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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Connections – November Exhibitions

You would expect to find some connections between a random selection of current exhibitions on in Melbourne. One would hope to make connections that reveal something of the zeitgeist. One exhibition could just be the idiosyncratic interests of an individual artist – I did not expect to see 9 artists in two different galleries working with plastic vegetation to be one of those connections.

The plastic foliage, flowers and vegetables are the undead, the eternal zombie version of natural vegetation. I feel that I keep repeating, but the fact won’t go away, that plastic will last for thousands of years longer than the oil paintings that I saw. Beauty may be eternal but plastic lasts longer.

At Craft Victoria eight local jewelers create “unnatural Acts” spectacularly curated by Lauren Simeoni and Melinda Young. The “unnatural Acts” are jewellery made from artificial plants. There are bell jars, petri dishes and other scientific looking equipment on a trestle table in the gallery. On the wall a spectrum of necklaces move from green to deep red. The unnatural media of plastic foliage was escaping into cracks in the whitewashed bricks on the gallery wall.

And at Mailbox 141 Sarina Lirosi’s exhibition “Forevermore” each of the mailboxes contained a plastic flower taken from “the grave of people I knew.” The plastic flowers are daubed with varnish and sparkles to capture the light.

It is not that plastic vegetation was the only connection that I saw on my visits to galleries this week – artists should not throw out their paints. There were some powerful exhibitions of paintings at fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane Gallery and Arc.

I enjoyed seeing Graeme Altmann’s exhibition “Coastal Boy” at Fortyfivedownstairs. Altmann’s paintings are good but his model boats are fantastic. These research and industrial boats are not beautiful; they are made from found materials, brass and metal parts. Pulleys, cranes, funnels and other equipment fill their decks and hang from their sides. They reminded my of Hieronymus Bosch’s ship of fools. Altmann’s oil paintings range from atmospheric to surreal costal landscapes; his painting “Before we got there” was a powerful image of light, water, rocks and space.

Flinders Lane Gallery had the urban landscapes of Garry Pumfrey “Obres Noves” depicting Barcelona. The old city of Barcelona, like Melbourne, is known for its winding lane ways, back street bars and street art. Pumfrey’s paintings would be timeless except for the presence of graffiti, the pair of runners hanging on the telephone line.

Arc One had “Fallen Light 2012” paintings by notable, Sydney-based artist Robert Owen is old school abstract painting but deals like all of the paintings in the optics of light and dark. The exhibition in Arc One looks like a hard edge geometric version of Rothko’s chapel. The series of paintings is connected, at least in title, to Owen’s work at the new Hamer Hall. I wonder how the individual paintings would look as the effect of the exhibition is created by the connections between the paintings.

 

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Anti-Catholicism & Surrealism

He who sleeps with the pope requires long feet.

If you see a priest being beaten, make a wish.

For good luck, nail up consecrated hosts in the bathroom.

– Benjamin Péret

Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism needs to be re-examined in the light of the increasing evidence of the extent of paedophile Catholic priests. In the past the anti-Catholic aspects of Surrealism were regarded simply as a provocations designed to annoy the establishment but what if they were expressions of serious revenge fantasies?

The Surrealist most noted for expressing his dislike for Catholics is Benjamin Péret (4 July 1899 – 18 September 1959). There is the famous photograph of Péret insulting a priest in the street. Although most of the Surrealists were raised as Catholics this left them with a low opinion of it. Benjamin Péret received little education due to his dislike of school. Did he dislike school because he was he abused in school?

Marquis da Sade was a favourite of the Surrealists and De Sade’s stories are full of Catholic clergy engaged in sexual abuse. He was educated by his uncle, Abbé de Sade and later at a Jesuit lycee. Was the Marquis de Sade sexually abused as a boy?

There are so many examples of anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists that this can only be a small sample. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were anti-Catholicism and both were raised as Catholic in Spain. As a youth, Buñuel was deeply religious, serving at as an altar boy, but at age 16 he grew disgusted with the Church. There are many reasons why a 16 year old would become disgusted with illogical religious dogma but the prevalence of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy can no longer be ignored as a reason for anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists.

The denial and cover up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church makes it is difficult to properly assess the significance of the Surrealists. It is further complicated by the religious and political judgements interfering (subverting and misleading) with the aesthetic and historic assessments of Surrealism.

