Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

The Suburbs in Melbourne’s Art

In Melbourne’s suburbs we still live in houses with bullnose verandahs, wooden fretwork and other Victorian architectural ornamentation built on a network of roads laid out in nineteenth century. The dream of domestic bliss was transported to the Australia, much like rabbits, foxes and other introduced species. Now the British home, like the other introduced species has gone feral creating sprawling suburbs around Melbourne and Sydney.

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember' 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember’ 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Mass suburban living was a nineteenth century invention. It’s inventors, the local councils and property developers, had very little experience of suburban life; they might have grown up in a suburb but it was very unlikely that their parents had, and highly improbably that their grandparents had. Without experience, or any other evidence, many assumptions were made about suburban life. One popular assumption about the suburbs are that they are devoid of culture and yet this is where the majority of artists now live.

Just as modernists painters strived to depict the new urban environments of the modern city, the post-modernists strive to depict the suburbs. Generations of artists have grown up in Melbourne’s suburbs and some are now countering the romantic myths of locations of creativity by depicting the suburbs in their art. How to depict the suburbs is an important question for contemporary artists. What is important in a depiction of the suburbs?

Performance artist, Michael Meneghetti told me, “My house looks exactly like a Howard Arkley painting.” Meneghetti lives in Brooklyn, the outer suburb of Melbourne and not the one in NYC. The suburbs with all their ‘featurism’ was the main complaint of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. Yet the Howard Arkley celebrates this featurism of the patchwork of patterns.

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

In Melbourne sculptor, Jason Waterhouse plays with the familiar shape of houses and by distorting the materials of suburban life. Urban intervention artist, James Voller installs photographs of suburban houses on suburban objects. And Adrian Doyle has long used the suburb as the central feature of his art.

There aren’t that many, in Melbourne. I could include Reg Mombassa’s pop-surrealist images mythologise suburban landscapes and Ian Strange’s (aka Kid Zoom) painting, film, photography, sculpture, installation and site-specific interventions involving suburban houses. Many artists must still be in denial about their suburban roots for there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia in the assumptions about suburban life.

In his recent exhibition of paintings and installations, ‘Never Forget to Remember’ at Dark Horse Experiment, Doyle returns to the pitched roof form of the suburban house. Doyle’s ‘Coin House’ consists of a basic house form made of one dollar coins on a marble slab. It is the obvious image for suburbia but does it tell the enough of the story of suburbia? Perhaps, Doyle’s patchwork of images in his paintings are better at depicting the diversity housed in the uniform buildings. His paintings of suburban existence tries to get that mix of ‘sarcastic nostalgia’ in a mix of techniques and paint. Of course, Doyle’s suburbia is a matter of nostalgia, memories and dreams because he has lived in the Melbourne’s inner city for years now.


Institutional Art Galleries in Melbourne

This continues my occasional series of posts examining the different types of galleries. For more information about other types of galleries see my post: Types of Art Galleries.

NGV Ian Potter

Institutional art galleries exhibit art without intention of sales and so are free from the usual commercial interests in the art that they exhibit. Most are funded by some level of government, although there are some institutional art galleries are run by private individuals or organisation, like the Saatchi Gallery in London or MONA in Tasmania, however Melbourne does not have any private institutional art galleries.

The purpose of institutional art galleries is far from clear. Is their purpose educational or entertainment? Is their collection representative or a treasury? The idea of an art collection is part of a tradition that extends back to a world owned and dominated by royalty. Royal Collections, rather like private house museums but on a far grander scale, the Vatican Museum and the Prado are amongst the largest of these. Although Melbourne does not have a royal collection it does have another kind of national treasury in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

There are differences in what are called ‘National Galleries’ some have encyclopaedic collections for the purpose of teaching the history of art others have collection of art by the nation. Encyclopaedic collections maybe good for the local population exposing them to art from around the world but unless they have destination art works they aren’t of great interest to tourists. What tourists, like me, who visit a lot of galleries, is to see the history of local art. National Galleries like that of Greece or Nepal, that collect and display the arts of a particular nation or other group identity. So, if I were a visitor to Melbourne I would see the NGV Australia at Federation Square in preference to NGV International.

