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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Person of Interest – Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol is an obviously a person of interest to art history. David W. Galenson ranks Andy Warhol as the 8th most important artist in the 20th Century by mean illustrations in a sample of texts on the history of 20th Century art (Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York). But this monthly series is about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact, so I have to write about Warhol. He was the most famous living artist in the world when I went to university and studied art history. He was already part of history and his name and influence was everywhere from textbooks to t-shirts.

I remember being at Linden Gallery for a film festival on the day in 1987 that news in Melbourne broke that Andy Warhol died. There was a jam session in one room, a group of people were drumming and chanting: “Andy Warhol’s dead. There will be no trash.” (Trash being one of Warhol’s films.) It was a strange vibe but Warhol’s influence was unavoidable and a few years later I was playing in Edie Sedgwick’s Overdose – a Velvet Underground tribute band fronted by Ron Rude with Frank Borg on drums.

There is so much to say about Andy Warhol – did you see that two-part documentary on his life on the ABC? What quickly became apparent to my youthful interest in Warhol is all of the interesting people around him. There was The Velvet Underground for one. And all the people mentioned in Lou Reed’s song “Walk On the Wild Side”: Hollywood Lawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe, the Sugarplum Fairy and Jackie Curtis many of whom also appear in Warhol’s movies.

There are so many biographies and books by people associated with Warhol that they rival the Dadaists in this sub-genre. Do read Hollywood Lawn’s A Low Life in High Heals (St. Martins Press, 1991, New York). Do not read Ultra Violet’s Famous For 15 Minutes (Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1988, Orlando).

Last year I read All Yesterdays’ Parties – The Velvet Underground in print 1966-1971 edited by Clinton Heylin (Da Capo Press, 2005). It is collection of original articles about The Velvet Underground arranged in chronological order.

Aside from watching the evolution of the mythology of the Velvet Underground in the original press articles, there is also the media’s view of Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was associated with the Velvet Underground long after he stopped producing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show and the Velvet’s first album. Andy Warhol was the famous name promoting the band and attracting the media.

The early social elements described in the article are the most revealing, little details like: the waitresses at the clubs, Sterling Morrison’s green suit, the Velvets playing music at a wedding. These little details reveal elements that are often forgotten in the broad brushstrokes of history.

The evolution of the light show in rock history is extensively discussed by a number of the authors. Light shows and projecting moving images are now an essential part of a rock shows and discos that it is difficult to image the world without them or their rapid development during the Velvet Undergrounds early gigs. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was Warhol’s vision for a total sensory art experience complete with his silent films running as part of the light show.

Extreme sixties weirdness does creep into later in the reviews, especially in the long and rambling essay by Wayne McGuire that originally appeared in Crawdaddy. The book also marks the emergence of the 60s underground and music press – with the first appearance of serious rock magazines like Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone. But Wayne McGuire does take the Velvet Underground seriously, way too seriously, unlike the trivialization of mainstream press.

For me the connections between art and rock’n’roll were obvious because of Warhol. Considering Warhol as a rock impresario is another dimension along with his painting, photography and filmmaking. As an art form it was something that Malcolm McLaren would later master. Part of Warhol’s artistic legacy would for be to ever confuse the distinctions between art, rock and fame and his influence is still present in the galleries, in music and in street art.

Kach paste-up, Melbourne, 2012

Kach paste-up, Melbourne, 2012

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Sexy Girls, Girls, Girls

Yes, lots of young, beautiful, sexy girls with big round tits all over Melbourne.

Sofles & Deb in Hosier Lane. Photo by Kevin Anslow

Sofles & Deb in Hosier Lane. Photo by Kevin Anslow

Photo by Kevin Anslow.

Photo by Kevin Anslow.

Photo by Kevin Anslow.

Photo by Kevin Anslow.

Kevin Anslow, who created the Melbourne Street Art 86 site, sent me these photographs of the paste up dialogue attached to Sofles and Deb’s new piece on Hosier Lane. (Thankyou Kevin.)

“Hey babe does it worry you that exaggerated, big titted girls like us are saturating street art iconography these days?” the speech balloon puts these words in the mouth of Sofles girl.

And Deb’s girl replies “No silly. From Rone to Adnate to Herakut, empty portraits of young girls with big eyes are the best way to make it commercially. Think anime or porn culture or fashion photography; this is about rehashing the most palatable mainstream motif. It’s not about finding beauty in new ways, it’s about reconstructing beauty in the most standard and insipid way. So girlfriend, stop trying to use your brain and just look pretty. Tee-hee.”

