I’ve been busy with publicity and marketing my book The Picasso Ransom for the last couple of weeks. And this blog post is another aspect of that.
On Saturday, I had a book launch at my local pub, The Woodlands on Sydney Road. I made a bit of a speech, read a bit from the book, did a bit of show and tell with an antique art magazine the NSW vice squad confiscated, and had an extensive Q&A session about writing the book and art crimes led by Neil Kerlogue. Thanks, Neil, for that and your introduction. And thanks to Linda Elly for the photos of the launch. So many people to thank, including the Woodlands Hotel, for providing the venue in their decorative upstairs bar. They said they’d keep the bar open for the first hour, but they kept serving drinks until 6 pm when just my table was left. And I’m not the only author who would recommend them for a book launch.
My book is The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia. I must try to emphasise that most of it is more stories about art and crime, not just the famous theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV.
One of the other stories is the Peter Gant and Aman Siddique trial for forgery. I hear rumours about a two-part documentary being made for the ABC. The documentary will have illustrations by Bill Luke sitting beside me in the reporters’ box during the trial.
On the subject of documentaries on stories I cover in my book. Whatever happened to the one Jacob Obermann was making about Paul Yore?
Will my next book be The Picasso Ransom 2, more stories about art and crime in Australia? There are already some stories developing. Including the protests in museums, the attempted decapitated of a banana skull statue, stolen garden sculptures and more of the continuing statue wars. Ronald Ferguson told me about a guy shot in the back stealing some paintings in the 1970s – I must look into that. Will I include a story about an art dealer stealing work from artists? The police don’t often get involved in what is, to some extent, a business dispute, but if the right story comes along. Contact me if you can add details or know of a crime involving art in Australia that I have missed.
My book is available from the usual online sellers (Amazon), but please ask your local bookstore to get it and ask your local library to buy a copy. (Unlike the sales, the library reading copyright royalties for my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne, continues to grow).
I want to see Ronald Bull’s mural for myself, and I’m sure others do too. To physically look up at it, not just look at a photo of it, to be able to appreciate its size and the stone prison walls it’s painted on. Now that Pentridge is no longer a prison and is being developed as a housing estate, I don’t see why I can’t.
I enquired about the heritage-listed Ronald Bull mural in F Division to Pentridge Village, but there was no response. This is because Bull is not mentioned in the “Former HM Prison Pentridge Heritage Interpretation Masterplan” by Sue Hodges Productions. The masterplan makes almost no reference to Indigenous people, with a single reference to “Aboriginal troopers”.
Ronald Bull is a significant Indigenous artist, and his mural in F Division is his most important work. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Heritage Act 1995 because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison. The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria liaised with the developers and their heritage consultants, Sue Hodges Productions. Box-ticking exercise over consultations ignored (I assume this is how the Indigenous voice to parliament will be treated, please correct me if I’m wrong about this).
Writing out Indigenous people from the Heritage, whitewashing history with the erasure of Indigenous people. The developers have been allowed to exploit the history for their profit. The interior bluestone walls were all cut by prison labour. Not to forget that prison labour is disproportionately Indigenous.
The historical interpretation of the site is inadequate. More than one room with photographs, texts and a few objects is required. Decorative motifs of the panopticon are one of the most grotesque pieces of carceral torture ever invented; solitary confinement combined with continuous observation. If the old bluestone walls, gates, and towers are selling points, then some sensitive historical interpretation is needed.
Sue Hodges Productions were approached to comment on the absence of Bull’s mural and the Indigenous people from their masterplan but hadn’t responded at the time of publication. They are still welcome to comment, just fill in the comment box.
‘Inner Hum’ is a group exhibition at Divisions Gallery of painterly abstracts by Belinda Wiltshire, Karen Hew-Yin Eriksen, and Charlotte Ivey. All three artists enjoy paint, working it in different ways.
Painter and ceramicist Wiltshire is showing a series of five large works with tiny little details in one place, In Travelling Friend two tiny children lean in for a kiss in a yellow dot on a vast blue canvas. They are displayed in a circle, perhaps thinking of the work hanging of the Rothko chapel.
Ivey’s small paintings are compositions in a subdued palette of reds and browns that pay attention to their linen, boards and glass supports.
Hew-Yin Eriksen pushes phthalo green paint around into great curves and arcs. Stepping out of the abstract into materialism, she has included one, Sublime Light Now! with an LED fan.
