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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Emily Floyd’s Signature Work

The big black bunny is clearly a toy; it’s blocky features and simplified form is a result of it being a toy and not modern art. I had only seen in Emily Floyd Signature Work (Rabbit) in a photograph that mislead me about its size. As always with these things I was expecting something larger but Melbourne’s Docklands with it’s multi-story buildings is so large that the rabbit would have to be huge to compete.

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Emily Floyd, Signature Work, 2004

When I first saw Floyd’s work years ago in Anna Schwartz Gallery I didn’t like it. I haven’t liked her subsequent exhibition either including; The Dawn, a solo survey exhibition at the NGV in 2014. All the bright colours and toy like forms seem prosaic when you realise the dull question that they are based on: if art is about communication can we learn from it?

Her public sculpture made me reconsider work. Her Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) on EastLink or her Signature Piece (Rabbit) in Docklands work appear to be fun contemporary public sculptures. They work in that they are effective at creating recognisable landmarks for the otherwise anonymous locations.

Her gallery work is different; you aren’t going past it in a car. It is somehow different even when she is using the same toy rabbit form. I keep hoping for fun, irony, or play in them but there is never enough to balance out the serious pedagogical inspiration of her work. The art-speak about her work reduces the fun even more. Phrases like: “text-based sculptures and pedagogically-inspired works which combine formal concerns with an interest in the legacies of modernism.” Is there that much depth to Floyd’s work? Possibly there is but it does suck all the fun out of it. The deeper that Floyd attempts to make her art, the shallower it seems to me.

In her 2015 exhibition Field Libraries, the pedagogical inspiration of her work is clear, as she turned her brightly coloured play blocks into book shelves. The painted aluminium shelves were stacked with booklets printed, “fair use” from the internet. A series of uniques state screen prints illustrating books, representing the idea of Floyd’s ongoing library. Subjects in the library include ‘Zombie Marxism’ and ‘Feminist Autonomism.’

Emily Floyd’s sculptures might look like toys but this is serious art. It is a bit too serious, too prosaic in its pedantic intent. Floyd is not playing with these big toys, she is using them to demonstrate ideas. The more you look at her art the less fun you have.

Does everything have to be an educational experience? What have you learnt from this?

Emily Floyd, Public Art Strategy, 2006 (19 EastLink)

Emily Floyd, Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) 2006, photograph courtesy of EastLink

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Train Lines and Graffiti

I was intrigued when I saw a couple of these notes from the train, travelling past them at speed I couldn’t be sure of what I read. I knew that there were probably more and so I rode my bicycle along the Upfield bike track to photograph as many as I could find in Brunswick.

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The more of these messages that I saw the less interested I became. Soon it wasn’t as interesting as some of the graffiti and street art that I was seeing.

What is it? Why is it there? It wasn’t graffiti because there was no tag and the stencilled letters had no calligraphic quality. It had no obvious appeal or charm so it wasn’t street art. Therefore it had to be contemporary art, or, maybe post-graffiti, if there is a difference.

Why it was there became obvious when I saw the MoreArt 2016 program. Train Lines is the creation of interdisciplinary artist writer and director, Marcia Ferguson is the artistic director of the Big West Festival. Ferguson intended Train Lines to be a poem based in interviews about the use of the Upfield line as mortuary transport to Fawkner Cemetery. Again you would have to have read the MoreArt’s program to know any of that.

It reminds me that in all its years MoreArts has never come to terms with exhibiting in the same areas as graffiti and street art. Existing in their own conceptual bubbles, each competes for attention without acknowledging the existence of the other. There are so many groups competing to use areas along the Upfield train line, see my blog post from earlier this year.

Ferguson’s Train Lines has the quality of what Alison Young what calls “streetness”: “a quality whose importance derives partly from the fact that the street does not provide passers-by with details of authorship that we take for granted in a gallery.” (Young, Street Art World, 2016 p.35) However, Train Lines is not street art.