The speech balloon dialogue caps Sofles and Deb in the best possible way because it improves the work and opens up an interaction that wouldn’t be allowed in art galleries. The paste-ups are a wonderful piece of Situationalist provocation detouring and subverting the cartoon images. The dialogue is not puritanical; I enjoy porn and fashion photography but I wouldn’t want to look at them all day (I hate anime but this involves a reaction caused by an over-exposure to anime). Like me the dialogue is worried about “saturating” with over-exposure and not about the images themselves. It is calling for more progressive street art and attacking the conservatism of commercial art (the old school tattoo, comic book and fantasy art the influences street art). It is also a challenge to think about the issues of gender and commercial art.

Looking for the vocabulary to write about street art illustration work like Rone, Sofles and Deb, I turned to Japanese art and find bijinga (beautiful-girl picture). I was happy to find the word for there is little else to these bijinga pictures except for a beautiful girl. They are just, in the words of the speech balloon, “rehashing the most palatable mainstream motif” with different themes and in different styles. As art these bijinga pictures are simply eye candy and the artists who create them will enjoy ephemeral fame.

But what are the consequences of this abundance of images of wide-eyed buxom girls? Will people become bored with them and cause an opposite reaction in images?  Will girls follow their example?

P.S. Later the speech balloons were revealed to be the work of Melbourne street artist CDH, see his webpage for more about it.


Footprints of history

Here is a bit of history for Melbourne’s street artists:

“Stencilled advertisements were a popular form of footpath advertising particularly in the more frequented stretches of Bourke Street. Little action was taken against offenders unless damage to property was incurred, though the practice was seen by the MCC as being contrary to the spirit of the advertising regulations. In 1920 some men who had stencilled the footprints of a dog in whitewash on the footpath from Flinders Street to the Majestic Theatre could not be prosecuted under clause 32 of By-Law No. 134, as no obstruction or annoyance could be proven. This lead to the creation of a new By-Law No156 in 1920 ‘for regulating or prohibiting the writing, painting, printing, stencilling, placing or affixing any letter, figure, device, poster, sign or advertisement upon any footpath, street or road within the said City, or upon any building, fence, or other property vested in the Municipality of the City of Melbourne’.”

(Andrew Brown-May, Melbourne Street Life, Australian Scholarly, 1998, Kew, p.50)

Brown-May does not have any information on when stencilled advertising began in Melbourne. Stencilled advertisements were probably used prior to 1920 but before 1870s when it would have been pointless as the sidewalks of Melbourne were in too poor a condition.

Maybe if this trail in the 1920 had been proto-street art, the work of art students rather than advertising then the City of Melbourne’s council might have taken a different view of the activity. However, there was no street art in the 1920s and advertising not graffiti was seen as blighting the image of the city. Along with stencilled advertisements there were numerous advertisements pasted around Melbourne along with people ringing bells to advertise sales. And so the City of Melbourne passed the first laws specifically prohibiting stencilling, wheat-pasting and the other techniques of street art

Advertising has long had a deleterious effect on Melbourne’s culture and on its street art in particular. Except that without the techniques and technologies of advertising, like stencils, there wouldn’t be street art. (See my post for more on the nexus of  Art & Advertising). The footprint of advertising is still on us.


Coburg Mix

Coburg is changing – I’ve had this conversation many times, one of the most memorable was with another resident in the Victoria Street Mall. I liked the changes and he didn’t, was this simply a matter of different tastes? He didn’t like the café culture although he couldn’t explain what was wrong with people talking and enjoying life. I enjoy having more good cafes and restaurants within walking distance of my home. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like the changes but he kept on talking about the way things used to be. In the end I could only conclude that he just didn’t like change.

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Coburg cannot simply be seen simply as a working class suburb in the north of Melbourne. Coburg is a mix of the old and new, people from around the world, a mix that creates a friendly atmosphere on the liminal zone.  Coburg is now in the liminal zone the inner and outer suburbs but it was once a rural village just to the north of Melbourne. The basic structure of Coburg was laid out in the late 19th century when it was still a rural village aspiring to be a city. The row of churches, the grid of major streets, the pubs, the cemetery, and the civic and recreational spaces had been created before the population boomed.

Coburg remains a mix, a muddled merger, a blend that hasn’t been homogenized into one substance. All there are many elements in this mix from the rural and urban, the mix of prison and industry, the mix of nationalities and a mix of classes. The mansions along the Avenue and the Grove are an indication the wealth of some people who lived in Coburg in the late 19th century.