James Cuno, in his book Museums Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011, Chicago) argues in favour of the what he calls “enlightenment museums,” the major encyclopaedic, didactic museum as if these were the only kind of institutional galleries. The enlightenment ideal of a universal gallery that combines the intention an educational feature in the structure of the gallery, for example, the NGV International. However there are more reasons for an institutional art gallery than the encyclopaedic, didactic  enlightenment museum that James Cuno believes in. Cuno has a very narrow view, see a review of Museums Matter, and his type of museum does not cover most of the institutional galleries that I regularly visit from the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick or the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne University.

There are many different types of institutional art galleries from kunsthalles, sculpture parks, house museums and community access galleries. Regional galleries need to have balance of gallery spaces for community access exhibition spaces, their permanent collection, and small touring exhibitions.

To cut through the technical language: ACCA, “Australia’s only ‘kunsthalle’” (or ‘art hall’ in English) where the focus is on commissioning and exhibiting living artists rather than collecting. And ‘community access entry exhibition spaces’ are at local libraries and in other local council run spaces.

Melbourne, so far, only has one house museum, The Johnston Collection in South Melbourne that was established as the legacy of antique dealer and collector, William Robert Jonston (1911-1986). The Nineth Edition has a review of the Johnston Collection.


The Victorian Craft Awards And why I didn’t vote in the People’s Choice.

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

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.

I suppose that I already have some biases as I’ve previously written about several of the entrants. In 2008 I reviewed Davern’s exhibitions at Craft Victoria and it was good to see her continuing this theme with three collaged broaches cut from biscuit tins in this exhibition. I mention seeing a Nicholas Bastin’s exhibition at Craft Victoria in a blog post about the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival Culture Program in 2012.  I know the work of Sarah crowEST from exhibitions at Craft Victoria and her sculpture that was part of Plinth Projects at Edinburgh Gardens in 2013. I’ve often mentioned Julia Deville’s spectacular mix of taxidermy and jewellery in this blog and I reviewed one of her solo exhibitions last year. I visited Janet Beckhouse’s studio last year and in this exhibition she has a sweet ceramic figure of Ganesha reclining.  And I saw a sculpture by Takahiko Sugawara that I’d reviewed in an exhibition in April of this year.

Janet Beckhouse, Ganesha, 2014

Janet Beckhouse, Ganesha, 2014

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.


Walking and Thinking about Sculpture

Taking advantage of the winter sunshine on Friday I walked around Melbourne thinking about sculpture. I have to plan my sculpture tour for Melbourne’s Writers Week walking around Melbourne looking at sculptures. I am amazed that I am in Melbourne’s Writers Week with my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne.

Kranky, Miss You Frida

Kranky, Miss You Frida

I am doing a few things to promote my book – I’m writing this blog post and pointing out my up coming events, like Melbourne’s Sculpture Walking Tour on Sunday 23rd August and my talk at Brunswick Public Library on Thursday 10th September. For more details see my events page.

I’m glad that I’ve scouted out the walk as there was test drilling along Swanston Walk for the new underground rail line going on. There was temporary fencing around Akio Makigawa’s Time and Tide. The fencing and drilling rig might be gone by the time of the walk but I probably won’t take the tour that far up Swanston Walk.

Walking up Hosier Lane I noticed that there are more street art sculptures. Lots of new mixed media assemblages by Kranky, including a spectacular painted skull and a lot of rats. From Blek to Banksy rats are a traditional theme for street art.

Kranky, Rats

Kranky, Rats

After my walk around the city I noticed that there was a very small retrospective exhibition of Lenton Parr’s sculptures in the foyer of the NGV Australia. Lenton Parr (1924-2003) was born in Coburg and initially studied engineering. Another engineer – I keep writing about  engineers – see my recent post on Skunk Control; several of Melbourne sculptors started studying engineering (Lenton Parr, Clement Meadmore and Anthony Pryor). Parr was a member of the Centre Five, Melbourne’s modern sculpture group but what surprised me about Parr’s modern steel sculptures was the number of titles with classical references: Perseus, Andromeda, Orion… It seemed that even in the early 1980s the classical names still retained an artist aura. Now, classical references, even in the titles of sculptures, are very rare.

