On Thursday I went to see five exhibitions in the city and Southbank; all are free and in non-commercial exhibition spaces.
The first exhibitions I saw were in the Degraves Street underpass as I left Flinders Street Station; Denise Honan’s exhibition “Subterranean” and Shanshan Li’s “See the light” at the Dirty Dozen vitrines. Both exhibitions might work for other artist-run-space but had no intention of engaging with the general public, a necessity for successful exhibitions in this very public space.
Next a visit to Craft where there is an exhibition about doors — knobs, handles, knockers, lights, matts… Curated by Julie Ewington the exhibition has much more than the mundane theme might imply.
In Federation Square at the Koorie Heritage Trust is “They Shield Us” a group exhibition by Indigenous women about how “wearing cultural adornments shape their identities”. The shoes by Aunty Lorraine Connelly-Northey (Waradjari) are the stand-out image from the exhibition but this is not to ignore the necklaces by Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba /Boon Wurrung). Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions; Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files. )
The Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the VCA has “Conscious Intuition”; a fun but sparse exhibition that pairs two artists who emerged in the 1980s, Brisbane based sculptor Eugene Carchesio and Melbourne-based painter Diena Georgetti. There is a lot of humour in their art as they transition for the modern to the post-modern, from styles of abstract art to referencing abstraction, from minimalism to post-minimalism.
Finally to Buxton Contemporary where ‘Bauhaus Now!’ is a playful look at the long tail of the great modern art and design school a century after it was established. It is very playful with Bauhaus inspired games, toys, musical instruments, weaving, costumes and parades. There is work by contemporary artists responding to the Bauhaus aesthetic and work by Paul Klee and two former Bauhaus students, Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack who ended up in Australia. Curator Ann Stephen has created a rich visual experience that expanded my understanding of art history.
As I set off to explore Melbourne’s art on Thursday I wonder how many art exhibitions would be open this early in the year. I knew that the major institutional art galleries would be open, but I had already seen Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei at the NGV and Manifesto at ACMI.
Anthony Pryor, Landscape 3, 1982
I started at the Spring Street end of Flinders Lane with Craft Victoria where there is Timber Memory, a survey exhibition of woodwork in Victoria from the 1970s to the present. It is a rather interesting group of exceptional woodworkers including a block of huon pine inlaid with ebony, granite and jarrah, Landscape 3 (1982) by the sculptor, Anthony Pryor. It is Pryor’s response to the minimalist cube.
At 45 Downstairs there were two exhibitions that were part of the Midsumma Festival, Meridian a group exhibition and Découpages d’hommes a solo exhibition of photographs of nude males by Eureka (Michael James O’Hanlon). The compositions and backgrounds in Eureka’s photographs reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend who had suddenly realised how similar many Renaissance and Baroque paintings are to pornography. I was stunned, assuming that everyone who has studied art has read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
The Midsumma Festival generally has a good visual arts section and I could have continued along Flinders Lane to the Melbourne City Library where there was another of the Midsumma Festival’s exhibition.
Arc One had a solo exhibition by Tracy Sarroff Barbecue Stalagmites, Balloon Drumstick, but Sarroff’s brand of weirdness and obsessive mark making left me in outerspace.
Further along Flinders Lane the Mailbox Art Space had yet another group exhibition: Cells. Using the individual glass fronted mailboxes as cells in a three-dimensional comic book. The exhibition text makes other references to cells but the artists involved are focused on comics.
Instead of continuing down Flinders Lane because of a lunch date I then turned north. I briefly stopped at No Vacancy gallery in the QV Centre where there was a trade exhibition of Okayama Sake and Bizen Ware from Japan. Bizen Ware is a traditional type of Japanese pottery made in wood burning kilns.
