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Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Archibald Prize 2019

 All that a hopeful artist has to do to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portrait painting is pay the $50 entry fee and deliver their painting to the loading dock at the rear of the Art Gallery of NSW at a certain date. Each year thousands of paintings are arrive and if a painting makes the final exhibition it is doing well.

Installation view of several finalists in the Archibald Prize 2019

The portrait must be of a notable in the fields of arts, science or politics (although judging from the entries this is very flexible). It has to be painted from life, meaning that the artist must have actually met the notable person; the subject has to sign the entry form to confirm this. Mostly it is artists painting other artists, or themselves, in a daisy-chain of insider promotion.

It was a relief to see that there were no portraits of politicians amongst this year’s finalists. No of the finalist artists wanted to be associated with any Australian politician. Although ugly, morally bankrupt thugs have been the subject of Archibald finalists in the past, such as Adam Cullen’s portrait of Chopper Reed, there were no portraits of popular criminals this year.

One positive aspect of both of these trends is that there were a lot more small portraits suitable for domestic display.

Kirpy, Dylan

As a focus of this blog is the intersection of street and gallery so I should report on the two street artists in the exhibition: ELK and Kirpy. Both portraits are very large, more than one square metre, multi-layered stencils spray-painted in aerosol paint and use acrylic paint to fill in the larger areas and give weight and texture. And both compositions have strong horizontal elements, in a rather rigid and static structure. Kirpy’s painted Dylan Alcott Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the musical festival Ability Fest. And ELK (aka Luke Cornish) did portrait of businesswoman and media commentator Sue Cato, along with her dogs, Callie and Comet. In 2012 ELK was the first street artist in the Archibald Prize finals and the following year first street finalist in Sulman Prize.

For the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is not just the Archibald but also the Wynne and Sulman prize.These prizes receive far less attention in the media than the celebrity focus of the Archibald.

The Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture is, not surprisingly, dominated by Indigenous artists this year. Figurative sculpture has become far less significant in Australia’s art world and there were only two pieces amongst the finalists.

The changing significance of types of art reminded me that the Sulman Prize is for subject, genre or mural painting. And given the increased significance of mural painting I don’t know why more street artists and graffiti writers don’t enter that prize.  After all Guido van Helten’s Brim silos mural project was the winner for the mural prize in 2016.

I haven’t seen the actual Archibald prize exhibition for many years but as I was in Sydney I can report on it.

Wynne Prize finalist Nongirrna Marawili, Pink Lightening
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The Plastic Jewellers

In the foyer of the Counihan Gallery is selection of ear-rings with recycled components, recycled silver and plastic. TempContemp’s exhibition of sustainable jewellery is part of the “Art + Climate = Change 2019” arts festival.

Ann Welton, Flotsam and Simone Alesich, Gelo One

On Saturday one of the exhibiting jewellers and curator, Laila Marie Costa led walk and talk; or rather a talk with a walk to change the location. It started at the Counihan Gallery and continued, not far off, at Northcity4. The reason for this geographically extended talk was that TempContemp was also presenting “The Urban Gleaner & the Plastique Pt. II” another exhibition at Northcity4’s very small exhibition space (also part of “Art + Climate = Change 2019”).

Costa is an advocate for contemporary jewellery to have the same status as ceramics in the contemporary art world. She works with found materials and was exhibiting a pair of dramatic earrings built on inverted glow-in-the-dark crosses.

Northcity4 is a jewellery studio in Brunswick in a factory converted into studio spaces on Weston Street where seventeen jewellers work. Costa gave us a quick tour of the well-equiped studio with a forest of indoor plants. The studio tour was followed by a chat about both jewellery exhibitions and the use of plastic in contemporary jewellery.

Two more jewellers, Regina Middleton and Lauren Simeoni spoke about their work in the exhibition.

Lauren Simeoni uses fake plants as her primary material occasionally sneaking in precious materials into these compositions. In her hands the unnatural stamens, twigs and branches become necklaces and ear-rings.

Although they are using plastic as their primary material the horror of plastic covering the planet in a colourful layer of toxic chemical junk is very present in all their minds. Middleton describes an encounter with a Thai beach covered in plastic rubbish and the “tragic beauty of plastic” as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Middleton creates displays of these tiny, weathered fragments of plastic collected from beaches; elegant display boxes of poisonous, anti-magical, gems.


The great gallery joke

At first glance I thought that Blindside was completely empty. I looked around for the ‘closed for installation sign’; nothing. There was something hanging on the wall of the second gallery, so I went inside. It was only after I entered the gallery that I saw the paintings.

