Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Light and public art

On Thursday night, there was a panel discussion, “Light: Between Art, Architecture and Public Spaces”, at Mars Gallery in Windsor. On my way, I passed a piece of public art in the forecourt above Windsor Station, an antique electric pole with conductors lit like a Xmas tree. Light and shadow as part of public art, as elements themselves or covering architecture with a skin of colours or projections. Due to cool LED lights and powerful digital projectors light in public art is an every night occurrence. There is so much light art around currently (as I write this, a friend is tweeting her photos of Lightscape @royalbotanicgardensvic).

Appropriately, the exhibitions at Mars Gallery were all light art. “This Space of Vibration” by Meagan Streader is in the main gallery space on the ground floor. Her wall-mounted and free-standing sculpture used geometric and architectural forms. There are so many different light-influencing materials in her show, different types of frosted glass, coloured frosted and clear acrylic, neon lights, LED neon flex, and COB LEDs.

In the other gallery spaces on Mars’s different levels, there was “Light Show” with four other artists, including Jason Sims working with light. Sims’ work varied from the elegant geometry, optics and infinite space of his reflective glass and mirror pyramid, Nexus (Iridescent). To the cool poetic neon letters on the top of the three-storey concrete gallery, which read: 

bending, as 

tides into rivers

It was odd to hear light artists talking about natural light on a dark Melbourne night. But, the dark is also a natural lighting effect from the earth’s shadow. Jason Sims and Meagan Streader were both on the panel, and Sarah Box, an associate at Rothelowman. The latter represented the architectural side of the discussion. 

British-based light artist Bruce Munro zoomed in on a large computer screen. Munro is best known for his Field of Light installation. Field of Light has been installed in 17 locations from Ularu, which inspired it, to Simbionte Festival, Mexico City. Munro’s art is currently on exhibition both inside and outside at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. 

It was Bruce Munro who made the most salient point of the discussion. That light is the most cost-effective way of changing a space. Changing the way the place makes you feel, the emotional impact of light.

Light is temporary, ephemeral, changing, illusionary, a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it. I have been in the dark about how to approach this subject, and after the panel discussion, I am only a little better off. You would think that a visual art critic would have often written about light. I only have a high school science class understanding of light and optics. Of course, something as familiar as light often goes unnoticed and unexamined until it isn’t there.

Installation view of part of Meagan Streader’s exhibition “This Space of Vibration”

Animal (the exhibition)

Bruce Armstrong’s eagle (Bunjil) is known across Naarm/Melbourne, his carved beasts that guarded the entrance to the NGV in the 1990s. There are more of his eagles at the entrance to Hyatt Hotel.

Bruce Armstrong at & Gallery

I came to see the works by Bruce Armstrong, but there is more to the “Animal” exhibition than just his beasts. “Animal” is an exhibition of work by nine established and mid-career artists, including Bruce Armstrong, depicting a variety of animals in a variety of media. & Gallery is a commercial contemporary art gallery located in the Atrium in Fed Square opposite the NGV, where previously there was a glass-art gallery (as well as, a branch in Sorrento).

In the exhibition, Armstrong’s smaller bronze edition of the Hyatt Eagles and NGV guardians, along with other small sculptures, paintings and works on paper. Armstrong carves the image of an animal in two dimensions in the same way he carves wood. Rough-hewn lines cutting through space, rendered in pastel, ink and shellac on paper. Cutting to what is necessary to represent a cat curled up.

However, Jenny Crompton’s wire crochet sea life, hanging in the gallery’s window, first caught my eye. The intricate white painted wire strange bodies bedecked with resin jewels looked alien and life-like. And yet, like, us, they have a body with mirror symmetry, a top and bottom.

On entering the gallery, Emily Valentine Bullock’s chimerical dogs with wings and feathers held my attention. These magical creatures combine contemporary art, jewellery and taxidermy, for Bullock is a jeweller who specialises in working with feathers. What kind of world would it be with flying dogs?

