With his well-groomed full beard and neatly barbered hair Clement Meadmore looked like a hipster. Except this was in 1950s Melbourne. In the photograph he is sitting on a mid-century modernist chair, one of his earliest designs, the steel rod and corded dining chair created in 1951.
“Clement Meadmore: The art of mid-century design” at the Potter Museum of Art is a survey exhibition about Meadmore as a designer rather than a sculptor for which he is better known. Dean Keep and Jeromie Maver’s exhibition starts with Meadmore entering Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and ends in 1963 with the last chair he designed, his leather Sling Chair, and his moving to NYC to do abstract sculpture. It focuses on Meadmore’s furniture design along with his interest in jazz and his early sculpture development.
It is also a look at how modern Melbourne was created. Meadmore’s design of the Legend Espresso and Milk Bar at 239 Burke Street, chairs, lamps and decor. Including seven large abstract paintings by Leonard French that glow with radiant colours. French also designed the matchbooks, menus and cups for the Legend. This exhibition is a must-see for anyone enthusiastic about the early Australian jazz scene. Meadmore had more than just a passing interest in jazz, a photo of him playing the washboard in 1952 with thimbles on his fingers. A wall of record covers that he designed for Swaggie Records.
Meadmore’s designs were practical and pragmatic both for the designer, manufacturer and the consumer. It was important for the designs to be practical for the manufacturer because often he and his wife were making the machine-made modern aesthetic by hand out the back of their shop. It was an efficiency and pragmatism that he continued with his sculptures that could be transported in shipping containers.
Clement Meadmore, Devish
NYC was the right place for Meadmore to go as it had jazz and abstract art whereas both were still derided in Melbourne. It was the attitude of conservative figurative artists, including Blackman, Boyd, Brack, Dickinson, Perceval and Pugh who provided additional incentive to leave. If Meadmore was living in Melbourne today I’m sure that he would not have left as he would be able to have an international career as an abstract sculptor and be enjoying the jazz scene.
Clement Meadmore: The art of mid-century design
I feel obliged to take a look at Moreland Summer Show 2018 at the Counihan Gallery because I live in the area, to keep up with what the local artists are doing. However, instead of trying to write about the whole exhibition I will be looking at three of the exhibitors: Wendy Black, Benjamin Sheppard and Yoshi Machida.
Wendy Black Sea Eagle over Tamar 2017-18
Wendy Black’s Sea Eagle over Tamar is painted with spray paint enamel on board, what would be called a stencil piece on the street. But it is not on the street and Black is not a street artist and it is worth point out the elements that would be unusual on the street to contrast the differing aesthetics. Firstly, it is a landscape a genre rarely used on the street, secondly there are many rough elements, blistered or bubbling paint, evidence of masking tape that would be avoided on the street but give Black’s painting warmth. For more on Wendy Black see my blog post about Courtroom Artists.
Benjamin Sheppard Sugary Teeth 2018
In Benjamin Sheppard’s Sugary Teeth the missing Steyr AUG, the infantry rifle of the ADF, leaves a blank space amidst the profuse ballpoint pen marks. This blank space illustrates the negative concept of peace, as in the absence of war and conflict. Intense biro work is typical of Sheppard’s work: I’ve been intending to write something about his art ever since his exhibition Le Coq at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick in 2012. Along with fantastically detailed illustration of cockerels in biro there were abstract passages of intense random lines in his drawings; the division between the abstract art and the illustration has simply ceased to exist in the minds of artist. In MoreArts 2014 he had an installation at Jewell Station involving both newspaper headline displays and a full billboard. For more on Benjamin Sheppard read an interview with him on The Art and The Curious.
Yoshi Machida Dialogue (First Step for Peace) 2018
The Moreland Summer Show has the usual motherhood statement theme, this year it is “Peace and the Pursuit of Happiness” and Yoshi Machida’s Dialogue (First Step for Peace) presents a kind of buddhist kōan on the theme. Notice that neither the frogs, the cat nor the monk has said anything. I assume that the monk and the cat aren’t even registered on the frog’s consciousness because they aren’t moving, that the cat wants to kill the frogs and that the monk is considering how to start a dialogue.
Julian Opie’s art is cool. It seems essential to his aesthetic. Feeding back from his cool is Opie’s association with pop music. He did the cover the of Blur: the best of (2000) and LED images for U2’s Vertigo world tour (2006).