Jan Murray, Chute (Old Police Hospital) 1, oil on linen, 2017

Three paintings of air vents hung on one wall. There are more tromp l’oeil paintings of hatches, grilles, chutes and ceiling vents. Jan Murray exhibition “Unseen” at Blindside in October 2018; oil paintings of the overlooked architecture of the Nicholas Building and Old Police Hospital. It is the opposite of the old cartoon of the middle aged couple mistaking the gallery’s air vent for a work of art.

The Irish art critic, Brian O’Doherty wrote:  “The box, which I have called the white cube, is a curious piece of real estate […] However roughly treated, the white cube is like a straight man in a slapstick routine. No matter how repeatedly hit on the head, not matter how many pratfalls, up it springs, its seamless white smile unchanged, eager for more abuse. Brushed off, pampered, re-painted, it resumes in blankness.” — Brian O’Doherty, “Boxes, Cubes, Installation, Whiteness and Money” A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution (2009)

The double act between the art gallery and the artist gives the art its comedic meta concepts. It is a double act as old as Dada. Consider all the art spawn from Duchamp’s readymades that require the gallery to be present. All the readymades, all the installations, all the interrogations of the gallery space from Tracey Emin’s Bed to tomorrow night’s contemporary art exhibition opening.

As in comedy this double act is an uneven relationship; the gallery has all the power but takes the comic artist’s jokes with good humour. This power relationship is questioned, ridiculed, knocked about is at the core of so much modern and contemporary art. Playing on the tension of does the artist or the gallery, the frame, the plinth make the art? The art gallery is the antithesis of the artist, a space without personality.

If the institution displaying the object removes itself from this double act and no longer accepts being the butt of jokes then it becomes a museum, a temple or a palace. In such an arrangement any authority that the artist had over the object is replaced by the authority of the institution and ‘by royal appointment…’ becomes a measure of quality. And both royal and popularity as authority expose the arbitrary and an-aesthetic aspects of such power.

And now I have explained the great gallery joke; a terrible thing to do to any joke.


Art in the face of a climate emergency

I don’t expect that many of my readers will see the photographic artist Anne Zahalka exhibition “Wild Life/Australia” at Arc One Gallery. The exhibition is part of CLIMARTE’s ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2019 festival. It is another way of raising a critical issue, just as this blog post about the exhibition is yet another. For, at its best, art criticism is another way of exploring important issues.

In her series of photographs Anne Zahalka is trying to capture the dubious realist aesthetic of museum’s zoological habitat dioramas. Painted backgrounds that merge to become samples, taxidermy specimens, of the actual in the foreground, a form that Zahalka has adapted into a photographic collage of images. In her photographs the didactic intention of these modernist dioramas have been turned to teaching a new lesson about climate change. Fruit bats fall dead from their roasts in a tree in the extreme heat.

Along with her photographs, displayed on two plinths were plastic recovered from the Lord Howe Island. Both of these were included in her photograph depicting the sea bird colony of on Admiralty Rocks at Lord Howe Island.

Arc One Gallery is a commercial gallery that represents mid-career contemporary Australian artists. It is not putting this exhibition on as an act of charity; the importance of issue is evident to all who don’t have an ideological commitment to oppose them. I was expecting to see more evidence of this climate emergency in the city aside from this exhibition. I was looking for it but all I’ve seen is a couple of pendants and some painted bollards from Extinction Rebellion.

Too many species have become extinct in the half century of my life and many more are endangered or threatened by climate change, pollution or habitat loss. This includes humans, we are just another species on this planet, a species that future alien archeologists might refer to as the stupid ape.


Heroines Petticoats @ Dirty Dozen

A dozen surreal installations tell a history of Australian women. “Heroines in Petticoats” by Kelly Sullivan, Kirsti Lenthall (Empire of Stuff), Gigi Gordes and Liz Sonntag (Tinky) is an engaging and accessible exhibition that has a coherent and relevant theme.

The height and depth of the dozen vitrines in the pink tiled Campbell Arcade, the Degraves Street underpass to Flinders Street Station has been used to great effect. Too often the Dirty Dozen has been occupied by art students who have alienated the general public, forgetting or ignoring that this space is very public at Melbourne’s central metropolitan railway station. There were several people paying close attention to it when I saw it around midday on Thursday.

The vitrines create a timeline of the lives of Australian women from the colonial era to the present. The heroines of this timeline are not specific women, heroines to represent an era but women in a general non-specific way. This absence of specificity meant that the artists tended to represent white suburban women.

As well as, the timeline there were specific causes associated with specific eras from the anti-conscription movement of the 1910s to the domestic murder rate of today. There was no mention of the temperance movement, as it was a women powered movement, but it is not longer seen as righteous.

