Monthly Archives: January 2013

Person of Interest – Desmond Morris

This is the first entry for a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life.


This starts with the cover of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976) because of the cover the book stood out amongst the rest of the books on my father’s bookshelf. I was eleven years old; I liked the colours and the biomorphic creatures. The cover is a reproduction of a painting by Desmond Morris “The Expectant Valley”, 1972.

The painting is a of colourful biomorphic creatures on a strange verdant landscape. The largest of these creatures has a large red body and with a purple head of four soft antlers and a black curl; as a child I identified this as the central character of the narrative. It is like the paintings of Miro; Morris exhibited with Miro in 1950 at the London Gallery in an exhibition organized by the Belgian Surrealist Edouard Mesens.

Biomorphs were invented by Jean Arp in 1915 or 1916 and are influenced by the microscopic animal and plant world. William Rubins observed that biomorphs are “the nearest thing to a common form-language of the painter-poets of the Surrealist generations.” (Rubins, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, p.42)

I really liked the cover of The Selfish Gene and as a child expected that the book would contain a story about these biomorphic creatures on the cover. I was disappointed to find that there were no more images inside the book. In a way Morris’s biomorphic creatures are the perfect illustration for The Selfish Gene and Morris has painted a picture based on Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.

Richard Dawkins owns “The Expectant Valley” and another painting by Morris, “The Titillator”. David Attenborough also owns a couple of Morris’s paintings – none of Morris’s paintings are in public collections.

Surrealism was slow to catch on in Anglophone countries and the British Surrealists have largely been ignored in even histories of Surrealism. Desmond Morris was part of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Emmy Bridgwater, John Melville and William Gear. The interest in Surrealism by eminent British scientists (Morris, Dawkins and Attenborough) continues to renew my interest in the art and philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism was profoundly influenced by the sciences (physics and biology) in more ways than any of the other modern art movements.

Desmond Morris never really decided between a career as an artist, as a scientist, a science writer or a television presenter. Morris even managed to combine his interests studying and exhibiting “picture-making behaviour of the great apes”. This diversity of activities makes Morris an interesting person – his new publication The Evolution of Art will include image-recognition technology that will allow readers to see animations and other extra content.

Morris’s painting “The Expectant Valley” was one my earliest taste of Surrealism; I will following up my interest in Surrealism in other posts about persons of interest. Following up on my interest in his painting I read Desmond Morris’s books, The Secret Surrealist (Phaidon, Oxford, 1987), The Naked Ape (1967) and Peoplewatching (1978) and this is why I am recommending Desmond Morris as a person of interest.


January @ Counihan

Counihan Gallery in Brunswick – The Miracles, Deborah Kelly – Drawn Out, Magda Cebokli

The Miracles by Sydney-based artist Deborah Kelly is both new and familar. “The works engage with ‘Old Master’ painting – the Holy Family of the European Renaissance becomes a contemporary emblem of art, science and sexual politics, for each photograph depicts the family of a child conceived through assisted reproductive technologies (ART), and posed as though for a Renaissance tondo.” (“Art, Irony and sexual politics: from Hey Hetro! To The Miracles” Prof. Pat Simons, Uni. of Michigan)

Families are dull subjects for photos but the Renaissance masters knew how to pose figures and the children obviously really got into the spirit of the image. Although the photos are modelled after Renaissance paintings these aren’t mawkish copies, Kelly’s images are referential, the contemporary world has not been removed. Kelly’s images are clearly from a different time.

I love post-modern art that engages with art history. Each of the photographs is titled after the Renaissance master that the photograph was based on and there was a slide show on the next wall of the paintings. I wished that a few of images were a bit larger, more the size of Renaissance painting paintings, as the round photos were only the size of plates (and I wanted a larger serve).

Drawn Out by Brunswick based artist Magda Cebokli is a drawn out minimalist experiment. “A simple theme. Four squares, on in each corner of a larger square. What are the possibilities?” (artist’s notes) Cebokli presents 24 possibilities, 15 mixed media on watercolour paper and 9 acrylic on linen. Most of the pieces are in greyscale with only a few colours introduced for dramatic effect in a few pieces. Minimalism can be boring but Cebokli saves us from that with intense optical effects in many of the pieces.