Take a very small example of the Viennese Fantastic Realists distancing themselves from Surrealism. Two of the Viennese Fantastic Realists Rudolf Hausner and Ernst Fuchs both moved to Paris in the late 1940s and had contacts with the French Surrealists. Michael Messner writes about Hausner’s “problems subjugating himself to the strict dogma of the unreflected, sub-conscious act of painting as espoused and propagated in the form of manifestos by Breton.” (Michael Messner, Visionary Art, v3 p.28) However, by the late 1940s the dominance of automatist Surrealism was long over. Breton had only just returned from America in 1946 and by 1951 the ‘Carrouges Affair’ had further isolates Breton. Blaming Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism is a popular excuse but his influence at the time was limited to Paris and there are likely to have been other reasons. The obvious but un-stated reason is that Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic convert, must have had problems with the Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism.

Earlier this year I attended a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes.” Juan Davila’s gave the opening address of the conference with a talk and slideshow. David Lomas looked at the Linaean botonical introduction of the word “sexuality” and how this related to Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” and Max Ernst’s floral paintings. Michael Richardson carefully dissected Breton’s attitude to homosexuality and his alleged homophobia. Janine Burke looked at the influence of Surrealism on two female artists and Natalya Lusty spoke about Surrealist masculinity. Sexual abuse and Surrealist anti-Catholicism were not mentioned in any of the papers given at the conference – there is room for much more research than I can do in this post on the subject.


Melbourne’s Street Names

When I was at university there was a student, I won’t mention any names because he now works as a lawyer, who stole street signs with the name of the person for 21st birthday present. There were a lot of 21st birthday presents to collect and he became very experienced at removing street signs. It eventually backfired when he stole the street named after the birthday boy’s grandfather.

Street signs are the collective consciousness of the city written up as addresses. Melbourne often does have that much imagination when it comes to naming streets, lots of old signs of loyalty to the British Empire or pathetic memorials to old city councillors. How streets got their names is one of the boring subjects that urban historians engage in (for that kind of thing see eMelbourne Lanes and Alleys). I could comment on the recent addition of green historical note signs underneath some of the street signs.

In the late 19th Century Melbourne City Council was often petitioned to change the name of lanes that had acquired a bad reputation, for example Romeo Lane became Crossley Street. In the late 20th Century Melbourne City Council took to renaming lanes as tourist attractions and to celebrate local international stars: Dame Edna Everage (surrounded by bulbs like a make-up mirror) and AC/DC Lane (with lightning stroke). There are some streets still need to be renamed; Coco Jackson Lane in Brunswick needs to be renamed to remove the racist nickname “coco” from the street named after the boxer.

But there are also some amusing street names in Melbourne.

To Punch Lane – doesn’t Melbourne have enough problems with violence?

While I’m on this subject of the history of Melbourne’s street names – locals refer to ‘the Paris End’ of Collins Street without remembering why. It was the presence of the artist’s studios and not the later addition of street planting of trees that lead to the eastern end of Collins Street being called “the Paris end”. Melbourne’s first sculptor Charles Summers started the trend. He had a studio and foundry in Collins Street where he cast the Burke and Wills Memorial in 1865. The sculptor Margaret Baskerville (1861-1930) had her studio in Collins Street. She married the painter and sculptor C.D. Richardson in 1914 and Richardson also had his studios conveniently located in Collins Street. Grosvenor Chambers, a custom built complex of artist’s studios at 9 Collins Street housed many famous Australian artists including Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Clara Southern, Charles Conder, E. Phillips Fox, John Longstaff, Max Meldrum, Mirka Mora, Albert Tucker and Wolfgang Sievers. It was established in 1888 and held artists studios until the mid 1970’s when all but the facade of the building was demolished. Artists still have studios in the city but the Paris End of Collins Street has become too expensive.


Land of Sunshine – book review

Dean Sunshine’s Land of Sunshine – A Snapshot of Melbourne Street Art 2010 – 2012, (Brunswick, 2012) soft-back, 300 pages.

Street art does not last forever, it can’t be preserved on the street, only in endless photos and it takes someone with passion to document this huge explosion in art. And Dean Sunshine’s Land of Sunshine is a snapshot, unashamedly a coffee table photography book. It is mostly photographs and lots of them.