Mansion in Coburg

Mansion in Coburg

Richard Broome often comments in his book, Coburg – between two creeks, on this mix even when Coburg became a largely working class suburb in the 1920 – 70s. (p.215) Broome comments on the aspirations of Coburg’s blue-collar employees, reflected in the higher than average home ownership in the suburb. Coburg as suburb with high home ownership; even in the Great Depression there were only a handful of repossession in Coburg. Home ownership makes people, in a classic Marxist sense, not working class as they have capital. Although Coburg did have a large number of factory workers during the 1920 – 70s as the factories closed down the population mix changed yet again and Coburg became a dormitory suburb.

The micro-suburbs like Connan’s Hill on the border of Coburg. Or “the Toorak of the north” as the original publicity claimed for the new suburb of Merlynston. Both of these mico-suburbs were urbanized post WWI before they were all farmland.

Coburg’s Chinese population arrived along with the European settlement of the area and specialized in market gardening. Chinese market gardens opposite the Coburg Town Hall; the land was acquired by the city, although there were still Chinese working market gardens along the Merri Creek into the 1970s. The presence of the Chinese market gardens was marked by a piece of pavement art in the park. Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski pavement painting ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) first exhibited as part of the Moreland Sculpture Show (it was in chalk then and was on a different piece of pavement), now the painting has gone too.

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

The mix of Coburg is one of its many attractions; it makes for great people watching. I love walking or cycling around the suburb, I can do almost all my shopping locally and dine out locally. I do have to leave the suburb for art galleries and most of my live entertainment.

Coburg is an area of land bounded by the Merri and Moonee Valley creeks. The Moonee Valley creek is now just a large concrete drain but the Merri Creek is now an attractive place, recovering from its badly polluted state in the late 20th century. Coburg has changed from a village to a city, to a dormitory suburb, to a shopping and business hub. Coburg has changed since Europeans stole the land from the aborigines but it is now being done with greater taste. There is a greater sensitivity to preserving the local character. There are a surprising number of heritage listed buildings and heritage overlays in Coburg. Developers are preserving art deco facades of factories (see my post on Art Deco Coburg) and homeowners are restoring Federation era houses, renovating the interiors for the 21st century. There was plenty of insensitive development in Coburg in the 1960-80. Now there are many new construction sites along Sydney Road many of the old shops, garages and warehouses are coming down. The “Hygenic Building” still stands but the dairy behind it has long gone.

I didn’t realize the passions raised by these changes in Coburg until I wrote my first blog Coburg 2010. But it is still out there, last week I got of pamphlet from the Save Coburg campaign. This is often the parochial politics of the current gentrification of a suburb, the financial and emotional attachment to the home, the financial pressures to move, the loss of rental spaces for students and other low-income groups. If you want to make really intelligent comments on this aspect of redevelopment then I suggest that you first read Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979); far too few people have read this brilliant book. Thompson describes the chaos mathematics of the forces operating to depopulated former inner city slums and makes them attractive places to gentrify.

For more on the history of Coburg you can read Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) but I must warn you that it is a boring local history with too much focus on details and not enough narrative. Broome had made full use of the archives but struggles to make a history out the material collected and his frequent contemporary asides are not an alternative to analysis.


Jet Set Street Art

Where in the world is HaHa? Dabs and Mylar have returned to Melbourne after several years abroad. Melbourne street artists are travelling the world. Street art is the most extensively travelled art movement of all times. It is one of the necessities of working on the streets means finding news cities and places to exhibit.

Many street artists from other countries have visited and left their mark on Melbourne’s streets. Looking through my collection of photos of Melbourne street art I have many examples of these international artists. I have listed the visiting along with their country of origin and year/s that they visited Melbourne. Most visited in conjunction with an exhibitions as and I have noted if they also participated in major festivals or events.

A1one - Gertrude St. Fitzroy

A1one – Gertrude St. Fitzroy

A1one (Iran, 2008, Melbourne Stencil Festival)

Aerosol Arabic, Thirst for Change, Sparks Lane, Melbourne

Aerosol Arabic, Thirst for Change, Sparks Lane, Melbourne

Aerosol Arabic (Britain, 2008, Melbourne Festival)

Above, Melbourne

Above, Melbourne

Above (USA, 2011 & 2012)

Now destroyed Banksy's  "Little Diver"

Now destroyed Banksy’s “Little Diver”

Banksy (Britain, 2003, a covert visit, see my post)

Blek le Rat under perspex Parhran

Blek le Rat under perspex Parhran

Blek Le Rat (France, multiple visits)

Choq, Fitzroy

Choq, Fitzroy

Choq (France, 2012-13)

Celso Gitahy, Brunswick

Celso Gitahy, Brunswick

Celso Gitahy (Brazil, 2008 & 2009, see my post)

Keith Haring, Collingwood

Keith Haring, Collingwood

Keith Haring (USA 1984, see my post)

Nash, Sparta Place, Brunswick

Nash, Sparta Place, Brunswick

Nash (Netherlands, 2012, Project Melbourne Underground see my post)

Snyder, Rocket Pop Boy, Hosier Lane

Snyder, Rocket Pop Boy, Hosier Lane

Sydner (USA, 2012, private initiative see my post)

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil and tribute at Collingwood Technical College

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil and tribute at Collingwood Technical College

Peat Wollaeger (USA, 2008, Melbourne Stencil Festival).