Julian Opie, Walking in Melbourne 1, 2018
There isn’t much to his images. Each has been reduced to the essential lines and shapes. The images are refined to minimise details. They are refined again in their manufacturing. Vinyl on wooden stretcher or laser cut anodised aluminium; processes that doesn’t leave a trace of the human hand.
From the LED displays of people walking in the forecourt to the fish swim across the NGV’s water wall entrance; the self-titled Opie exhibition leads the visitor into the two galleries of his work and onto the NGV Kids part. The NGV Kids interactive part was designed in collaboration with Opie; do your own portrait in the style of…
Julian Opie, View of Moon over Manatsuru peninsula, 2007
In the exhibition there is a respectful bow to Japanese art in his View of Moon over Manatsuru peninsula, 2007. Two LCD screens replace the traditional byōbu folding screens of rice paper but the format of the composition is the same. The lights reflected on the rippling water, the flashing lights of a plane flying in the star light sky, the moon still in the sky. There is something cool about refining kitsch lighting-feature landscapes; falling just short of being vacuous, insipid and vapid is cool.
Who are these people walking, running, jogging, dancing in Opie’s art? Faime, Marrie Teresa, Bruce and Sara? …Oh, and there is Julian in a t-shirt. There are two works titled: Walking in Melbourne 2018. I do a lot of walking in Melbourne; maybe I could be one of the people in the picture, maybe not.
The people are the same as Opie’s sheep or minnows. His landscapes, even when of a specific location, are generic enough to be anywhere. It is not great art but they are cool.
In “Tangled Love” Civil’s stick figure folk, a mix between Keith Haring and Matisse, form a gentle community as they sit, walk, dance and ride bicycles. They occupy a large wall in the laneway outside the gallery, Tinning Street presents but sit comfortably on the smaller supports within.
A decade ago I was interested in how street art and graffiti would be exhibited in art galleries. Moving from the street into the gallery is a matter of economics, conservation and, given the structure of the art world, inevitability. At the time stencil art dominated Melbourne’s street art scene so that meant that, aside from the gallery location, the other difference was support, outside walls or other materials.
However, sometimes that location on the street was very important to the art. I have seen many artists work fail to work in the gallery. The worst that I can remember was Urban Cake Lady’s exhibition at Rist; her art which looked enchanting on the street lost its magic inside the gallery.
Often this was because isolated in the gallery is different from being collaged onto the actual streetscape. Maybe they are missing the unexpected moment of discovery on the street, that Prof. Alison Young argues is the core of the street art experience, replaced with the totally expected experience of the exhibition. Sometimes the repetition of the artist’s single iconic image looks repetitious and boring in a gallery. Sometimes it is simply due to issues of scale. Certainly the white, anaesthetic room rarely helps the art look its best.
None of these appeared to be a problem in Tom Civil’s exhibition at Tinning Street presents. Dried botanical arrangements in old milk vats engraved by Civil decorate the gallery. His stick figures appear on a variety of supports: timbre lattice, ply, green corflute (corrugated plastic), doormats, wood and clear corrugated plastic which reminds the viewer of the variety of surfaces in the city. Aside from Civil’s familiar stick figures there are images created specifically for gallery exhibitions of animals from centipedes to chooks. Print making techniques extending from his early stencils on the street to linocut, drypoint etching, screen-prints and woodcuts. These printing techniques offer new material for the exhibition. Inside or outside of the gallery Civil’s images work.
In Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) one of Byrne’s repurposed porcelain figure the wistful girl seated on a rock has sewn her lips together and has slashed her legs and arms, self-harming in despair. Byrne is also a ceramics conservator and uses the same conservation techniques to alter mass produced kitsch ceramics. She gives them a new political meaning with the judicious application of enamel paint.
Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) in the background Angela Brennan Redacted then said (2018)
I feel that I have failed as a critic this year because I did not write about “All we can’t see – Illustrating the Nauru Files” at Forty-Five Downstairs in August. Byrne’s figure was just one of the exhibiting artists in that exhibition. I wanted to address the deep systemic problems in Australia that have lead to this, however at the time I felt the pain depicted in the art too much and lacked the energy to write.