Melbourne Street Art Blogs

Melbourne’s street art is a great subject for blogging so allow me to introduce the magnificent seven, seven of the best blogs specializing in Melbourne’s street art.

Melbourne Street Art 86 is a great example of a blog on street art. It declares that “Melbourne’s 86 tram route as a giant open air gallery of street art.” And it documents the street art along the number 86 tramline that runs from Bourke Street in the city through Fitzroy, Collingwood, Clifton Hill, Northcote and Thornbury. The entries are ordered by tram stop location and there are PDF maps to download of the areas. The structure and focus of this blog is great as the liner tram route that the blog follows matches the liner nature of street art bombing/tagging missions. Kevin Anslow spent about 200 hours exploring, photographing, and cataloguing geographical details about street art on the route and building the site. “The project kind of evolved spontaneously, but certainly a central motivation is that it was fun and seemed worth doing as a community resource, and one that celebrates public transport and art.” Kevin explained.

Arty Graffarty started in 2010 and has multiple posts, almost everyday for two years. Subscribe to Arty Graffarty if you want to have your email box full. How he is able to identify all these artists and how he has the energy to do this is beyond me. Mostly the blog is photos but he also promotes and reviews many of the street art exhibitions (and it is great to see his reviews getting longer). He knows his traditional graffiti but doesn’t stick solely to looking at that one style.

Invurt by Factor is like a magazine of news, photos and interviews about the Australian street art scene. Factor is an old hand at graffiti in Perth and Melbourne and is still regularly painting on the streets but not as regularly as he is posting on Invurt. Factor says that he aims to keep Invurt positive but recently he has been posting the occasional editorial with a serious tone.

Images to Live By is written by Alison Young with irregular posts to fit in with her busy life but always worth reading. Alison Young is an academic at Melbourne University who studies graffiti and has co-authored the book, From Street to Studio (Thames & Hudson, 2010) with Ghostpatrol and Miso.

Land of Sunshine by Dean Sunshine features photographs and lots of them grouped by subject or artist. Dean is a dedicated photographer of Melbourne’s street art. Last year Dean brought out a book of photographs from his blog –also known as Land of Sunshine (see my review) Another credit for Dean is the actual Land of Sunshine, the painted laneways around the warehouses of his family business in Brunswick.

Fitzroy Flasher started in 2010. It has lots of photographs of street art, mostly in Fitzroy as the name indicates but not exclusively. Although the focus of the blog is on photographs of street art the text is worth a read.

Flinders Street with painted train

Flinders Street with painted train

Many of these blogs are on my blogroll but I thought that I’d introduce them to you and give you a bit of background. I have to declare that I know many of these people socially – hi Alison, Factor and Dean. (Arty Graffarty and Fitzroy Flasher remain a mystery to me).

Wait a moment that’s only six blogs. Where’s the seventh?

Art & Advertising

Walking along Hosier Lane with the street artist, CDH who was half-heartedly tearing off the advertising posters. CDH was talking about making Hosier Lane an advertising free space (a worth while ambition). CDH wants to distinguish between art and advertising but I’m not sure that such a distinction can be made because the nexus between art and advertising means that there is no necessary feature to create a clear distinction. CDH and I have been discussing an article from The Atlantic Cities about Los Angels attempt to restrict mural adverting (“The Convoluted Path to Ending Los Angeles’s Mural Ban” by Nate Berg, March 22, 2012).

Advertising for the play "Optimism", 2009

Advertising for the play “Optimism”, 2009

I have written about the relationship between street art and advertising in an earlier post. Aside from the propaganda element of advertising that has always been important in art and thinking only about avant-garde visual art and mass-market advertising it is clear that there is an increasing relationship in the 20th Century.

