Monthly Archives: November 2020

Ivan Durrant @ NGV

Ivan Durrant, War, 1981

Ivan Durrant is not an enfant terrible; he is not even a very naughty boy. Durrant is just another painter; often a photorealist painter, but one of the better ones who are interested in light, optics and death. The stories, the legends of blood, slaughter and a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV on St. Kilda Road don’t describe the retrospective exhibition currently on at the NGV Australia.

The terrible publicity stunt that Durrant is best remembered for, dumping a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV, resulted in him being fined $100 for littering, ordered to pay $157 in court costs (worth about $1705 in current value). It is the same penalty that was applied to Arlo Guthrie’s narrator in the song Alice’s Restaurant. So there is Arlo and Ivan sitting on bench W with all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly looking people who may not be moral enough to join the army.

The NGV wasn’t that upset with Durrant’s stunt and bought his Butcher shop three years later. For those who remember Durrant’s butcher shop when it was at the entrance to the NGV’s restaurant, to remind the diners.

Looking at the Butcher Shop and his other sculptural pieces again, I see that although the modelling of the meat is excellent, everything else lacks detail. The label and price on the severed hand package, the lack of signs on the butcher shop door or window, even the carpentry around the window is wrong.

Aside from four sculptural pieces, the rest of the exhibition is about paint and traditional themes for paintings: horse racing, football, the artist’s studio, landscapes, farms and animals. Even his paintings of butchered animals are part of a very traditional theme; from Pieter Aertsen’s Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt 1551 that features a cows head and other carcasses, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox 1655 showing a butchered carcass to Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, 1925, riffing off Rembrandt.

installation view of a series of Durrant’s paintings

The exhibition shows Durrant development as a painter from his early naive folk style paintings to his current series in saturated colours. Grouped in a series on the massive walls of the NGV Durant’s paintings show a bigger picture and a mind that is more subtle than shock and awe.

If you want to see art that upsets the established order, visit the Destiny Deacon exhibition on the ground floor.

The NGV was so empty that morning just after the reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown. A person played the cello in the foyer, welcoming the visitors back. Entry was by free timed-entry tickets, and there were hand-sanitiser stations on all levels.


Mimovich’s sculptures in Kew

Last year on Christmas morning, the ninety-nine-year old artist Leopoldine (Poldi) Mimovich died aged 99. This year Australia Post’s Christmas 2020 stamp features a painting by Mimovich. A madonna and child surrounded by Australian fauna and flora, illustrating Mimovich’s desire to adapt Christian images to Australia. Mimovich is best known for her Catholic liturgical sculptures which is why I hadn’t heard of her before I walked through Alexandra Gardens in Kew.

According to the bronze plaque in the garden, Mimovich gave the city ten sculptures in 1990. Her house and studio, at 33 Miller Road, was only a fourteen-minute walk away.

The sculptures are scattered around the garden: groups of children, a girl with a rabbit, a woman, a seated man with a long beard that flows over his foot. I could only find seven and one of them was concealed in the foliage so I wouldn’t be surprised if the other three were also hidden in the undergrowth.

Can you see the sculpture?

Unlike most of Mimovich’s sculptures, the ones in the public gardens have a secular theme. Like all of Mimovich’s sculptures, the figures have simplified forms, typical of mid-twentieth-century modernism. They work well with the garden setting, contributing to the scene a quiet, reflective mood.

During her very long life, she made many religious sculptures, and when she was no longer able to sculpt, she painted icons. In 1985 she received an Order of Australia Medal for services to sculpture. And in 1996 her experience as a post-war migrant coming to Australia was told in an episode of SBS’s series: Tales from a Suitcase.

Museums Victoria has a short biography of her: Leopoldine Mimovich, Austrian Migrant & Artist, 1949 by Stevenson, M. and McFadzean, M. (2010) This biography does miss one dramatic moment in her life. In 2014 her house caught fire in the afternoon as she dozed in her reclining armchair. She was rescued, unharmed, by three neighbours, but many of her sculptures were smoke damaged.


The Big Walking Stick

Big things are probably not the right place to start when looking at public art, but they are hard not to notice. However, there is something different about the giant (7 m tall) walking stick in Kew. It rarely gets a mention compared to the Big Pineapple, the Big Marino and the proposals for the Big Bong for the northern New South Wales town of Woodenbong.