It is not that Dean is a photographer – he photographed it all on his “crappy little digital camera.” (Not that you can tell the price of the camera from the photographs in the book.) Dean Sunshine is Melbourne’s equivalent to New York’s Jack Stewart or John Naar. Dean loves Melbourne’s street art and it was this passion that drove him to document it.

The artists selected in the book haven’t been featured in any of the previous books on Melbourne street art: Adnate, Be Free, CDH, Deb, Drab, Heesco, Kaff-eine, Makatron, Phoenix, Slicer, Suki and Urban Cake Lady. There are plenty of great Melbourne street artists to fill a book but this is a good representative selection of the variety.

The individual artists fill half the book – the other half is full of Melbourne walls, paste-ups, exhibitions, international artists visiting Melbourne and installations. It is great to see that street art exhibitions that have featured notably in the scene in recent years. As I wrote, it is mostly photographs but there is an introduction by Fletch of Invurt and the last word goes to Dean.

First there was Dean Sunshine’s photo collection, then the blog Land of Sunshine and now the book – I am green with envy.  Street art has been a boon to publishers filling many a book. Dean’s passion is the difference with this book; he knows Melbourne’s street art and has diligently ensured that most of the images are correctly attributed in the index.

Two curly haired aficionados of Melbourne street art – Andrew King and Dean Sunshine.

Next came to the book launch a major event in Melbourne’s street art scene. The book was launched in a laneway and studio space in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. The space was decorated with a massive day of painting on the weekend before by Kaff-eine, Lucy Lucy, Adnate, Conrad, Fletch, Shida, Choq Mcp, Junky Projects and other artists. Food and drink for the opening was provided by a plethora of sponsors, DJ Jason Digby was laying down the beats for the evening and the guest list was limited to a couple hundred people. An occasion to meet those unfamiliar faces that you know by name from their art on the street and to catch up with other people who document Melbourne’s street art scene like Vetti, Alison, Lorraine, Fletch and Dean.

Heesco’s Shaman @ the Land of Sunshine book launch


Baby Guerrilla Wins

‘Baby Guerrilla’ is the recipient of their inaugural art prize, Two Years on the Wall. Two Years on the Wall is a $9000 prize biennial art competition for emerging artists working in mural designs. The winner has their work on the feature wall space at Union Dining Terrace where their work will be displayed for two years, receives a $7500 monetary prize from sponsor TarraWarra Estate and a $1500 celebratory dinner at Union Dining. The restaurant, Union Dining is located in the heritage-listed ‘Union House’ in Richmond.

Baby Guerrilla at Union Dinning Terrace

“The piece I have done for Union Dining Terrace is influenced by life and people around me, as is all my work. The eagle to me represents life, it’s so quick, it’s cruel, but it’s beautiful. I’m the women in the picture, most certainly, but I really trust my subconscious and work very instinctively, so it’s then hard to put into words what the work means to me,” Baby Guerrilla comments on her winning entry.

Two Years on the Wall is not exclusively a prize for street art but street artists have an advantage because of their experience with wall pieces. So it is not a surprise that it’s first winner is a person whose work has spanned both the galleries and streets.

Baby Guerrilla is best known for her paste-ups of floating figures high up on walls. I’ve been watching guerrilla territory for years growing on the walls of the city, Fitzroy and Brunswick. I had seen her paintings on exhibition at the City Library and so in 2010 I knew where the illustrations that started being pasted up around Melbourne’s laneways came from. I had been impressed with her early figurative paintings; her painting was good but her subject matter with references to genetic modification was a bit odd. Still there was the image of floating figure of a woman in the exhibition that is now the central to her work.

Her early paste-ups were very “toy” both in the graffiti sense of the word, as in, someone toying at the scene, and in toy scale: “my first ‘paste-ups were tiny, about 20 cm long”. At the time Baby Guerrilla had her studio at Blender Studios. And as Blender Studios maintains a mix of gallery and street artists had lots of contact with Melbourne street artists and lots of encouragement to work on the streets.

Baby Guerrilla persevered working in the streets; she increased the scale of the figures and was much more daring in positioning her figures high up the wall. (There is a formula here kids – keep working on an image and do it large.) But what really makes the art of Baby Guerrilla is the image that her art presents of a Nietzschean avant-garde artist, full of the will to transfigure the city, bravado, adventure, fearless and indifferent to life or death.

