Tag Archives: art critic

Editorial 2018

A century ago, in 1918, a local reporter reviewed a 14 year-old Salvador Dali’s first group exhibition in the vestibule of the Teatro Principal (now the Teatre-Museu Dali) in Figueres. The reporter wrote of Dali: “He will be a great painter”. (J.L Gimenez-Frontin, Teatre-Museu Dali, trans. Anthony John Kelly, 1999, p.12)

Black Mark at Sweet Streets

Black Mark at Sweet Streets auction.

A century ago, in age of multiple daily papers, there was a lot more room in the papers for regular columnists and reporters who covered a particular beat. The recent decline in newspapers is generally blamed on the internet but would it be more accurate to blame hedge funds? Still only a very local paper would write about a group exhibition with a 14 year-old artist in it.

Maybe that unnamed local reporter wrote that about every young artist he saw hoping that history would remember his one success and forget the many failures. Maybe the unnamed reporter didn’t exist but is a figment of Dali’s self-mythologising. Still I want to be that reporter.

It is now eleven years since I started writing this blog. Eleven years of hoping and trying to be that reporter. The vainglorious aspect of this quest is tempered with the knowledge that arts writers, especially reporters and bloggers, are currently amongst the least powerful people in the arts world. Still I think that it has been about the best use of my time as I could find.

The role of a blogger is not central to visual arts or culture. I suppose it depends on how you want to rate John the Baptist; there is a heresy that claims that he is more important than Jesus, the Johannite or Mandaean heresy, and Tom Wolfe claimed the similar thing about art critics in his 1975 book The Painted Word but I don’t believe him. The quality of the role of the art critic is as debatable as is the quality of any part of art and culture.

I do not only write about exhibitions that impressed me because that would imply that if I didn’t write about an exhibition that I didn’t like it. I don’t write about every exhibition that I see and I do write negative and mixed reviews. I try to write mixed reviews because, in accordance with basic statistics, most exhibitions that I see are average. I believe in kicking up, not kicking down, and that pointing out the flaws of a good exhibition is more productive than those of a poor exhibition.

I to want to continue to provide a view of Melbourne’s visual arts and other aspects of culture. This view is different from connoisseurship, the refined appreciation built up from obsessive repetition and a fandom experience that is over-explained and over-valued. Rather I hope to write about an exploration of the variety, an understanding based on analysis of a larger sample. I want to cast a critical eye on the whole for Melbourne’s visual arts from the major galleries to the ARIs and alternative spaces, from public sculptures to the street art, from art history to fashion.

Perhaps that is more than the un-named reporter a century ago aspired to with his review of Dali’s exhibition but it is right for me.


Art Vs Reality Fail

Art Vs Reality is a six part YouTube series of videos. “The aim of the series is really to save art from the curse of luxury imposed by a corporatised artworld,” says Peter Drew, the presenter in the series. The words “save” and “curse” is an indication of the kind of magico-religious thinking about art behind this series.

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

There is plenty of this kind of fuzzy thinking in the series. In Episode 3 Peter Drew appears to claim that artists who sell art lack integrity and are basically guilty of simony for selling the sacred. This obsession with money is a popular take on the institutional theory of art and money features prominently in Art Vs Reality right in the graphics at the start of each episode.

The fixation of money is perhaps due because Peter Drew is a street artist from Adelaide and street art is the most commercial of art movements since the Surrealism. From Futura, Kaws and Os Gêmeos marketing Hennessy cognac, to the entrepreneurial street artists selling street fashion, to quasi religious idealists, like Drew, there has always been a focus on money in graffiti and street art. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I don’t begrudge any artist a single dollar that they make, or don’t make, but you might regard it differently if you have a fantasy about simony.

It is the word ‘reality’ in the title that is symbolic of the its simplistic fantasy of art; it continues to measure art on its Procrustean bed. A fantasy based on a rather simple understanding of a largely French focused version of European art history, ignoring art before the 19th century and most other cultures and countries. The ‘reality’ that Art Vs Reality is referring to is an imaginary popular idealised ‘reality’ that frequently has a tenuous relation to the facts.

Facts, like what happened in the creation of Duchamp’s Fountain that Drew blames for the starting conceptualism. Drew is unaware that the New York Independent Show that Fountain was excluded from had no jury (nor as Drew claims judges to “dismiss it out of hand”). How then was Fountain excluded from the exhibition and where the first edition of Fountain is far more complex than Drew’s ‘reality’.

Ironically it is the conceptual art of the Duchamp that Art Vs Reality, in Episode 2, blames for what it see as what is wrong with art. With a more complete reading of art history Drew might have been aware that the initial attacks on art institutions and the idea of great artists first launched by the Dadaists, followed by the conceptual artists in the 1960s, weren’t concerned about the influence of money but on the ideological support that the galleries gave to the state/war criminals.