Divisions Gallery is the new gallery in Pentridge Village. It is located alongside the small history interpretation centre on the second floor of the shopping mall. The gallery has a stockroom, a lot of windows and a balcony with views of a stone nineteenth-century prison block. There are three old prison wall spikes at the gallery desk set in an old piece of bluestone from the former Pentridge Prison.
In Pentridge Village, the aesthetics of carceral torture and a panopticon are decorative features. The panopticon no longer exists. The foundations were unearthed in 2014. This brutal modern prison was the first experiment in reforming prisoners. It had the opposite effect, but the architectural form was quickly adopted for schools and military barracks. A must-see for fans of Foucault and extreme irony.
There hasn’t been a gallery of any kind or any exhibitions in Coburg for years. Now there is Divisions Gallery and an exhibition space at Schoolhouse Studios in the old Coles supermarket. (These were the kind of posts that this blog was built on. I haven’t been doing enough local exhibitions. A sort of horizon scanning before the artist becomes known to the mainstream.)
I have participated and observed the arts in Moreland for three decades, mainly in the area of visual arts but also music and literature. Since 2008 I have written 84 blog posts about the visual arts in Moreland. Writing about visual arts has informed me about the variety of local art practices, from street art to contemporary. It is important to write about local culture, the emerging and the marginalised, rather than what everyone else is writing and talking about.
Street-level art criticism and being aware of what is happening in my neighbourhood. Coburg graffiti and street art continue to work their way northwards piece by piece and to use the piers along the new elevated railway. And I’m still walking (and riding my bike) around these streets, lanes and paths, photographing it.
There is a good collection of graffiti pieces around Batman Station. (When will that station get a name change from that of a genocidal killer?) Playing with letterforms like a signwriting class on acid; Digs playing with different styles in the one piece.
Further back from the railway, walls that would have sported advertising a century ago are now decorated with street art. Commissioned murals legal walls, along with random stencils and tags.
However, as usual, my eye is drawn to the smaller stuff. Many fun stickers, including some espousing anti-fascism, are always good to see. Slap-up stickers may be a small platform, but it does show that you are not alone in holding those views. I spotted a tag (and some stickers) by Psalm, reminding me that he has been painting it across Melbourne since the 1990s or maybe longer.
Then there is the aerosol activity of the local WWW crew (aka World’s Worst Writers, also known as the UBM crew of Dsel, Mudl, Smelly, Achy, Luna and Calypso). How bad are they? Enquiring minds will want to know and will be disappointed that they aren’t worse. The worst is as hard to find as the best. People with talent spend years working at being the best in their field while most of us, like the WWW crew, will settle for ordinary and unexceptional most of the time. There are many shout-outs (lots of names around the pieces) on their pieces, reminding me of the social aspect of graffiti writing.
Near Coburg Station, a series of large paste-ups appeared on the piers of the elevated railway with either single words (space, air, time) on them or arty photos. They didn’t last the long Labour Day weekend before most of them were torn down.
A yarn bomber on a fence along the train line proclaims: “I love Coburg”.
P.S. Achy commented that the WWW crew only consists of Achy and Calypso and not the UBM crew. I wish to clarify with this photo I how I accessed the information and made that association.
The sad trophy of a great white hunter sits on a porch of the Edwardian bungalow propped up on an old armchair — a sad artifact from another continent and another era. The Cape Buffalo, syncerus caffer caffer for all the zoologists, is the least endangered of the big five game hunting animals. It reminded me that both of us spent time in Africa before we ended up in the vast suburbia of Melbourne.
I avoided writing an end of year blog post for a couple of years, but 2021 needs one because it was a very unusual year. I saw few exhibitions; it seemed like I was always seeing one the night before the city would go into another lockdown, with some of these exhibitions being about art created in the previous lockdown. So I’m not even going to try to name a favourite. Melbourne endured the longest lockdown in the world, which has left deep scars psychic on the city.
For me, it was an enforced period of hyperlocal psychogeography, not the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, based on literature and history, nor the long-distance walking and speculative psychogeography of Will Self, nor the esoteric psychogeography of ley lines and occult architecture. There could be no grand projects circling the city, only a limited circumference of kilometres from your home. It was the basic dérive that Debord wrote about, drifting through suburban streets — wandering to escape the confines of your home. To lose yourself on the walk, the complete opposite of those English celebrity goes somewhere shows. Who was that masked man?
“All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.” Raoul Vaneigem words are pertinent to Melbourne’s experience; the Belgium writer would have been familiar with the curfews based on zero medical evidence, the cops and the occupied space, the shuttered spaces, closed shops and quiet streets. Last year I wrote a post about walking around in lockdown, and this year I wrote one about COVID related street art or graffiti but I didn’t really want to think about it during the lockdown.