Peter Schipperheyn, Grip of Time, 1978

The fibreglass and wood big walking stick at Kew Library is an odd figurative work; somewhere between kitsch and post-modernism, between Claes Oldenburg’s big things and a piece by Maurizio Cattelan. It is one of Melbourne’s stranger public sculptures and was a weird mystery until I learnt something of its history.

It was an early work by a sculptor young sculptor, Peter Schipperheyn. Schipperheyn is still based-in Melbourne and sculpting, often large, always representational and figurative sculptures, now carved in marble (see my post on his more recent work ).

In 1978 Schipperheyn was still studying fine art at the Caulfield Institute of Technology when he won the Abercrombie Sculpture Prize for a monumental sculpture design. The Abercombie Sculpture Prize was an open competition from Abercrombie gallery. Back in the 70s, there were fewer sculptors in Melbourne, and open art prizes were sometimes won by art students; it never happens now.

Schipperheyn’s youth explains both the pop realist style and the tasteless undergrad humour of the title of the work that was, at the time, Senility. The fibreglass part of the sculpture was probably made on campus. Did he also submit it for assessment that year? 

It was initially installed on the exterior wall of the Abercrombie Gallery in Johnston Street, Collingwood. But when Laurel Abercrombie closed her gallery, she gave the sculpture to the city of Kew.

It was relocated to the outer wall of the Kew Library where it works well with the bare brick external wall. It was renamed Grip of Time; as Senility was no longer an appropriate title for a public sculpture.

Unlike most public art, there is no intended meaning to his big walking stick. Is it poking fun at or supporting the elderly and frail? The different names for the sculpture suggest that the no-one, not even Schipperheyn, is sure. And it is this ambiguity that has saved the work.

In 1997 there was restoration work done on the sculpture by the artist and a new pole was donated by Citipower. Currently, the big walkings stick is a bit overgrown and some unsympathetic planted trees need to be pruned.


Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


Monument to Now: MoreArt 2020

Monument to Now: MoreArt 2020 is Moreland City Council’s eleventh annual exhibition of public art. This year it had several flaws, chiefly that it is not an exhibition of public art but an exhibition of contemporary art in public space. For public art should be for all the public, not only a contemporary art audience with time, mobile phones, headphones and a tertiary education.

detail from Patrick Pound’s The following

Contemporary art appropriates and colonises sites taking them over and exploit them for art. “Monument to Now” suggests a contemporary version of a triumphal arch celebrating this artistic colonisation.

Every year the curator and the participating artists in MoreArt put on a set of blinkers so that they seldom see the street art, graffiti and guerrilla gardens that are going on along the bike path. And there is great, long guerrilla garden along the bike path featuring seating areas, free libraries, children’s play area and lots of junk used for pot plants. Coburg Urban Forest is very active in this area.

Officially MoreArt 2020 goes along the Upfield Bike Path from Coburg Station to Gowrie Station but actually only from O’Hea Street to Forest Road. This northern location is not one of the problems with the exhibition. It is a good ride through some interesting areas with plenty to see including an old mortuary train carriage in the Fawkner Cemetery, yellow ribbons dedicated to free Julian Assange and pieces by Discarded.

This is in contrast to MoreArt 2020, where there was often nothing to see. The title of Liquid Architecture’s work Songs you can’t hear summed up much of the exhibition. Invisible public art doesn’t work like invisible art in an art gallery. To expect that the audience is going to have brought headphones and be willing to spend over an hour walking and listening is a bit much. I came on my bicycle, and the dark clouds threatened rain. So no to the work of Catherine Clover’s Lament, Sarah Walker’s Legs Like Pistons, or Emma Gibson’s A walk from station to station.

I simply couldn’t find Adam John Cullen or Mira Oosterweghel’s work and consequently I only saw two of the works in MoreArts. Patrick Pound’s The following, a series of posters stuck to the bike path; found photographs of women seen from behind and almost predictably, there was a woman with her shopping walking up the hill ahead of me. And, Michael Prior’s trio of simple kinetic sculpture Flos Movens enhancing the space next to the Renown Street Community Orchard. They were engaging even though only one was working fully due to limitations of the photovoltaic cells and the gunmetal grey sky.

Michael Prior Flos Movens

MoreArt 2020 was a contactless, COVID-safe way to see an exhibition just not an exhibition that I would recommend to many people.


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