Instead of going out paint-spotting today; photographing graffiti and street art around the city I am staying home. I have been cleaning up my photo collection of graffiti and street art. The photos need to be named, tagged, filed. In the process I saw my photos of Hosier Lane and, the then adjoining, Rutledge Lane from a decade ago in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Hosier Lane was not created so that people could sell product or attract tourists. It was a place for graffiti writers and street artists, where they could spray in the centre of city. Not that those original intentions mean anything in what it has become. So here is a photo-essay about Hosier Lane from over a decade ago when there were a lot less tourists and a bit more respect for the art.
On Friday I went into Melbourne to see some exhibitions and street art. With increasing isolation looming, firstly due to the closure of my train line for Sky Rail construction, and the prospect of further isolation due to the pandemic, it might be my last chance to see some exhibitions for a few months.
A walk along Flinders Lane leads to less galleries than it did a decade ago.
Arc One had an exhibition of furniture made of leather part of Melbourne Design Week 2020, it was more like a shop than a gallery. It was “Partu” (the Walmajarri word for skin) by Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen. Most of the pieces looked awkward and you could see the steel armature underneath the leathery contortions.
Fortyfive Downstairs had “Between Horizons” haunting sculptures in the shape of boats by Jan Learmonth and, “Microcosmographia” a group exhibition about animals.
Turning off Flinders Lane I walked down Hosier Lane and although it was less crowded without the Chinese tourists, I was surprised at how many people were still there. I was looking for the aftermath of the great fire-extinguisher spray performance event. You could still see it, high up on the walls, if you knew what to look for and where to look for it. Most of it has been repainted. Local writers are keen to inform the public about the effect that the shop, Culture Kings, is having on the lane’s culture. Culture Kings are the main offender but there are other advertisers with stencils who were exploiting the traffic in the lane. Everything is not a platform to advertise your product; there are more important things.
My main objective was to see the “Japanese Modernism” exhibition at the NGV International and but while I was at there I looked at the art book fair, an up-market and quality zine fair for people who love book design.
“Japanese Modernism” is not a large exhibition, just a large room, with men’s fashion on one side and women’s fashion on the other side. It is mostly design, rather than art, with some great examples of ephemera in the form tourist maps, magazines, make-up and music scores for the popular modern instruments harmonica and ukulele.
There was no shock of the new for Japan as the land already shaken by the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. And Japan adopted modernism with a confidence born from the fact that modernism was always a syncretic mix that included Japanese and European elements.
“I can draw anything you like. 10 min $15 draw” His sign said. In Hosier Lane yesterday there were two people occupying two of the alcoves selling their drawings. The next step will be for a caricature artist set up a stall to sell portraits to the tourists in the lane.
I am not going to be hysterical and apocalyptic and declare that this is end of Hosier Lane when there are so many more clear indications of doom in the world (the climate catastrophe). There has always been a commercial aspect to the paint in Hosier Lane; graffiti writers and street artists have all these commercial projects — t-shirts, leading walking tours, exhibitions and commissions. And a few metres up the lane, the shop Culture Kings has made a massive hole in the lanes famous walls to provide access for buyers of their shit.
That said, an attractive piece of commercial art was being painted opposite the entrance to Hosier Lane on Flinders Lane. George Rose was just finishing an attractive mural commission celebrating the Lunar New Year.
Although the lane was, as usual for a weekday, full of tourists, the walls were not looking their best. There was a lot of text in marker pen written across many of the pieces by someone who thought that they had unique insight (it happens). There is a lot of bland work about current events. Many of pieces with an @Instagram rather than a tag showing that their creators are focused on getting ‘likes’ above everything else. A couple of relevant political pieces struggled to find space on the walls. The tourists didn’t care as they were focused on taking selfies of themselves in front of the paint covered walls.
I was pleased to see what I took for the work of an Indigenous street artist in the lane as I don’t see enough of this. Reclaiming their country and culture by painting walls. Dot painting with dots of aerosol paint.
If you want to see more whoring for Instagram ‘likes’ there are Lush’s work in Higson Lane a few corners further up Flinders Lane. About half a dozen huge celebrity faces randomly exploiting the popularity of anyone from Baby Yoda to Julian Assange.
