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Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Scandal in Bohemia

In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.

Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.

Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.

Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.

It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.

Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.

Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

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Art Forgery Book

In Forged Jonathon Keats looks at art forgery with the usual stories of art forgery. The first part of the book Keats tells a short history of art from Ancient Egypt to the present day from the perspective of his thesis of the greatness of fakes. In this loose history Keats doesn’t distinguish between fakes, forgeries, copies, appropriation and piracy. In an odd version of the artistic skill verses originality argument Keats argues that forgeries are the great art.

However, Keats’s argument only works when the fake is discovered or revealed because part of the greater quality that Keats believes exists in them is that they have fooled people in the past. There is little else to prove any quality aside from the fact that they fooled people who wanted to be fooled, like Nazi’s supporting the forgery of medieval turkeys because the Vikings could have brought them back from America. When the fake has not been discovered it remains a mediocre to poor example of the supposed artist’s work.

The second part, and the bulk of the book, tells the story of several famous forgers in the twentieth century: Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han Van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn, and Tom Keating. All of these forgers have been extensively written about in many other books.

It is in these biographical chapters that Keats argument of technique over anything else flounders. Even when cherry picking examples of famous forgers their technical ability appears over-rated. The Australian forger Pamela Liberto’s fake Rover Thomas works proved that you don’t need any artistic talent or technique to make and sell fakes.

These famous forgers are not really an appealing lot and Keats doesn’t help them; he even compares Van Meegeren’s aesthetics to Hitler’s. The famous forgers that Keats writes about are bitter, thwarted anachronisms; they certainly don’t appear to be the great artists of our age.

In the third part Keats continues his history of art that he started in the first part. He doesn’t look at forgeries at all but rather at copies. The closest that this part gets to forged is the art of J. S. G. Boggs who hand-draws pictures of money and exchanges it for goods of that value. There is an examination of copies of Mona Lisa by Warhol, Banksy and Duchamp before wandering into contemporary art.

It feels like the meat of this book, art forgers, has been sandwiched between an essay on originality in the history of art and I don’t think that they go together.

Jonathon Keats Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press 2013)


Makatron’s Book

Mike Makatron In Ten Cities (Trojan Press, 2015)

I read Makatron’s book, if “read” is the right word for book that is primarily photographs, over a pub lunch and two pints of cider. It is a good over-view of his work in Melbourne and around the world.

I have been looking at Makatron’s work in Melbourne’s walls for the last decade and it is easy to see why his work is popular. He mostly paints animals but there is more to his work that just reproducing a photograph in aerosol paint. Makatron’s animals are often distorted surreal creatures, giant animals with buildings on their backs, decomposing fish or stranger creations. The book doesn’t show all his work but it is a fair representation and not just a greatest hits; there are tags, straight letters and photographs of works in progress.

The text is not indulgent or boasting, fun, modest and reasonably informative although limited and containing way too many puns.

How to present the man behind the paint is a problem given that we are not going to get a photographs of Makatron’s face for legal reasons, although there are a few masked versions. There is a bit of autobiography at the end of the book. A born risk-taker Makatron was working as bicycle courier in NYC on 9/11; something that gets a random page of photographs in the middle of the book and is mentioned again at the end.

Although the structure of the book is not irritating or terrible it could be better than the almost random approach. An editor’s view could have made this book so much better than chaotic travels in time and space.

As a photo-books, street art and graffiti don’t make for great photographs; a wall square on in good lighting is the standard format, photographing street art is often more documentation than photography. John Tsialos is credited as the principle photographer but there are others including David Russell (see my post on his street art photography that brings the streetscape into focus).

I borrowed this book from Moreland Library. Like me, Makatron will have received his library lending rights money for this month for all the times that his book has been borrowed this year. Yes, authors do get paid when their book is borrowed. So go and borrow Makatron’s book (and my book Sculptures of Melbourne) from your local library.

Here are some of my photographs of Makatron’s work in Melbourne.