Lenton Parr, Orion

Lenton Parr, Orion


Flexible sculptures @ Sutton and Seventh

On my way to Sutton Gallery on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, one of the problems of rigid sculptures was made brutally obvious to me. One of the legs on Peter Corlett’s Mr Poetry was broken, the rigid bronze shell was fractured and the leg was only attached by the greater strength and flexibility of steel armature. The plinth had also been damaged where it was hit by the leg. Serious damage, but probably not irreparable.

Damage to Mr Poetry

An alternative to the standard rigidity of sculptures in both materials and concept is demonstrated in two current post-minimalist exhibitions: established international artist, Peter Robinson’s Neologisms at Sutton Gallery and emerging artist, James Parkinson’s exhibition Free Time at Seventh Gallery.

New Zealand artist, Peter Robinson has cut pieces of black and yellow felt sculptures that are pinned to the wall, stacked in piles, place against the wall and laid out on the floor. Some parts suggested letterforms, the new words of the title like the embossed text of a plaque. Robinson uses both the positive and negative forms and there doesn’t appear to be any waste material – it is all present.

Peter Robinson’s Neologisms at Sutton Gallery

Neologisms appeared to be commenting on the history of modern sculpture. From Marcel Duchamp’s 1918 Sculpture for Traveling made of rubber and string with ad lib dimensions. The grid of modernism hangs on the wall distorting its rigid geometry, the cube of the minimalists is made of felt sheets stacked in a corner. There is even a playful piece of figuration while other forms looked like early Geoffrey Bartlett sculptures.

Peter Robinson’s Neologisms detail

Although flexible sculptures do not so much define a space, as they are defined by the space and the pull of gravity, Robinson’s Neologisms determined the viewer’s movement around the gallery. Clear paths are laid out between the blocks of forms, there are linked chains across part of the gallery blocking movement and a reference to Robinson’s earlier sculptures involving styrofoam chains.

Peter Robinson’s Neologisms at Sutton Gallery

A few blocks away from Sutton Gallery at the shopfront artist-run-space of Seventh Gallery was another post-minimalist exhibition by an RMIT fine arts student, James Parkinson, Free Time. People kept on coming in from the street and asking: “What is this place?” Only to be told by the attendant that it was an art gallery and yes, you could play in the ball pit.

The main gallery at Seventh is filled with plastic balls of different colours, you have to wade through the balls to see the other rooms at Seventh. Parkinson calls his ball pit, ‘Prison’; the balls are in a prison, contained within the low walls at the front and back of the space. This prison gives freedom to enjoy the ball pit and playing in the ball pit is fun.

James Parkinson Prison Seventh Gallery

Free Time consists of a ball pit, a post-minimalist sculptures made of many plastic balls and four walls pieces, walls of plastic Lego blocks in uniform colours: grey, sky blue, orange and pink. (Where do you get Lego in those colours?) There is a fun contrast between lack of play in the rigid walls of Lego blocks and play of the ball pit contained with its rigid walls.

Post-minimalist adds a degree of play, levity and oxymorons to the serious formal rigidity of minimalism. This flexibility gives the sculptures freedom,  their flexible form has play in it, in that the materials have give and there is some slack.


Skunk Control @ The Dirty Dozen

Has it only been half a year since Platform closed and the dozen glass vitrines in the tile lined underpass at Flinders Street Station were left empty? The artist-run initiative Platform ran the space for twenty years and I regularly wrote about their exhibitions. Now Melbourne City Council’s Creative Spaces program have taken over management of the dozen vitrines in Campbell Arcade. They have rebranded them The Dirty Dozen because, as Creative Spaces’ Eleni Arbus puts it, ”It’s a pretty grungy site”.

Platform Degraves St Underpass

The Dirty Dozen brings a new direction for the vitrines, filling them with the work of what Eleni Arbus calls “creative practitioners” rather than artists. Hopefully this will make the exhibitions more engaging for the commuters who use the underpass. The work of many contemporary artists failed to produce site specific art and failed to speak to the thousands of people who continued walking past.