Working in a different direction is the increasing street art in Presgrave Place. This started in 2007 when was a couple of picture frames with art prints still in them glued onto the wall of this circuitous lane. The picture frames are still glued to the wall but the quantity of art keeps growing focused on the creativity of art rather than aerosol of popularity.
A face emerges from or sinks into the aerosol paint covered walls. A person merging with the structure of the city, a skeleton of metal, a body of bricks and concrete and a skin of paint. Features register underneath the layers of paint, the hint of a smile. There are more faces on the wall… It is the same face? Is it a portrait?
Street art sculpture still interest me on because it is such a difficult medium. The sculpture has to survive the conditions on the street. Public sculpture criticism needs to be modified by a difficulty rating. Just as the aesthetics of sculpture is modified by a difficulty rating for moving large pieces of metal or stone around, public sculpture has the additional difficulty rating for being exposed to drunks and dickheads. And street art sculpture has the added difficulty multiplier for being done without permission.
The sculptures survive under multiple layers of paint. In graffiti intense environment, like Melbourne’s Hosier Lane, a street art sculpture will need to still work underneath aerosol paint.
There are a cluster of Will Coles crushed cans at the entrance of Rutledge Lane (now a stub off Hosier Lane blocked at both ends by building work). Further along there on a ledge are the vandalised remains of a Will Coles sculptures that someone broke trying to steal it. Nearby are cast sea shells, the faces and pieces with raised lettering. I suspect, because of a couple of tags in raised letters, that the raised letters could be the work of Anthony Lister except the letter style is different.
I have no idea who did the faces. There are many other similar works, like Mary Rogers cast faces for a footbridge in Moreland. They are also similar the work of the French artist Gregos but it is not his face and therefore not his work.
Having a particular focus on street art sculpture and don’t feel compelled to photograph every piece of street art that I see. My photography teacher always emphasised being focused.
Walking around my neighbourhood, Coburg, one of Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, I am seeing all these augmented street signs. I’ve seen the NO STANDING “but squatting…” text in several places around Coburg and Brunswick. Is this a trend or is it the same prolific person?
Thinking that street art was much the same this year as previous years; same artists, same locations, same styles. Although a well executed graffiti piece or a good stencil will still interest me I am not enough of a fan boy to want to rush to photograph a fresh wall.
I certainly haven’t written as many blog posts about street art this year. This is because what I want is something new to write about, a new style, a new technique; but that’s just what I want, what people want from Stormie Mills or Adnate is more of the same. I did get to see some new styles this year. The super-flat work of Seam and Rashe and the Indigenous inspired graff of LSDesigns.
What will still make me turn my head on the street is a collection of stickers; even though you can’t tell from many stickers if it is a street artist, graffiti artist (although the handwritten tag on the “hello my name is” sticker is one sign), a band (post-punk group Pinch Points have a very interesting choice of sticker location around Coburg) or advertising a dog walking business. Maybe this variety of purposes is one reason that I keep looking.
I am interested in more than wall; the street is the paradigm of communication and variety. Street art of all sizes from the murals the size of a five story wall to the smallest sticker. The stuff scratched on the concrete footpaths to the aerosol art.
Walking around my neighbourhood I am pleased to see a couple of pieces by Discarded amongst some guerrilla gardening. Discarded makes figures assembled from ceramic casts of discarded rubbish. I don’t know if these are new or if they have been there for years and I have just found them. Perhaps it is the process of discovery that interests me more than the art itself? Perhaps it is the walk rather than the destination.
“His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…” William Burroughs Naked Lunch
Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were influenced by William Burroughs; their shared interest in semiotics and proximity in the NYC art scene made it almost inevitable that they would meet. Haring was a friend of Burroughs, the invite-Keith-around-to-dinner-kind of friend and collaborate on a couple of books, as opposed to a ‘Facebook friend’. So Burroughs influence on Haring is extensive from Haring’s distinctive hieroglyphic iconography to his, not well known, cut up collages and performance poetry.