This is not at all a complete list of artists who have visited Melbourne. Nor does it include foreign street artist who have made Melbourne their home.

I am not writing about these international artists out of a cultural cringe away from local artists. Australian culture has long had a belief in a superior foreign culture – be it French, British or American. I am writing about these artists to demonstrate that street art is a global style. Images of street art are so easily transmitted around the world by the internet and travel is also easy. So many notable street artists have become international nomads. And it is one of the strengths of the art.

Which, if any, visiting artist do you think has been the most influential on Melbourne’s street art?


Street art salvage

CDH is seeking to connect with street art collectors, advocates and artists to salvage culturally important street art from demolition sites.

In my capacity facilitating street art, I see the birth of a lot of art. But I also bear witness to the end of art; works lost in a cloud of dust when a derelict building is demolished. Sometimes amongst the rubble and industrial detritus, I find street art salvage: works painted on a roller door, a wooden hoarding or a sheet metal fence. Although assigned to a pile of garbage, many of these works may have value as cultural artefacts. Without the perspective of historical hindsight, it’s often difficult to recognise the difference. In a sense, this derelict street art might be more valuable than its gallery counterpart because this is authentic street art. So the question becomes, should we try to save these works?

Adnate work in Richmond at a building scheduled to be redeveloped into apartments

Adnate work in Richmond at a building scheduled to be redeveloped into apartments

Unlike the controversial ‘Out of Context’ Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basal, these works haven’t been pillaged from their original spatial context to be exhibited in a gallery. These works are already on their way to the tip. So the choice isn’t between the gallery vs the original environmental context intended by the artist. It’s a choice between a gallery and gone forever. So on first inspection it seems obvious that we should save the works. Ultimately I believe it is worth salvaging this street art, and I am seeking to connect with collectors, advocates and other artists to this end. But it is worth recognising that the issue is considerably more complex than it may appear upon superficial consideration.

'Out of Context' Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basel

‘Out of Context’ Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basel

Most importantly, salvaged street art can’t resurface in the secondary art market. There is the obvious practical issue that it would mean gallery exhibiting street artists would effectively be competing with themselves; it would discourage artists from painting on the street. But there’s another moral issue; the works on the street belong to the community. The wall the art is painted on might belong to a private building owner but the thin layer of paint that makes up the artwork is the property of the public. Taking a salvaged work and selling it for profit is akin to selling stolen goods. It’s more appropriate to regard people who hold salvaged street art as the custodians of a cultural artefact, until it can be re-exhibited for the general public.

It’s often argued that a key point of demarcation between street art and gallery art is ephemerality. Gallery art is perceived to have attained an immutable status through perpetual restoration, while street art is at the mercy of the environment, council cleaners and the community. The knowledge that street art is in perpetual jeopardy shapes our appreciation of it. Many people reading this article will have felt the pang of seeing a beloved street artwork suddenly gone one day. The legions of street art photographers are in part motivated by a shared angst that the works are transient and without record will be lost forever. Creating a system to preserve some of these works immediately changes this context. Yes, an artwork may still suddenly disappear tomorrow, but it may also be absorbed into a preservation collection. This changes the lenses through which we view and experience the art, by changing a key contextual element. This perpetually shifting contextual landscape has been synonymous with street art since its inception. What began as an outsider subcultural movement has been progressively recuperated into the mainstream. The politically conservative Lord Mayor of Melbourne has shifted from a zero tolerance stance on graffiti (as opposition leader of the state) to describing himself as ‘delighted’ with the city’s street art. Many street artists have moved into the commercial art system where possible. So it seems the outsider status of street art is even more fleeting than the art itself. Preserving works is part of this natural evolution, so it’s not incongruent with the direction of the movement.