Drew’s light-hearted approach lacks any subtly, depth or understanding of art or social history. He doesn’t take the audience to anything new or offer any new insights. Given the subject matter that he wants to deal with it is a shame that Drew does not appear to have read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or, even the arch and sardonic Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (as Wolfe was at least informed about modern art history when he wrote it). For a much more detailed analysis of the contemporary art market I would recommend reading Judith Benhamou-Huet’s The Worth of Art – Pricing the Priceless (Assouline, 2001).

Unfortunately Art vs Reality is just another jeremiad, posing as a comedic commentary, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent.

Spud Rokk

Graff Hunters are fun series of online videos about graffiti. The presenter and lead Graff Hunter is Spud Rokk. In his sunglasses, hat and single glove Spud Rokk is exploring and hunting through the urban wilderness for graffiti. He is like an urban version of Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter and other the wild wilderness-men TV presenters. But he is a graffiti art critic.

Spud Rokk - image courtesy of Graff Hunters

Spud Rokk - image courtesy of Graff Hunters

Spud is a high-energy presenter; he runs down streets, climbs walls and leaps over storm water drains in a single bound. His cameraman struggles to keep up with him. Spud is always excited by the art that he discovers on the street and the excitement is contagious to the audience. His commentary is also high-energy and well informed about street artists and graffiti technique. His style of criticism is mostly about pointing out the quality in the graffiti piece. His hands and body still dance as he explains the movement and composition of graffiti pieces. Watching a Graff Hunters video is an education in the elements that make up a good piece of graffiti.

Spud is sometimes joined on his graffiti hunting Australia wide expedition by his sidekick Juzzo, sometime Spud interviews artists, but mostly he has a dialogue with the cameraman. He swears a lot more than any TV presenter (certainly more than any art presenter) but that is the street and the advantage of presenting his videos are online.

Spud Rokk - image courtesy of Graff Hunters

In reality Spud Rokk is a character created by Spencer; the blue eyes behind the trademark sunglasses. There are lots of fictional comic presenters from Norman Gunston to Ali G; these clowns are no less artificial than many glossy TV presenters but are perhaps more honest about their fictions. Spencer says that by the fictional VJ, Max Headroom inspired him to uses scratch j-j-j-j-jumps in his videos. In real life Spencer is just as full of energy, he laughs more and swears a lot less. He is motivated by his love of art and his passion energizes and motivates him. Spencer told me has done about 30 Graff Hunters videos but only some are currently on the website – he puts them up and if they don’t get good hits then he takes them down.

Spencer started off as a b-boy and break-dancing; then he saw the writing on the wall and became interested in graffiti. His old catalogue of hip-hop music has now becomes the soundtrack for the videos. He started making videos about Melbourne’s graffiti in the mid-90s and then started editing in the 2000. In 2000 he produced documentary for indi hip-hop group Curse ov Dialect who he also collaborated with musically. Editing the videos became easier after he won an ABC mini-documentary competition that lead to Graff Hunters being sponsored by NMG in Footscray. He is also working with Oriel Guthrie making a feature length documentary about Melbourne’s graffiti scene: Hello My Name Is…. Spencer plans on expanding his range of videos with Spud Rokk exploring cooking, bicycles and others passions.

I’m glad to have met Spencer as he really inspired to do more with the Sweet Streets festival film night that I ran this year that featured both an episode of Graff Hunters and the preview of Hello My Name Is…. The episode of Graff Hunters warmed up the capacity house and got them laughing – see for yourself.

Reality & Art Criticism

People have been asking me: “are you going to see the Dali exhibition at the NGV?” It is a fair question, particularly as I have been interested in Dali ever since reading his Unspeakable Confessions in my high school library. However, I really don’t know if I will and if I do I will probably not write a blog entry about it because blockbuster exhibitions are not the focus of this blog and so much has already been written about Dali. Art Blart managed to write and photograph  the exhibition before any of the other blogs (kudos to Marcus Bunyan). And Melbourne Jeweller also reviewed the exhibition.

The reality is that I get asked if I’m going to see a lot of exhibitions. I welcome all invitations to attend art exhibitions and other events however, I can’t promise to attend or write about the exhibition. The reality of my visits to art galleries and other events is dependant on a large number of factors that have nothing to do with the exhibition. It depends on so many things: my wife, my friends, Melbourne’s extreme weather and the location.

The location of the gallery does play a part. The gallery’s proximity both to me and to other galleries will influence my decision to visit. Trying to explore the numerous aspects of Melbourne’s art world is like an urban orienteering adventure. And although I am fond of urban exploration and I do want to write about new galleries I have to take into consideration the time it takes to find a new gallery in a strange location which may means that I don’t have time to see other exhibitions. Melbourne’s poor public transport system makes it difficult for me to get to some galleries, even some of those in the inner north, like Northcote. I have also neglected to write anything about the galleries in Armadale, Ivanhoe, Hawthorn, Prahran, and St. Kilda for the same reason. I do try to rotate the galleries that I write about along with the variety of types of art that I write about from sculpture to street art.

Sometimes I go to exhibition openings but mostly I don’t; I’ve been to many in the past. Attending art exhibition opening is useful and fun to drink and talk with the artists and other people. However, I can only attend one or two openings in a day or night and the exhibition is sometimes difficult to see the art because of all the people.

