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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Person of Interest – Keith Haring

The art of Keith Haring first came to my attention when he visited Melbourne (see my post Keith Haring in Melbourne). Haring was like a pop star, except that he was doing visual arts rather than music. I didn’t get to see him in Melbourne but he was everywhere for the next few years; I saw him on TV and in magazines and not just the art magazines.

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

In the early 1980s Keith Haring along with other East Village artists, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger used ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups/wheat-pasting). Haring’s paste-ups were fake news headlines like as: “REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP”; cutting up headlines was a strategy adopted from William Burroughs. Haring also used stencils in his early street work stencilling “CLONES GO HOME” on sidewalk borders in the Village. This early flowering of what would later be known as street art heralds an art movement.

“The galleries at that time were still dominated by people over thirty and mostly Conceptual and Post-Minimal art.” Keith Haring commented on his influences (Notes from the Pop Underground, Peter Belisto, p.99) Haring went the opposite direction, appealing to people under thirty, like me at the time, and creating art that didn’t depend on art galleries for their meaning. Haring’s line drawings worked on subway walls, t-shirts and even Grace Jones’ naked body.

In 1986 Haring collaborated with Brion Gysin in “Fault Lines”; Haring’s art is connected to Gysin’s tagging calligraphy (see my post). In 1988 Haring collaborates with Burroughs for “Apocalypse.” The great centipede with a television head in the Collingwood mural is an image clearly inspired by Burroughs who writes about giant aquatic centipedes in many of his novels.

When Keith Haring died in February 1990, followed by the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, it felt like the art of the 1980s had died. Both Haring and Basquiat were, what we would call today, street artists who had become international art superstars. Street art would have to wait another decade before its full flowering.

After that I would look out for Haring’s wall every time I went that way in Collingwood. Now, finally after decades of inaction there preservation work has started on the site. It is a difficult issue, preservation or restoration, both will have loses – a restoration would lose the authenticity of Haring’s brushstrokes and preservation loses the vibrancy of the original but better either than the loss of the whole mural.

“I just want to be taken seriously. I would like to think that someday there will be drawings next too a Lichtenstein, or beside a de Kooning drawing in a museum.” Keith Haring said. (Belisto, p. 111)

This year Keith Haring is finally receiving the recognition that he richly deserves. There is a major retrospective “Keith Haring, the Political Line “ at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and a very small exhibition about his 1988 Tokyo Pop-Up Shop at the New York Historical Society. (It was a very small, just a display case, a painted lantern and video shot of Haring discussing the lighting for the Tokyo Pop-Up Shop.)

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Sculpture vs. Architecture

Architects, rather than sculptors have created many of Melbourne’s memorials and public sculptures. This is not a recent development, it has been going on for a century; a firm of architects, Irwin and Stevenson created Melbourne’s art deco Boar War Memorial, on the corner of St Kilda and Domain Roads, in 1924. Architects and designers often compete with sculptors for the same commissions for public sculpture.

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

In the 19th Century it was different, architecture created commissions for sculpture rather than competed with it. Classical inspired architecture requires bas-relief and other sculptural ornaments. From the figures at the tops of buildings to the Corinthian columns with their stylised Acanthus leaves on their ornate capitals they all had to be designed and carved.

And in the 19th Century many sculptors in Melbourne worked producing architectural ornamentation. Paul Montford was part of the New Sculpture movement that tried to emphasis the connection between sculpture and architecture. In 1888 Bertram Mackennal created two allegorical reliefs depicting industry, commerce, arts and agriculture for the façade of Victorian Parliament and the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. Mackennal’s father, an architecture modeller and sculptor had also worked on figures and decorations for Parliament under the supervision of Victoria’s first public sculptor, Charles Summers.

In the modern era along the disappearance of sculptural ornamentation in architecture there was a change in how sculptors saw themselves. No longer supporting architecture modern sculptors saw themselves mini-architects with the same ambitions to create formal 3D shapes. It was an odd move world public sculptures were seen as a means of ameliorating the aesthetic effect a functionalist a modern building. Public art was expected to humanize the alienating undecorated architecture with an artistic gesture.

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III", 1988

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III”, 1988

Now Melbourne has an increasing use of architectural forms in the decoration of freeways, roundabouts and buildings. The stark minimalism of the modern era has gone and now sculptors are expected to work in collaboration with the architect from the start of the project.