The use of advertising material in the visual arts started with collages by the Dadaists and Kurt Schwitters. Was the word “Dada” taken from an advertisement for Dada brand shampoo rather than from the mythic random dictionary search? Almost anticipating Pop Art, Charles Sheeler’s “I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold” from 1928 used the bright colours and images of American cigarette packaging. American cigarette advertising was the start of modern advertising. In 1949 Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé used layers of torn advertising posters in a process they called “décollage”. In the 1960s many Pop artists used advertising material, Roy Lichtenstein used images from magazine advertising as the subject for his art although Andy Warhol concentrated on packaging design rather than advertising. In the 1980s many artists influenced by Pop Art used advertising material, most notably Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger. Koons reproduced magazine advertising and made magazine advertising for himself that were printed in art magazines. Koons marketed himself as a brand. Kruger uses the same visual techniques as advertising in her art.

Advertising has had a close relationship with the visual arts; not surprising since both the artists working in the advertising art department and artists not working in adverting have the same art education. In 1888 Pears Soap first used John Everett Millais painting “Bubbles” 1886 as advertising; Pears was another early innovator in mass market adverting. Also created in the 1880s Toulouse Lautrec’s posters advertising cabaret acts have now entered the art cannon (currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia). Since then advertising has used notable artists to create images for advertising, like Absolut Vodka (see their art collection) or to endorse products, Dali and Lavin chocolate in 1968 (see the video).

Given the increasingly close relationship between avant-garde arts and advertising it is likely that advanced art in the future will have more references to advertising. For more on this subject read Joan Gibbons Art and Advertising (I.B. Tauris, 2005).

Heroes of Every Nation

Melbourne has never been a united city; it has always been divided between the European and the Aboriginal (not to forget the Chinese, the Afghans and Indians). Melbourne is still divided along lines of ethnicity, politics, class and religion. And sometimes the social divisions are translated into metal and stone with memorial statues to heroes.

Melbourne has statues to heroes of every nation: Robert Burns for the Scots, Daniel O’Connell for the Irish, General Gordon for the English, Dante Alighieri for the Italians, King Leonidas for the Spartans in Brunswick and General Sun Yat Sen in Chinatown. The existence and location of the statues demonstrates and reflects the political power of that particular community.

Daniel O' Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, by Thomas Brock A.R.A. is located on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Thomas Brock (the A.R.A. on the plaque indicates the Brock was still an association member of the Royal Academy, he became a full member later that year) was an English sculptor who sculpted the British Royalty making him an odd choice to sculpture the Irish nationalist hero.

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Melbourne 

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

The Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, by G.A. Lawson is located in the Treasury Gardens. There are many other copies of this memorial in Dublin, Melbourne, Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax and elsewhere, including Burns home town of Ayr. The sculptor G. A. Lawson (1832-1904) was born in Edinburgh most noted for the statue of Wellington on top of Wellington’s Column. The Melbourne’s memorial was commissioned by the Caledonian Society, presumably the united societies, as there were no fewer than fourteen Caledonian Societies in Victoria at the time.

The General Gordon Memorial, 1887 by William Hamo Thorneycroft is located in the eponymously named Gordon Reserve near Parliament. William Hamo Thorneycroft (9 March 1850–18 December 1925) was a British sculptor and like G.A. Lawson a member of the New Sculpture movement in the 19th Century. The statue in Melbourne is the same as the one in London except that the granite plinth is significantly higher and includes four bas relief panels depicting historical periods of General Gordon’s life: China 1863-4; Gravesend 1865-71; Sudan 1874-80; Khartoum 1885.

The marble bust of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri came into the possession of the City of Melbourne as a gift from the Dante Alighieri Society for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Originally it stood in Treasury Gardens with a bust of the radio pioneer Marconi but both were removed in 1968 due to vandalism. In the 1990s both busts were briefly displayed in Argyle Square before Dante was again defaced. Both busts are now at the Museo Italiano in Carlton.

Now all Melbourne needs (if it needs any of these statues) is statues of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and who else?

