Monthly Archives: January 2012

Street Scrawl & Street Photography

At the City Library (air conditioned refuge in the January heat) there is “Urban Scrawl” by Kaff-eine, Precious Little, Tigtab and Blacklodge. They are street artists who are not working with aerosol. There are collaborations between all of the artists in various combinations giving the exhibition a real group feel. (Arty Graffarti has a review of the exhibition and lots of photos – I didn’t bring my camera.)

Kaff-eine up-cycling in Coburg

I’d first encounter Kaff-eine’s work up-cycling (decorating discarded objects on the street) on a mattress during the annual Moreland hard rubbish collection. I first thought of Kaff-eine as yet another Ghostpatrol wannabe with drawings of children. But after seeing this exhibition I’m more impressed; Kaff-eine’s images are stronger than Ghostpatrol with more illustrative technique.

I didn’t know Kaff-eine was a woman until I read about it in the exhibition information pages. I’d assumed that Kaff-eine was man because most street artists are. The gender of the artist can make a difference to the art – imagine if you discovered that Debs was really a man. Then curvy female characters that Debs sprays would have a completely different meaning. (See my post about the panel discussion on Gender & Street Art at the Melbourne Stencil Festival 09.)

Precious Little has her poetry printed with an old fashion Dymo label maker, photographs, wall paste-ups and two framed drawings. Some of her poems interact with Kaff-eine’s illustrations. I have seen her work in Hosier Lane and elsewhere but the variety of her other work is impressive.

Tigtab and Blacklodge’s fantastic light painting photography are shot with a very slow shutter and moving lights. In the experienced hands of Tigtab and Blacklodge it proves to be a great dynamic way of photographing graffiti; although Tibtab’s light stencils of cranes, dragonflies, turtles and butterflies verge on kitsch. (I think that I saw their work before and some of the toys that they use to create these photographs in “Urban Intervention” in Sweet Streets 2010.)

On the subject of streets and photography I saw “Around Winston Street” at No Vacancy Gallery in the Atrium at Federation Square. “Around Winston Street” is street photography capturing the life on the streets in Shepparton by Serana Hunt. Hunt lives around there and this means that her photographs have a familiar view of the people of Shepparton. Her best photographs are of local characters on the streets. The photographs are mostly in black and white (old school street photography, keeping it real). The exhibition was funded through Pozible Crowdfunding Creativity.


And it was all Yellow

Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture, “Vault” (aka the Yellow Peril) was only in the Melbourne City Square for a year but it haunts Melbourne like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. The sculpture certainly haunts the architects DCM who choose it. It was only in the City Square for a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. The sculpture has been the subject of endless discussion when it was completed and Wallis wonders why Melbourne became so obsessed with this sculpture. Wasn’t there anything more important to talk about in Melbourne?

“I actually think Melbourne is better off than Sydney, because of the experience of Vault. Vault was a public issue, and I think Melbourne is a lot more sophisticated as a result of these arguments being aired, over a long period of time.” Ron Robertson-Swann, Oct. 2002 (Carolyn Webb, “Melbourne’s mellow peril” The Age 3/10/02)

Vault has no meaning besides being art; it is simply an arrangement of yellow steel planes. The significance of it to Melbourne is the subject of the book.

The cast of characters spans Melbourne and clearly describes the conflict’s political dimensions.

For the sculpture: DCM (architects), Cr Ivin Rockman, Cr McAlpine, The Age, Eric Rawlison (director of the NGV), Professor Patrick McCaughey, Contemporary Art Society, Norm Gallagher (BLF)

Against the sculpture: Cr Don Osborne, Cr Jack Woodruff, The Sun, Premier Ruper Hamer, Bert Newton, Australian Guild of Realist Artists, Peter Thorley (chief commissioner of Melbourne)

Wallis does note that the conflict was as much aged-based as it was one between the left and right. It was Cr Osborne who popularised its derogatory nickname – “the yellow peril”. As well as, covering the controversy, Wallis comprehensively examination of the whole process from the competition for the commission, the commission and construction, the Melbourne City Council politics and the public reaction, the dismantling, removal and exile to Batman Park.

It is interesting to note that BHP contributed to the cost of the steel for Vault. That with a larger budget for the sculpture the City Square might have had a Henry Moore or Hans Arp sculpture. And that if the budget had been smaller friends of Montsalvat sculptor Matcham Skipper might have been able to pay for a place for him in the City Square.

