The Top Arts VCE 2009 exhibition has more variety than regular exhibitions at the NGV, Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. Sure there are examples of all media that are regularly exhibitions at the NGV: painting, photography, prints, sculpture and video art. But there is also lots of art that is not normally exhibited at the NGV. Illustrations, especially illustrations from literary sources like Nina Waldron’s “Lord of the Flies” that powerfully evokes William Golding’s novel, are rarely shown. Comic books, like Harry Hay’s “Rover and the captains” are also rarely seen on exhibition at the NGV. Pop-surrealist paintings, like those of Michelle Molinari, are a genre that the NGV curators would normally avoid.
The Top Arts exhibition forces these media and genres into the NGV. It is a democratic election that brings art into the gallery based on quality rather than curatorial fashion. The variety of art on exhibition maybe one of the reasons for the popularity of this annual exhibition; Tops Arts last year had more than 100,000 people attending the exhibition (from the NGV media kit). It is one reason why I have seen the Top Arts exhibition in previous years.
I went to the NGV media preview for the exhibition. At least this exhibition fits with the main focus of my blog – to review artists that are off the mainstream critical map. This is the 16th year of Top Arts exhibition at the NGV. The exhibition features 80 works by 57 of the best students who completed Art or Studio Arts as part of their VCE, Victorian Certificate of Education (I’m cribbing again from the NGV’s media kit).
I did get to speak to some of the artists at the media preview; they were all wearing nametags and were standing by their art to be interviewed and photographed by the media pack. I talked with André Bricknell who is exploring abstract painting: he said his style has already developed from the Basquiat inspired painting on exhibition. His painting demonstrated that he enjoyed the unconscious revelry of painting. Ryan Mitchell told me that his prints, with their calm and elegant images, were possible due to his art teacher’s interaction with the students at Portland Secondary College rather than good printing facilities at the school.
If you enjoy variety in an art exhibition then you will enjoy this exhibition. If you normally don’t like a lot of the art on exhibition at the NGV you will find something that you will like at Top Arts.
The John Brack retrospective exhibition at the NGV is an opportunity to re-examine the issue of was John Brack (1920 – 1999) a modern Australian artist or a reactionary and what relevance his work has to contemporary art. If he just created popular iconic, albeit slight satirical, images of Melbourne then is he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design? Progress in modern art, along with the partisan struggle between the progressive modernists versus the ‘passéist’ (the Futurist term for passé art movements), was largely assumed. Although the questions of what direction the progress should take was under debate. Was the future of art primitivist, abstract, machine aesthetics, surreal, realist or what?
The issue of figurative painting versus abstract art loomed large in the early career of Brack. In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art. Does this mean that the John Brack and the Antipodeans were reactionary, figurative painters? The Antipodeans Group staged a single exhibition in August 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Victorian Artists’ Society is still in existence and still teaches and promotes conservative painting. The Antipodeans were challenging Clement Greenberg claim of the centrality of abstraction to modern art. Had they recognized it as American propaganda or were they expressing conservative anti-American Australian attitudes? Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position encouraged the NGV to acquire several of his paintings early in his career.
Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (The University of Chicago Press, 1983) provides a very detailed account of American art and Cold War geopolitics. The unique individual (American) abstract artist painting pure art was removed from class struggles or other political discourses. It is worth noting in this history, that that the first pure abstract paintings were not done by an early 20th century avant-garde modern artists but by an English mystic, Georgina Houghton in 1861. Following in this trend was Annie Besent, a theosophist. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian would have seen Annie Besent’s abstract paintings, as both were members of the Theosophical Society. Abstract art might have remained the interest of eccentric artists and mystics were it not for geopolitics.
There are other elements of modernism in Brack’s paintings: his many cityscapes and his interest in the machine aesthetic in his paintings of slicing machines, sewing machines, surgical equipment, modern flat surfaces and shop fittings. However, there is no political nor references to any current events in Brack’s paintings.
The John Brack retrospective exhibition is certainly popular but it is not just for the history or the iconic images. There is much in the art of John Brack that is relevant to contemporary art in Melbourne. Brack’s illustrative narrative style is still popular and is now common in contemporary art. And a visually literate population increasingly understands his references to art history. Brack’s later still life paintings with pencils and pens show elements of post-minimalist sculpture, like Melbourne’s Carl Scrase or Tim Sterling. And his anti-abstract and pro-figurative painting position is similar to Stuckism that has supporters in Melbourne’s street art scene.
Fashions change in the art world, not always in dramatic ways, often in small trends. Two unrelated recent art trends are exposing raw canvas and whimsical illustrations in books.
At Seventh Gallery Julia Theobalt is showing paintings in the current fashion of hardedge, minimalist, abstracts with exposed raw brown linen support. It is the third exhibition that I have seen in this style in the last month. There is more of the same style just across the road in Dianne Tanzer Gallery, ‘Sweet Delirum’ by Louise Blyton. Blyton has been working in this style for several years now, she was exhibiting raw linen at Red Gallery in 2005, but now the trend has caught up with her. I first saw this raw canvas style last month at Stephen McLaughlan Gallery with the paintings of Jason Haufe.
This new style or trend is attractive and decorative in a minimalist way. The paint is very flat and the geometry more playful than rigorous. The sight of so much raw brown linen is new and appealing. It has been done before except for so much raw linen, that is the trend can be explained within art history. This trend may not be confined to minimalist abstract painters; Yvette Coppersmith uses raw unbleached linen very eloquently in her “Forever in Blue Jeans’ 2007.
Artists have stopped destroying books and making art out them, a trend that I was observing two years ago. They have returned to more traditional approach of making and illustrating books.
“The fashion world’s obsession with whimsical art in a book” Elle (US) (March 2008, p.282) If this is the case then Pierre Lloga’s children’s book “The Amazing Fleabomb” should do well. It is the story of cat that plays drums in a band. The colorful, endearing, whimsical illustrations are the main feature of the book. I was at 696 to enjoy the launch of the book. Pierre Lloga was also exhibiting the illustrations from the book in the small gallery. There was a small crowd of people at the opening but only one child.
Another artist that I have seen working in this whimsical style is Leith Walton. Walton’s watercolor and ink drawing at Brunswick Arts Entry 08 sold before the opening night. Walton is, not surprisingly, working on a children’s book.