I went to see Victorian Craft Awards with Melbourne writer and textile artist, Celeste Hawkins who writes the blog The Art and The Curious. The Victorian Craft Awards are part of Craft Cubed, a festival of the handmade. While we were in the city Celeste and I also looked at the exhibitions at Westspace, Karen Woodbury Gallery and Mailbox Art Space (the current exhibition Freaks of Nature is also part of Craft Cubed) but as I haven’t written about craft for a while I will stick to writing this post about the Victorian Craft Awards.
Sun-Woong Bang, Unexpected Linkage
The Victorian Craft Awards is a huge exhibition with over a hundred entries and spread across four venues all accessible from Flinders Lane: Craft Victoria, 45 Downstairs, the foyer of 1 Spring Street and the foyer Sofitel on Collins.
One of Craft Victoria’s attendants asked us if we found the luxury surrounds of the lobby of the Sofitel on Collins Street intimidating. Actually it was very comfortable and the exhibits didn’t look out of place as exhibitions in hotel lobbies often appear. Karen Terrens beautiful, intricate quilt, Sanderson’s Apprentice, matched the luxury of the Sofitel’s lobby.
Along with the judges awards there were also a People’s Choice Award. I’m not sure about popular choice awards for a number of reasons. It is not that I dislike the popular opinion or don’t think that it should be recognised. I have questions about the kind of judgement made in an unsystematic manner. What is it to judge something a popular choice? Is it what I would choose for myself, for someone else, for the world.
I haven’t given much thought about how to compare the practical and ornamental works. Nor have I though about how to compare the great variety of the crafts from in a wide range of materials used to creating jewellery, furniture and art.
Just because I like a work, get a laugh from it, does that mean that I want it to win the People’s Choice Award? Sun-Woong Bang’s Unexpected Linkage robot figure made of 3D printable polyamide, alcohol ink, acrylic paint and sterling silver is funny. Maybe that’s why it was the winner of the Jewellery Encouragement Award. Commenting on the ceramic work of Kenny Pittock’s All My Eggs in One Basket, Celeste tells me that he also has an amusing blog.
Personally it seems like work for me to narrow down a list of quality work to a single work and the chance to win a $100 voucher at the Craft Shop wasn’t an incentive. Given that you can ‘vote’ as often as you like, it seems more like a free lottery than a popular choice.
There are a variety of galleries along Flinders Lane; if you want to see a variety of different types of galleries then walking down this lane is an education. These types of galleries vary on the way they select the art and are funded. Most of the galleries, look similar, white walled rooms in converted buildings. Only the powerful Anna Schwartz Gallery is in a contemporary purpose-built building.
When visiting the galleries on Flinders Lane I like to get out at Parliament Station and start with Craft Victoria because this means that I will be walking downhill rather than uphill. Craft Victoria’s exhibitions are regularly amongst the better contemporary art exhibitions that I see. Craft Victoria is a government funded gallery; it is funded by all three levels of government, federal, state and local along with corporate sponsorship and membership of the professional craft association. It also has a gift shop with a fine selection of high quality local craft products.
45 Downstairs is a not-for-profit theatre and gallery space that was founded by Mary Lou Jelbart and Julian Burnside in 2002. Exhibitions are by application and it is funded by rental of the space and donations.
Mailbox Art Space is an artist run space is a series of mailboxes that have been converted into one of Melbourne’s smallest art spaces. Exhibitions are based on an application and it costs nothing to exhibit.
There is also community access gallery on one wall of the upper floor of the City Library. Exhibitions are based on an application by “artists in the early stages of a professional art career”. It costs $800 to exhibit in the gallery for the month, substantially lower than other far less attractive rental spaces in Melbourne, as the costs of the space are mostly funded by the City of Melbourne.
The majority of galleries in Flinders Lane both historically and currently are commercial galleries, like Arc One, Anna Schwartz and Flinders Lane Gallery. These galleries select their artists from a stable of artists that the gallery represents. Flinders Lane Gallery opened in 1989 and is the oldest of the exiting galleries on the lane. It represents “emerging, mid-career and Indigenous Australian artists”.
