Monthly Archives: April 2022

Askem Graffiti

“What’s his name?” Ask ‘em.

Looking at a fresh, old-school, hip-hop style piece on a wall by local graffiti writer, Askem. Breaking it down into its constituent parts. Starting with a utilitarian brick wall in a laneway in a light industrial area of Brunswick. It is rarely used, judging from the weeds growing between the bluestone pavers. The wall has been buffed rose pink with house paint on a roller in preparation. Next, clean lines sprayed with a steady, precise hand. Guerrilla decor with aerosol paint in a laneway that would be poorer without it.

It is almost a bomb in form, but there are many more colours to the piece. The background is minimal; there is barely a cloud and no supporting characters. The letters are larger than the red cloud, but the small red cloud behind the letters makes both the green and blue of the letters pop.

The old-school design of each fat sans serif letter. Solid bubble letters outlined in black and blue projecting out from the cloud. The letters are not kerned with even spaces between them; they are alive, jostling together like buddies in a group photo.

The green fill of colour in the letters goes from an avocado through leaf green to dark olive. It is not really a fade but a mashing of these colours, which bubble and drip together. It is a combination of colours close to the ugly side of look-at-me.

The shines, bubbles and fake drips of green paint in the fill are some of the best parts. The outline of letters echos this with a few bubbles and spurts over the cloud.

Askem includes two shoutouts; to “MrR” in the S and “SDM” in the M. In acknowledging them, Askem shows that he is part of a larger social group reading graffiti. Even though getting his name up is the main thing, it is not the only thing.

This is not the first, best or the most significant piece of graffiti by Askem or Askm that I’ve seen. I’ve seen pieces by him in the area for over a decade, but I’ve never met, spoken to, had drinks with him, and couldn’t pick him out in a lineup. It is not that kind of relationship (an art critic doesn’t need to personally know the artist). Nor have I read any “artist’s statement” from Askem about why he does graffiti, his influences, and what he hopes to say through his art. It is not necessary with graffiti writers; it is all about style over content. Not that I have anything against spending time with graffiti writers (see my post Piecing in Burnside), and I’d be pleased if any local writers contacted me.


Sculptures of animals in Melbourne

As statues of people have come into further question recently. What about public sculptures of non-human animals? Just them; not when they are with humans, like all the equestrian statues. Most of the animals depicted are not native to Australia. There are imperial lions and even a few unicorns and dragons. The symbolic use of animals in sculptures is an ancient tradition.

Melbourne and Bruce Armstrong were fortunate that his symbolic work, Eagle (Bunjil) from the Jungian collective unconscious, has resonated with local Kulin Nation mythology.

Aside from heraldic use as supports on coats of arms there are a few sculptures of native animals. There is large wooden wombat called Warin who used to live in the city. The extinct Tasmanian tiger  can be found in Richmond, Anton Hasell’s Yarra Thylacine. A couple of stone kangaroos surmount the drinking troughs while the water spouts are emus on the nineteenth-century Westgarth Drinking Fountain at the Exhibition Buildings. 

Fiona Foley, Murnalong, is not the only bee sculpture in Melbourne, there is Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower, but it is the only indigenous bee sculpture. Ray Ewer’s made a plaque for a memorial fountain to Cookie the black swan. There are even animals most people wouldn’t even recognise, Alex Goad’s Tethya, the cells of a local sea sponge. 

Pamela Irving’s Larry LaTrobe is located in the centre of Melbourne, outside the Town Hall; this ugly bronze dog makes a grab for being Melbourne’s most popular statue. The other dog sculpture in the fight is the Fairfield Industrial Dog Object (FIDO), and FIDO is a mighty big dog.  There are more dog statues around, including this fine bronze greyhound resting soulfully on a tomb in Boroondara Cemetery.

There are sculptures by artists who have depicted other animals as the focus of their practice. Lisa Roet’s art reminds us that we are great apes, like our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. Her work uses scale, notably the temporary, giant, inflatable statue of one of David Greybeard, a chimpanzee studied by Jane Goodall. 

Les Kossatz is best known for his sculptures of sheep. The balance between the realism and the comic energy in Coming and Going at the back of the Arts Centre of the sheep coming and going through trap doors. 

John Olsen’s signature image of a frog leaping was made into a bronze sculpture in a pond in Queen Victoria Gardens.

