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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Pan Gallery’s Final Show

There are not many galleries in Melbourne that regularly exhibit ceramic art; Skepsi and Stephen McLaughlan galleries come to mind. Pan Gallery specializes in ceramic art and is located at Northcote Pottery Supplies Pty Ltd (in Brunswick not Northcote).

“Crosshatched”, the final show at Pan Gallery, is a group exhibition featuring the work of both emerging, established and traditional ceramic artists. Two traditional Indian potters, Manohar Lal and Dharmveer made the traditional Indian mudka, water pots. The mudka provide unity to the exhibition, an objective and a base for the artists to decorate using a variety of types of glazes and other techniques. Deborah Halpern, best known in Melbourne for her statue, the “Angel” on the bank of the Yarra River, has decorated two mudkas in the exhibition. Truly Southurst, a graduate of the ceramics program at LaTrobe University’s Bendigo campus, created a whimsical mix of Indian and Western illustration and decoration on her mudka. Jill Anderson painted a political satire of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard doing back-flips at sea. The pots in the “Crosshatched” exhibition are being sold by silent auction to raise funds to build an energy efficient kiln in Kumhaar Gram, India.

Although Pan Gallery is located in one corner of a pottery supplies shop the quality of the installation is very strong; managing to create well curated gallery display in the space. The pots are displayed on a series of plinths while a slide show of the manufacture of the mudka was projected on one wall and a large pile of undecorated mudka pots are installed in the middle.

I’ve been intending to visit Pan Gallery since it opened 3 years ago and even though it is located close to me in Brunswick I have neglected to visit it. Now it is about to close to make way for more space for workshops and classes. I have slipped up in not writing about Pan Gallery sooner. Madeline Healey in the Moreland Leader (18/4/11) wrote an excellent article about the final show: “Brunswick East Pottery auction to help Indian artists”.  Craft Victoria’s blog also has a post about the final show.

Northcote Pottery Supplies Pty Ltd. has another gallery space at the front of the shop – “Small Pieces” which will remain open. “Small Pieces” stocks small ceramic works from a selection of artists.

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Poster Bombing 2011

Graffiti creeps up along the Upfield line bicycle path and in recent years there several quality pieces north of Moreland station. Paste-ups have now reached the shoe factory on my block with a well-placed piece by Shark, who appears to be specializing in images of birds.

Shark, flying ducks, Coburg

As if there weren’t enough fly-posters for bands and concerts all over Melbourne there has been a big increase in paste-ups in the last year. Paste-ups maybe popular with street artists but are not highly regarded by the general public, unlike the public reception to the stencil art scene. This is because there often there isn’t much to this poster bombing. An unoriginal black and white photograph is enlarged on a photocopier and pasted on the wall doesn’t impress the general public even if it is really big. Part of the problem is often the only consideration for paste-up placement is access and visibility. The content of many of these paste-ups is just bland selection of sampled photographs images. Many people want the instant fame of street art; years ago Happy commented with his “Instant Fame” series of paste-ups.

Happy, "Get Instant Fame"

Quality paste-ups are cut around the outline of the image, or include, even more paper cutting, like those of Miso and Swoon. Paste-up specialists like Phoenix mounts his paste-ups on cut MDF panels that have been designed withstand the weather.

Baby Guerilla, floating nude women

Many artists and illustrators are using paste-ups to show their work on the street; I keep seeing Baby Guerilla’s floating nude women along on the streets. The Melbourne paste-up artists that I most admire are Phoenix, Urban Cake Lady and Happy. (There are others who I have not been able to identify.) I admire their work because they are produce interesting content; the message and content of the paste-up is more important than the wheat paste technique. Phoenix is interested in the politics and meaning of signs. Urban Cake Lady mysterious red draped woman with stripped stockings along with wild animals. And Happy had a cynical take on both street art and advertising.

Phoenix

Suki

Urban Cake Lady

unknown artist, clothes line

Happy, "toy!"

unknown artist

Who is your favorite wheat-pasting street artist?


Gushing

There is an ugly glut of gushing praise in the art world. Wonderful, amazing, fabulous, great, fantastic, must see … gushing praise is just so much balderdash, soap bubbles of words that don’t tell you anything. Turn the flow of praise down and find something else to say about art.

