Monthly Archives: April 2012

Cunningham Dax Collection – New & Improved

Even in the beautiful new building viewing the Cunningham Dax Collection is not an enjoyable experience. It is an emotionally unsettling experience but enjoyment is not the purpose of the exhibition. There is an educational purpose to this collection; this is not just another art gallery.

The collection is named after its founder Dr Eric Cunningham Dax who in 1946 pioneered the place of art therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment. I’d been to the Cunningham Dax Collection before in 2010 when it was still located in some old buildings in the hard to find location in the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Royal Park Campus (see my previous post about the old location).

Now Cunningham Dax Collection has a new location at the Department of Neuroscience on Melbourne University’s main campus. The new building still has the same basic facilities as in the old one, reception, the gallery space, the education resource centre, multimedia gallery, but this time it has been purpose built and beautifully designed. There is a spectacular 6-story light well in the middle of the gallery making the experience of viewing the exhibition as comfortable as possible.

The current exhibitions are “Selected works from the collection” and “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits from the collection.” The selected work from the collection shows the range of art therapy from diagnostic to disaster relief. There are examples of the “draw a picture of a tree” section of the Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS) or the House-tree-person test (HTP) along with moving works from the Holocaust collection.

I found “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits” a difficult experience – I didn’t want to look it for long. It is difficult to know what to think when viewing the art of the mentally ill in a gallery. Often this art is such a private experience or clinical experience. And this raises the question of the ability of the mentally ill to fully consent to exhibiting their art. Most of the artists on exhibited are referred to as “artist name withheld”; including the artist who drew their complaints about the conditions in 1963 Larundel clearly wanted to communicate about the “Larunhole cell” and the “dinner (revolting)”. And, Richard McLean, who trained Victorian College of the Arts and worked professionally as a graphic designer certainly wants his art exhibited to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.

Those suffering from grief and trauma often want to communicate about their experience and they can do it clearly, even if they have no arts training. Sharing traumatic experiences, like the Tsunami Collection by Sri Lanka children, is a meaningful experience for both the artist and the viewer. You can easily see it from their point of view but this is more difficult with the mentally ill.

The art from the Cunningham Dax Collection makes me think that there is clear difference between art therapy for grief and art therapy for mental illness. The broad application of art therapy for grief, trauma, to mental illness makes it appear like a panacea. However much I love art I am suspicious of claims of panaceas. Perhaps we need to think of art as a tonic, a boost, a refresher, as in something that lifts the spirits or makes somebody feel better generally, rather than a therapy. We should all regularly do art and it will make us feel better.

In a recent systematic review of art therapy J. Leckey notes: “Although participation in creative arts is believed to have mental health and social benefits for individuals, the evidence base is weak and a major factor seems to be the lack of clarity of the concepts (well-being, mental illness/ health and creative arts), as how can something be measured if you are not clear on what it is that is being measured.” (J. Leckey “The therapeutic effectiveness of creative activities on mental well-being: a systematic review of the literature” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2011, n.18 p.508)

“This review highlights the need for further research into the effects of creative arts and to clearly identify what is meant by mental well-being in a more systematic and structured way.” So there is still a purpose for the research carried out at the Dax Centre.


Famous Faces

Aung San Suu Kyi stencil

You haven’t really made it unless your face has been celebrated with an aerosol stencil on the streets of Melbourne. (See my blog post on Portraits of Julian Assange now with even more portraits.)

Famous heroes but not celebrities - Firemen and fire truck by HaHa

Various Face Blender Lane

Rolf Harris - trust spray paints ... sure can

Dame Edna (Barry Humphries)

It helps if you look good in high contrast black and white. Who is this guy?

You know that you are really famous when HaHa does a stencil of you – then it looks like full colour because he uses so many layers of stencils and different densities of spray.

Kurt Cobain & Michael Jackson by HaHa

Various people by HaHa in Stevenson Lane

Chopper Reed by HaHa


J.B. Greuze – I spit on your grave

Unless you know what you hate you cannot understand what you love. You can’t turn you attention away from what you hate, you have to study it, understand it, even to delight in your passionate hatred. When I saw J.B. Greuze’s headstone in Montmartre cemetery, I wanted to dance on his grave, I wanted to spit on his grave – instead I took a photograph of it. It is awful like his art, adorned with a bronze statue modelled from his painting, “The Broken Pitcher”. This kitsch addition to his tomb reminds me of J.B. Greuze’s worst painting and exactly why it is so awful.

J.B. Greuze's grave in Montmartre cemetery

It is not that J.B. Greuze (1725-1805) is a bad painter; at one time he was regarded as the best painter in the world. Denis Diderot praised him for paintings that “arouse in our hearts hatred of vice and a love of virtue.” (Quoted in Eliza Pollard, Boucher and Greuze, 1904, p. 44) but the critics soon came to their senses. It is Greuze’s subject matter that is disgusting; the loss of virginity in a metaphor as crude as a broken pitcher is just awful. Greuze painted other domestic tragedies with allusions to loss virginity. The hypocrisy of hectoring with a painting espousing virtue with intentions that are basically sordid might have fooled some deluded people for a while but it couldn’t last.