Many histories of street art and graffiti ignore that contemporary art also exists outside of the art gallery and often in the street alongside street art and graffiti. From land art to happenings contemporary artists were creating art outside of the gallery.

An early example is Christo blocking a small street in Paris with oil drums, Wall of Oil Barrels – Iron Curtain on June 27, 1962. It was a protest against the Berlin Wall that had been built the year before. If you look carefully at Jean-Dominique Lajoux photograph of Iron Curtain you can see that the street that Christo and Jeanne-Claude used has graffiti on its walls.

“Streetness” or urban locations for contemporary art is it a difference of competing ideas and intentions rather than one of style?


Homeless @ Hosier Lane

The aerosol painted walls of Melbourne’s Hosier Lane did not occur by accident. Nor are they entirely there by design, at least, not in the way that Flinders Street Station is painted yellow by design. For Hosier Lane exists in a strange symbiotic relationship with the city council, building owners, artists and many other people.

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US artist Mows putting out the welcome mat in Hosier Lane.

It is a delicate urban ecosystem frequently about to tip into catastrophe. It is maybe a delicate urban ecosystem but, unlike an art gallery or a theme park, it is not an enclosed system, real world problems effect it. Looking at street art and graffiti keeps raising a wide variety of real issues; issues like private and public property, freedom of speech and currently, homelessness.

It is used by a strange mix of people: from artists, international tourists to local homeless, residents, office workers, delivery drivers and now construction workers. The lane is used as access to Rutledge Lane and from between Flinders Lane and Flinders Street. As well as graffiti and street art the laneway itself is used for wedding photos, advertising shots, school groups, graffiti tours and the homeless.

Melbourne’s homeless generally have a positive attitude towards street art and graffiti.  And the street artists and graffiti writers are generally supportive towards the homeless. There are enterprises in Hosier Lane supporting disadvantaged people, like the Youth Services, the coffee shop and the occasional, shoe shine stall.

In August there were reports in the media (Herald Sun, Channel 10, 3AW) of drug use in the lane, mostly smoking marijuana. This is basically it what many Australians do in their own houses but when you are homeless you are doing it in the street… in front of international tourists.

Problems for the homeless in Hosier Lane increased when demolition work commenced on the old Russell Street Theatre that backs onto the lane. Part of this involved boarding up the alcoves on the Russell Street side of the lane. The hip-hop group, Combat Wombat, took direct action cutting through the boarded up alcoves so that the homeless could use them again; see their video.

As if there is a specific solution for Hosier Lane. Specific solutions ignor the fact that the problems are symptomatic of a far larger planning and social issue. Melbourne’s Mayor Robert Doyle is talking about CCTV for the lane again, as if there is any evidence to suggest that will be a solution, because he doesn’t have much of an imagination.

The Hosier Inc are looking at every option, from CCTV to buffing the whole lane and moving the street art and tourists on to another location in the city.

Every year there seems to be an 2017 the existential crisis to threatening the existence of Hosier Lane. This year it is homelessness which being real makes a change from last year’s invented crisis for the media.

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John Jones in Hosier Lane


Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade

Turning and spinning are themes that Sean Gladwell’s art revolves around; as in his video Storm Sequence where he spins around on his skateboard. So it is not surprising that his VR art, Reversed Readymade makes heads turn.

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In fact you can turn a full 360 degrees in a VR of an actual warehouse studio while seated in an office chair. It makes you feel very much in control of the VR experience, even if you are stuck in one spot, because you can turn your back on things.

Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade is a beautiful use of VR technology with a big reference to Marcel Duchamp. This is both the most direct and complete Duchamp reference that I have ever seen (I did my Master’s thesis on Duchamp so I have seen a lot). Gladwell takes Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel and makes it his own.

Gladwell actually makes it his own, making his own bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and then rides it around, spinning around in a circle in the studio. The six minute VR experience depicts this along with some bicycle riding.