It was hard to form memories without events to distinguish them when even the deaths of friends went unobserved — walking, eating and sleeping, day after day like the seemingly endless streets of Melbourne suburbia. Past police investigation, a forensics team digging up and examining the tarmac under a burnt-out car. Past suburban emergencies, a ruptured gas main. Past garden and architectural nightmares; houses with twenty-eight gables, kitsch concrete garden sculpture grottoes, or last-capitalist hordes of wrecked cars.
Should I organise a Melbourne Psychogeographical Association? (Please get in touch with me if anyone is interested in such an association or regular walks). I don’t know if anyone will be willing to engage in psychogeography for a long time. Or have the anti-vaxers, and Qanon conspiracy theorists discovered a kind of mass psychogeography in their repeated meandering protests around the city? Has it become worn out as a revolutionary strategy? The glass taxidermy eyes of the buffalo only give the look of seeing and don’t register images.
It is always a mystery about the identity of graffiti writers and street artists. I walked around a street corner in Coburg; there was Anime Flower at work with pastel crayons. Anime Flower has been writing things like “be kind” around the neighbourhood in colourfully decorated block letters. All I should say is that the writer was not from the usual demographic of taggers, graff writers and other artistic miscreants found on the streets. I didn’t want them to feel intimidated by my presence, so I didn’t stop. I just said, “Hello,” all friendly-like behind my mask and sunglasses and kept walking.
The great rock critics Lester Bangs and Nick Kent were proponents of the proposition that rock’n’roll was for losers. That it was a great failure gesture. At its best, rock’n’roll was a bunch of losers who managed to create great art and, at its worst, was commercial sabotage of all that is human and decent. Likewise, street art and graffiti are for losers. Like playing in a band, doing some street art will probably be amongst the best things that they do for themselves.
During the lockdowns, I have become more familiar with the work of many local graff writers, including the local UBM/WWW crew. I love the WWW crew, the self-proclaimed World’s Worst Writers – who will take that jester’s crown away from them? Calypso is so friendly, with a smiley face along with the tag.
Bootleg Comics and Cale Jay Labbe collaborating on some intensely crazy black and white paste-ups. Bootleg Comics is a Melbourne visual artist known for using pop culture iconography. Savage reflections of images and tropes: horoscopes making as much sense as an anti-vaxer but with way more insight.
For 16 months plus I have been without my closest bicycle path that runs along the Upfield railway. Parks and numerous trees along it destroyed. All to construct an elevated stretch of rail-line so that cars wouldn’t have to stop for the trains, trains that only run every twenty minutes at the best of times.
There is no public art for either of the two new stations at Moreland and Coburg, whose cavernous entry halls are empty, bare, and boring. Nor any for the area under the railway line. Monochrome painting of pillars, ordinary park benches, paving and lighting do not qualify. During construction, there was a pathetic attempt at art washing with images by local primary school children displayed on the fence around the wreckage of Gandolfo Gardens.
I have had the construction noise in my ears and the grit blowing in my eyes for the past year. Every day as I walk around the fenced off-site, I thank Daniel Andrews, Jacinta Allen, and the Level Crossing Removal Project in my own special way for the inconvenience. And for imposing their bland aesthetic on the area, not in small patches as the graffiti writers have been doing in a collaborative effort for decades, but blocks.
However fences and construction site security, don’t stop outlaw artists; there are always creative solutions. Gies was the first to apply aerosol paint to the north end of the new construction, at the Bell Street with a massive ‘bomb’ in three colours. And Sped was the first to tag the southern end of the tracks. The destruction of their work doesn’t remove those achievements.
Only one feature of the architecturally incoherent new stations is appealing. The platforms of the two new stations have excellent blue-black dust-covered surfaces set at 45 degrees. Perfect for writing your tag or drawing pictures in the dust, you don’t need a pen; the dust is that thick. For graffiti is the traditional visual culture of the area going back for over twenty years when Psalm and others painted the back fence at Coburg Station. So it was good to see the work of some locals, including, while I’m mentioning veteran street artists, Braddock!
I dream that I can once again bicycle on a path to Brunswick. And that someone will take a fire extinguisher filled with paint and spray the underside of the rail-line. I hope that soon colourful art will cover the concrete: pillars yarn-bombed, the chainlink fencing covered in radical cross-stitch. The area needs to be reclaimed by the public, as some of it once when locals created Gandolfo Gardens in an act of guerrilla gardening.