Graffiti and Street Art by Anna Wacławek

All art history students would be familiar with the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. These paperback books with their black spines are authoritative accounts of various art movements, styles and histories. When Thames & Hudson launched its World of Art series in 1958 it aimed to produce low cost, high quality art books. Now with over 300 titles in the series ranging from Aboriginal Art to Internet Art it is not surprising that there is Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art (Thames & Hudson, 2011, London).

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In the book’s introduction Wacławek notes that: “a major study of graffiti and street art grounded in visual art analysis has yet to be published,” and that she intends this book to fill that gap. Most of the words about graffiti and street art have being written in sociology or criminology rather than from the discipline of visual arts. The lack of a serious book on the art of graffiti and street art is surprising given that in 1984 Thames and Hudson published the some of the first documentation of graffiti art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art. But Subway Art, like most of the earlier books on graffiti, is a collection of photographs.

Graffiti and Street Art certainly fills that gap. After reading so many short articles and interviews with artists it was relief to read in an organised and systematic order in one book rather than gleaming the same information from diverse sources. Wacławek’s precise language can pack many ideas into a single sentence. The many photographs in the book are used as examples and each one is referred to in the text.

The first question about such a book is if graffiti writers do not consider their work art then what is point of an art book is actually an irrelevant question. Apart from some contemporary English speaking artists the same can be said about almost everyone currently called an artist. But trivial categorisation disputes aside the art of graffiti needs to be included in this book. Describing the structure of graffiti writing and the genealogy of graffiti is necessary, at the very least to distinguish it from street art.

Later the question, ‘is graffiti art?’, allows Wacławek to distinguish art history from visual culture studies. Distinguish between art history and visual culture history removes the aura of excellence around in art history and allows the examination of  popular images. This is an important distinctions not just for graffiti and street art but for any examination of popular images.

The popularity of graffiti and street art is not dismissed but examined. It is looked at in the collaboration of the public in the creation of street art. When Wacławek examines the dissemination of street art in photographs and online she raises the question: where do you see the most street art and graffiti on the streets or online?

Examining graffiti and street art from the perspective of art history is important that issues of style, subject and signature key to both art history and graffiti. Wacławek gives context to Haring and Basquiat as a sidetrack in the history of graffiti. There are also occasionally references to contemporary artists, like Andy Goldsmith, in perspective with street art

Sometimes I felt that Wacławek was being too subtle with both her arguments and the examples that accompanied them rather than doing something more obvious. Vexta and Nick Walker are the examples in the section titled “Identity Politics”. However, if the average reader can think of the more obvious arguments and examples is it necessary to writing them?

At the University of Melbourne has CCDP20001 Street Art can now be studied as part of the breadth subjects for undergraduates studying Science, Music, Commerce, Biomedicine and Arts. I am surprised that this book is not one of the prescribed texts.

The prescribed texts for the subject are:

Cubrilo, Duro et al (2010), King’s Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti – Melbourne 1983-1993 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Schacter, Rafael (ed.) (2013) The World Atlas of Graffiti and Street Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

Alison Young’s Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination.

Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art is a book that is needed by the many high school students and university students who are and will be studying graffiti and street art.

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Manifesto @ ACMI

With 13 screens, a dozen characters played by Cate Blanchett and over a century of artist’s manifestos Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at ACMI is overblown. It sounds very impressive, at first glance it looks spectacular but in the end the advertising was better than the exhibition.

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Posters for Manifesto

The advertising campaign featured a juxtaposition of some words about art and the face of Cate Blanchett made-up to play a role side by side in posters. In the urban environment the posters were intriguing, especially as there was almost no information on the two posters about who wrote the words and what was being advertised. The information about the exhibition on the poster was impossible to read as you passed by, you had to make an effort to read it.

The actual exhibition on close examination was unfortunately incoherent. The various manifestos are cut up, recombined, and re-written into scenarios making them into so many words. The elaborately scenarios did not contribute to any complimentary, ironic or contrasting meaning, that the manifestos might have had. Conceptualism set in a news studio and pop art around a traditional family dinner table.

