Monthly Archives: June 2012

Rone “When She’s Gone”

There was only one unsold work at the opening of Rone’s “When She’s Gone” exhibition at Backwoods Gallery on Friday night. Almost everything had been sold before the opening – red Backwood’s sticker beside them on the wall. When she’s gone she’s gone.

It was not surprising as Rone is a Melbourne street art legend, a member of the Everfresh crew, who was busted by the cops with Civil at the 2003 Canterbury “Empty Show”. Rone started decorating skate decks and skate parks and he then moved to large-scale faces of women. The high contrast images of the beautiful face of a young woman look like so many photographs from fashion magazines.

Rone has been refining his close-up image of a woman’s face for years in stencils, screen prints, paste-ups and stickers. And the image has become very refined. In 13 works in the exhibition and walls everywhere Rone’s image of a woman’s face was everywhere. Rone was giving away sheets of stickers of his postage stamp version of the woman’s face.

Everyone at the opening was talking about the works on real brick cladding that Rone was using as a support on four works. It is not that remarkable, just Google “real brick cladding”, and a bit hyper-real given that it didn’t matter what the support was, paper, canvas or brick cladding.

Rone uses the Situationalist International process of décollage (de-collage or tearing away) posters. The Situationalists like “anonymous lacerations” of advertisements defaced by vandals, they became “found images”. “In 1961 Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains exhibited their décollages—torn and ripped agitprop posters—at the exhibition titled in a play on words, “La France déchirée” (France in Shreds).” According to McDonough, Hains’ displayed the posters in order to expose the Algerian war. (Whitney Dail “A Critical Review of ‘The Beautiful Language of My Century’ by Tom McDonough”) Unlike the Situationalists Rone doesn’t use décollage for explicitly political purposes – it was all on top of Everfresh and other posters.

Rone’s exhibition is pure pop beauty. The triptych “I know what I know” fills the whole wall, like a series of comic book panels with text. Rone’s titles have pop culture references to song lyrics, like “Hurt So Good” (John Cougar) or “Blue Monday” (Joy Division) or “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers).

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone

It’s not warm when she’s away.

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone

And she’s always gone too long

Anytime she goes away.”

– Bill Withers


Street Anarchy

“Anarchy is chaos. Chaos is the principle of continual creation. And Chaos never died.” Hakim Bey, 1987

Various artists, Hosier Lane

The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII).

Graffiti gives courage to those who agree with the opinions that they are not alone while demonstrating to the authorities that their view is not universally accepted. Graffiti is about non-violent propaganda by deed, as much as, it is propaganda images and propaganda is so much more effective with cool images. As Sydney street artist Jumbo said: “sometimes the message is just in the action.” (“Vandals or Vanguards?” at RMIT 26/9/11) Graffiti, like the punk bands, says if they can do that then what can I do?

Maybe I should write an addendum about graffiti to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (Penguin,1989). Marcus brilliantly traces an element of anarchy from medieval Anabaptists through the Dadaists, the Situationalists and on to the punks. But do we really need the repetition of Situationalist slogans almost half a century after they were first written on the streets of Paris? Do we even need another slogan or a manifesto or Hakim Bey’s invocations to poetic terrorism to spell out what is written on the wall? Do we need to spell it out blockbuster style or is it enough to bring beauty to an abandoned place?

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

“Culture and the state – one should not deceive oneself over this – are antagonists: the ‘cultural state’ is merely a modern idea. The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.” Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

From the deliberate actions of culture-jammers and slogan writers, to the basic anti-police and anti-authoritarian attitude of all graffiti writers, graffiti is political. And graffiti is political because it is repressed, because the government attempts to control chaos. For if you act like someone is your enemy then they will become your enemy.

There is a lot of hostility to graffiti because it is chaos (I choose to embrace the chaos). I catch the train and there is a wanted poster for some guy for doing a tag. There is a flier in my letterbox from a politician boasting about how they cleaned up a small patch of graffiti and replaced it with clunky but colourful painting by school children. The approval of a politician makes the illegal legitimate. It is hard to write about Melbourne’s street art and graffiti without talking about the influence of the law; what is a legal piece and what is not, the council’s rules and where they are ignored, overlooked or unenforceable. For an opposing view on “Graffiti and Anarchy” read Tom McLaughlin’s blog. In response to Tom teenage boys drawing phalli are part of the anarchy and chaos of human life and I would only criticize the culture where this is the best that teenage boys can graffiti.