In the past the partisan politics of the modern art world attracted many defenders convinced that appreciate progressive art was the same as supporting progressive politics. A small, marginal cultural practice might need a gushing review from an insider to promote it but Melbourne’s contemporary visual arts scene is neither small nor marginal. It can stand on its own merits and doesn’t need a constant flow of gushing praise to sustain it.

The arts media is seen as a free promotional forum whose role is to attract a larger audience for an event. These gushing comments are poncy (“poncy” as in pandering, procurering and pimping) praising all the artists and every exhibition or event. There is even a Melbourne blog called Art Pimp by Din Heagney, artistic director of Platform Artists Group (2006-2010). But all this pimping isn’t going to improve the quality of the art.

There is a lot of gushing in the Australian art media because too many the writers and presenters can’t say anything else due to massive conflicts of interests. Andy Dinan who presents “Gallery Girl” on Channel 31 is the director of Mars Gallery. This conflict of interest that is left unmentioned on the show, even when Andy Dinan reports on her own gallery. “Gallery Girl” is not community television but a half hour advertisement for some of Melbourne’s commercial galleries. There are so few independent critics who can comment without conflicts of interests that it goes unmentioned in the arts media. Even the ABC’s “Art Nation”, the national broadcaster’s visual arts show is full of gushing; one of their commentators, Reko Rennie’s artistic career influences what he has to say about art.

When was the last time that you read a negative review of a contemporary art exhibition? When was the last time that you read that a notable artist was under performing or that an exhibition wasn’t worth a look? These kinds of comments are common in film and book reviews, even from sports commentators but they are rare in the visual arts. One of the reasons for this blog is to improve the quality of critical discussion in Melbourne’s visual arts not to gush.


Strange Streets Indeed

Guerrilla gardening, urban interventions, performance graffiti: many of these wild and freaky ideas that are only now being realized on the street have been around since the Yippies and Mail Art in the 1960s, probably even earlier. Maybe these ideas have been floating around in an idealistic haze of the adolescent Dadaists a hundred years ago. And finally the praxis is possible for these strange utopic ideas; they are practical. These ideas never really worked before because of the limits of communications; underground magazines were underground. Only Fluxus had the celebrity names and the cheap communications, courtesy of the US military mail; until the internet came along, again, courtesy of the US military. Not to get all internet utopian about it but the impact can’t be ignored, see my post about “Street Art and the Internet”.

Nick Iltons "Suggestion Box" 2010 with peace sign

And if it didn’t start in the 1960s it happened soon after. Liz Christ and the Green Guerrilla group in NYC started guerrilla gardening and “seed bombing” in 1973. This was just a year after the first graffiti exhibition in NYC by the United Graffiti Artist group. (Maybe street art should be called “guerrilla decorating”.) The Wikipedia entry on “urban interventions” cites The Diggers theatre of San Francisco and the Dutch Provo movement as precursors. The Digger’s Free Store on Page Street, San Francisco, had a sidewall covered in frames called “Free Frame of Reference” The Dutch Provo movement were notorious for their happenings and white propaganda.

Amongst the many stranger street art activities currently in Melbourne there is Bados Earthling who calls his work “performance graffiti”. His character, a man from the future allows him to comment with confusion about the kind of activities that humans are currently engaged in. As Bados explains: “I’m like a child seeing something for the first time, with a million questions.” (See Invurt’s inteview with Bados.) Bados Earthling’s speech balloon blackboard creates a visual communication that the audience can participate and interact with.

Bados Earthling @ BSG Sweet Streets 2010

There are lots of these ideas floating around the collective consciousness like the spores of mushrooms just waiting for exactly the right conditions to germinate and fruit. “The question of ancestry in culture is spurious. Every new manifestation in culture rewrites the past, changes old maudits into new heroes…” Greil Marcus wrote in Lipstick Traces (p.21) and like Marcus I’m looking at the traces, the tiny amount that remains indicating the former presence of a thing. This is just an outline. It is an attempt to find or hunt down something.

And there are still stranger ideas that I have yet to trace amongst the drivel that various people from the 60s wrote (re-reading parts of Richard Neville’s Playpower has not been enlightening). What traces can we find in the past that explains present street art? And what new and strange will we next see on the street?