Due the position of screens and speakers the manifesto’s would suddenly pile up as Blanchett and another Blanchett from another screen would both launch into different speeches. This possibly synchronised cacophony drains meaning from the vocalisation.

It could have been insightful rather than simply impressive and overblown. It seems like faced with so many manifesto’s Rosefeldt responded to a lack of any meaningful insight by emptying the meaning from the manifestos.

Rosefeldt’s three other videos on exhibition at ACMI are impressive, witty and coherent works. The dual realities of the actions and the foley sounds in The Soundmaker are fascinating, as are the dual realities of Stunned Man. Dali and Buñuel could only have dreamt of Rosefeldt’s Deep Gold which a credible and worthy addition to their L’Âge d’Or. Here Rosefeldt’s talent for designing complex camera tracks over tableaux is used both visually and intellectually to great effect.


Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei @ NGV

“Why do people think artists are special? It is just another job.” Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again, p.160)

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The pairing of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the NGV produces an exhibition with more vitality than cultic history. The art of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei is like social media; it is about selfies, photo of what we ate for lunch, music, videos and ideas but why is it art?

Firstly, seriously consider where you see most art and that the answer is online.

Secondly, contemporary society needs to have a big talk about popularity, in art, in politics, in religion, in consumerism… in everything but especially populism in politics, currently the most dangerous force in the world.

We need to remember the difference between being popular and a populist. Popularity is measured by how many people like you whereas populism is design to attract the uninformed and unthinking public. It is the element of design and manipulation, that aesthetic preoccupations in the populism that makes it so attractive.

Part of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei’s popularity is because they are not populists. They are popular because they are working for and with people, not just the majority of people but any and all people. Warhol considers the democratisation of fame, what if everyone was equally famous, fabulous and fantastic for at least 15 minutes. What if everyone could be an artist.
When Lego refusing to supply Ai Weiwei with brick for an installation on the grounds that his art is political. Ai Weiwei gots around this with an online call for donations for Lego bricks to be deposited through the partially open sun roof of a car. (Actually he used another type of brick but never let the truth get in the way of good art.) Using the internet and the public to get around officialdom is a similar strategy to Ai Weiwei’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Online volunteers circumventing the official blocks and censorship is modelled with the many repeating plastic blocks.

“Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” The French art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this in the final line in a short essay about Duchamp’s early paintings. In the essay Apollinaire wrote: “Duchamp has abandoned the cult of appearance” and that he “goes to the limit, and is not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” (Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne d’Harnoncourt, Kynaston McShine, Prestal, 1989, p.180)

It is hard to believe that Apollinaire could write this in Paris in 1912 before Duchamp even made his first readymade but the advent of still photography anticipated both moving images and social media. Duchamp’s two successors Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei make clear Apollinaire’s prognostication about “abandoned the cult of appearance” and “reconcile art and the people.” Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are popular and like Duchamp are “not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” The increase in the reproduction of images increases their display value (the number of times and places where it can be displayed) brought on in the age of digital reproduction destroys the cult of the original (the idea of a uniquely beautiful object created by special person). From the Velvet Underground rehearsing in the Factory to Ai Weiwei dancing Gangnam style aesthetic preoccupations are no long the primary considerations of the art, but its relationship with the people.

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There are some great selfie opportunities at the exhibition.


December 2015

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Exit 2015, Friday 11th December, Brunswick Arts

On Friday night across Melbourne many galleries and studios were holding their end of year celebrations. But it wasn’t just the end of another year at Brunswick Arts (aka Brunswick Art Space, Brunswick Art Gallery), it is closing permanently. Eleven years ago Joel Gailer established the gallery in a building that featured an old house at one end and a factory space that opened onto laneway at the other end. On Friday there was a final one night only exhibition using the whole now empty building.

I like the tradition of the end of the calendar year but every year I write these terrible end of year blog posts. Barely coherent rambling pieces of writing but what do I expect? As if I could sum up a year in a few hundred words.

Normally in these end of year posts I write that I won’t be posting anything for another month but the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei has just opened at the NGV and Julian Rosefeldt’s brand-new thirteen-channel work Manifesto has just opened at ACMI. I anticipate that I will slow down my rate of writing but you never know what will happen. I hope I will take a break, part of being a self-employed professional means taking holidays, otherwise you will burn yourself out. (There is also professional development, or you will decay over time.)