Brunswick Graff by Bike

A self guided bicycle tour of Brunswick’s street art and graffiti. Seeing graffiti by bicycle is probably one of the best ways because many are located on bike paths and it is easy to stop and take a look along some of the laneways have bluestone cobbles that make for uncomfortable riding.

This is a circuit ride of about 7km looking at some of the better sites for street art in Brunswick.

It starts on the Capital City Trail goes along the Liner Park Reserve bike path to Lygon Street. This part through the park doesn’t have much graffiti but is a great stretch of bike path to ride along. It is a pity that there isn’t still a train-line linking the Upfield Line to Clifton Hill that would be excellent.

Then its north along Lygon Street (no bike path) where there are a number of locations. Across to the Upfield bike on either Victoria or Albert Street, both have speed humps that retard the cars.

Follow the Upfield bike path north to the old silos at Tinning Street with a few visits to side streets. And the turning around and going south along the Upfield bike path back to the Capital City Trail and the beginning of this loop. You will cover some of this path twice but there is plenty of graffiti to keep your eyes busy. There are lots of graffiti pieces along the railway line often both sides – people go large here.

I haven’t given a great deal of detail about who has done what pieces because of the quantity and because the works are not permanent and may have changed by the time you see them.

Upfield line wall - Brunswick

Upfield line wall – Brunswick

Thanks to Spencer David (aka Spud Rokk) for the inspiration and cruising around the suburb trying to make a bike tour at the beginning of 2011.

Melbourne’s Footpath Decorations

I’ve been doing a lot more walking recently, as if I didn’t do enough walking already. When I’ve been walking I’ve been looking down at the footpath decorations. There are so many of them in Melbourne’s footpaths marking trails – Melbourne’s golden mile or something or how far out pavement dinning can extend. But I’ll concentrate on the ones with artist intentions.

In the 1990s the Melbourne City Council (MCC) has installed pavement markers that are part of various walks around the city, for example, “Another View Walking Trail”. Created in 1995 by Ray Thomas (Gunnai tribe Gippsland Victoria), and Megan Evans, in collaboration with Aboriginal researcher/ writer Robert Mate (Woorabinda/ Berigaba tribe Queensland). The trail includes red granite and brass pavement inlays by Ray Thomas and Megan Evans.

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

There is “People’s Path”, 1978-1979, in the Fitzroy Gardens, created by co-ordinating artist, Ian Sprague and participants from the public. The “People’s Path” is made of terra-cotta bricks designed individually by community participants, including myself when I was on a school excursion. Not that this gives me any kind of sentimental attachment to any of the bricks, as I have no memory of the impersonal decorative design that I created that day. Do these community projects, especially in a city like Melbourne with a large population create any sense of identity? As a path, the “People’s Path” goes nowhere, round in a big circle.

There are brass pavement inlays outside of the front of the Melbourne Town Hall and a little bit further up Swanston is Robert Jacks graffiti inspired “Personal Islands”, 1992, in brass and bluestone.

Brass ticket outside Brunswick Town Hall

Brass ticket outside Brunswick Town Hall

Footpath decorations can also be found in the suburbs, there are brass pavement inlays outside the front of the Brunswick Town Hall. The brass inlays survive much better than pavement mosaics, the ones along Brunswick St in Fitzroy have deteriorated; I don’t know how the Hotham Hill Pavement Inlay by Bernice McPherson from1995 has faired (it is located on the corner of Buncle St and Catyre Cr in North Melbourne).

Deteriorated mosaic in Fitzroy

Deteriorated mosaic in Fitzroy

Although Melbourne has many footpath decorations and a great street art scene writing/tagging in wet cement has not become a street art form. I have never seen anything in sidewalk concrete that could be called art, no matter how broadly you want to apply the term. It is the most basic of text and slogans. Scratching into wet cement is a largely an opportunistic act. (The character of Wanda from the Canadian sit-com Corner Gas is a serial wet concrete graffiti writer, see Season 5, Episode 16 “Coming Distractions”.) See also my post Maps &  Trails about trails of street art.

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