Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.
The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’.
Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.
Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.
Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.
In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3) “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.
A dozen surreal installations tell a history of Australian women. “Heroines in Petticoats” by Kelly Sullivan, Kirsti Lenthall (Empire of Stuff), Gigi Gordes and Liz Sonntag (Tinky) is an engaging and accessible exhibition that has a coherent and relevant theme.
The height and depth of the dozen vitrines in the pink tiled Campbell Arcade, the Degraves Street underpass to Flinders Street Station has been used to great effect. Too often the Dirty Dozen has been occupied by art students who have alienated the general public, forgetting or ignoring that this space is very public at Melbourne’s central metropolitan railway station. There were several people paying close attention to it when I saw it around midday on Thursday.
The vitrines create a timeline of the lives of Australian women from the colonial era to the present. The heroines of this timeline are not specific women, heroines to represent an era but women in a general non-specific way. This absence of specificity meant that the artists tended to represent white suburban women.
As well as, the timeline there were specific causes associated with specific eras from the anti-conscription movement of the 1910s to the domestic murder rate of today. There was no mention of the temperance movement, as it was a women powered movement, but it is not longer seen as righteous.
Although each of the cases is labelled as the work of specific artists there is a coherent look to the whole exhibition. There are differences Kelly Sullivan’s collage, Kirsti Lenthall’s ceramic decals on plates and impressively on quartz rocks, or Gigi Gordes’s disembodied body parts; hands typing, the eyes on the glasses, mouth on the mug, mouth on the phone (I don’t know why the objects are covered in crochet) and, a few cabinets later, the hands on a glass of wine.
It was Tinky’s work that drew my attention to the exhibition as I know Gigi and Tinky’s art from the street. However, Tinky’s puns were the weakest elements of the exhibition. Written on paper and the little titles didn’t match the style of the rest. Unfortunately her puns give meaning to her tableaus and without them they would just be some odd HO scale model train figures.
I want to write about the aesthetics of walls; the supports for the advertising, graffiti, street art, decay and accidental marks in the city. Something about the dirty mix of dividers, partitions and supports that we see all the time, that defines the city but we don’t usually focus on.
What brought the city’s walls into focus for me was a copy of a wall on a wall in the CBD. On a brick wall in the city someone had added cast a section of bricks; I guess it was done by an art student who had read some Baudrillard. It had then been reattached to the matched section of the wall. This simulation was an elegant minimal celebration of a plain brick wall for what it is.
Consider some other walls and surfaces, not just for their suitability as a surface for applying aerosol paint, or glue. In Union Lane some paint had come off a wall in a big acrylic sheet about the size of my hand. It revealed the layers of different coloured aerosol paint was almost half a centimetre thick. Some Melbourne walking tour guides will tear off a bit of peeling paint to show visitors the archeology of Melbourne’s graffiti.
Like the accretion of staples, nails and screws on wooden power-poles, all that remains of posters for lost cats, garage sales and other signs.
The advertising posters at Flinders Street Station, torn off because their contracted time is up, compared to the “décollage” of Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé in France in 1949. The duo exhibited layers of torn advertising posters that they had ripped from the streets as works of art.
The contested values of buffing and art appreciation where selected street art pieces are painted around. Or where graffiti writers leave space to preserve ghost-signs, the old hand-painted advertisements by professional sign-writers.
They make you wonder what forces are operating on the wall. Are they intentional? Or accidental? Or the inevitable entropy of a plumber putting a pipe through a Banksy rat on a wall in Prahran.
“I like this guy!” One of the three blonde girls declared pointing at a piece by Facter. All of the girls were wearing tiny denim shorts and overall less cloth than next two people in Hosier Lane but I won’t discount their opinion for lack of clothing. I was more amazed that they liked Facter.
Facter is an old hand in Melbourne’s street art scene and amongst the most important people in the scene. He grew up with the tiny Perth graffiti scene in the 1980s (when you couldn’t spellcheck your tags). He is a nice guy and more of a writer than a graff writer; he is the editor in chief of Invurt. He is more significant as an advocate, curator and organiser, then for his painting on the street.
Facter’s pieces are robotic segmented creatures that exist somewhere between street art and aerosol graffiti; the letter form of graffiti replaced by the outline of the creature but most of the traditional aerosol elements of a piece are still there. There is a childish joy in the bright colours in his pieces and shapes. Facter also makes designer toys in this style.
That day I was exploring the Melbourne grid and although I have been doing that for years there are still parts that I haven’t seen. Hoping that just down this lane will find something beautiful or surprising. Sometimes I do but more often it will be more construction, workers smoking out or a van being unloaded. I didn’t find anything that day; last week I found Baptist Place and the work of the Night Krawler but I can’t expect to do that every time so I went back to some of the major street art locations.
That day I had already seen a couple of pieces by Facter; there were two in Croft Alley in Chinatown. Croft Alley still has plenty of fresh graffiti pieces in it, only it is so narrow that there are only a couple of walls that are easily photographed.