Denton Corker and Marshall (DCM) is a Melbourne firm specializing in architecture and urban design. DCM’s work can be seen all over Melbourne from the Melbourne Museum to the Web Bridge in Docklands. Ron Robertson-Swann’s statue haunts DCM like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, because they had designed the city square and championed the sculpture. DCM’s “City Gateway” in Flemington is a reference to Vault. Like Vault the big yellow beam is better known by other nicknames – “the cheese stick”.

However the competition between sculptors and architects has lead to resentment by Melbourne sculptors. William Eicholtz argues that architects have pushed the art, especially sculpture, out of Melbourne’s urban/suburban environment. Another Melbourne sculptor, Anton Hasell was able to explain why architects have an advantage over sculptors in applying for public commissions; architects firm has the computing power and in-house graphic design to make their applications standout compared to a sculptor’s application.

Is public sculpture a subset of architecture, itself a subset of design? Or is there something that the art in the sculpture brings that should not be confused with architecture and design?


Street Art Big Time

Five years is a long time, especially with the internet and especially with a new art movement. Five years ago when I started this blog I dreamed of a time when street art would be in major galleries, now it is. There are currently two exhibitions at the NGV of what could be broadly called street art. Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” at the NGV International and Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) “Suburban” at the NGV Atrium.

On Friday afternoon Professor Alison Young gave a floor-talk at “The Call of the Walls”. Prof. Young spoke about street art moving from fringe to mainstream; the influence of commercial galleries, auction houses, the internet, street art tours and major museums. For some sages this might spell the end of street art, it is certainly the end of fringe phase but that doesn’t mean that all the energy and development has gone.

Robin Rhode “The Call of the Walls” occupies two spaces, the children’s room where parents with children were encouraged to draw on the wall. Robin Rhode’s photographs have the quality of break-dance in stop motion. Rhode positions himself in his photographs, influenced by the British body artists of the 1970s who saw the body as another media for sculpture (and spawned the international art phenomena of Gilbert and George).

Although most of the exhibition is photographs and Rhode’s videos use stop motion, which is essentially still photographs, moving images are the code to Rhode’s work. Rhode had a circular collage image titled “Zootrope” in case it wasn’t clear.

Robin Rhodes is from South Africa so there are some comments on the racial divide but he handles this with the same playful manner as in his other work. He does not have a graffiti, tagging, street background. He could have worked in a studio but he chose the street and the street aesthetic of painting or drawing on walls and playing with the urban environment is there in his work.

The opening of Ian Strange’s “Suburban” on Friday night was a big event; hundreds of people from Melbourne’s street art and art scenes having a look, drink and talk. It was an example of the interests and influences cross-pollinating in the NGV’s space: Prof. Young was talking to Rone, HaHa told me he was planning to go Blender’s opening after and I said hello to street art collectors Sandra Powell and Andrew King.

Ian Strange (aka Kid Zoom) is a former Perth based (now New York based) street artist. In this exhibition he has gone up in scale painting whole houses or setting them on fire. It is the complete transformation of a landscape, like Christo but in this case the landscape is the familiar suburban world of detached houses with gardens. All documented in high quality videos and photographs, weeks of work behind each image. The videos have the power and beauty of the potlatch of a Hollywood film where there is a massive explosion in slow motion that destroys everything. And all these houses waiting for demolition that Strange used reminded me of the housing bubble in the USA one of the causes of the current economic crisis.

Now that street art is in the major art galleries and museums there is a new energy and the promise of new types of works in the future. Both exhibitions use photography and video to document urban interventions, although Strange also brought big cut out bits of the houses along with him. And both Robin Rhode and Ian Strange’s exhibitions are an ample demonstration of this new energy and new pushing the envelop of street art that an art gallery like the NGV can bring.


Worst of Fed Square

“Paparazzi Dogs” was specially commissioned and made for Federation Square. It was intended as a backdrop for more selfies (photos of yourself). “Visitors can go there to take their own photos with the paparazzi, allowing them to become their own celebrity.” (Gillie and Marc’s website.) Do tourists really measure their enjoyment of a place in photos? Is a photo opportunity the best function for a public sculpture?

Gilles and Marc, Paparazzi Dogs, 2013, photo by CDH

Gillie and Marc, Paparazzi Dogs, 2013, photo by CDH

The street artist CDH subverted “Paparazzi Dogs” by replacing the plaque with his own notice using the same layout and font as the official Federation Square notices. (See his website under reviews.) CDH’s notice read:

“The sculpture equivalent of ‘dogs playing poker’, the work is symbolic of the culturally vapid public art commissioned by Melbourne’s civic institutions. / The dog/human mutations in suits reference the base and deficient character of a bureaucracy as a system of selecting art. / The cameras pointing outward invite the viewer to go into Melbourne’s laneways in search of the authentic and organic street art culture that the city is internationally renowned for.”