Considering J.B. Greuze’s concentration on images pubescent girls in comparison to the photographs of Bill Henson. I realize that Henson’s neutral moral view in his photographs disturbs some people because it forces the moral interpretation back on the viewer. The kind of people who find Henson’s photographs disgusting lack the ability to make moral judgements themselves and want others to provide moral dictates. Greuze’s moral position is clear, he looks at a young woman who has lost her virginity as ruined; I hate him for being a willing proponent of this kind of thinking. He is the 18th century equivalent of the kind of warning used in advertisements about teenage alcohol abuse.

Virtues may well a reflection of a cultures values but that doesn’t mean that all of the values are ethical, coherent or desirable for all times. Espousing virtuous sentiments are too often a mask for a lack of any core ethical behaviour; J.B. Greuze’s paintings have the feel of a pious priest who sexual abuses children.

I can understand that once people were fooled by Greurze’s paintings. But I can’t understand why J.B. Greuze still has followers who still leave flowers on his grave, why does anyone still like his art? Was it some half-crazed, cloistered, post-graduate student of art history who had to express admiration for the artist?

I don’t hate many artists as completely as I hate J.B. Greuze; I also hate Ellsworth Kelly but for completely different reasons, mostly for the waste of my energy walking past his enormously large and vacuous paintings.


Works on & works from paper

This week I saw two exhibitions of work with paper; at Flinders Lane Gallery there is work on paper and fortyfive downstairs has “Unfold: works from paper.”

In the main exhibition space at Flinders Lane Gallery “Silent Yesterday” by Mami Yamanaka is mostly works on Arches paper (with the exception of two paintings on canvas). In some of the pieces Yamanaka has overlayed two sheets of paper mixing the cut out shapes of birds or butterflies on one sheet with her intense, hypnotic, floral patterns behind it. (In the interest of full disclosure Mami Yamanaka’s partner, Adam Nash was a former colleague of mine at LookSmart.)

In “The Paper Room” at Flinders Lane Gallery there are works on paper by various artists printing or painting on paper. It is not that exciting except for the two etchings depicting twigs and their shadows by Christine Wilcocks where the handmade paper resembles a sandy ground. I didn’t like Marise Maass’s series of paintings on paper as they looked like small versions of Jenny Watson paintings – more crudely painted horses.

At fortyfive downstairs the artists were using paper not simply as a support for the art but as the medium for the art. Curator, Sally McKittrick has done a great job at bringing together 10 artists who make art from paper. The artists have animated, cut, carved, bent, folded, knitted, punched and woven paper. I was particularly taken by the music boxes by Adam Simmons where the punched paper rolls are both elegant sculptural forms and information storage.

The connection between plants and paper features in this exhibition as paper is often made from plant fibre pulp. Lan Nguyen Hoan has a made field of paper grass and has animated it in a video. Claudia Gleave and Sara Nothrop construct imaginary paper plants in glass jars. And Alana Sivell also created plants from paper.

This is just the work on and from paper in two of Melbourne’s galleries. The paperless office may still be a long way off but the paperless art world isn’t even a vision of the future.


Graphic George Grosz

The Many Faces of George Grosz #1 (Degenerate Comix, Melbourne, 2011) is a graphic novel by Keith McDougall about the life of German artist, adapted from the writings of Weiland Herzfelde. I was amazed to find that the author, Keith McDougall is from Melbourne. I was also amazed to find that the graphic novel had only been printed in an edition of 100.

George Grosz’s paintings and illustrations of the Weimar republic years in Berlin are familiar images but I hadn’t taken Grosz seriously as a person. This was after both reading his autobiography and these comments of Richard Hulsenbeck: “George Grosz, who while living in America turned into a great enemy of dada, was very much for it in those days. He dubbed himself as a “Dada Marshall,” gave us his drawings for our publications, and joined our sessions. In his memoirs, Ein grosses Ja und kleines Nein he tries to ridicule dada and, although not in so many words, to slander all the people involved. In this collection of curious anecdotes, Grosz seems to lack any understanding of the cultural significance of dada and modern art.” (Richard Hulsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, University of California Press, 1991, p.57) The chapter on Dada in Grosz’s biography does exhibit a shallow understanding of Dada and then drift off topic into a story of spiritualist nonsense. (George Grosz, A Small Yes and A Big No, Zenith Books, 1982)

So I asked Keith McDougall, out of all the Dadaists why do a graphic novel biography of George Grosz? McDougall replied: “Because he was a cartoonist, so it’s a cartoon about a cartoonist. At the same time he was also a modern artist, and I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of modernism and comics.”

In The Many Faces of George Grosz #1 Grosz is sympathetically portrayed as fascinating, multi-faceted character. The story of Grosz is told through the character of Weiland Herzfelde, providing distance to Grosz’s exaggerated and erratic behaviour, as well as, a subplot that establishes the politics of Berlin in 1914. I really enjoyed the entrance of George Grosz in the graphic novel, stepping out of the shadows to complete outrage. McDougall’s simplified versions of Grosz’s illustrations are used sparingly but with impact.