Where John Olsen’s Frog is a signature image made into a sculpture, Floyd’s sculpture is literally called Signature Work. Going down a rabbit hole of post-modern semiotics. Depicting a toy rabbit, a toy that represents an idea of a rabbit, or rather the repeated use of that image of it in Floyd’s art. 

There are also a few horse statues, not surprising in a city so owned by the gambling industry that there is a public holiday for a horse race. I am not a fan of all these sculptures anymore than I’m a fan of all the statues of homo sapiens. Some are horrible, while others are just tasteless or boring. June Arnold’s Dolphin Fountain in Fitzroy Gardens with bronze dolphins, birds, sea horses, and starfish is Melbourne’s most kitsch sculpture. 


Art Precincts

“A media release is not a creative precinct,” said the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, when he announced plans to spend millions to create the Collingwood Art Precinct centred around the refurbished old Collingwood TAFE building. Arts precincts are a popular idea in urban planning. But is there anything more to a precinct than an official artwash announcement designating an area of a city and repurposing old buildings into studios or performance spaces? How sustainable are arts precincts? And what is their impact on grassroots creative precincts?

Keith Haring mural at the Collingwood arts precinct

In the past local city councils often ambitiously declared an area “an arts precinct” and hoped for the best. The City of Yarra once proclaimed the “Smith St art precinct” on one side of a block with one art gallery, a couple of designers and a community radio station.

If we were to count the Collingwood Art Precinct, then Melbourne currently has several arts precincts, the main one in Southbank centred around the NGV, State Theatre, Concert Hall, ACCA, Buxton Contemporary. Melbourne also has a Sports and Entertainment Precinct around the Tennis Centre and MCG. And there is the Brunswick Design Precinct with the TAFE design faculty and Siteworks in a converted old school building and heritage house. These different precincts raise the distinction between the arts, entertainment and design in the collective consciousness as reflected by city planners and politicians and built into the city’s structure.

The Southbank arts precinct has changed from swampland to an area for popular entertainment. Wirth’s Circus and others used to pitch their tents where the Arts Centre now stands. It was a decaying area of warehouses in the 1980s; the old police horse stables are now part of the College of the Arts, and a brewery has become the Malthouse Theatre.

Southbank only has training facilities and high-end exhibition and concert halls, cutting out the mid-level entirely. There is very little street art, no artist-run spaces, and no commercial galleries. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, full of institutions exhibiting highly finished art and expensive cafes beyond the budget of the arts and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat.

Performance artists in ACCA forecourt 2016

Compare this to grassroots locations that spontaneously emerge in the inner city. One such area is around the Brunswick Tram Depot, between Moreland Road and Albion Street. It did not occur due to media releases but available and affordable space. It is light industrial on the edge of inner-city suburbs with lots of warehouse space, some of which have been converted into artist studios and a gallery. Neon Park is the kind of high-end commercial gallery with a stall at the Melbourne International Art Fair. There is no public space, and the closest thing to a park is a planter box. Still, it does have bluestone laneways that are regularly covered in fresh graffiti. And there is live music and cheap cocktails at Red Betty’s in Houdini Lane.

In spooky synchronicity, an artist working in that area sends me this SMS message as I write this. “You should get really topical and investigate how the local council funding of studios in Moreland, such as Schoolhouse and Pentridge, have adversely impacted the homegrown grassroots economies of all the independent studios in the region.”

So much for the guff from the Minister for creative industries. The point of arts precincts does seem to be the media opportunity for the politician. Generally to announce funding to convert the old building (or build new ones) rather than to support the arts where it already exists.


Schoolhouse Studios Coburg

Tom Civil has painted many murals around Melbourne, but this was the first time he had a party thrown for one. On Saturday, 2nd April, there was a band, a DJ and a couple of hundred people at the new Civil mural in Coburg. It was like a scene in one of his paintings with people and bicycles, only it wasn’t set in a garden but in a car park.

Schoolhouse Studios occupies the old Coles supermarket near the Coburg Station is now artists’ studios. A not-for-profit creative space located in the ugly heart of Coburg, a desolate area of car parks and utilitarian concrete blocks supermarkets. Carparks, empty tarmac or full of cars don’t make any aesthetic difference to the wasteland. It is an intersection between the inner and outer suburban north, where walkable meets automotive sewer at Bell Street.