There are plenty of self-aware anarchists doing street art and graffiti in Melbourne but flying the flag for anarchy is rarely a very useful activity. Walking through Melbourne I was handed a flier in the street by veteran anarchist, Dr. Joseph Toscano calling for a new people’s bank. It was a very old school demonstration out the front of a corporate headquarters that had ripped off some small time investors. Toscano talking with a megaphone to small a group of people, other people were handing out leaflets. It made the evening news that night.

I’ve said enough for now – I welcome your thoughts on anarchy and graffiti.

Orphan Sculptures

In researching public sculpture in Melbourne I am a little surprised to find orphan pieces; ‘orphan’ are pieces left out of the catalogue or a catalogued items with very little information. It is surprising that something as large as a sculpture is forgotten or lost in the records. But I’m only a little surprised it is not as if there is a catalogue of all the buildings, sculptures, fountains and things that are in Melbourne or any in any other city.

unknown orphan sculpture, possibly Lyndon Dadswell, 118 Russell Street

Most of the statues owned by the City of Melbourne come with a brass plaque set into the pavement that states the sculptor, title and date. But this is not the case with privately owned sculpture on public display. Many of these sculptural works were commissioned for private commercial buildings in Melbourne, like or the base relief on 118 Russell Street. The art deco figure of Mercury could indicate that it might have something to do with communications and would help date the piece.

Likewise it is not known who made the many figures on the facades of Melbourne’s buildings, like the Atlas figure on the former Atlas Assurance Building on Collins Street, the Druid on the Druids Building on Swanston Street or the metal motif of a rather skeletal modern merman on the outside wall of the Port Phillip Arcade on Flinders Street.

The rust covered corten steel sculpture out the front of The Domain (1 Albert Street) has been identified as Robert Jacks but there are more works of unknown or unidentified sculptors. Who made the three masted sailing-ship atop the weather vane that was installed c. 1919 at the Mission to Seamen. And who made the “French Fountain” a bronze fountain with granite plinth, from the International Exhibition of 1880 at the east entrance of the Exhibition Buildings?

The stories of these pieces have been lost to history. These orphans need help – if anyone has any additional information on these sculptors could they please comment or contact me (melbourneartcritic at gmail dot com).

Futurism Reconsidered

Visiting the town of Cortona was my wife, Catherine’s idea. She had read Frances Mayes’ 1996 novel, Under the Tuscan Sun and wanted to see the picturesque hill top town where it was set.

The picturesque town of Cortona is built on top of a steep hill. Cortona is tourist attraction of an old town in Tuscany made famous through a book and movie adaptation. Catherine and I walked around the town, up to the church on the top of the hill, through the narrow, winding streets and down again. It is a quite place, there is no traffic, a rest from the busy streets of Milan and Rome. After lunch we visit the town museum with its fine collection of Etruscan and Roman antiquities, a rare double 16th century portrait, a palanquin and other odd things. And in the very top room of the museum was the work and mementos of Gino Severini, Futurist painter, and former resident of Cortona.

Gino Serverini mosaic on St. Mark’s in Cortona

Gino Serverini was a Futurist painter (it even said “Futurist painter” on his wedding invitation). It is hard to imagine a Futurist in such a quaint old town but Severini was born and lived for most of his life in Cortona. The contradiction between antique Cortona and a futurist vision makes Cortona a surprising place for an artist who wanted to paint the modern world. The nature of his home inspired his interest in its antithesis – the modern world.

In the top floor of the Cortona museum there are some early and late works by Severini (none of his classic works) along with some of his belongings and photos in display cases. Severini’s pre-Futurist paintings ranged between realist, romantic and post-impressionist style portraits (all in the same year). Although he is most famous for his Futurist exploits Severini continued to produce art until 1964, two years before his death in 1966. His late works, like, L’Age Industriel, 1964, with their diverse material look like the work of Dadaists. There is also his modern mosaic on the front of St. Mark’s Church in Cortona, one of several churches that he decorated (the others are in Switzerland).

Gino Serverini, “L’Age Industriel N.6” (1964), mixed media

A century after there is a need to reconsider Futurism’s place in the history of modernism now that the dust is settling on the whole modernist experiment. There has been a recent major Futurist exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern. The first critical attacks against the Futurists were launched by Appolinaire and followed by subsequent critics. Futurism has been left gathering dust since the end of WWII when the Italian fascists found themselves on the wrong side of history.