Baby Guerrilla’s prize win is part of a trend of street artists winning mainstream art prizes or at least being in the prize exhibition, like E.L.K.’s entry in the Archibald prize last year.


First of the Summer Shows

A community art exhibition doesn’t sound promising but this is an exception. The artistic strength of Moreland is such that it has residents like Sam Leach, the winner of 2010 Archibald and Wynne Prizes exhibiting. And Sam Leach’s two paintings were not the strongest works in the Moreland Summer Show, an exhibition of art by City of Moreland residents (Brunswick, Coburg and Fawkner) at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.

Located in the gallery’s vitrine Tony Adams’s installation of foraged natural materials, Circular Insect Hotel was impressively assembled in a neat circular architectural form. Ryan Lesley Cockburn’s Revolution series was outstanding; Cockburn cuts vinyl records into a variation of a zoetrope complete with a little torch to shine the rotating shadows on the wall. Tsvia Aran-Shapir’s biomorphic sculpture was beautiful and surreal especially with its black powder coating. Keith O’Donnells installation of 20 1:48 scale green W-class trams ran part of the length of the gallery. Peter Hannafford’s hand-cranked rotating mixed media sculpture of Australian politics going round and round was very popular. I have to mention Gabrielle Baker’s 66cm diameter pompom – a very large pompom. And Paul Toms’s elegant interpretation of the theme in a triptych using coffee on paper was simple and beautiful.

With 40 artists exhibiting the theme of the circle provided some unity amongst the diverse collection of works from paintings, prints, videos to hand-blown glass.

There was a huge turn out for the exhibition opening on a wonderful warm spring evening. And with all the local artists involved it is not surprising. Lots of people for me to say hello to – artists that I’ve previously written about in this blog, Alister Karl, Julian Di Martino, Liz Walker and Carmen Reid (who wasn’t exhibit but serving drinks at the bar). It was so crowded at the opening that someone stepped on one of Ria Green’s circle of crystalline shapes (woodgrain print, balsa wood, tape, paper).

The show replaces Moreland’s annual Women’s Salon (that I have both reported on and urged to abandon as redundant). Julian Di Martino said that it was the first chance that he has had to exhibit in the gallery since it opened in December 1999. Providing an annual exhibition where all residents, regardless of gender, can exhibit will give more of a focus to the strong artistic community in the area. This is community exhibition that is worth seeing for its strength and diversity.


Online Art Galleries

In the late 1990s, before the Internet bubble burst, I worked for Looksmart.com an international web indexing directory (#2 after Yahoo!). Part of my job included indexing online art galleries, so I saw a lot then and I have seen a lot of online galleries since. I have listed my paintings in online art galleries and I have even sold a painting through one online gallery.

The internet has proved useful for artist communicating and building communities. Street art would not be such a major international movement without the Internet record of images (for more on this see my blog post Street Art, Digital Cameras and the Internet). The Internet is a great educational resource for artists to learn new techniques from online videos. Art museums have had great developments online; there are some incredible virtual tours of major art museums available. For more read “Why the Google Art Project is Important” by Beth Harris, Ph.D. and Steven Zucker, Ph.D., Deans, Art and History, Khan Academy.

However, the Internet has not yet created any important or significant online commercial art galleries. There are lots of commercial art and very ordinary and amateur paintings for sale online. This is part of the cottage industry model of the Internet where everyone has an online arts and craft gallery selling around the world. Maybe it is possible to have a successful commercial online art gallery, something that made an impact on the art world, but it would need to do more than just connect sellers and buyers, like Ebay, Redbubble or Etsey already does. Jason Farago in “Art.sy and the Myth of the Online Art Market” (The New Republic, 22/10/2012) argues that not only do digital galleries not work and that art world is shutting them out.

Why hasn’t there been a notable or important online art gallery? Online art galleries reveal the ignorance of what is involved in actually running a commercial gallery, it is not just about providing a venue for the buyer to see the art. Although the gallery space is important as art is a tangible object and the art gallery is a tangible space something that cannot be reproduced in the virtual environment. It is about establishing a reputation with buyers, art critics and curators at major institutional galleries. It is about representing artists fully, providing them with assistance in getting commissions and promoting their art. The mediation and selection involved in a commercial gallery is the opposite of the unmediated access provided by the Internet.

(This post is part of my series about Types of Galleries.)


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