‘Lick Fat Boys’ by Haring owes much to works, in film and audio, by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, e.g. “Recalling All Active Agents” In these works words are rearranged and reordered to create new meanings. Haring’s cut-up collages of text and images look very similar to Burroughs’s pages of cut-ups with collage elements.
“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV documents this influence; including a list of people from Basquiat with Burroughs along with Prince, David Lynch and Godard (Burroughs is misspelt ‘Burrows’).
Although the exhibition documents Burroughs influence it then ignores it continuing to ignore it when it comes to interpreting the work. It describes the personal computer headed centipedes in Haring’s paintings as “caterpillars”. It is not a correct description for several reasons. Centipedes are used in many of Burroughs’s novels including Naked Lunch as a symbol of self-centred evil whereas caterpillars are not used as symbols of evil in anyone’s iconography. Centipedes are distinguished by having one set of legs for each segment of body, which is what is shown in Haring’s images even though they and all species of centipede don’t have a hundred legs. Finally, caterpillars don’t walk, they crawl, grasping on with their prolegs to pull their body forward until it arches; an iconic movement not depicted by Haring.
Haring and Basquiat had an influence on Australian art, especially its street art. The walls that Haring painted are still visible in Melbourne (see my blog post). His simple style of line drawn figures is not inimitable but few do. There is only a couple of Melbourne street artist openly and obviously influenced by Haring – Ero and Civil. Although the influence of Haring, in particular his dogs, on the iconography of clothing manufacturer Mambo has yet to be fully explored; the first appearance of the Mambo’s farting dog occurred in 1984 the same year that Haring visited Australia.
The influence of Basquiat’s visual style is even wider and more varied; from the work of street-artists from Anthony Lister to many contemporary/non-street artists.
How important is influence? Influence has so often been seen as a positive attribute however each iteration of this style weakens the effect, until it becomes bland and ordinary.
This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. To read the first post. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs.)
“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International is the world premiere exhibition bringing together two NYC artists from the 1980s. There are deeper connections than being in the same city, at the same time (both were raised Catholic and identified as men): both were known their work on the streets and for their drawn lines. Both are great artists who knew each other, drew each other, collaborated with each other. And yet are very different people and artists.
“Crossing Lines” is a large exhibition with over 200 works by the two artists along with many documents, photographs and any other things that explain the NYC art scene that they inhabited. There are important major paintings from both artists are shown but it the early work that exhibition excels (at the same time causing it to jump around both artist’s short lives). For two artists with tragically short lives the exhibition does jump around in time a bit getting work to fit into themes.
It was great to see some very early work from off the street, including a panel where they both added their already iconic images: Haring’s dog and baby and Basquiat’s crown. There are more street art collaborations with Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy and LAII.
It is a big exhibition for artists two artists with limited iconographies but there is more variety that I expected. To accompany this variety there is a great variety of exhibition spaces, along with large and small, there is music and silence and types of light (the UV light room with fluorescent colours). It is an exhibition that I could dance to. What to do with the long corridors that connects the galleries is always a problem for the NGV curators but this time they make it work with videos and enlarged photos.
A small local complaint that there was no any mention of a Haring visit to Melbourne in 1984 and that his work is still on its walls. (See my blog post.) The stolen, and later returned, door with his iconic radiant baby from the wall of the Collingwood Tech was on exhibition but without any explanation.
I had a lot of fun at the exhibition and it has given me a lot to think about, bringing together thoughts that have been going around in my brain since the 1980s. So I will be writing a series of posts about it: under the influence. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs)
What ever happened to the idea of the neo-renaissance artist in the 1970s and 80s? The artist who worked across media a diverse as paint and film, music and fashion. It wasn’t just Haring and Basquiat who worked in art, fashion and music. There were multiple versions of this idea, the prime example being Andy Warhol as photographer, film maker and the Velvet Underground’s producer.
It is about a way of life rather than a professional approach. A hiphop/punk utopia with the total merger of art, politics and life; painting in the afternoon and spinning records at night. This diversity of practice is so different from many current contemporary artists who are often focused on a single media and subject.