Apart from the visual arts the Futurists are best known their contribution to modern music. Futurism invented synthesisers, samples and noise music, the soundtrack of the modern world. Futurists even had a hand in the invention of jazz. Marinetti proposed “words in freedom” and wrote poems in onomatopoeia, like “Zang Tumb Tuum” (1914). In 1909 the Futurists invented the word “jazz”, an adjective to refer to anything radically new. “Jazz” is a perfect modern word as it uses the most modern letters included in the Roman alphabet j & z. It was first used in English when in 1913 the San Francisco Chronicle published “In Praise of Jazz: a Futurist World Which has Just Joined the Language”. San Francisco sport writers then used it in reporting on baseball before it spreading east across the USA and become attached to a new modern style of music. (Philippe Dagen and Veronique Mortaigne “Soundtrack to radicalism” The Guardian Weekly 3/4/09 p.34)

Inventing new words to describe the modern world is a practical poetic activity. New words were a development from the play with sounds and the logic of the alphabet. These words exist in free play before becoming attached to a meaning. These new words are rather like political tag – fascist or communist or Dadaist – before anyone knew what the party would do. At the turn of the century the idea of progressive politics or progressive art was still experimental.

Trying to distinguish Futurist works of art from other works of art from the same era is a daunting exercise of shibboleths. There is lack of any real stylistic differences between Futurism, Dada, Vorticism, Constructivism, Cubism and Divisionsim. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1911) uses Cubist conventions to depict movement and Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) is almost the same subject and style.

This discussion of styles is not a digression from the politics of Futurism. To reconsider Futurism is to reconsider assumptions about how political ideology influences the style and content of art. The Futurists were Italian Fascists, the Dadaists were anarchists, the Constructivists were Communists but although their politics appeared different their art is less apparently different. This is ironic considering the passion that these artists had for politics. It also raises important questions about the relationship between art and politics. Does the type of art indicate anything about the artist’s politics? Are the political connections and espoused ideology of artists who want to be progressive determined by their location and background rather than conscious choices?

What is art?

Why do we need to know what is art? Without taxonomy we couldn’t know if something is good at being art, or good at promoting a good cause, or good as an investment – all very different qualities of good.

Art, whatever it is, is a word that describes a cultural expression of excess. There are other ways of dealing with the excess in a culture, besides art, from jokes to religion they come in many forms (but the difference between them is a different discussion). The excess that must be dealt with is everything from an excess of time, energy, food or any other resources. If this excess is not dealt with through some cultural expression then it becomes a threatening pollution.

Art, whatever it is, is a word with a long history and many meanings – not all of them relevant to this discussion. In recent centuries discussion about what art means have intensified. The discussion about the word art in the modern sense began in the 17th century – there were no Renaissance or ancient artists, there were painters, sculptors and architects, in those times but no artists. Some have become artists retrospectively.

Art, whatever it is, is now aware of this discussion about what is art. Arthur Danto writes about the intersection between philosophy and the arts. This intersection was, until recently, a minor intellectual crossroad of little note or interest. The artist, Williem de Kooning once remarked: “aesthetics is of as much interest to an artist as ornithology is to a bird.”  This changed, Danto argues, when art became aware of itself and its own definition. Art has become a self-conscious commentary on the philosophy of art.

The minor crossroad where art and philosophy met has become a major intersection crowded with artists and philosophers. This change has caught many people by surprise; a whole new subdivision has been built around the intersection. And although they are regular travellers on the street of art they find themselves lost and bewildered by this new development.

“Art is the kind of thing that depends for its existence upon theories: without theories of art, black paint is just black paint and nothing more.” Arthur Danto (Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p.134)

Arthur Danto found the idea of the art world readymade in some New York art gallery, a conceptual ghost left behind by Duchamp and Warhol. Danto’s original article “The Art World” (Journal of Philosophy v.61) influenced George Dickie to create his own institutional theory of art. There are other institutional theories besides that of art, Thomas Khun is well known for his institutional theory of science.

Although I have to note, as it caused me some pain when writing my thesis, that Danto has in some articles has distanced his own position from an institutional theory of art but this is a rather that calling something “art” is a metaphor. This is the same man who has written of “the collectors, critics, and curators (who are the three C’s of the artworld).” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986 p.101) I am not alone and Carlin Romano asks “Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up” in the article “Looking Beyond the Visible: the case of Arthur C. Danto”.

The advantage of an institutional theory of art is that it does not foreclose on creative change by defining art. Other classificatory art theories that define art by the exhibited qualities of existent art are static and limited by history. And trying to find essential features is a classic myth. Today “art” includes many items not originally created to be art e.g. religious icons, altarpieces, idols etc. that were created for magico-religious purposes or anything that an artist chooses to ask to be considered as art. (“As art”, now do you see where the metaphoric implication that Danto is on about comes in?)

The art world institution is not a steady system but an unstable and chaotic one subject to multiple forces because it is an institution build up from all its parts: what Dickie calls an institution of established practice of behaviour of both the players and audience. These parts may have divergent opinions and values but the institution is not a distillation of these contradictions but whole set.