Marcel Duchamp had the idea of a reverse readymade. It was a reciprocal arrangement to his readymades, where an existing work of art would be used as an ordinary object. “A Rembrandt used as an ironing board” was Duchamp’s suggestion but Bicycle Wheel is more deserving. It also works better for Gladwell who has more experience with wheels than domestic appliances.

Nor should we forget Duchamp’s interest in optical and mechanical art and that the bicycle wheel was his first attempt at optical art. Duchamp made Bicycle Wheel, in part, to be able to watch the pattern of shadows from a spinning spokes for more than a few seconds.

I’d like to think that Duchamp would have been very impressed with Gladwell’s work for its visual, optical and conceptual elements; he would have also probably felt a bit dizzy from the VR experience, I was.

Sean Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade 2016 is part of the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University.


Victorian Architectural Ornamentation

I have been looking at all the ornamentation on Victorian buildings. The keystones with heads, the corbels scroll brackets, the flower shaped patraes and the plethora of other embellishments, like over decorated wedding cakes, on nineteenth century buildings. Now in the twenty-first century they are in varying states of repair, some crumbling away.

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I am amazed that I haven’t heard about some concrete pineapple or other orb becoming dislodged and crashing onto a roof. Do have a metal armature supporting them? There is so much about these ornaments that I don’t know.

Given that I see these ornaments every day I am struggling to even to learn the vocabulary to describe them. They are so alien after the modernist world. Where John Ruskin might have endorsed ornamentation, the architect Alfred Loos declared decoration a crime.

Who made these things?

Some of these architectural ornaments were made by Colin Young Wardrop, who also taught modelling and woodcarving at Geelong College, and William C. Scurry. Both men were on the council of the Yarra Sculptors’ Society.

Ken Scarlett’s Australian Sculptors has details on William C. Scurry.

“Messrs Wardrop and Scurry, Sculptors, Modellers, and Fibrous Plaster Manufacturers, 48 and 69 Arden Street, North Melbourne. This business was established in 1892, and since that date has made rapid strides in advancement. Messrs. Wardrop and Scurry have been large contractors for the principal decorative work in the city and suburbs, the principal buildings entrusted to their care being the Princess Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Opera House, Federal Coffee Palace, the Queen’s Walk, and numerous other places of interest in Melbourne.”

“The firm also executed the group of Justice and the other ornament for the Bendigo Law Courts, also the group of figures for the Bendigo Art Gallery. They were the first to introduce fibrous plaster for decorative purposes in Victoria, and in this class of work they certainly excel, as may be seen from the interior decoration of the Princess Theatre and Opera House” (p. 585)

It is uncertain when William Scurry’s father arrived in Melbourne but what is know is that in 1856 Scurry’s uncle, James Scurry was working with Charles Summers and John Simpson MacKennal. James Scurry was producing decorations for the interior of Parliament House on Spring Street including the two figures, Mercy and Justice, on the north side of the Legislative Council Chamber. Charles Summers went to create the Burke and Will Monument. John Simpson MacKennal was the father of Sir Bertram Mackennal, who became Australia’s first international superstar artist.

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Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne


Maritime Art at the Mission to Seafarers

The ANL Maritime Art Awards & Exhibition features the winning artworks and all the short-listed entries. Three rooms of paintings at the Melbourne Mission to Seafarers Victoria at the far dockside end of Flinders Street. It is in the perfect location for the exhibition including exhibiting under the dome of the historic Spanish mission-style building.

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Catherine Stringer, “Lost at Sea” (photo courtesy of Maritime Art Awards)

There are lots of paintings of container ships but it was not all traditional painting there is plenty of modern and contemporary art. Lost at Sea” by Catherine Stringer is a haunting dress made of seaweed pulp in a shadow frame that refers to the convict women who drowned in a colonial shipwreck. This work won Stringer the Bendigo Wealth ‘Emerging Artist Award’.

The maritime theme includes more than just boats, there are whimsical paintings about the shore and social realism about nautical life.

I enjoyed the simplicity of Garry Arnephy’s mixed media work “Cargo” Appleton Dock, Melbourne, made of acetate and corrugated cardboard with a few little marks with paint and pencil.