The Culture Club

Craig Schuftan’s The Culture Club explores the nexus of twentieth century ideas, art and rock’n’roll. His thesis is spelt out clearly in the conclusion of his introduction: “Far from simply functioning as a bit of arty window-dressing for dilettante Rock stars, the isms of the twentieth century have become the founding principles of Pop music in the twenty-first.”

Schuftan first presented “The Culture Club” on Triple J’s Monday morning program and the book grew out of these radio segments. (These are now available on podcasts.) So it is an introduction to a large number of important contemporary art ideas in easily digestible breakfast portions.

How the minimalist music of contemporary composer, Steve Reich and Moby’s beats are related, Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrete’ and Grandmaster Flash, the madness of Antonin Artaud and The Doors, and many other connections. Schuftan does this in a balanced way; looking at the different value of popular tastes between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, or between the energy and incoherence of madness and the meditative boredom of minimalism. Sometimes his references to rock’n’roll work like when he comparing Brian Ferry and Blondie’s cover versions to Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building with its “Chippendale” roof line. Sometimes he takes an odd turn; in the history of the cut-up from Dada to William Burroughs Schuftan then goes to Dylan, rather than, Bowie or Throbbing Gristle. Others are over played, so what if the album cover designer knows the history modern art, you expect that a trained designer would.

There is a more radical thesis that Schuftan could have pursued; not about the artists and musicians but about their audience. That the audience of avant-garde art employed in pop music is a revolutionary break from the traditional plutocratic system of art patronage. That mass market and mass production replace the unique valuable object based art with conceptual elements that can be reproduced for all. That contemporary art is not for the elites (political, financial or artistic) with time to cultivate their tastes it is accessible to everyone. Contemporary art has an audience larger than any visual art movement ever before; evidence that is contrary to the claim that post-modernism is problematic for people.

Although Schuftan is no Greil Marcus and The Culture Club is not Lipstick Traces, he is not presenting a secret history of traces but another angle on a now familiar story. My twenty-something year old self would have loved this book, I once wanted to be the heir to La Monte Young’s drone music compositions; my adult self is grumbling about having read most it before.

Craig Schuftan The Culture Club (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2007)


Eight books

Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.

  1. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities. 
  2. Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I  keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art. 
  3. John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
  4. Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
  5. Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas,  the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others. 
  6. Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
  7. Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
  8. Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.

The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.


The Coburg Plan

The Coburg Plan is a paperback book of photographs, essays, stories, a poem, even some comments from Scott’s Instagram feed focused on the architecture of Coburg. Jessie Scott is described at the “principle artist” and it is an affordable, accessible kind of artist’s book.

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I have lived in this inner northern suburb for decades, I helped crowdfund the book and was at its launch on Saturday at the Post Office Hotel. At the launch there were speeches, a reading of the poem by Timmah Ball and the kind of gastropub food that the PO Hotel is now well known for. I can remember when the Post Office Hotel had a different reputation; it was further down the pecking order than the Moreland Hotel with its strippers and pokies. It was the kind of place where some guy would come around to your table asking for a cigarette. Now, it has changed.

The Coburg Plan is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the changes; it is a neutral look at the often anaesthetic nature of suburbia. It is an elegantly designed book with type set in Brunswick Grotesque, an easy to read san-serif font and a near perfect choice of hyper-local typeface donated by its designer, Dennis Grauel.

Kyle Weise’s essay is a good introduction to Scott’s photographs. Weise examines the history of banal suburbia in architecture and in photography; from Robert Venturi Learning from Las Vegas to David Wadleton’s photographs of Melbourne’s milk bars. It is the antithesis of the modernist architectural vision that Robin Boyd writes about in his The Australian Ugliness, but it is a feature of ordinary, banal reality.

Scott records the mundane details of suburbia in her photographs. The old houses and closed corner shops, the empty lots, a ghostsign revealed during demolition, and the construction of new units. There is the street sign dealing with the fact that there are two streets in the suburb with almost the same name Hutchinson Place and Street; Australia street names makes up in repetition what they lack in originality.

It is a Coburg ‘plan’; ‘plan’, not as in an advance arrangement, but as in a representation or artist’s impression.


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