Tag Archives: Arthur Stace

Ephemeral & Street Art

On Gertrude St. sidewalk, in an ironic reference to Arthur Stace, the “Eternity” man, someone had stencilled in yellow chalk powder, in a copperplate font, “Optimism”. Chalk was Stace’s medium and it will be washed away with the next rain. An irony that Stace seemed to miss – his eternity was only temporary.

Optimism on Gertrude St.

Optimism on Gertrude St.

Across the road in Dianne Tanzer Gallery there are two exhibitions with a close relation to street art. Dianne Tanzer Gallery is an established commercial gallery, so this is clear evidence of how street art techniques have influenced the contemporary art. Matthew Hunt’s “Pure Gut Feeling”, in Dianne Tanzer’s ‘Project Space’, has a punk street art feel. Statements like “Odd Ball” and “Solid Gold Turd” are statements drawn in crude blockbuster style on paper. Hunt is recreating the aesthetics of adolescent art, the kind of drawings that are done on the cover of a school notebook, a feeling close to many young street artists.

In the main gallery there is Hannah Bertram “Now They Are Gone”. The main gallery looks empty but on the polished concrete floor are 2 very large stencils in water and ash. Bertram specializes in transfiguration of the commonplace materials into art. The stencils are neo-barque roundels with a variety of floral motifs from carpets or wallpaper. Or are they mandalas, like the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas that are destroyed after completion to symbolize the transitory nature of life. Using ashes as the medium is also symbolic of all that is left after death and destruction. When I visited the gallery a few footprints had damaged the edge of one of these ephemeral works. At the end of the exhibition they will be gone, washed away.

Art was once believed to be for eternity, for the future; it seems a strange belief now. Street art is full of deliberate ephemeral words and deeds. The point is to say something with style. To write something to relieve the boredom, to state that ‘I was here’ even though, ironically, I have already moved on. The ephemeral nature of street art aspires brief attention, “instant fame” as Happy says in his paste-ups, and not eternity. Street art is not forever – it is for now.


Remembering Australian Graffiti History

Tram Stop 21, outside the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, has a photograph of light graffiti by local artist Robyn Cerretti. Cerretti spells out “forever” using a sparkler against a dark urban setting. It is an ironic comment on Arthur Stace’s famous chalk graffiti “eternity” as ‘forever’ is a synonym for ‘eternity’. But a lit sparkler does not last forever, nor does Stace’s chalk on pavement. A word does not equate to the existence of a thing and so the ontological argument for the existence of God (or eternity), formulated by St. Anselm, leaves reality in the perfect, super-fast spaceship.

Arthur Stace is also the subject of a film by Julien Temple, The Eternity Man (2008) based on the stage opera by Australian composer Jonathan Mills and poet Dorothy Porter. Arthur Stace was an illiterate Sydney ex-alcoholic with an obsessive compulsive disorder and a one-word evangelical mission tag that made him an Australian legend. Stace lead a very dull life and both the film and opera have to work hard to make it interesting for even a short time.

The calligraphic appeal of Stace’s Copperplate letters made his work visually unique at time when graffiti was more concerned with the message and not the media. In the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s graffiti in Melbourne was limited to aphoristic slogans (rather like the art of Jenny Holtzer) written in simple fonts using house paint and a brush. It was more a form of literature than visual art. I found an old notebook of mine with a short list of graffiti slogans from the ‘80s and early ‘90s:

“Bite the wax tadpole”

“Real punks can’t spell capocino”

“Stilettos are a push over – wear bovvers”

“Nuclear families have fallout”

“There is only one thing worse than the desire to command – the will to obey.”

“1991 the year of LOVE (on the dole)”

Rennie Ellis exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing” at the NGV has nine photographs of Australian graffiti in the 1970s and 80s, at the very far end of the exhibition. Ellis photographs are social realism and his photographs of graffiti simply document them. It is mostly political slogans like “Smash the Housing Commission” along with photographs of two modified billboard advertisements and the photograph that gave its title to the whole exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing”. Ellis has an extensive collection of photographs of graffiti from this time and published three paperback books of photographs of graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and The All New Australian Graffiti (1985).

I presume than in 20 or 30 years the NGV will have an exhibition of some photographer’s images of Melbourne’s current street art and that future artists will celebrate its images, when it is safely history.


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