Inside, the vast space of the former supermarket has been partitioned into small frames of little houses with clear corrugated roofs. There is also a performance space and an exhibition space. Outside, the south wall has been painted by Melbourne street art veteran Civil.

I walked past on Wednesday 9th March when Civil was about to start. The whole wall had been painted emerald green. He had only made a couple of chalk marks, trying to come to grips with how his plan will work on the actual wall. Realising that the south-facing wall is always in shadow, the colours look different in the shade but will last longer.

It took ten days working with an assistant and a scissor lift to paint the wall. First, a few trees started to appear, then, along with the outlines on the trees, some of Civil’s “stick folk”. Finally, tufts of grass and dots of rocks were added to fill out the design.

From March 22 – 31, another eight days of work for three people to paint the car park tarmac. Another local street art veteran, Michael Fikaris, helped paint the car park section.

Now the car park has become a park. And it blooms, not just with the mural but also with seats and planter boxes by Urban Commons. (For more about parklets and urban design, see my previous post.) 

Amani Haydar

In the exhibition space at the front of Schoolhouse Studios was a series of paintings and a tapestry by Sydney-based writer Amani Haydar. Her paintings of women depict images from domestic to symbolic. And her use of patterns in the background and in representing clothes is effective.

Since it opened at the start of the year, I have seen a couple of other exhibitions at Schoolhouse Studios, including “It’s in our Nature,” a group exhibition by the Lucy Goosey Feminist Art Collective about environmental and feminist issues. And I’m glad that there is another art gallery close to my home; it is the kind of exhibition space the neighbourhood needs.


Looking at Urban Design

When I started this blog, I used to write posts like a diary, snapshots of Melbourne’s exhibitions and culture. I would write what galleries I went to, what I saw and what I thought. Now I try to have better-structured posts, but sometimes I miss being able to string together a whole heap of stuff together, like recently when I have been to several events about city planning, urban design and a garden show.

Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak’s wall at the Flower and Garden Show

Two weeks ago, I went on a picnic walk and talk led by Professor Alison Young about public space and the arts precinct. This was not a walking tour but an interdisciplinary conversation (music, architecture, criminology and art) about Melbourne University’s VCA and Conservatory as a park-like place with a pedestrian permeable campus. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, with institutions showing highly finished art and expensive cafes. Cafes beyond the budget of the art and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat. There are no artist-run spaces or commercial art galleries in the precinct, where even graffiti and street art are rare.

Then, last Saturday, I went to “Can parklets be reclaimed as a form of tactical urbanism?” A live podcast recording by artist Troy Innocent, urban design researcher Quentin Stevens, urban geographer Rachel Iampolski and event facilitator Kiri Delly. It was at Twosixty, a temporary public space on Sydney Road in Brunswick, with a large mural by Mike Makatron of a kangaroo bounding up an overgrown Sydney Road as the wilderness returned.

Before I went to the talk, I had no idea how small parklets are. They are the size of a couple of car park spaces, or during the pandemic, they became a common part of Melbourne’s coffee and dining experience. After the talk, we went to the demonstration parklet in Saxon Street just outside Siteworks. Young people were using it for parkour practice, and then a bunch of urban designers turned up. Good times.

And then, yesterday I went to the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Amongst the many exhibits and displays, I wasn’t expecting a wall of painted foliage by Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak. Still, given that they have painted so many murals in Melbourne, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I wasn’t surprised to see the Association of Sculptors of Victoria. They have been exhibiting regularly at the Flower and Garden Show for many years now. Several stands were selling sculptural garden decor, but some of the association of sculptors exhibitors were trying to do more. Even if they were carving a Dali inspired giraffe (Peter Saville, Wild Life) or creating a Claus Oldenburg inspired trio of giant blue paperclips (Madi Whyte, Rule of Three). No matter how impressive and popular a kangaroo made from a tractor chain might be, I wonder what these machine parts mean when welded into the shape of an animal or a dragon playing guitar. 

For sculptural elements in gardens looking at the shop window floral designs or RMIT fashion’s display was more aesthetically grounded than any of the garden ornaments. I continue to think about private garden sculptures (see my earlier post). My advice is to go large at home.


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