There are also ceramic sculptures of dogs and cats by Lynne Bechaervaise. Anna Glynn’s paintings of dream-like-cloud horses are influenced by Chinese painting. Cash Brown’s oil painted copies of animals from details of old master paintings.

Susan Reddrop’s beautiful and natural sea-life in cast lead crystal, Susan Crookes paintings of dogs and Mark Cuthbertson’s cast concrete bears and sinister rabbit. Cuthbertson’s rough economic forms are the closest in style to Armstrong’s animals.

What would it be like to be another animal, especially a seahorse, a jellyfish or lobster? Non-human animals and fantastic mutant creatures feature prominently in contemporary art. They are no longer symbols like a lion nor a possession like a horse or a cow. The animal is the other with life, values, and preconceptions different to our own. Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him” in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations (II 190).


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?


Deaccessioning is part of collecting

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) website tells me that it has “over 65,000 artworks spanning thousands of years”, but it doesn’t tell me why. To what purpose have they put together this collection. National (state) art galleries are like their counterparts in the computer game Civilisation. Collect the set in your city to advance to the next level. The purpose of these institutions was to provide education and, failing that, an alternative leisure activity, infotainment. Major galleries become part of tourism with destination architecture; the Guggenheim in New York and Bibloa are paradigm examples. These institutions are about providing a tourist attraction in a spectacle based economy.

Jeff Koons, Venus 2016-20 at the NGV

I haven’t seen a full acquisition policy for the NGV, but it gets mentioned in passing in some of its annual reports. A proper acquisition policy would be transparent, accessible to the public, and include a deaccession policy.

However, deaccessioning is almost a forbidden topic of discussion in Australia; consider the following statements. “Deaccessioning is crazy”, declared John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV, at a talk (Saturday 13 October 2012, Johnston Collection). And when Joe Eisenberg, former director of NERAM in Armidale and now head of MRAG, was asked by Anna Waldman what he thinks about deaccessioning? (Art Monthly Australia, June 2015, p.25)

“Don’t believe in it – Armidale has actually sold some works that I collected, and tears well in my eyes just saying a thing. A curator’s or director’s choice is just that, and because times and tastes change, you don’t sell off their selections. Most major Australian galleries clean-out the storeroom every so often, and I think that is criminal. It should all remain part of the collection to represent an important piece acquired at a specific time and place.”

The assumption that the collection has been acquired legally and ethically is being challenged in the post-colonial world. The conservative anti-deaccessioning position wants to keep the collection as a treasure horde regardless of its acquisition. If a state gallery can make mistakes about provenance, it can also make mistakes about aesthetic merit or historical importance. Their accession policy is not error-free, and deaccessioning is part of the process of correction.

Another assumption is that the acquisition choices are based solely on artistic quality and not popularity or displays of political allegiance. “Does the object lack sufficient aesthetic merit or art historical importance to warrant retention?” (Assoc of Art Museum Directors’ position paper on deaccessioning

The giant KAWS statues at the NGV, Bendigo and Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park were not acquired because the directors thought they were great art. Instead, they claim that the popularity of KAWS will attract new visitors to the gallery. If this were true, would it be appropriate to sell these statues when his popularity declines and before the market crashes? But this is not the case because these institutions also support the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world. By retaining the work in their collection they will endorses the value of those owned by private collectors. 

This again raises the question of the purpose of the gallery’s collection. Supporting private collectors? Displaying part of a treasure horde? Playing some game of interstate rivalry? Not knowing the purpose of your collection is crazy. Not deaccessioning is crazy.

Temporary replica of Keith Haring’s painting on the NGV’s waterwall 2019

Fantastical Janet Beckhouse

What if I’d reviewed “Fantastical – the art of Janet Beckhouse” Hunter S. Thompson style? Drop a tab of acid. Run the gauntlet of election campaigners at the entrance to the all-white suggestion of a town hall. “I’m not here to vote.” Inside the Box Hill Town Hall, I located Artspace and started to look at the glazed stoneware sculptures as the first notes of Jimmie Hendrix’s Purple Haze play.