Although each of the cases is labelled as the work of specific artists there is a coherent look to the whole exhibition. There are differences Kelly Sullivan’s collage, Kirsti Lenthall’s ceramic decals on plates and impressively on quartz rocks, or Gigi Gordes’s disembodied body parts; hands typing, the eyes on the glasses, mouth on the mug, mouth on the phone (I don’t know why the objects are covered in crochet) and, a few cabinets later, the hands on a glass of wine.

It was Tinky’s work that drew my attention to the exhibition as I know Gigi and Tinky’s art from the street. However, Tinky’s puns were the weakest elements of the exhibition. Written on paper and the little titles didn’t match the style of the rest. Unfortunately her puns give meaning to her tableaus and without them they would just be some odd HO scale model train figures.


True Colours and Blender Studios

On Friday evening there was the opening of Casey Jenkins’s “True Colours” at Dark Horse Experiment. Described as a “mind altering, body modification, transformative, durational performance artwork” it is basically about if Jenkins develop synaesthesia through training. Jenkins is planning to train her brain for five hours a day for two weeks followed by a second MRI to see if anything has actually changed in her brain. In this respect it seems more like a comment on how boring jobs alter your brain than an examination of if colour perception is biological or cultural.

Which of the traditions of performance art was Jenkins following with this work? The self-harm of Marina Abramović and Chris Burden or the simply the boredom of Duchamp’s Monte Carlo roulette system? It was definitely not in the entertaining tradition of performance art, nor as confronting as Jenkin’s earlier pieces. It was rather like talking about your science project at a cool party.

The thing about contemporary art, that is not explained often enough, is that it is one big party: booze, finger food and gossip. Someone should write a social column about the gossip. And I have to admit that I was there more for the social scene than the art; when I really want to look at the art I don’t go to the exhibition opening. I hadn’t seen Drew Funk in years, he is back from KL and I could hardly recognise him without his dreadlock.

Except for Ha-Ha, the intellectual featherweights that I was hanging out with did not engage with the exhibition’s theme. I did learn that Ha-Ha’s perception is far more focused on numbers than mine; counting the number of cuts that he makes in a stencil, seeing numbers in shapes. I didn’t want to say much because it felt like revision of all the philosophy papers that I have read about colour perception.

I was also there to see the new location for Blender Studios and Dark Horse Experiment. The last time that I saw it, they were in the Docklands and now they are in West Melbourne. It is more like the original Blender Studios; an old factory with exposed struts supporting the roof. Entry is down an alley, its flagstones covered in aerosol paint from the children’s spray painting classes that they run. And it still has that blend between street and contemporary art.


Reko and Turbo, from the street to the NGV

“From Bark to Neon: Indigenous Art from the NGV Collection” at the NGV in Federation Square includes works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Emily Kam Kngwarray in the collection. But I want to focus on two local artists in the exhibition who both have street backgrounds: Reko Rennie and Trevor Turbo Brown.

Blek le Rat, Reko Rennie, Drew Funk, Reko Rennie et. al. in Hoiser Lane & on the internet.

Part of their street background both embraced one of the four elements of hip hop; for Reko it was writing graffiti and for Turbo, breakdancing.

Reko Rennie has a neon crown in his Regalia 2013; as in crown that a top graffiti writer would put a crown above their tag. I first saw his work at the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2008, a magnificent multi-layer stencil of a red kangaroo. Later I saw the same stencil sprayed on a wall in Hosier Lane alongside Blek Le Rat and Stormie Mills. I didn’t know that he was Kamilaroi all I knew is that he was amongst the best street artists in Melbourne. Many street artists were later represented by commercial art galleries but Reko Rennie navigated this transition better than most. In a few years he had work in the NGV’s collection was making public art. Rennie’s public art includes his Neon Natives, 2011 in Cocker Alley for the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions and his Murri Totems, 2012 outside of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science building.

Trevor Turbo Brown, Getting their photo taken by tourists, 2007

The late Trevor Turbo Brown was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. Turbo was a self-taught, outsider artist who had multiple disadvantages amongst them homelessness and an intellectual disability. Turbo had a clear relationship to the street. He got his nickname, ‘Turbo’ breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s and 90s. One day I ran into him Brunswick trying to sell his art. The NGV has three new acquisitions of Turbo’s paintings on exhibition; they acquired some of the best Turbo paintings that I’ve seen, there is a genuine sense of humour his dingos smiling and photobombing for the tourists. Dingos were very significant to Turbo for many reasons.

Hip hop and the street are now part of the greater cultural mix that influences urban Indigenous art in Melbourne.


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