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The Australian Ugliness

Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness was first published in 1960. It is mostly a complaint about Australian suburban taste and its insecurities. It is an angry rave against ‘featurism’; Boyd’s word of complaint about the myopic focus on features without an overall aesthetic consideration or design. Basically is a rejection of the previous generation’s love of decoration and patterns, as well as, a rejection of the superficial modernism that Boyd identified as American.

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

Victorian Artists Society – Romanesque Revival building

Parts of the book are still, unfortunately, a very accurate description of Australia, even prescient in spite of being written fifty-five years ago. Boyd’s critical view of Australian culture is accurate and psychologically astute from arborphobia to insecurity, however he appears psychologically inept, telling an insecure population that they are unable to produce good design because they are too insecure. But then, much of late modernism was appears totally psychologically inept imaging that everyone would adopt their utopian vision.

Some of what Boyd was writing about has been, in part, rectified particularly with the planting of trees in the suburbs and better urban design. Although not by his snobbish dislike for American culture that has perniciously grown in Australia. Australian arborphobia has some practical reasons with many eucalypts shedding not just leaves and bark but whole branches making many Australian trees unsuitable for a city.

Cherry picking evidence to support his claims Boyd fails to mention the first ‘garden suburb’ was built in Australia. In 1901 the Garden Suburb Movement established  Haberfield in Sydney. It was Australia’s first planned model suburb with no lanes, no pubs and Edwardian homes with height limits. (See Art and Architecture.)

Many architects and designers, along with Boyd have dreamed of a unified aesthetic but he stumbles at the first hurdle. How to adapt, rather than simply replace, the entire history of European architecture in Australia. Boyd is a modernist hoping that “…gradually, the family itself would become the designers of its own pattern of standardised units, as suggested by Walter Gropius.” (p.137) However, he is practical enough to realise that know that there are not enough designers and architects to complete his vision.

Boyd and other architects who write about aesthetics are like astrophysicists writing metaphysics, both are only playing at philosophy. Playing in that they have no training or experience, imagining that it is as easy as they think. Boyd has an underlying belief in “universal” objective aesthetics of design. When he finally gets around to trying to define ugliness (p.235) we quickly find that featurism doesn’t fit his definition, announcing on that “if beauty were all there is to architecture, Featurism would be enough.” (p.239)

Boyd’s ugliness is not what I think of Australian ugliness? In contemporary architectural design the pastiche of patterns and textures has returned to feature in both suburban homes and urban tower blocks. Some of Boyd’s ugliness is simply a difference in taste. For me the Australian ugliness is the empty, run down waste-land, a pattern of aboriginal genocide, detention camps and environmental destruction on an industrial scale that leaves the land denuded of any natural features, exploited and abandoned like the mullock heaps of the former goldfields.

Although Boyd believes that aesthetics and good design is independent of culture, politics, and the beliefs of the population because he believes that it is objectively good. It is Australian politics that planned and created the vast suburbs that Boyd dislikes, it is the politics of inequality, the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment that created the Australian love of features.

The Australian ugliness is more than just skin deep as Robin Boyd claimed, it goes, if I can continue anthropomorphising the amorphous entity known as Australia, to its heart and soul. Boyd knew this, his contempt for the White Australia policy and the treatment of Aborigines is clear throughout his book.

All quotes from Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (Text Publishing, 2010 Melbourne)

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Phillips & Palonen @ Counihan Gallery

There is a double bill exhibition on in the Counihan’s flexible space: Kristen Phillips “Whatnotes, Haves and Havenots” and Valentina Palonen “Shape Shifter”.

Kristen Phillips’ “Whatnotes, Haves and Havenots” is an exhibition of small bronze sculptures. The exhibition has a 19th Century feel: the black bronze looks jewellery carved from jet or coal and the 5 red tall plant stands that act as plinths have a 19th Century form. The miniature landscapes formed from the detritus of excess, the costume jewellery, loose screws and the cheap babbles that build up in the bottom of a dresser draw. What constitutes cheap sentimental objects depends on your economic status, hence the “have and havenots” part of the exhibition title. These small detailed sculptures are meditations on the excesses of materialism. The titles reflect this excess: “Full to overflowing”, “close but no cigar”, “A few too many”. The sculptures freeze and solidify the ephemeral sentimental attachments to objects that make the bottle caps appear memorable until the morning after.

Valentina Palonen creates spectacularly ugly sculpture. Ugly is a powerful aesthetic because it can move people as much as beauty. There is neo-baroque rocco excess in Palonen’s sculpture; they verge on the obscene because of the biological fecundity or excreta implied by the shapes. When I saw her sculpture for the first time last year in an exhibition, “New Releases” at Pigment Gallery I described her art as “so funky ugly, kitsch ugly that I never felt comfortable looking at it.” Palonen has progressed in the last year, her work is still ugly, still full of expanded foam but it is more coherent, better defined, she has found new uses for expanded foam. There are attempts to make the work beautiful, the artificial flowers or the velvet ribbon but these only accentuate the ugly parts. The ideas are better articulated in this exhibition as Palonen explores the meaning of the ugly. Palonen uses the superstitious ugliness of the mandrake root, depicted with casts of mutant carrots and parsnips hung on velvet ribbons.

Valentina Palonen, parsnip effigy, 2010

Both of exhibitions were hung in a contemporary optimistic style (it is half full).


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