Monthly Archives: June 2022

Failure in the arts

Consider John Berger’s book Success and Failure of Picasso; you don’t have to have read it. The title is enough. Obviously, Picasso was one of the greatest artists of all time, but the failure of Picasso? Yes, the failure of Picasso, John Berger, the best art critic in my lifetime, wrote a book about the failure of Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

All artists will be failures; some will even be magnificent failures. For more on this subject read Adam Zucker on Artfully Failing (probably the inspiration for this post). Jane O’Sullivan in Piecework has a long list of comments from contemporary artists and writers about their failures.  Or my review of “Imperfections” at Trocadero Art Space, an exhibition of imperfect paintings by some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists. 

(Of course, your art might feel like a failure. If it felt like a success, you would be so shallow. So shallow that I could not be bothered SHOUTING at you!! So to every artists who has felt a sting from my blog posts. This is like the Mafia; it is just business, it is not personal. This is just the business of an art critic. I am your drill sergeant of criticism.)

You knew this from the start, but if you hadn’t tried, you would have regretted it more. Visual arts teaches people about the learning experience of failure. It reminds us that we will all fail. It is the opposite of maths; there is no correct answer. Nothing will ever be the right answer. All there are is attempts at solutions.

(Your job as an artist is to heal the world with art, that is a success, anything less is a failure. Do I make myself clear? If not, sit down and read me all 113 pages of Donald Kuspit The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, 1993. Where he examines how great modern artists attempted to cure the world through the primordial, geometric, expressive, and even through unorthodox methods of cynicism and disenchantment.) 

If art is worth doing, then it is worth doing badly and ordinarily. If anyone can be an artist, then art must be something anyone can do, and therefore special skills are not required. If the experiment can be repeated, anyone can do it, like cutting up a newspaper article to make a poem, as the Dadaist Tristan Tzara proposed. 

(Next time your school teacher tells you to write a poem, get your scissors out. Anyone can make readymades, play some of John Cage’s compositions, and form a punk band — look up the tab charts for D, G and A chords, now go out and start a band. Not that your band is likely to be any good, but playing in a band, or doing any art, including graffiti, might be one of the best things you do in your life. It is in my personal the top 100).

Normally I wouldn’t write anything like self-help philosophy, but failure does help explain so much about contemporary art.

(Should we be giving out medals for participation? Why not? After all, the military does it all the time – service medals, campaign medals…)


Feminist Street Art

I was glad to have seen Hosier Lane on Thursday. Not for the crowd of high school students milling in the famous blue stone lane. Not for the vacuous schmaltz and wastes of aerosols that the greedy el Rolo or Culture Kings spray on the walls. Not even for the aerosol paint but for the little pieces, the stickers (there is now a dedicated section of wall in Rutledge Lane), the paste-ups and the small ceramic pieces (glued to the wall with liquid nails or superglue).

Many of these little pieces espoused feminism — a doilly cross-stitch embroidery of a quote from an advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame. Street art in Melbourne is at its best when it is raising issues that are both political and aesthetic. As one of the ceramic pieces stated: “Feminism is for everyone”

“Spastic Society opposes women. Lesley Hall St. Kilda 1981. Disability is a feminist issue.” 1981 was the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons; it was also the year that Hall went on stage at the Miss Australia Quest with that sign: “Spastic Society opposes women”. The image is from the 1981 Miss Australia Quest, where Hall’s protest pointed out the contradiction of the beauty pageant raising money to support children with cerebral palsy. The Miss Australia Quests’ idea of beauty excluded people with disabilities. For more, read Hall’s article on “Beauty Quests: A Double Disservice Beguiled, Beseeched And Bombarded – Challenging The Concept Of Beauty”

It also reminds me that street art is a very ableist activity. 

It was good to see all these pieces, to know that more women are doing quality work as street art should not be just for the boys. I went on to Presgrave Place, where I saw more pieces by women street artists. Stencils by artist and jeweller Edie Black, cutouts by Manda Lane and more stencil paste-ups by Vikie Murray.


Burn City

Looking down on an entire laneway painted blue from the pavement to the third storey. Pieces in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane don’t last very long before they are tagged or painted over. Getting photographs of fresh street art is an art in itself, requiring dedication and a commitment to following social media.

Lou Chamberlin Burn City – Melbourne’s Painted Streets (Hardie Grant Travel, 2017)

Books of photographs are an established part of the street art scene, and publishing about street art is a crowded scene. And Melbourne based writer and photographer Chamberlin has created several books on street art: Urban Scrawl: Street Art Text in the City (Hardie Grant 2019), Street art international (Explore Australia Publishing 2016), Street Art: Australia (Explore Australia Publishing 2015), Street Art: Melbourne (Explore Australia Publishing 2013), Street art: Rio (Blurb Creative Publishing, 2012), and Street art: Melbourne (Blurb Creative Publishing, 2012). She provides more text than Land of Sunshine but less than most books; chapter introductions and then a paragraph here and there with a bit more information about one or two of the artist.

Burn City is organised into chapters by content: face, fauna, abstraction (and there is a surprising amount of abstract work, an antidote to all the aerosol realism). Then there is the artist’s intention to create an illustrative storytelling style. Or to raise social and political issues (politicians are as proud of their representations in street art as they are of political cartoons). And finally, two chapters on the structure of the street art in the streetscape, one with images of painting whole buildings and pavements, bins, and traffic signal boxes. And the other looks at the same wall with new paint; this final chapter emphasises the ephemeral aspect of street art, justifying the photographic record of what once was.

