installation #04”. It is post minimalist curtain of pages from a telephone book is impressive and beautiful. Her “White Residue” made of thread and leather cricket ball off-cuts was not as successful because it lacked the geometric order of her “Installation #04”. Alex Martinis Roe’s glass and steel sculpture is minimalist and coherent. Sriwhana Spong’s two silk (dyed with coca cola) pockets were a clever adaptation of the formal square of material support with the images and objects contained in the pocket rather than applied to the surface.

At Brood Box I talked with Justin Garnsworthy, the artists behind “Recipe for disaster”, the current exhibition. He is currently doing his Masters in Fine Art at Monash. The exhibition is a bit like Basquiat meets Schwitters. Bread is the central theme for this exhibition by Garnsworthy. Bread is the basis of civilization and the scavenging birds become the symbolic enemy. The recipe for bread becomes the recipe for the current disaster of civilization. Garnsworthy has used bread in a number of ways in his art: as a mask for aerosol painting, creating brick like patterns in the background of some paintings and casts of bread in aluminium.

“Hey Joe, where are you going with that paint brush in your hand?” I also saw Joe at Brood Box, he was cleaning things up from the previous exhibition that he’d run there and was also preparing for an opening at Warburton Lane Gallery that night. I’d seen him in the MX News (8/7/10) the day before – but we hadn’t spoken on that occasion. I first got to know Joe when I interviewed him about his approach to artistic training and education – see my blog entry about that.

Visiting the laneways off Elizabeth Street is a must for any Melbourne urban explorer interested in contemporary art or just a cup of coffee.

Illustration Notes

The last show that I saw at No Vacancy was the “Wooden Foundation”. “Wooden Foundation” a fun group show of artists painting on wooden supports. Some of the wood is new but there are plenty of recycled supports Twoon even painting the underside of a card table. In this and many of the work the bare wooden support is fashionably visible in unpainted areas. Bonsi had created an attractive series of birds, with bare wooden support. Nails had a series of totem poles in different colors hanging from the ceiling. Bonsai, OH54, Nails, Twoon, who call themselves the “Wooden Foundation” describe it as “a small creative family with roots deep in illustration and hand drawn typography. We work individually and as a group to make things for your tired eyes.”

Illustration is blooming in Melbourne. There is a new respect for illustration in our graphic orientated world of computers and computer games. And comic books, graphic novels and manga have propelled the interest in illustration for both the audience and the artists. These new illustrators are popular with devoted, young audience of collectors who find their work attractive and affordable.

Illustration briefly converged with Melbourne’s bourgeoning street art scene, with artists like Ghostpatrol and Miso and galleries like Per Square Metre, 696, Gorker and No Vacancy. The convergence of illustration and street art added techniques to the illustrators and to the mix on the street. Street art is trending to more illustrations, moving from simple comic book characters through to the current billboard naturalism of movie characters. And street art added street cred to the illustrators.

Arty illustrations are fashionable and many galleries are exhibiting them. Yesterday I saw illustration art on exhibit at Brood Box and in Platform’s exhibition windows of Majorca Building where there is Carmel Seymour, “I Often Feel Strangers are Controlling My Thoughts”. Then I saw the Lin Onus exhibition of masterful illustrative prints at the Counihan Gallery.

The subject of many of these illustrations is fantasy, but not the swords and sorcery kind, but the whimsical fantasy of children’s illustrated books. But these illustrations are not illustrations of any text but illustration as art. It is if they are the maquettes for yet un-printed illustrations to yet unwritten text. They have yet to be mass-produced; these are originals work on exhibition (although No Vacancy and others have produced some limited edition books). But I wish that more of Melbourne’s emerging illustrators would actually illustrate existent texts or write their own book.

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