Sometimes I see an exhibition and for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of the exhibition I don’t end up writing about it. I may try writing about it and fail to find the right words. Another story may be more news worthy and so another story never gets written. Sometimes a gallery is inexplicably closed when I visit so I never get to see the exhibition.

Today I went to East Richmond, photographed the aerosol art in around the train carpark and looked at most of the galleries on Albert St. I was delighted to see Tracy Potts exhibiting at Anita Traverso Gallery because she was one of the first artists that I reviewed in my first blog entry in my old blog. I am currently reading Will Self’s novel Great Apes so Lisa Roet’s latest exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery had additional resonances. (See Art Blart’s review of her opening). I talked with Daniel Doral at John Buckley Gallery and looked at the paintings by Gareth Sansom there.

These maybe the only exhibitions that I get to see all week – I check my diary and the weekend is looking busy with family. I will have to do more research and writing before I publish anything about what I saw today.

These are some of the realities of art criticism.

James Gleeson (1915 – 2008)

“’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’ might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilization.” Proclaimed James Gleeson in his paper “The Necessity of Surrealism” read to the Contemporary Art Society in 1941.

James Gleeson, the “father of Australian surrealism” has died after a long life and creating many great works of art. He enriched culture in Australia in many ways and I hope that his life and art serves as an inspiration for many more artists and critics. The world, especially Australia, still needs Surrealism; civilization is still in a desperate condition with war, imperialism, racism and repression. The suicide rate in Australia is still high, but this is rarely interpreted as an indication of a defective society or civilization.

My first encounter with Gleeson’s art was at the NGV when as an adolescent I saw his early small painting – We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit (1940). When I saw the Surrealism: Revolution by Night exhibition in Canberra I encountered Gleeson’s large impressive The citadel (1945). However, these early paintings with their apocalyptic ideas did not have big impact on me. Gleeson appeared to be another Surrealist inspired by Dali’s paintings.

This changed when I saw Gleeson’s post 1984 paintings; it was my first experience of Stendhal syndrome. The turgid liminal land-and-seascapes of these paintings created vertiginous sensations with their ambiguous details and subtle references to the composition of European masters. These large oil paintings were full of images created using classic Surrealist techniques of collage, decalcomania, automatic drawing and ‘psychic automatism’. Gleeson is the one Surrealist painter who can paint as well, perhaps better, than Dali.

In remembering the art and life of James Gleeson it is important to remember that he was not just an artist but also an important art critic, writer, teacher and served on the council of the NGA from 1976. As a critic for the Sydney Sun (1949-74) and Sun-Herald (1962-74). He also wrote several books, Australian Painters (1964) and William Dobell (1964). Gleeson was not a partisan critic arguing for a certain type of art, instead Gleeson described his criticism as a guide, an explorer in a new land. In this respect I hope that he will influence my own writing about art.

Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born and Gleeson carried it forward beyond the Cold War politics that shot at it from both sides; beyond the internal bickering of the Parisian Surrealism; to an international movement and into the 21st century. Gleeson’s late career paintings were his best and a demonstration that Surrealism is not a dead historical movement but a contemporary muse.

More Arts Blogs!

Melbourne needs more art critics, especially given the number of exhibitions in Melbourne. (I am still exhausted by home renovations and a head cold, so I don’t know when I will be getting out to see any exhibitions.) More critical voices need to be heard and a greater variety of critical voices need to be heard. Where is the aboriginal online art critic? I hope that bloggers can help to solve this crisis because they are easy, accessible and fun.

If you visit art galleries then why not write a blog about your thoughts? There is still plenty room for more online art critics as so many exhibitions remain unreviewed. I want to write something to empower people to be art critics, to talk and write about art beyond simple subjectivist expression of preferences. “Think hard” was the advice that John McKenzie gave in his course Introduction to Aesthetics at Monash. It may sound obvious but actually doing it is hard; maybe I don’t do it enough.

Art criticism doesn’t have to be serious or academic; there is not much variety in art criticism in mainstream publications but that doesn’t mean that is the only way to write about art. For example, there are enough art exhibition openings every week to write a blog of Melbourne’s art world gossip. And there is probably enough poor/unethical journalism in art publications for an arts media watch.

“A critic, especially when he is writing of contemporary work, should be regarded as a guide, rather than a teacher.” Wrote James Gleeson.

Some stupid people believe that you must be an artist in order to be an art critic. Some art critics like James Gleeson have also been artists, others, like Clement Greenberg or Felix Feneon, were not artists; it is not important. I had no insider knowledge of Melbourne’s street art scene when I started this blog but I have learnt as I looked more. I hope that they have provided a different perspective on Melbourne’s street art than a participant/observer.

If you have been thinking about writing a blog about art exhibitions consider this. It is hard work, you will need to think hard, read a lot, check your facts and visit many galleries. There are few rewards to writing a blog about art, aside from glasses of cheap wine at gallery openings. But I’m having fun. And if I can be of assistance to anyone wanting to write an arts blogs please contact me.

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