The Four Elements, 2004/5

It would have been intense. When every other artist was going minimalist, Beckhouse went the other way. In her Master’s graduation piece, Grotto (1998) realistic lizards, poisonous frogs and fat caterpillars crawl amongst the glazed ceramic foliage. It is all alive and significant, vivaciously writhing with life.

A refined version of fantasy art for stoners with a gothic taste. A snake crawls out of the eye of a skull and worms from the mouth of a corpse buried in a garden. There is ambiguity, are those shells or leaves, worms or twigs. In The Mystery of Love, a woman auto-impales herself with a spike.

Beckhouse’s works are supported by two structures mythology and ceramic forms. Using these structures to compose. Mythology gives structure to her themes, just as ceramic forms structure her work. Some of the pieces look almost practical as vases and platters.

She knew that death is part of life, part of the symbolism of creative and destructive aspects of the feminine. Mythology gives depth and power to her work. The mother of all monsters dwells in the depths of the ocean. There are lots of references to the sea, coral and shells. Why have the flared nostrils of that person grown seashells?

It was then I saw the vase with the bats.

“My work and creative interest have become all-encompassing over the years. I realise I do not wish to do anything else. It gives me peace, comfort and meaning in my life, and to share it is a joy.” Janet Beckhouse (1955-2020)

Beckhouse was Melbourne’s foremost ceramic artist until her sudden and unexpected death in 2020. This is her final exhibition, twenty pieces spanning her career as an artist.

Whitehorse City Council has bought two works for their collection of the work of Australian and international ceramic artists. Some of the collection is on permanent exhibition in a small adjoining gallery.

Beckhouse moulded the gods and demons out of the dust of the earth. Using alchemical processes and elemental forces, she turned base matter into lustrous gold. Creating ceramic sculptures seething with the neo-Baroque complexity, transformative drama, and the acid intensity of a Hendrix’s solo.


Confined 13

The gallery in the white neo-classical Glen Eira Town Hall in Caulfield, constructed in 1885, is occupied with an art exhibition by Indigenous people who have been incarcerated in Victoria. I wondered if this symbol of colonial imperialism is appropriate. Maybe it needs to be occupied.

Seeing The Torch’s annual exhibition, “Confined”, I go through similar emotions. A rush as I see, hung from floor to ceiling, hundreds of paintings filling the visual field, 400 artworks from 350 artists. Powerful images of Indigenous culture mixed with less successful work give a mix of highs and lows. The quantity of art is variable. For some, this is their first exhibition; others are regular exhibitors. Each painting tells its own story, but all of the artists have been in prison, which is tragic. The over-representation of Indigenous people in jail is evident in the scale of the exhibition. Then I think of the recidivism rate, with only 11% of those who go through the Torch’s program returning to prison compared with the average Indigenous recidivism rate of 53.4%, which gives hope.

“Because of culture, I believe in myself now and have found who I really am.” – Ash Thomas (Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri people) Precisely what culture should do. I would prefer that Indigenous people be paid a living wage to connect to their culture instead of doing that in prison.

People want many things from art, and while it was good seeing some new work by artists that I’ve written about in the past. As a writer, I want art to be a story that takes the viewer to current events or a new view of history. We love it when an artist references art or history and doubly so when the two are combined because it gives us more to write about. So for me, two works stood out from the mass of paintings at “Confined 13” in the Glen Eira City Council Gallery. (Full disclosure; I bought two paintings through The Torch a couple of years ago, and one of them is on the wall behind me.)