Instead of committing to a single image for Federation Square it keeps on changing with temporary sculpture. Instead of committing to a single public sculpture when tastes will change in another decade or two Federation Square has decided to have a series of temporary sculpture exhibitions. Now this might be a good strategy and some of these sculptures have been good, like Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest” in 2012, but recently the sculptures have been kitsch, like Gillie and Marc’s “Paparazzi Dogs” or Xu Hongfei’s “Chubby Women” sculptures.

Xu Hongfei series of fat women sculptures is currently in Federation Square. Xu Hongfei is the president of the Guangzhou Academy of Sculpture and the Chinese government sponsors his sculpture tour of Australia. His “Chubby Woman” series was exhibited earlier this year in Sydney and at the National Art Museum of China. In this case the bureaucracy of selecting sculpture for Federation Square has gone for diplomacy over taste.

As Xu Hongfei said about his sculptures on Radio Australia: “Many people enjoy this type of artwork very much, it’s very direct, not very deep nor complicated.” (Girish Sawlani, “Chinese sculptor brings ‘Chubby women’ exhibition to Australia”, Radio Australia 16/7/2013)

Deep and complicated do not preclude being enjoyable to many people. Theo Jansen’s walking machines was fascinating to all ages. And Jansen’s work can lead to deep and complicated thinking about kinetic art, engineering, wind power and biology as well as being enjoyable aesthetic experience. Xu Hongfei’s work leads to nothing but more selfies, BBW sculpture porn and filling Federation Square.

Kitsch functions as a cultural gap-filler, ersatzes culture filling the spaces instead of work that might lead to thought. In filling the gap it excludes better work.

 


Illustration Bombing

The name of my file for these street art photos is “bomb illustration” – I don’t know what else to call it. They are throw-ups, as in a quick bit of graffiti using one or two colours and it is an illustration. They are about style and imagination. There are artists who do a lot of these like MaxCat and Sims who can fill a whole wall with it. There are artists who do it as a kind of visual tagging, drawing the same thing over and over. And there are unknown artists who draw or paint on walls when the opportunity and the environment presents to them. I enjoy them.

Makn, Brunswick, 2011

Makn, Brunswick, 2011

Robots, Brunswick, 2008

Robots, Brunswick, 2008

Sims, East Richmond Station, 2009

Sims, East Richmond Station, 2009

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

unknown artist, Melbourne, 2009

unknown artist, Melbourne, 2009

unknown artist, Melbourne, 2009

unknown artist, Brunswick, 2009

Altered buffing, unknown artist, Brunswick, 2011

Altered buffing, unknown artist, Brunswick, 2011


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


Walls in my ‘hood

Looking around the streets of Brunswick and Coburg and glad to back in the neighborhood after all my recent travels. I try to see some exhibitions and do see some new street art. That’s the thing about street art, it makes the city more dynamic, it is constantly changing and so the familiar bike ride into Brunswick is always changing.

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The car park wall at Sparta Place now has more local indigenous heroes commemorated on it in the “Brunswick Kind” series. Turbo Brown and Florence ‘Dot’ Cheers join Peter “Cocoa” Jackson on the wall.

I could feel the artistic vibe coming off Victoria Street. Comic drawing classes were being held at Squashface Comic Studio and there were life-drawing classes at Art Health Australia. The now old-fashioned looking stencil covered front of Han’s Café.

There is an install at Brunswick Arts Space, White Elephant was empty but Tinning Street Presents.. was open. “Future Clean Up” is a group exhibition by artists involved in a rocking zine scene, hence the art on exhibition graphic and often over-the-top style. Leagues, one of the artists was drawing and gallery sitting. I could tell it was Leagues because of his recognizable style of using drips and eyes.

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Quality fresh aerosol paint now covers the upper part of the lane that Tinning Street Presents is on. Previously the street art had stopped at Tinning Street but now it continues for the whole lane. Is there any where in Melbourne that Lush hasn’t been? I’m in the taxi going home from the airport and the first piece of graffiti that I see is by Lush and here he is again in Coburg.

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After that I spotted some recent HaHa stencils on a Coburg wall. Although some of his stencils are from work in his recent exhibition at Dark Horse Experiment they aren’t attempting to reproduce the multiple layers and multiple images of HaHa recent gallery work. They are old-fashioned stencil like he used to do a decade ago.

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