Black Paintings

Walking between galleries in Collingwood and Fitzroy and feeling bored by the art I was seeing. I’m not surprised as most art will be of indifferent quality – that is how you know great work when you see it. After walking past all this boring, repetitive, pedestrian work in so many art galleries to then encounter art that is powerful enough to make me stop and think. Not just an impressive work of skilled craft, not just something that makes me think and to then discover that it was just to make me think, but powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and in my thoughts. And to continue to hold that attraction after the craft has been examined, after the thoughts unpacked and ideas explored to return on this endless loop of thought and sensation.

How could I, Black Mark, resist a look at Melbourne based artist, Mary Tonkin’s “Black Paintings” at Australian Galleries on Smith St.? Even though bush landscapes are hardly my favorite subject but I was prepared to be bored again for the purpose of researching this blog.

I was surprised to find that Mary Tonkin’s Black Paintings” were the powerful art that I was looking for. The idea of black landscapes appears contradictory, especially in the baking Australian sunlight. Tonkin is painting the darkest areas in the forest: the hollow of a tree, the area behind a fallen tree, the parts where the light can only be seen in patches breaking the canopy in the distance. The dark umber, the dark blues, the darkest hues, so many dark colors that “Black Paintings” is an apt title. It is a wonder that anything so dark can still manage to depict anything but there is just enough contrast between the darks that the heavy broad brushstrokes map out the forms of plants and trees. Not all the paintings were that dark but the ones that were, like the large triptych, “Witness, Kolorama” made a powerful impression on me.

As Mary Tonkins was the winner of the 2002 Dobell Prize for drawing the exhibition includes a dozen works on paper. Her drawings are similar to her paintings her pencil lines and brushstrokes are similar, but they are not nearly as powerful.

So the lesson of this post is that if at first you don’t see art that you like then you haven’t looked in enough galleries. What was the most powerful work of art that you have seen this week?


Art Bloggers

Who are the other bloggers writing about the visual arts in Australia? What motivates them to do all this work creating original content for their blogs?

Ace Wagstaff – Dead Hare Melbourne Art Review (started May 2008). The title, Dead Hare is a reference to the Joseph Beuys work “Explaining art to a dead hare” (and also one work by his BFA teacher, Geoff Lowe as part ‘A Constructed World’ entitled ‘Explaining Art to Live Eels’). Ace Wagstaff wants “to document and share events and exhibitions that were and are almost invisible comparatively to the larger commercial and government galleries.” He focuses on Melbourne’s smaller gallery spaces, student spaces and ARI’s.

Steve Gray – Art Re-Sources (started Sept 2008) grew from an idea of a resource for Yr 11+ Visual Art Students. Art Re-Sources features many interviews with artists, as Steve Gray explained: “I wanted to offer students and artists a bit more than the usual fix of art magazine heroes and maybe/wannabees who were the flavour of the month. I had a few contacts and a bunch of questions to pose them in a question and answer format.”

Marcus Bunyan – Art Blart (started Nov 2008) reviews exhibitions in Melbourne and around the world. As a photographer Marcus Bunyan has a particular focus on photography exhibitions, he is often the official photographer for exhibitions and consequently his blog has some great photography along with exhibition reviews.

Karen Thompson – Melbourne Jeweller (started March 2009) has a special focus on jewellery exhibitions in Melbourne. Karen Thomspon started the blog with advice and encouragement from Brian Ward who writes Fitzroyalty. Thompson wanted to write her blog: “to document exhibitions (for future interest, and for others outside of Melbourne to read), explore my own reactions, to expand my language and visual ‘well / bank’, and to open up discussion to invite others to give their opinions (not just on exhibitions but also on topical issues).”

Stephanie Pohlman and Ashleigh Clarke – Brisbane Art Collective (started Aug 2010) write their blog because they “felt in Brisbane especially, a city that supposedly is a ‘cultural wasteland’ in comparison to Melbourne and Sydney there was a lack of critical feedback in regards to the art scene. I guess, fundamentally what we wanted to do was to show people that there is an amazing art scene in Brisbane and offer people a forum in which they could read about it.” The Brisbane Art Collective writes about more than just exhibitions, their posts range across a variety of topics including: street art, silence in the gallery and art history.