Photographers in Hosier Lane

Photographers in Hosier Lane

Salvaging street art may contravene the wishes of the artist. Some street artists reluctantly accept ephemerality as a reality of the medium but some artists intend for their work to be transient. Ultimately many artists may prefer for their work to go to the tip, rather than see it preserved in a warehouse or a gallery. Although an artist’s consent is desirable, should it be a necessary prerequisite for preserving an artwork? On his death bed, Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts. Brod ignored this request and published many of Kafka’s most important works posthumously. The writing was important and so the interests of broader society outweighed the preference of the artist. During the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt, 22 ancient monuments risked being flooded. The monuments were relocated, although as religious sites it’s unlikely the original builders would have consented; imagine if the temple on the mount needed to be moved. The monuments were historically significant to us, so we acted in society’s benefit regardless. Ultimately street art is for everyone, not just the artist or the building owner. It belongs to the community so the primary directives are those in the interest of the community; the preferences of the artist are secondary, although they’re contextually important to record.

Gustav Metzger 'Acid Action Painting' 1961

Gustav Metzger ‘Acid Action Painting’ 1961

The exception is when the ephemerality is integral to the meaning of the work (not just the artist’s preference). Gustav Metzger’s Auto Destructive Art requires self-destruction to realise the meaning written into the work. To attempt to preserve ‘acid action painting, 1961’ midway through the corrosion of the work would ironically be the destruction of the art; it would become meaningless. But street art is typically quite different from the auto destructive art of Metzger. Metzger built the self-destruction of the work innately into the art. Street art is about relinquishing control of the art and handing it over to the cultural chaos of urban space. This usually causes the destruction of the art because society has diverse agendas; although 99 people might leave a work untouched, it only takes one to cap it. But if an artist relinquishes art to external forces, with a loose expectation that this will cause erasure of the work, they have to equally accept that external agents may preserve it. Unless the work requires ephemerality as an artistic imperative, it’s difficult to argue that an artists’ preference for transience should be honoured above society’s enrichment through sharing the art. As an artist, on a personal level it galls me that collectors could salvage my works from the street without my consent but from reasoned principles, I find it difficult to argue against.

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH

So I seek to build a network of artists, advocates and collectors to salvage street artworks, with these ideas in mind. But what do you think? Is it right to salvage works imminently destined for destruction and if so, what principles should guide our actions?

If you’re interested in offering tips on works available for salvage or if you want tips on works available for salvage, please contact me at cdh.street.art@gmail.com and join our network.


New Approach to Old History

David W. Galenson Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York)

I have very mixed feelings about this book because I’ve been waiting for this kind of book for decades and I hope that it leads to a revolution in art history. There are problems in art history that I would like to see addressed and Galenson’s book lives up to some of those expectations. Unfortunately the book is also a bit of a bore.

It is this methodology that is the most startling part of the book, an art history book with no pictures but lots of tables. It was the first thing that attracted me to it when I flipped through its pages. I have encountered quantitative research in art history before Galenson but it has been rare; there is a wonderful graph detailing Marcel Duchamp’s art and media coverage throughout his life that Art & America in1969. It is worthwhile method, even if it arrives at intuitively obvious answers. I wish that he’d taken this method further as mapping art movements would have changed his examination of the globalisation of art.

The book does not come to any startling conclusions – the position of Jasper Johns at number 10 in the greatest artists of the 20th Century may be the most startling. This is not surprising as Galenson approaches art history with the attitude that the artists and art history are always right. And Galenson has quantitative and qualitative evidence for this conclusion; he has a data set of images of art in histories of the 20th Century art. And Johns on average beats Brancusi, at number 11, by 0.1 of an illustration.

Galenson is not frightened of making predictions because his predictions are not based on speculation but evidence.

“In view of this, it is likely that in future increasing numbers of young artist will not only make their work jointly, but it will present it explicitly as their joint product. It is also likely that, as in the past, these teams will generally be made up of conceptual artists, for ideas appear to be more readily exchanged and negotiated than visions.” (p.209)

I found some of this evidence interesting in understanding street art and graffiti. The growth in collaborative or co-authored art, the growth in language in visual art and the growth in art refers to graffiti or uses the techniques of graffiti (although street art is not covered in the book).

Galenson does address some interesting points that have rarely, if ever been addressed in art history: the lack of narrative in art history in the late 20th Century, the role of the art market in the proliferation of styles, the growth in artistic collaboration, the relevance of grumpy old artists complaining that the current art is rubbish and the significance of artists who are one hit wonders.

Some of it is a fascinating read but a lot of the book especially the first four chapters felt like revision. I kept on wanted to skip to the end of chapters to see what Galenson’s conclusions would be. If only this wasn’t another overview of 20th Century art history (or if this was the first book on the history of 20th Century art that you have read). And if Galenson wasn’t so focused on his under-whelmingly obvious thesis that it was artists creating new concepts that changed in 20th century art. Then this history might not be such a bore.


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