The Australian concentration camps are not the responsibility of one political party but are symptomatic of a deep lack of morality. There are so many examples of institutional child abuse, war crimes, genocidal activity in Australia’s recent history that all the apologies in the world cannot disguise the fact the country is amoral.
The cause of this Australian amorality is that either the majority of Australians or basic the structure of Australian politics is or both. At the foundation of this structure is the Australian constitution; a document without any protection of civil or human rights, a document that permits voting laws to be made on the basis of race. However the Australian constitution cannot be entirely to blame, it is merely facilitates a system without a conscience.
Nationalists consider that it a good thing for the subject of Australia’s criminality never to be raised. Denial, distraction and ‘no comment’ are the national character of a criminal state. You cannot have a civil debate when one side does not want to have one. Criminals charges must be brought against all those who participated in these crimes; only following orders, only doing your job, even only obeying the law are not excuses for crimes against humanity. And the Australian constitution completely rewritten so that these crimes can never happen again.
For every parent whose children use them as a climbing frame Tiffany Parbs has a portable climbing frame and a slide; with the mockingly dry formalist titles of structure and slope. Photographs of Parbs and her children demonstrate how the stainless steel structures enhances the parental play gym.
Tiffany Parbs, structure, 2018
Tiffany Parbs, slope, 2018
Parbs’s art is both fun and part of the serious thought in contemporary art of using the artist’s body the prime material for sculpture. Turning a woman’s body into an actual playground rather than a political one is fun for most of the family and very amusing for the gallery visitor. After seeing Tiffany Parbs’s exhibition Smother at Craft I thought: motherhood is the new performance art.
This is not the imaginary ‘motherhood’ of ‘motherhood statements’ or the ideal mother but the physical state of being a mother. Performance art is a theoretically elevated, actually denigrated, state. As such it is a metaphor for (artists and) mothers.
Being a mother is everything that performance art always wanted: treating the body as a sculptural object, use of bodily fluids and an emphasis on the sexual without being erotic. Performance art is about endurance and duration where the body is public rather than private.
Pharbs is Melbourne based “conceptual jeweller” whose work is exhibited nationally and internationally including in The Language of Things at The Dowse Art Museum in NZ (2018) and Masked at Holding House, Detroit (2017). And Craft is a great location for this solo exhibition, bringing in the perfect audience for Parbs exhibition.
Conceptual jewellery is a good way to describe the variety of media and crafts used to create the work. Photographs by Tobias Titz of Parbs and her two children document the performance elements. In attached (2018), they are attached with velcro to Pharbs garment. In fodder (2015) a baby sucks milk from a device that looks like a combination of a beer hat and fetish wear.
In the wake of the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil it has been suggested (in Wired and Sydney Business Insights) that a digital version of museums collections could replace the need for actual public access. This assumes that the fetichism of the original, a kind of contact magic, is the principle reason for the continued practice. As an atheist I do not believe in contact magic but I don’t go to museums for that reason.
Although the National Gallery of Victoria has described itself as “custodian of the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”. There are other reasons, aside from guarding the horde, for a state museum or art gallery.
Firstly, museums provide unmediated contact with an analogue item is a natural interface. We can look it closer or stand back without any digital interface or restrictions from the technology. The average museum visitor only spends a few seconds on average looking at an exhibit and this would quickly become exhausting if mediated by clicking or swiping.
Secondly, not all people going to a museum are there to contact the original. I am not always looking at the original. Be it Richard Hamilton’s replica of Duchamp’s Large Glass or a working replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel that I could play with. The working replica of Bicycle Wheel was much better than any authorised edition because I could see the often mentioned op art effect of light through the rotating spokes as I turned the wheel.
Finally, it is not the object but the journey and it is not the object but the place. This makes the reasons for a museum much more complex than a storehouse. Museums, art galleries and libraries are public spaces, places where there is the possibility of all kinds of interactions that has to happen in an actual space. Not only that they are public spaces located in an actual and complex world; a world where destination architecture is also a local building.
For me, the best part of going to see the art of the Belgium Surrealists was not contact with the relics of that art movement (which is distinctly different from the French Surrealists). The best part was that it lead me to Mons and the Ducasse de Mons or Doudou festival; an accidental encounter with a parade, a dragon and street festival. It was a lot of fun straight out of Fraser’s The Golden Bough with lots of Belgium beer. (I must have been having fun all I have is a terrible shot of the parade and a photo of me and local drinking beer.)