Prevaricated Frequencies by Skunk Control

The first exhibition at The Dirty Dozen, Prevaricated Frequencies by Skunk Control, a team of engineers and scientists from Victoria University demonstrates what Arbus means by “creative practitioners”. The vitrines were full of a forest of animatronic blooming flowers and caves of crystals, both with prismatic light effects from rotating polarised screens. Another vitrine contains a motorised kaleidoscope and another, rotating tanks of liquid. The attention to detail to create these complete other worldly visions is impressive.

Parts of this exhibition is similar to what was seen in Rose Chong’s display window last year when Skunk Control won the People’s Choice award at the annual Gertrude Street Projection Festival for Pestilent Protrusions. That People’s Choice award is an indication of engaging beauty that Skunk Control produce. The elegant engineering and science are used to present engaging and intriguing work rather than lecturing the audience.

Skunk Control was formed in 2012 by Nick Athanasiou a lecture at Victoria University in the College of Engineering and Science. There are a surprising number of engineers in Melbourne creating exciting art, including the street artist CDH. I wish that more artists today, instead of doing their Masters or Doctorates in Fine Arts, studied something else, something apparently unrelated to their art, because this would improve both the content and the art. I am looking forward to seeing what other “creative practitioners” will next be exhibiting at The Dirty Dozen.

Prevaricated Frequencies by Skunk Control


Post Nuclear Art

On Tuesday 26 May I went to an artist talk at RMIT Gallery by Ken and Julia Yonetani that brought their collaborative art together, at least for me, I’m sure that there are people who have been following their art for years now.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013, photo from artist's website

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013, photo from artist’s website

I had seen the work of Ken and Julia Yonetani before but I hadn’t tied it all together. At the Melbourne Art Fair 2014 there was their market of inedible food cast from salt, The Last Supermarket. In 2012 at an earlier RMIT exhibition, “2112 Imagining the Future”, I had seen their Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) a play on traditional European still life with a table, glasses, fruit bowl, cutlery, fish and crayfish all cast from the pinkish salt of the Murray River. And I was aware of Ken Yanetoni’s Sweet Barrier Reef , a Zen garden made entirely of sugar, raked sugar and icing sugar coral formations as it was chosen to represent Australia in the satellite exhibition held in conjunction with the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Ken and Julia Yonetani were exhibiting two of their chandeliers made from uranium glass in the RMIT Gallery exhibition “Japanese Art After Fukushima”. The uranium glass glows green under ultra-violet light with a fantastic beauty just like radioactive material always does in movies and cartoons. The artists explained that uranium glass “is made from depleted uranium and is a by product of the uranium enrichment process – so its like recycling the byproduct of nuclear power.” The uranium glass isn’t that radioactive compared to background radiation but it does link the beginning of consumerism to the advent of electricity and the invention of ultra-violet lights.

Considering its current impact on human life radioactivity has not featured prominently in contemporary art. In the immediate aftermath of WWII some artists did focus on the catastrophic destructive power of atomic weapons. Salvador Dali talked about atomic art and there was the Nuclear Art movement founded in 1951 by the Milanese painters Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. But Fukushima brought all of this back for Ken and Julia; Ken now wears a wrist watch with a built in geiger counter. The danger of atomic weapons has been dwarfed by the dangers of billions of consumers buying sugar and using fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Ken and Julia Yonetani are collaborative artists, a not uncommon feature in the contemporary art world where artistic partnerships are common, the most notable and enduring of contemporary art partnerships are Gilbert and George. In Australia there are several other artists that work in partnership, like Brown and Green or Gillie and Marc. For this Japanese/European couple the most obvious artistic partnership is that of  John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Ken and Julia Yonetani have played with the work, “War is Over! IF YOU WANT IT”, turning it into “global warming is over, IF YOU WANT IT”.

However, even compared to Lennon and Ono, Ken and Julia Yonetani are far more political and it is also far more personal as, Ken changed career from a financial broker to an artist. We might all need a change of career if don’t prevent global warming.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) photo from artist's webpage

Ken and Julia Yonetani, Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) photo from artist’s webpage


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