Big Dom, Koorie Old Style Boxing

Big Dom’s (Gunaikurnai) Koorie Old Style Boxing has a different view of history that I hadn’t seen before. Black figures on a terracotta pot refer to similar images on ancient Greek pottery. I wanted to see more and could imagine vases with other Indigenous athletes depicted. Koorie Old Style Boxing takes the viewer to two. Ancient Greece and the history of Indigenous boxing in the twentieth century when in Big Dom’s words, “they used to travel around doing old style tent boxing to make some money to feed their family and keep fit.”

Deaths in Custody by C. Harrison (Yorta Yorta) is an all too current event, and it is something that the whole of Australia needs to address. Root and branch reforms of the custodial system need to take place. As Harrison points out, “Aboriginal people are 7 x more likely to die in custody than Australian defence personnel in war.” The calmly ordered rows of bodies on a red ocher background. There are forty-four figures in each row by ten columns. Each one painted by hand, an act that does not reduce them to statistics and symbols. The artist is aware that each represents a person who died in custody between 1991 to 2021 and whose family and friends still grieve (the number has gone up since painting).

C. Harrison Deaths in Custody 

Half a century of sculpture

Cleaning up the house, I found a Bicentennial Schools Memento belonging to my wife, a kind of medal, like a large silver coin. It was given to all Australian school students in 1988. The obverse was designed by M. Meszaros and the reverse by M. Tracey. I don’t know who M. Tracey is, but I know of M. Meszaros.

Michael Meszaros (b.1945) is a sculptor with half a century of work and an extensive portfolio of making public sculptures and medals. Sculpture is a tradition in the Meszaros family. His father, Andor Mészáros (1900-1972), was a sculptor and medalist, and his niece, Anna Meszaros, is also a sculptor. Michael Meszaros is still working in the same studio in Kew that his father built.

I have seen many of his public sculptures around Melbourne and some of his other medals at the Melbourne Museum. Making medals have been a constant feature of his career, the earliest was in 1963. His medals are somewhere between sculpture and jewellery, between coins and plaques. His design for the Bicentennial memento has a group of people moving to the horizon under the southern cross; the group of people is repeated in many of his sculptures. Groups of people and the connections between people are a significant theme in Meszaros’ art.

Michael Meszaros, Elected Representative, bronze, 2017

I haven’t seen his small private sculptures before the retrospective exhibition; “50 Years as a Sculptor”. The exhibition includes free-standing sculptures, wall-mounted medals, wall-mounted portrait medals, commissioned medals (including the Bicentennial Memento) and photographs of commissioned sculptures.

In August 2021, due to the last Covid lockdown, the exhibition at the Hawthorn Arts Centre to celebrate Michael Meszaros’ 50-year career closed after 3 days. The show could not reopen, but it was installed on Level 11 at Owen Dixon Chambers East in 2022. Meszaros’ sculptures were an appropriate scale for the wide corridors lined with lawyers’ offices and overlooking the dome of the Supreme Court.

His abstract sculptures were often made from brass and copper, trying to resolve the long tail of modernism in Australia. His most recent works, bronze trees, are an elegant compromise between his figurative and abstract work.

There are plenty of versions of interlocking figures on exhibition representing politicians through to lovers. The interlocking figures join the repeating patterns of fish, horses, sailboats, and trees. His work ranges between minimal elegant visual communication and obvious kitsch sentiment. Would I look at it if this was a drawing and not a sculpture?

How to access a lifetime of sculpture? Meszaros has thought of this: two small brass staircases in brass, one narrows at the top, the other at the bottom – Success and Failed Ambition.

I was surprised by how many exhibitions there were at Owen Dixon Chambers when I visited. I don’t normally look at art in legal chambers and here were three exhibitions. For as well as Meszaros on Level 11, there were two more in the lobby. There was a temporary exhibition by French photographer Mohamed Bourouissa (part of the Photo 2022 festival) and a permanent exhibition of portraits of lawyers by some notable artists, including one by Juan Ford and a video portrait by Sean Gladwell.

Portrait exhibition in lobby

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