In Hosier Lane there was more political pieces reflecting the current political issues: the students strike against climate change inaction and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is so political that Van Rudd has a prominent section of wall for his brush painted mural. I’ve forgotten who said that street art had lost its political edge.
It did require a conscious decision on my part not to change my habits and walk a different way through the city. It required minimal effort but surprising results because it led me to Baptist Place and the stencils of the Night Krawler.
I can’t believe that I haven’t been to Baptist Place before but it seems I haven’t. Baptist Place runs off Little Collins Street.
There are little lanes that I’ve never been in, right in the centre of Melbourne. I am almost three years behind the times, so don’t look to me for recent information. I can date this because I have only learnt about the Night Krawler, a stencil artist who has been working around the inner city since late 2016. At least according to the knowledgable Toby of ‘all those shapes’. (Cheers, Matthew W for your help.)
I had seen Night Krawler’s cat stencils before, but these were different. “Contra toda autoridad excepto mi mama” (against all authority, except for my mum). The headless hoodie kid with his halo of razor wire was almost buffed away, so that only a ghostly image remained under the paint.
Other works were spaced down the walls of Baptist Place with a sense of narrative, like panels in a comic about a Latin-American magical-realism with cats.
Stencils were once a major feature of Melbourne’s street art. They were the talk of the streets for the first decade of this century. Max GPS, Night Krawler, N20, Sunfigo, Drasko and others are keeping the technique going on the streets. The internationally infamous, Max GPS had done a large piece in Union Lane, off the Bourke Street Mall.
It is hard to credit all the stencil artists because they often don’t tag their work. I can understand why Night Krawler deserves credit but who would want to be held responsible for some of these atrocious puns?
There are two exhibitions at Fortyfive Downstairs by Marco Luccio: “New York Postcards” in the main gallery and “Immaginario” in the small gallery. It is difficult for one artist to fill the enormous space at Fortyfive Downstairs (I don’t think that I’ve seen a single artist do that before) with work of a consistent quality. This is especially impressive given that most the art in these two exhibition are small works that would each look good by themselves in a someone’s home.
Marco Luccio uses a variety of printing techniques. In “Immaginario” he uses monotypes to create fantastic miniature landscapes, very much in the tradition of Max Ernst’s Surrealist decalcomania landscapes. In his “New York Postcards” Luccio mixes rubber stamps and etching with other mixed media using antique postcards both as a support and an “impedimento”.
However, this “impedimento” on the post-cards, the printing, stamps, postmarks, and ink handwriting is largely ignored. The function of the postcard has been removed by making them art. Likewise the connection between NYC postcards, Luccio’s the neo-classical drawing style with the heavy lines, horses, and bodies appears arbitrary.
In an artist’s statement in video form Luccio refers to the postcards as “artefacts”; as they were antiques I wanted to know the source of the postcard, how were they acquired. Three vitirines offered clues about their construction; filled with materials and old albums of postcards they showed some of the process of their creation.
Although Luccio knows art history, he shows photographs of himself sketching in the Metropolitan Museum, he appears to be unaware of the mail art movement. One of the largest (by number of participants) art movements of the twentieth century, mail art, also known as the “New York Correspondence School”. It used the postal system both to distribute art and play with, as in Ben Vautier’s postcard The Postman’s Choice (1965) with a place for a stamp and address on both sides.
I was intrigued by the poster advertising for this exhibition because it reached Coburg.
I have been reporting on Melbourne’s street art and graffiti in this blog for over a decade. What has changed? And what did I get completely wrong? The largest and most obvious change is that the walls have got larger until they were the size of grain silos.
It has been a decade of adjusting tensions between local city councils and the people who create art on their streets. There are now a lot more legal walls, in 2009 they were not as common as there are now. Businesses were far ahead of local councils in this regard because they didn’t have to negotiate with people with an ideological commitment to be against graffiti they just looked at their triple bottom line.
In 2009 as graffiti and street art grew in popularity anti-graffiti legislation was a draconian punitive response; instead of fines, jail terms. Consequently many graffiti and street art events, like the Croft Alley Project, had a specific political agenda.
Melbourne still doesn’t have a street art centre and specialist street art galleries have not survived. I was completely wrong about this, While some people imagined a centre at Docklands, many people objected to having any institution, even a festival like the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2009. In other cities street art centres have been created without the dire consequences that the nay sayer predicted.
Street art was always welcome by art galleries and a mainstream art career was always a clear path a decade ago as it is now. I don’t know why I thought that a parallel gallery system might emerge.
A decade ago there was more of a need to place street art within a historic context (or was that just me?) to prove that it was connected with art history and a continuing tradition of graffiti. As it turned out this was irrelevant.
Although no-one is talking about doing street art with living moss anymore much has stayed the same. Many of the same artists are still putting work up in the street. In 2009 I saw my one of the first Junky Projects on a side street in Fitzroy.