Wallis looks closely at the reactions of the public to the sculpture, not in just the newspaper’s letters to the editor page. He looks at people climbing it, graffiti, homeless sleeping under it. The way that people moved around the sculpture was part of the commission and part of the concern of its critics.

The controversy over “Vault” extended the conservative position on Melbourne’s public sculpture. Long after their experience with “Vault” Melbourne City Council shunned any public sculpture commissions, paralyzed by fear of another controversy. The little good that came out of the whole incident was that it started the push that eventually the federal government introduced legislation protecting the moral rights of artists.

The book is well written and attractively laid out – I like the side texts that expanded the history through sidetracks. The book also features lots of great photographs, cartoon clippings from newspapers and other evidence of sculpture’s significance in Melbourne. And there is sort of a happy ending to look forward to as the sculptor and the people of Melbourne finally accept “Vault” in its new location outside of the ACAG.

Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city, (Indra Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1920787003, 9781920787004

Penny Webb reviewed Peril in the Square (The Age 14/5/04)

An Aboriginal art walk

In my peripatetic study of Melbourne’s art this turned out to be an Aboriginal art walk. I walked down the neglected north bank of the Yarra River to Enterprize Park to see “Scar – A Stolen Vision”. I had seen the poles from the train many times before but I wanted to see them up close.

Enterprize Park, Melbourne

Enterprize Park is in a small park area between two railway overpasses. The sculpture is well located the 30 recycled wooden pier posts transformed into giant fishing spears, funeral poles and history milestones. “Scar – A Stolen Vision” was produced by Kimba Thompson in 2001 with the artists Karen Casey, Craig Charles, Glenn Romanis, Maree Clarke, Ray Thomas, Ricardo Idagi and Treahna Hamm. It was first displayed in City Square in March 2001was relocated to Enterprize Park in 2003. The poles interpret the history of aboriginal life, from before colonialisation, to enduring the horrors of mission life and genocidal government policies. The title refers to the tradition of tree scaring, left by removing the bark for shields or canoes, as well as, to the healed tissue of a wound.

detail of poles in “Scar – A Stolen Vision”

The posts fit in with the river gums and the pillars of the railway overpass. Trains, trams, skateboarders and tourists pass by the park that is occupied only by a flock of seagulls on the grass, a homeless man sleeping on a nearby bench and me.

Steaphan Paton, “Urban Doolagahl”, 2011

On the way there I encountered one of the “Urban Doolagahl” created by Steaphan Paton, part of the Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011. The Urban Doolagahl with its red eyes was eating sushi with chopsticks in Tavistock Place. Doolagahl’s like raw fish so the cuisine of the Japanese restaurant would not be problem for this aboriginal spirit creature. It is a super placement of the figure. It is on the same level to the low relief sculptures of the Fletcher Jones men on the next building. These urban pipe-smoking men look like Bob from the Church of the SubGenius (and is Fletcher Jones a secret founding members of this cult?)

When I first saw it from across the street I though that it might be a new work by as street artist (Junky Projects sprang to mind) but on closer examination I saw that it was made of bark. Now that I’ve found it I’m going to have to track down the other 5 who are hiding in various laneways around the city. I know that I walked past one in Flinders Lane later that afternoon but I didn’t see it. I was distracted by a couple of paparazzi photographing some tennis player who was doing some shopping. These Urban Doolagahl are elusive hard to spot creatures.

Having walked up and down Flinders Street I decided to rest my wear legs, sit on a bench and feast my eyes on some of the central desert aboriginal art at the NGV in Federation Square. If I had want to continue the Aboriginal art theme of my walk I could have gone further up stream on the north bank of the Yarra to Birrarung Marr. There I would have seen “Birrarung Wilam”, 2006 by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm. And “Eel Trap”, 2003 by Fiona Clarke and Ken McKean, a plate-steel sculpture based on the form a traditional eel trap.

Street Art meets Graffiti in Coburg

Coburg is on the edge of the donut ring of Melbourne’s inner city suburbs and the outer suburbs. For street art it is the high tide mark, the final piece on a midnight mission, the liminal zone where beautiful street art meets ugly graffiti. Coburg is different from it’s more inner neighbour, Brunswick where the aerosol is thick and fast. Coburg is where the inner city pieces run out and only bombing, tagging continues. It is not in the mainstream of Melbourne’s street art or graffiti scene but the occasional piece still pops up. Braddock, Psalm, Lench and others have all decorated the walls of Coburg.