For more on classificatory disputes about art see Wikipedia.

AWOL Evolution

A year or so ago the AWOL crew were just another notable crew and then their pieces moved up to a whole new level of art and beauty. That is the AWOL crew in Melbourne, Australia, not the one in Boston, Massachusetts, nor the one in Lebanon. I first notice the work of the AWOL crew back in 2008. I’d appreciate the work of the AWOL crew around Brunswick but I don’t think that it was anything special. They were always over shadowed, even in the NGV studio space in early 2011 by the earlier and more popular Everfresh crew. But even then they were showing elements that would soon burst onto Melbourne’s walls. I admire the growth and resilience of the AWOL crew; growth is something that I expect from all artists but resilience is a special quality and this is a crew that keeps on coming back stronger than ever. In 2010 I wrote about how they came back after a piece of theirs was vandalized at Brunswick Station.

I appreciate the cooperative and collaborative work of graffiti crews often more for the politics than the results. Sometimes it is just amazing that the aesthetic mish-mash of styles and images holds together at all; often only an agreed colour scheme is all that holds them together.

The AWOL crew are: Adnate, Slicer, Deams, Lucy Lucy, Itch and Li-Hill. Taken individually the members of the AWOL crew are not fantastic artists. They are competent, good, and occasionally brilliant certainly but nothing special; there are lots of people who do that sort of stuff. But working in combination lately the AWOL crew have been fantastic. Each member of the crew is pursuing their own style, following their own creative path, and yet it all beautifully comes together. Slicer does his best work in the crew, his dynamic sharp lines, very thin, controlled freestyle that ties the compositions together, like an electric guitar solo frozen in synesthesic paint.

It is an almost impossible combination of styles like a mix of free jazz, classical, and trance techno. But then mixing and aerosol graffiti are two of the four elements of hip-hop. The compositions are like film posters featuring a dynamic montage of image, typography and a large face, except that instead of the face of a star it is an unfamiliar face.

Is it the combination of Adnate and Slicer? Or is that Adnate moved away from letterform graffiti to painting faces. Is it a new approach to composition of whole walls? Is it exhibiting at Rist and other galleries? I don’t know, attempts to discuss this with the crew came to nothing, maybe they don’t know themselves; what ever it is the AWOL has evolved and taken Melbourne street art to a new level of beauty, style and composition.

Is Art a Religion?

Art is, to some, a kind of secular humanist religion that fills the cultural gap in the lives of contemporary people. I know that this has been said many times before but it is worth repeating not because it is true but because it should be considered.

If art is a religion with an abstract divinity (art) it has lots of minor deities, or saints (major artists). There are places of pilgrimage and holy relics – art galleries and significant works of art. The history of art bears many similarities to religious history forms like hagiography or jeremiads. As a religion it is observed with Sunday arts programming on ABC TV. It is a religion that believes that art is good for your soul and for your moral outlook and that the world will be improved by art.

In part this attitude has been inherited from the Ancient Greeks who believed that beauty was the point of contact between mortals and the gods. Without this same appreciation of beauty there was nothing but an immense power imbalance.

David R. Marshall is critical of the idea of art as a religion in his “Review: Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists” on the Melbourne Art Network. Specifically Marshall is critical of de Botton for suggesting that art galleries go further in turning art into a secular religion especially for his desire to replace art history with what Marshall calls “pop psychology”. To Marshall de Botton is a high philistine who wants to use the art as “merely illustrations of the moral or social issues that concern him.”

Other problems occur when thinking of art as a religion, strange irrational ideas about artists and art. Concerns are often raised about the Simony in art; Simony is the issue of buying or selling of something spiritual. This religious concern is at the root of many discussions about non-commercial art.

If art is a religion it is a very strange religion. It is not an exclusive religion, you don’t have to renounce your other faiths you can still have doubts. You don’t need to be initiated into this cult, there are no requirements, you can even scoff and critique, anyone is welcome. This doesn’t sound like a religion at all if the iconoclasts, blasphemers and scoffers are part of the congregation.

Art is not a religion however much de Botton and others might wish it. They will remain disappointed because art history has not worked that way. Art was divorced from religion about two centuries ago. Art, as we know it today, was invented a secular response to the removal of religious propaganda values from paintings and sculpture.

I have been interested in the arts all my life. Am I not the ideal candidate for this religion of art – the child of middle class secular materials parents? But I don’t believe in the religion of art. I doubt that art will make me a better person or the world a better place. Maybe contemporary art is not a religion but a type of walking and seated meditation; exercises for the mind and body.

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