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Garry Arnephy, ‘“Cargo” Appleton Dock, Melbourne’, mixed media

With all that is going on in Melbourne art, readers may ask why reviewing an exhibition of maritime art? It is unfortunate, but true, that to produce great art you must not only be a good artist but create art that is significant and meaningful. For this reason John Stubbs is the greatest European painter of equestrian themes and I would be extremely surprised if a greater one emerged. The same will be true, with a different name, for Chinese or Japanese art, not because the artists aren’t as good but because the age of the horse is over.

Likewise, the greatest paintings of dogs and ships have already been painted. (I don’t have a favourite artist to cite for these examples.) However, there is still a demand for paintings of horses, dogs and ships and so there are still people who paint them. I noticed that there was an artist who painted dog portraits at Royal Melbourne Show.

I want to look at the long tail of these themes in art, not as anachronisms, but because they shows certain functional aspects of art. Not the simple functionalism of representation but how art functions in response to a theme and within a context where the theme is meaningful. People want art that celebrates, comments or records themes that are meaningful to them.

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True Crime and Art

I am working on my next book about true crime and visual arts in Australia. (My first book  Sculptures of Melbourne was published last year.) This has involved sitting in court, searching archives as well as, my usual activities, looking at art and talking to artists.

Melbourne, like all metropolises has artists, public art galleries, private art galleries, art collectors, art dealers and criminals, everything that is needed for art thefts. Everything that is needed for a lot of other crimes involving art and art involved in crimes.

There are many true stories about the intersection between the worlds of art and crime. I will be writing about the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, of course and also other stories involving art thefts, vandalism of art, vandalism that is art and criminals who do art.

Earlier this year I spent days sitting in the Supreme Court watching the trial of Peter Gant and Aman Siddique for the forging of Brett Whiteley paintings. I learnt a lot about courtroom procedures and how Brett Whiteley’s paintings are framed.

Both Gant and Siddique have been found guilty by the jury but the judgement for that trial has still not been given, so I can’t finish that chapter just yet (both Gant and Siddique were acquitted on appeal in 2017). Coincidentally it was one of the last trials to be conducted with a judge in a wig.

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at original documents in the State Library’s Heritage Collection Reading Room. I had heard that they had the sketch book of the bushranger and sculptor, William Stanford. When I investigated I found that there were two books. They were waiting for me on the desk with the pillow on it. The pillow was to cradle the spin of the delicate old books, its cover half falling off, pages coming out. I was surprised that I was not required to wear white gloves to handle them but there was enough grim on the pages already from when Stanford was in Pentridge.

I was not allowed to take photographs of Stanford’s notebooks, nor was I allowed to photograph the tags on Supreme court’s press bench where the crime reporter have cut their names. Not that I am worried as my next book is going to be an unusual book about art, one without many pictures.

Mostly my historical research has involved searching old newspapers scanned on Trove. You would not believe the number of paint brushes stolen in Victoria in the nineteenth century but before mass production made them inexpensive. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that anyone actually stole a painting.

Readers maybe able to help me if they:

  • Any serving or retired member of Victoria Police who has investigated any art theft, fraud involving art, vandalism of art or is interested in art crimes.
  • Knew the painter Ronald Bull
  • Has any information about Phillip Richmond O’Loughlin of Sydney from around 1946
  • Has any information Timur Grin or Anthony D’Souza
  • Has any information about John Allen Haywood of Mount Druitt
  • Knew Ivan and Pamela Liberto in Toorak
  • Taught visual arts at any prison in Victoria
  • Studied visual arts in prison in Victoria
  • Has a criminal conviction for graffiti in Melbourne
  • Was a victims of art theft or forgery in Melbourne
  • Has been arrested and/or convicted of any crime due to their art practice in Melbourne
  • Was a member of the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT)

If you want to contact me about this or any other information about art involving crimes or crimes involving art in Australia I can keep your identity confidential.


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