It is worth pointing out that this is a travel photo book about an attractive aspect of a place at the intersection of art and travel. The spectacle of urban murals as a tourist attraction, a destination to visit, something to see and photograph. And although the foreword is written by David Hurlston, the Senior Curator of Australian Art at the NGV, he does write about the geographic spread of Melbourne’s street art and how it reaches walls and silos in regional Victoria.


Posts on prison art

Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.

I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.

The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.

Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.

In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.

Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).

Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge – more on prison art

Teaching Art in Prison memories from Chris Dyson

The life and art of Ronald Bull

Confined 8 2017

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

Confine 9 2018

No Turning Back at Deakin Downtown Gallery

Confined 10

Confined 11

Confined 12

Banj Banj/nawnta at the Counihan Gallery

Confined 13

Thelma Beeton

Two Exhibitions at the Counihan

Ancient mythology is full of sewing metaphors. The words ‘sutra’ and ‘suture’ share a common Sanskrit origin, a thread. Atropos, the eldest sister of the three ancient Greek fates, cuts the cord of someone’s life.

Pimpisa Tinpalit Silence #1.6.1

“Silence #1.6.1” by local artist Pimpisa Tinpalit is a meditative consideration of mortality. Tinpalit can create spectacular arte povera pieces using simple ordinary non-art materials like ropes and old pillows. The golden colour of sweat-soaked pillows glows in contrast to the black ropes. While tying up loose ends in knots, the other end of the rope is cut.

It is not all made from arte povera non-art materials. There is a video going forwards and in reverse, as the artist covers her face with gold leaf. And there are three ink paintings on large sheets of paper. I saw an earlier one of her Silence series at Yarra Sculpture Gallery in 2018

Two exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery opened on Saturday afternoon. It was the first exhibition opening that I’ve attended in years. The first time the Counihan has held a catered exhibition opening in years. The food was from Zaatars, and the wine was made by a former detainee, Farhad Bandesh. I went back for a second glass of the smooth red. 

Held over from last year was “Means Without Ends” by local documentary photographer Hoda Afshar: two series of photographs, Remain (2018) and Agonistes (2020). What these series have in common is that they depict people who have suffered at the hands of the Australian government. Cruelty is the point, amoral demonstrations of power by elected criminals desperate to feel in control. 

On one wall, Agonistes these “3D photographs” that look like images of white busts, like rough 3D printings of scans of heads of whistle-blowers. Recognisable even though the eyes are blank and there is no colour. Under each portrait, a panel explains what crimes and abuses of power the person reported and what was then done to them. Some of these whistle-blowers exposed abuses of refugees linking to Afshar’s other series of photographs.

On the other wall, Remain a series of black and white photographs staged images of refugees who were indefinitely detained in conditions equivalent to torture. Large-format inkjet prints of men who remained in detention camps on Manus Island for more than six years. The focus varies from sharp to blurred; is the image of the individual or a person? What would be the point of making them recognisable or identifiable?


Norma Redpath and the Higuchi Sculpture

If you have visited the NGV or studied pharmacy or microbiology at Melbourne University, you would have seen a sculpture by Norma Redpath. She has public sculptures in other cities, including the Treasury Fountain in front of the Treasury building in King Edward Terrace, Canberra, the Extended Column for the school of music of the Australian National University in Canberra Sculpture Column for the Reserve Bank of Australia in Brisbane.

Norma Redpath, The Higuchi Sculpture

I had seen The Higuchi Sculpture many times from the tram. It is easily seen high up on the blank cream brick wall of the Manning Building facing Royal Parade of the Victoria College of Pharmacy. The Victorian coat of arms on the NGV above the water wall is another notable Redpath sculpture on a plain modern wall. Redpath’s sculptures have a relationship to architecture, mediating modern architecture. She was amongst the first generation of sculptors to be site-specific.

I was walking past this time, so I ducked in to look at the accompanying bronze plaque beside the basketball court. It gave appropriate credit to the artist, the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria, and the American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co provided financial support. Unveiled on 23 February 1972 by drug thermodynamicist Takeru Higuchi, ”the father of physical pharmacy.” 

“The sculpture is made up of a disc and a rectangle. The gap between the two pieces represents the time students spend on placement gaining vital practical experience. The ridges on the disc represent the main streams of knowledge taught in the pharmaceutical sciences. These ridges fuse together in the rectangle to denote the competent pharmacist, when academic, practical and professional experiences become integrated into the whole and complete pharmacist. A fourth ridge appears on the left hand side of the rectangle to represent administrative pharmacy and pharmacy management. The total design suggests an inverse mortar and pestle, and the symbolism is that of the heraldic academic medallion.” (Alchemy, Faculty magazine issue 21, summer 2011

So many Australians are familiar with sculptures by Norma Redpath (1928 —2013). Still, few would know the name of this leading modern sculptor. Redpath studied at sculpture Swinburne and Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT). Taught by George Allen and Stanley Hammond, she is a link between the anti-modernism of Paul Montford and Italian mid-century modernism. Redpath had close ties with the Italian art scene.

There is an absence in Redpath’s monumental sculptures, a part reduced to an absence, fragmentary forms. For abstract means to remove. The gap or lacuna is like the slashing of Lucio Fontana’s paintings (she had met and worked with the Milan-based artist).

There is an absence in Australian art history regarding this significant woman sculptor. The ABC has neglected to make a documentary, and the NGV to have a retrospective exhibition about her. Even my own book, Melbourne Sculptures, only mentions her three times.

Reading Jane Eckett’s essay “Man sights an object in space: Norma Redpath’s approach to public art.” and Redpath’s obituary by Kenneth Eugieniuz Wach’s “Australian sculptor who was enamoured with Italy” helped me understand Redpath’s life.

Norma Redpath, Flying capital – Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial, 1970-74


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