All of these people write because they are interested in the subject and the by writing a blog they can connect with the subject and other people with that interest. Writing is an outlet for their curiosity. For Ace Wagstaff and Karen Thompson it is a return to the kind of thinking that they missed after graduating. Karen Thompson notes: “the public readership gave me a framework and a kind of discipline I may have not developed without that framework.”

Karen Thompson, Ace Wagstaff and Marcus Bunyan all balance their own art practices with blog writing. Marcus Bunyan commented about this balance:

“… one practice informs the other, they are not mutually exclusive. I usually make 2-3 bodies of works each year, so that when I am not working on my artwork I am studying for Uni (I am studying a Master of Art Curatorship part-time), reading, working on reviews for the blog. All of these things interweave, are intertextual, one informing the other.”

So why write about art exhibitions? Many of these bloggers want to supplement the meagre coverage of the many art exhibitions. The Brisbane Art Collective put it this way: “basically we write art criticism because we want to give people an objective outlook to the art industry, we aren’t publicists and we aren’t interested in just talking about pretty pictures.” Steve Gray is motivated by his own experience: “I have looked at hundreds of shows over a 30 year period, some years more than others. I would see reviews, see the show and agree or disagree. I would also see shows which had not had an ounce of media attention. There was a chance to chat about some of these things and explore it further.”

When I asked the bloggers “who inspires you?” I was surprised to find how many other bloggers are an inspiration to them.

One point that I was relief for me to know – it might also be a relief for artists too – most of bloggers selection of exhibitions to be reviewed is largely random and personal. Only Melbourne Jeweller is so focused that finding out about exhibitions require searching via reader suggestions, gallery websites and internet searches.

It does take encouragement to start a blog and to keep it going. I wish that more people would write blogs about the visual arts in Australia and that more readers would comment on the posts. When Ace Wagstaff considered his doubts and insecurities about writing a blog he then noted:

“I’m reminded of how few people do write about the work that I’m writing about, and how good it is to start dialogues and how affirming it is as an artist to receive feedback, so I swallow my ego and try not to think about whether I am going to embarrass myself with my writing or whether or not I am going to finally expose myself as an art-scene poser, and channel one portion of punk cajones and one part Nike slogan and just do it.”

(Thanks to all the bloggers mentioned for their help in writing this post. There are more bloggers writing about the visual arts in Australia – see my blogroll at the bottom of this page.)


Man Style Part 2

“I think men should dress more gaily than they do now. After all, it’s one of the rare occasions in our civilization when a man can dress like a woman.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1974 on the occasion of being fitted for the habit vert wore by members of the Académie française. (Boutang and Chevallay, Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words, 1:24:00)

“Man Style” at the NGV International concentrates on waistcoats, ties and casual male fashion. These items are a playful part of male fashion, the decorations that remain when men’s suits are no longer covered in brocade (although the punk leather jacket is decorated with studs, badges and paint). There is an extensive display of waistcoats demonstrating waistcoat lengths getting shorter and plainer then long and decorative with the fringed suede leather US flag vest (made in Mexico). Unfortunately the collection of ties and hats was less than impressive.

The best part of the exhibition was the video interviews with men about their clothes. The men included: musician Dave Graney, GOMA curator Francis Parker and restaurant critic Matt Preston. It was delightful to see Francis Parker tie his bow tie or Dave Graney talk about his leather suit. The personal style of these men is part of their self-expression. These interviews contrasted with the many couture catwalk items in the collection that have never been worn.

Although I enjoyed the outfits, there was too much from Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivian Westwood in the exhibition. Westwood’s cheeky move of the cravat to the crotch or Gaultier’s reference to military uniforms; these references are satisfying for the curator or commentator but don’t reflect fashion as it is worn. Punk was able to bring the street and art couture fashion together but this is an exception. Ultimately the exhibition is confused in its intentions: is it exhibiting a history of male fashion or couture references to the history of fashion?

The exhibition at the NGV International on St. Kilda Road did fill in some of the gaps in the examination of male fashion left by the exhibition of suits at the Ian Potter Centre at Fed Square. (I missed the information at the Ian Potter Centre the first time I saw the exhibition another reason why Melbourne needs a dedicated fashion/clothes museum/gallery – something that I’ve advocated before).


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