Suki Art, paste-up, Coburg, 2010

There are street artists who do the occasional odd piece, leaving messages along the bike trail, Shark’s paste-ups of birds and Forever’s great Cooo-burg pigeon paste-up, the odd stencil here and there.

I have been looking at Coburg’s graffiti for decades. I remember a long gone, old Psalm blockbuster piece on the fence by Coburg railway station from back in the 1990s when there was very little graffiti on the Upfield line. I also remember an early stencil and paste-ups by Peter Bourke who went on to a great fake newspaper headline paste-up campaign, “The Pedestrian Times”.

Lench, aerosol, Coburg, 2010

The aerosol pieces along the Upfield train line run and bike path out a little way into Coburg past Moreland Station, partially due to a lack of available walls. Build a brick wall by the railway tracks in Coburg and it will be painted, as Lench did with this new wall. And beyond Coburg Railway Station the there is a lot of crap graffiti. There are few pieces due to local strange attractors, like the walls opposite Batman Station. There aren’t that many laneways in Coburg, the city council had a policy of selling them off. There are the occasional sticker and paste-up runs up Sydney Road that reach Coburg’s shopping centre. And furious political debate and simple graffiti cover the giant back walls of the supermarkets.

Coburg political graffiti 2011

This is Shit, stencil, Coburg, 2008

buffing, Coburg 2011

There is also a lot of serious buffing in Coburg creating walls that look like abstract paintings. This buffing discourages anyone to go beyond tags, throw-ups and slogans; although the occasional one can take even that to a new level. There are some really creative throw-ups in Coburg.

yarn bombing, Coburg 2011

throw-up flower, Coburg 2011

stencil, Coburg 2011

throw-up, Coburg 2011

The Artist of Destruction

The blond young man with slicked backed hair told me he was an artist. “Another bullshit artist,” I thought; but then I had been drinking at yet another exhibition opening and when that was over moved on to the nearest bar.

I told him that I was an art critic, well, I write this blog. He claimed a vague familiarity with my work. Was he trying to get on my good side?

The artist, let’s call him that, I don’t think that he ever introduced himself, told me about the 20 years of his art practice and his thesis. Maybe I had underestimated him; he could expound on post-modern philosophy with a familiar distain. Next, I thought, he’ll want me to write about his project.

Instead the artist claimed that he was being persecuted in the popular press but I had been at the beach and hadn’t seen anything in weeks. He told me that his art practice involved destroying drawings by major Australian artists rather than creating more and there were people threatening to kill him. I looked around the bar – nobody appeared to be an art lover about to engage in psychopathic blood frenzy. I ordered another beer.

The artist pointed out the old A5 sheet of paper that he was using as a beer mat. “It is a genuine John Brack’s drawing, valued at $9,000. I’m testing its survivability in contemporary living conditions” I didn’t examine the smudges of graphite on the paper and failed to ask the artist if this was Australian or US dollars. The artist finished his beer and stuffed the now beer stained sheet of paper into his pocket.

The January weather has been capricious, rain was threatening. It was like winter. Next the artist took me into the laneway. We sheltered in a doorway and he pulled out a thin rolled paper artefact that he claimed was “a marijuana joint”. He also claimed that the cardboard “filter” was torn from Ricky Swallow drawing. I don’t know about either but I didn’t get high from smoking it.

The artist appeared to have got very high and was raving about Robert Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning. Quoting from Penny Rimbaud of CRASS on how to destroy art and the Futurists he had somehow got on to the symbolic castration of the father figure. Then he wanted to show me photographs on his cell phone of a Brett Whitely that he had showed up his ass and set on fire for his Masters. I declined, pointing out that I didn’t have my reading glasses with me and the screen was too small to make anything out.

January in Melbourne is full of strange art stories you can’t believe them all. Exhibitions of toddler’s paintings, the Prime Minister’s collection of photocopies of her breasts stolen by members of the opposition party and Dennis Hopper eating Sidney Nolan drawings for breakfast.

