Tag Archives: Melbourne

Faces – the survival of street sculpture

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.


Street art 2019

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.


Under the influence

“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

Keith Haring Untitled 1983 © Keith Haring Foundation

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.

Keith Haring Untitled 1982 © Keith Haring Foundation

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.

Civil, detail of mural, Brunswick

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.)


Haring/Basquiat @ NGV

“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.

Recreation of Haring’s waterwall painting from 1984

“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.

detail of street work featuring both Haring and Basquiat

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)

Exhibition wall with the door from the Collingwood Tech

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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.


Croft Alley Culture

As I entered Paynes Place I could hear women’s voices and the familiar sound of an aerosol spray-can being shaken. Paynes Place off Little Bourke Street in Chinatown is opposite an empty lot with a massive mural. You turn a corner and at the end Paynes Place is Croft Alley. The laneway off is an attractive and discreet location, covered in graffiti and street art with a bar at the far end.

Around the corner in Paynes Place there were about five young Moslem women sitting around on the ground smoking cigarettes (one was lucky enough to have a milk crate to sit on).

Around the next corner, into Croft Alley, there was a thirty-something Asian guy with half a dozen cans of quality aerosol paint sitting beside his backpack. He had just started spraying a couple of lines of an outline for his piece. (I am commenting on people’s age, ethnicity and religion because I want to emphasise the diversity.)

“Keep on painting.” I said as I passed him in the narrow lane.

I looked around at the work in the lane, looking at the mix of old and new work. The area was comprehensively painted in the Croft Alley Project in 2009. (See my original post.) High up on the walls there is a layer of old work from 2009 but the rest is all fresh and new. There are more paste-ups by Mr Dimples, recently I’ve been seeing his cute monster paste-ups in many places around the city.

As I was making my way back past the graff writer with the can. A red and blond haired “working family” (as Kevin Rudd use to endlessly repeat) from the outer suburbs came around the corner into the lane. Cool parents to know about Croft Alley and show their kids some quality graffiti. 

I write about the graffiti and street art because it is remarkable to have a mass visual art movement. It is a cultural shift for so many people to be involved in a locally produced cultural activity, that doesn’t involve gambling and that isn’t advertised. It is a cultural shift for kids to be interested in an adult visual culture that (unlike cinema and tv) is local, progressive and they can participate in.

It is the way that it creates a place that people want to visit out of a service lane;  “placemaking” as the architects and urban planners call it. And the anarchic, egotistic altruism of this unauthorised placemaking; the individual empowerment to make their mark on the urban environment, both in collaboration and in competition with others.

It is this cultural vibrancy that interests me far more than the popularity of any of its artists and writers, how much some rich fool might pay for the work of some popular artist, or even, the aesthetics or meaning of any of the work in the lane.


A Scandal in Bohemia

In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.

Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.

Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.

Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.

It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.

Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.

Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)


More than a kick

I couldn’t miss the Terrance Plowright sculpture, More than a kick, in Federation Square. Larger than life, high-kicking the bronze statue is sculptural version of Michael Willson’s photograph of Carlton AFLW player Tayla Harris.

Terrance Plowright, More than a kick

The sculptor, Plowright is from NSW and has made a large number of figurative public sculptures for places in that state but this is his first for Melbourne.

Federation Square will not be the permanent location for the statute — it will be there for a few weeks before being permanently installed (plonked, that’s a technical term for putting a sculpture somewhere that it wasn’t specifically made for) probably out the front of some football ground. Someone who knows more about football (most of Melbourne) will have more of an idea of which football ground.

There are several reasons why it is unlikely to be the MCG. Plowright is not one of the sculptors who are regularly commissioned to sculpt the larger than life statues of sporting heroes at the MCG, Louis Laumen and Julie Squires. His style is realistic, rougher than the highly polished figures around the MCG. Nor is the sculpture’s sponsor (NAB) the usual sponsor (Telstra) for the sports statues at the MCG.

A lot of people love statues of sports heroes but I don’t; it is too archaic a reason for a sculpture. Their active poses ultimately goes no-where, remaining static, on a pedestal, in memoriam.

As a temporary location for statues Federation Square sometimes works and sometime fails. It works because it is central location and a lot of people visit and it often doesn’t work because there is so much else going on there. In another part of the square, some edition of the Fearless Girl stands in front of the entrance to a bar.

One of the few points in favour of both of these statues is that they redresses Melbourne’s statue gender in-balance. (See my blog post Statues of women and women sculptors.)


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