When I last walked along Flinders Lane last weekend Arc One and Flinders Lane Gallery were both having shows from their stockroom, group shows of the artists that they represent. It is always interesting to see a commercial gallery’s stockroom for the same reason that a stockroom show is interesting. Australian Galleries used to have a whole building in Collingwood devoted to their stockroom but it has now closed. In contemporary galleries a stockroom may not be a drab utilitarian store room, Fehily Contemporary has an attractive upstair’s ‘stockroom’ that would put to shame many people’s lounge rooms.
Walking between the art galleries on Flinders Lane and thinking about the uncanny nature of a thing that looks like another thing but is made out of completely different material. This uncanny illusion is a trick that many artists use, along with lots of other people from cake decorators to topiary gardeners. Illusions are only one trick and a good artist will use more than one trick. (Who wants a one trick pony?) Two exhibitions had spurred these thoughts.
Carly Fischer, Kangaroo Sign, 2014
Carly Fischer’s five installations, Magic Dirt in Gallery 1 of Craft Victoria look like arrangements of rubbish. But are all made from paper and foam core, even the plastic bags and barbed wire. The illusion is even more uncanny because paper is such a familiar material. However, the magic of the illusion is only part of the magic of this installation. Fischer reflects on Australia as an enormous rubbish dump; the outback is littered with empty cans, hubcaps and empty bags. The irony of the reuse and recycle labels on this packaging. Fischer reflects on the way that we arrange our detritus and the primitive magical thinking behind the piercing a KFC pack with sticks or the bullet holes in the kangaroo sign.
Peter Daverington’s exhibition Because Painting at Arc One is about illusions in paint. Daverington reflects on the tradition of these artistic illusion with references to illusionistic art in Western painting from the Bosch through to op-art. Geometric exploding planes combine with the baroque over the top drama of the illusions. Daverington is also interested in where the illusion breaks down on the edge of the canvas, where it becomes drips, scraped back or great spreads of solidified paint.
Because Painting is a home coming exhibition for Daverington who is Melbourne-born but now based in New York.
Troy Emery’s exhibition “from far away” at Craft Victoria reminded me that taxidermy and contemporary art are currently very close at least in Melbourne. Not that Emery uses any real animals in his work – he creates unreal animals. Troy Emery covers high density foam taxidermy mannequin with a rainbow of polyester pom poms, or in the case of from far away, a small dog form covered in rayon tassels. From far away is the star of the show, although the bear is bigger. There are some good visual gags in his work, the small dog, Listening, a reference to the dog on the label of His Masters Voice (HMV). (You can see the taxidermy art of Troy Emery on Art Nation on the ABC.)
As if I needed reminding that taxidermy and Melbourne contemporary art are currently very close after visiting “Melbourne Now” at the NGV. Greeting visitors on the stairs is the automated waving taxidermy cat by Greatest Hits collective, Untitled 2012.
Julia de Villa’s installation, Degustation at Melbourne Now is over the top and great. There is so much detail, the inlayed red glittering ‘blood’ on the cutlery; her jewellery studies at RMIT proving useful. The baroque paintings on the walls of the room emphasis the baroque sense of popularism, sensationalism and spectacle in de Villa’s art. I spent sometime in there sketching and looking at the layout of Degustation – making use of the elegant sketching materials provided by the NGV.
I could include Natalie Ryan’s flock covered taxidermy mannequins and Marion Drews’s haunting photography of roadkill into this survey. I keep on thinking about why taxidermy is big at the moment. Not forgetting that there is a big difference between the gothic splendour and horror of de Villa’s taxidermy of real baby animals and Emery’s or Ryan’s entirely fake use of taxidermy mannequins.