Sculptures of Melbourne cover

Personally 2015 was a great year, a real point of self actualisation as my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne was published. I had two book launches, conducted several walking tours of Melbourne’s public sculptures (one of these was part of Melbourne’s Writers Festival) and a book talk at Brunswick Public Library. So support a local publisher, your local bookshop and buy my book.

Consequently I am being invited to visit a lot more sculptors at foundries or in their studio, however there has rarely been a story in it. In other public art new this year Mr Poetry on Fitzroy Street had his leg broken by a truck, nobody celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Burke and Wills Monument and Alex Goad’s Tethya was installed on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda.

This year I missed covering the story of Makatron’s Kama Sutra Burger at Land of Sunshine. Censorship, street art and Brunswick, it had all the elements of one of my blog posts, but I can’t write about everything. I also missed the story of the guerrilla exhibition about tagging in the Alexandra Avenue underpass under St. Kilda Road; I finally saw it this week and it had been systematically tagged.

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Grit, an exhibition of tagging, Melbourne

Next year I will be celebrating my 1000th blog post (this is number 992) with a psychogeographical walk in Brunswick on Sunday the 31st January. In March I will also be exhibiting a few of my paintings for the first time in many years. Doubtless I will also be doing a few tours of public sculpture too. (See my events page for more details).

Seasonal greetings and thanks for reading this terrible end of year post.

Live Christmas Decoration 2


Tethya & Public Art

Alex Goad’s Tethya is a new public sculpture on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda’s restaurant strip. Tethya is a biomorphic post-minimalist sculpture. Being biomorphic and post-minimalist actually work very well together because multi-cellular organisms, like sea sponges of the genus Tethya, are made of smaller units that are basically the same. This reference to sea sponges with the smell of the cool sea air blowing in from the bay connects the sculpture to its location.

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Alex Goad, Tethya, 2015

Alex Goad is a sculptor and industrial designer who knows both about post-minimalist sculptures and marine organisms. He has won an award for designing a modular artificial reef system, as well as, sculpture prizes.

Incorporating lighting into public sculpture has returned now that the new LED lights have allowed this to be done safely with minimum maintenance, unlike earlier modern art attempts/experiments. In daylight, without its purple LED lights, the 2.7 metre high sculpture is not that exciting but the sculpture of fibre-reinforced concrete is not intended to be monumental but public art to create a hub, to mark the intersection between two roads and potentially a meeting point.

How the public will use this sculpture may be different from its intended function. It is a bit too lumpy to sit comfortable on but it will certainly tempt some people to attempt to climb it and this was the only interaction that I observed at the sculpture. The round forms don’t allow enough surface in any direction to tempt many taggers. The many deep gaps in the surface may well attract people to stuff rubbish into them, known as ‘wedging’.

One of the worst things that the media can do with a new public art is report on how much the art cost. It is misleading to the public as a figure in dollar terms fails to explain the breakdown of costs involved: materials, transportation, equipment rental, etc. In thanking the whole team of people involved in Alex Goad had to note that he was the lowest paid worker on a per hour basis. This is not unusual for a sculptor, a hundred and fifty years ago Charles Summers had the same experience making the Burke and Wills Monument. (For more about why reporting the costs is misleading see my post about another public sculpture: Big Cat Controversy.)

Instead of reporting on the cost try telling the story of the sculptures development. This time last year, Tethya was just an idea that Goad was trying to design a submission for the sculpture commission. In February he was awarded the commission. Construction started in July and the sculpture was finished a week ago, although the LED lighting still needs some more work. On Saturday afternoon I was at Linden New Art in St. Kilda to celebrate the installation of Alex Goad’s sculpture. There was a design exhibition at Linden of mostly elegant light shades, reminding me of Tethya’s lighting design.


Vexta’s Wildness

Veteran Melbourne street artist Vexta is now based in Brooklyn, New York, but is currently back where she started her street art career, painting a police station wall and exhibiting at Mars Gallery in Windsor.