Containment Structure @ No No Gallery

The first exhibition opening that I’ve attended this year. I enter No No Gallery from a lane in North Melbourne, with the ubiquitous Drew Funk painting. There is a small banner above door and then down a short very pink corridor. It is like a small bar, with carpet and club chairs and low red lights. The bar was selling bottles of Dutch or German beer for a “$3 donation”. Up a short flight of polished wood stairs was the small wooden floor and white walls of the gallery space with exposed ceiling beams and brick wall.

On the mezzanine floor people were waiting there turn to listen to the headphones at two of the exhibits. Maybe I could get into Daniel Jenatsch’s “para- archaeology society”, it is amusing in a pataphysical way but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

At first everyone was drinking beer and reading the catalogue essay: “Containment Structure” by Robert Nelson. Then they were wearing pink moustaches, something to do with Clare McCracken’s “Megafaunna Mo”. More and more people arrive, there are about 40 people at the opening, and more pink moustaches are applied. Very amusing but you’d have to have been there.

Why am I concentrating on the scene of the exhibition opening rather than the art? There wasn’t that much to see really, there never is at No No Gallery. It is one of those contemporary galleries that believe in lots curatorial space between the art and it is not a large space. This time there were 5 artists and 11 pieces of art. Stephanie Hicks’s 5 woven collages of pages of rocks and minerals were possibly the best, beautiful in their rigid crystalline structures. Jessica Brent’s two photographs were competent but I didn’t see the point in the way they were hung.

I think I’ll have another beer. The exhibition was too insular, it was like the self-recording of Heidi Holmes that edits out everything but the “I”. It wasn’t a containment structure; it was just another excuse for a group exhibition.

The Future @ RMIT

The New Year is a good time for thinking about the future. Reading stories like: “Ten 100-year predictions that came true” from BBC News Magazine and seeing RMIT Gallery “2112 Imagining the Future”, a diverse and engaging exhibition of art from local and international artists about the future. Will the future be utopic or a dystopic or some kind of combination, a strange, cool Japanese future where people wear costumes? Will it be the end of the world?

Hisaharu Motoda, Opera House, image courtesy of RMIT Gallery

In imagining the future there are still paintings – that probably wouldn’t have been predicted a century ago. Maybe the future never happened, maybe, as Sam Leach’s painting, “We Have Never Been Modern” (2011) suggests, we are still living in a mythic past. In the painting priest/scientists in their white coats unveil something that an eagle perches on.

Leach was not the only painter in the exhibition: Tony Lloyd and Darren Wardle’s landscapes. However, photographs, video art, sound art and sculptural installations dominated the media used for visions of the future. Using 3D stereoscopic technology NOW and WHEN “Australian Urbanism” shows amazing images of Australian cities and giant mines. (“Australian Urbanism” was featured in the Australian Pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2010). There was the constant hum of machines throughout the exhibition.

Kenji Yanobe’s “Atom Suit Project: Antenna of the Earth” (2001) is an impressive centrepiece for the exhibition. Surrounded by hundreds of miniature versions of the Atom Suit, some lighting up and going “ping” occasionally. (Could this have something to do with Geiger counter?) The figure in the Atom Suit with his ocular wand is between a scientist and shaman. On the back wall in a large photo, Kenji Yanobe is shown wearing the suit on a desolate saltpan, like a shaman in the land of the dead.

Around the corner Patricia Piccinini’s “Game Boys Advanced” lean against the wall absorbed in their game. They are well positioned near Keith Cottingham’s “Triplets”, 1993 and the colour palette of an imaginary seed bank by Lyndal Osborne. All works considering the genetic implications of the future.

Lyndal Osborne, 0 ab ovo, image courtesy of RMIT Gallery

Another stunning work is Ken + Julia Yonetani “Still Life – The Food Bowl”, 2011, cast from the pinkish salt of the Murray River. This dystopic vision of ‘the food bowl’ of Australia made of salt. It is a traditional European still life with a table, glasses, fruit bowl, cutlery, fish and crayfish all solid salt. On a similar environmental theme Debbie Symons digital video work “Arrivals/Departures” 2011. Positioned beautifully over the gallery door “Arrivals/Departures” uses the familiar transport screen to record introduced and endangered species.

Now that I consider it, these visions of the future are all very pessimistic, predicting an imminent environmental catastrophe. There is a great deal of pessimism in the visions. There are ruins in Hisaharu Motoda’s lithographs, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre photographs of destruction and Kirsten Johannsen’s bean sprouts had wilted under the lights. But it didn’t feel that way when I saw it; it felt fun, intriguing and engaging.

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