There is something kitsch or corny or sentimental about most taxidermy; these are aesthetics that modernism eschewed but are now being explored again. Taxidermy is from another time, a recent but largely forgotten past when hunting was admired, before Bambi, The Deer Hunter and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I have done some taxidermy in my time; in the mid-1970s I went on a tour of the Zimmerman taxidermy factory in Nairobi Kenya. Zimmerman’s was huge, they would taxidermy anything, including elephants. The smell of the tanning animal hides was truly obnoxious (I am not surprise that Julia de Villa is a vegan). For me the smell was tempered with the revelation that they were making clay models to cast forms for insides of the animals. (For more on Zimmerman Ltd see Nairobi’s The Daily Nation.)
Is ‘mannequin’ really the right word given that these are animal forms?
P.S. The mix of taxidermy and contemporary is not just a Melbourne phenomena there is the British artists Polly Morgan and Tessa Farmer, works mostly with dead insects but may be some taxidermy amongst her work. In 2010 the Museum of Art and Design in NYC had an exhibition: ”Dead or Alive- Nature becomes Art” that featured over 30 artists who used organic material in the art; feathers, bones, silkworm cocoons, plant materials, and hair. It did include some taxidermy art with American artist, Keith W. Bentley’s Cauda Equina, 1995-2007 but there was more work with animal and bird skeletons in the exhibition. (Thanks Tanya)
You would expect to find some connections between a random selection of current exhibitions on in Melbourne. One would hope to make connections that reveal something of the zeitgeist. One exhibition could just be the idiosyncratic interests of an individual artist – I did not expect to see 9 artists in two different galleries working with plastic vegetation to be one of those connections.
The plastic foliage, flowers and vegetables are the undead, the eternal zombie version of natural vegetation. I feel that I keep repeating, but the fact won’t go away, that plastic will last for thousands of years longer than the oil paintings that I saw. Beauty may be eternal but plastic lasts longer.
At Craft Victoria eight local jewelers create “unnatural Acts” spectacularly curated by Lauren Simeoni and Melinda Young. The “unnatural Acts” are jewellery made from artificial plants. There are bell jars, petri dishes and other scientific looking equipment on a trestle table in the gallery. On the wall a spectrum of necklaces move from green to deep red. The unnatural media of plastic foliage was escaping into cracks in the whitewashed bricks on the gallery wall.
And at Mailbox 141 Sarina Lirosi’s exhibition “Forevermore” each of the mailboxes contained a plastic flower taken from “the grave of people I knew.” The plastic flowers are daubed with varnish and sparkles to capture the light.
It is not that plastic vegetation was the only connection that I saw on my visits to galleries this week – artists should not throw out their paints. There were some powerful exhibitions of paintings at fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane Gallery and Arc.
I enjoyed seeing Graeme Altmann’s exhibition “Coastal Boy” at Fortyfivedownstairs. Altmann’s paintings are good but his model boats are fantastic. These research and industrial boats are not beautiful; they are made from found materials, brass and metal parts. Pulleys, cranes, funnels and other equipment fill their decks and hang from their sides. They reminded my of Hieronymus Bosch’s ship of fools. Altmann’s oil paintings range from atmospheric to surreal costal landscapes; his painting “Before we got there” was a powerful image of light, water, rocks and space.
Flinders Lane Gallery had the urban landscapes of Garry Pumfrey “Obres Noves” depicting Barcelona. The old city of Barcelona, like Melbourne, is known for its winding lane ways, back street bars and street art. Pumfrey’s paintings would be timeless except for the presence of graffiti, the pair of runners hanging on the telephone line.
Arc One had “Fallen Light 2012” paintings by notable, Sydney-based artist Robert Owen is old school abstract painting but deals like all of the paintings in the optics of light and dark. The exhibition in Arc One looks like a hard edge geometric version of Rothko’s chapel. The series of paintings is connected, at least in title, to Owen’s work at the new Hamer Hall. I wonder how the individual paintings would look as the effect of the exhibition is created by the connections between the paintings.