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Earlier this week The Age reported on Vexta painting a wall on the St Kilda police station. The level of contradictions in this act, part of the City of Port Phillip program to reduce graffiti, would be mind boggling if I wasn’t, at least partially, immersed in Melbourne’s graffiti and street art scene. So for me it is just more of the spectacle and the situation of street art. For Vexta it was just another wall.

Street artists exhibiting in a gallery is a different challenge to the street. Basically it is an issue of managing expectations; in the street we are surprised by street art because we didn’t expect any whereas we do expect art in an art gallery. Off the street the same images can appear limited, repetitious, or otherwise lose their charm. Despite this many of Melbourne’s commercial galleries have one or two street artists in their stable.

Fortunately Vexta for her exhibition, The Wildness Beneath, at Mars Gallery has more than figures painted with mix of a brushes and spray cans in her psychedelic palette of black and florescent colours. The paintings on canvas are hung as diamonds, their corners emphasising the round form within. On one wall they are framed with florescent builder’s twine creating geometric patterns around them.

The women in Vexta’s paintings stare out at the viewer. Are they powerful witches with animal familiars or are they nymphs and victims, like Leda and the swan?

Silk screen images of cicadas feature on several of the paintings reminding me of the cryptic nature of cicadas. The long underground life of 13 or 17 years of cicadas reminded me of the development of an artist.  Vexta must have done that many years, so perhaps it is time for her to emerge from the underground.

Vexta explained that the exhibition was getting back to her roots in collage. All of the images started as collages before being translated into paint, even the painting the cut-out words and phrases.

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Vexta’s painted copies of collaged words have a strong sense of poetics of the nocturnal urban world of street art missions or psychedelic trips. Not everything worked the decorated skulls hanging from the ceiling looked hackneyed and odd (skulls are so common in art and especially street art, see my post Melbourne Skull).


Contemporary Framing

What is the best frame for contemporary art? I don’t mean, a physical wooden frame around a painting or drawing, but the architectural, psychological, intellectual frame around a work of art.  It is the frame that gives the context of art. The idea of art is itself a conceptual frame in which to view art for ultimately the word ‘art’ is a frame around a set of things. The proscenium arch frames traditional theatre. Television programming frames tv shows. The covers of a book, libraries, bookshops, even Kindle digital readers can all frame a work of literature.

Lucas Maddock’s New Hypothetical Continents

Lucas Maddock, New Hypothetical Continents

It is the difference in frames that explains why people, so often, say that a band is better live than in recordings. For the frame is not neutral. It has its own energy. It is a nebulous area, like the halo that exists around the sacred. There is the magic of stepping out on to even an empty stage.

Art is created for particular frames and sometimes these frames are determined by other factors. The playing time on a 45rpm record determined the length of a pop music single or the hight of the stairway up to Francis Bacon’s studios determined the maximum size of his painting. However, instead of the modernist dream of art breaking out of its frame, an act that would ultimately destroy any exclusivity to the category of art and led to its complete merger of art with life, contemporary art has created a contemporary art frame around itself.

Contemporary art stands alone. A single video projection or an installation fills the gallery space entirely. Frequently contemporary art demands a whole new gallery building separate from other art. In many cities a separate specialist institution, a contemporary art gallery, has been established. Contemporary art stands alone, insulated rather than framed, in the gallery. Standing alone removes the juxtaposition of hanging/installing works by different artists together. Framing by isolating removes contemporary art from any context other than its own.

Contemporary art makes more demands on the exhibition space than previous art, to the point of physically altering it. Never before in the history of art have so many plasterboard walls been built for art. These demands on the exhibition space because contemporary art is self-conscious and aware of its dependence on the space as part of the context of being exhibited.

Although installations, video installations and other contemporary media use the space in a different way from traditional or modern media, contemporary artists are often like the modern artist before them in thinking that only their art is relevant and important. (At least the modernists had the excuse of ignorance and often had radical ambitions.) In an article on the NGV David R. Marshall’s point that the promoters of contemporary art are “pluralist with regard to modes of contemporary art, but not with regard to contemporary versus non-contemporary art”.

What is the best frame for contemporary art? I wish that I could answer this question but I’m realistic enough to accept that there isn’t one.


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