I’m looking forward to issue #2 of The Many Faces of George Grosz but Keith McDougall says that is going to take some time – “The end of the year at the latest, I reckon.”


The Good, the Bad and the Average

Bicycling around boho Brunswick, I wanted to catch the last of the sun before the weather turns cold and I was looking for something to write about. I stopped off at Tinning Street Presents where there is a contemporary collage exhibition, “Splitting Image”. Maybe I should add a postscript to my review of the collage exhibition at the Counihan Gallerybut “Splitting Image” is just another average exhibition of collage. It is just not as exciting as the art just outside the gallery’s door in Ilhan Lane.

I & the others, Ilhan Lane, Brunswick

Civil, Ilhan Lane, Brunswick

Ilhan Lane (running between Tinning Street and Albion Street, just east the Upfield train line) is one of the hidden gems of Melbourne’s street art. There is a mix of aerosol graffiti along with other kinds of other street art on the walls and fences of this lane. Now there is a huge Tom Civil mural in the lane and the surrealist game of the exquisite corpse (the parlour game of heads, bodies and legs) pasted up on the corrugated iron fence. Ilhan Lane is good place to see experiments in street art even if they don’t all work.

Exquisite corpses, Ilhan Lane, Brunswick

There was more work by Tom Civil on the front of Brunswick Bound; a large nocturne, quiet a different subject and style than his recent crowds.

Civil, “Anchorage”, Brunswick Bound

unknown, Ovens Street, Brunswick

There is more art in the streets, lanes and bike paths of Brunswick. It is worth taking a look at the beautiful long walls of aerosol graffiti along the factory walls of Ovens Street. Plenty of new stuff happening; I see three different guys spray-painting along the bike path in the middle of day. Not all of it is good; the junk assemblages by “Scrap Princess” are just look boring and ugly – it makes you realize what quality work Junky Projects does.

Scrap Princess – with art failure is always an option

Riding along the Upfield bike path through Brunswick is a great way to view local street art.


Horses & Generals

Even though classical art had survived centuries and represented eternal values eventually the classical image could no longer be sustained amidst all of the changes the modern world. The archaic robes of a judge or a city councilor would have to be updated to modern fashion. A general could no longer be represented on horseback, like the Roman Emporor, Marcus Aurelius, because generals no longer rode horses. You can see the end of classical art in Melbourne in two statues, both of generals, and both located, not far from each other in the Kings Domain Park.

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

The sculptors of these memorials are closely connected. There is a tradition of master and studio assistant that runs through the lives of William Leslie Bowles (1885-1954) and Raymond “Ray” Boultwood Ewers (1917-1998). Bowles trained in England attending night classes at South London School of Sculpture and at the Royal Academy. During the day he worked there with several sculptors, including Bertram Mackennal. In Mackennal’s studio Bowles assisted with the large public monuments, including the equestrian statues of King Edward VII for Melbourne.

When in 1937 William Bowles won the competition to create a memorial to Sir John Monash Commander in Chief of the Australian Forces, World War I. Bowles proposed the classical form for a military man, a bronze equestrian statue on a granite pedestal. The bronze statue of Monash was cast in Italy prior to the outbreak of WWII but only finally completed and installed in 1950.

William Leslie Bowles, Sir John Monash Memorial

William Leslie Bowles, Sir John Monash Memorial, 1950

There are many similar equestrian statues like the, nearby equestrian statue of the Marquis of Linlithgow by William Birnie Rhind that was unveiled in 1911. But the Monash Memorial is even more like the equestrian statues of King Edward VII that he had worked on with Bertram Mackennal further along St. Kilda Road.

 

A decade later, Ray Ewers depicted Sir John Monash’s contemporary, Sir Thomas Blamey not on horseback but in a jeep. Although Blamey’s wife wanted an equestrian statute, this was now too obviously archaic for both the sculptor and the committee commissioning the sculpture.

Ray Ewers, Sir Thomas Blamey, 1960

Ray Ewers was trained in sculpture at the Working Men’s College in Melbourne from 1936 to 1940. Bowles had selected Ewers as an assistant and Ewers had assisted him with the Sir John Monash Memorial. And when poor health stopped Bowles work for the War Memorial, he asked that his former assistant, Ray Ewers complete it. Ewers also made the “Australian Serviceman” at the Australian War Memorial sculpture garden in Melbourne.

Without the classical form to work from the Blamey Memorial, 1960 is simply big and ugly. The memorial is a bronze grossly oversized figure standing in part of an army jeep instead the tradition of an equestrian statue. The part of the jeep is shown exploded, as in a 3D technical drawing, rather than anything dramatic. The figure’s pose is stiff, military and not in the least classical. The granite plinth emphasizes the rectangular shape of the statue.

The statue could be described as ‘realist’, not the revolutionary 19th Century realism of Manet and Courbet, more like the 20th Century National Socialist Realism of Nazi Germany or the Socialist Realism of Stalinist Soviet Union. The realism and classicalism promoted by Nazi Germany cast a long shadow across sculpture in this styles in Europe but evidently had little impact in Australia.


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