Lost Wax Workshop @ Meridian

Although I have written a book about public sculpture I have never done any sculpting. Last weekend I went to Melbourne’s oldest sculpture foundry, Meridian for one of their workshops in the lost wax technique.

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When the sculptor Peter Corlett first took me to see Meridian I was amazed that there was a sculpture foundry just off Johnston Street in Fitzroy. Looking around the foundry there are sculptures in progress and moulds for sculptures by notable sculptors including Peter Corlett, Robert Kippel, Lisa Roet, and Andrew Rogers.

The foundry has been located in a two story nineteenth century brick warehouse, since it was established in 1973 by Peter Morely. It is now in its second generation with Peter Morely’s son, Gareth working at the foundry.

Peter Morely still works part-time often doing his favourite job applying the surface colouring effect to the bronze, the patination on the sculptures. This ranges from traditional black and brown through to green, white or polished.

So Fitzroy hasn’t been completely gentrified, there is still some industry in the suburb. People are still melting down bronze in furnaces and pouring the molten metal into moulds to make sculptures, using techniques that have been developed over the last five millennia.

Although the lost wax casting has been around for millennia techniques in bronze casting have not stopped developing. New synthetic materials are being used from building industry rubber to 3D printing using potato starch. Anything that will cleanly burn away like wax leaving an empty space, the mould into which the bronze will be poured.

Even the traditional bees wax has also been replaced by a synthetic wax with a dark green pigment added. The wax as media is very forgiving because it can be both additive modelled and subtractive carved; so if you make a mistake you can easily stick something back on or cut it off.

I thought that I knew about lost wax technique before the workshop however there is so many steps in the process that you don’t realise until you start. One thing I did know it is a process where you don’t do it all yourself; that part of the job of a sculpture foundry is providing assistance and advice to the sculptor.

Darien Pullen conducted the workshop for three people and myself which allowed for plenty of one on one advice and assistance. Darien is a sculptor who has worked at Meridian since 1984 mostly making moulds and preparing waxes for casting; last year his winged victory statue was unveiled outside the Marrickville Town Hall. He also teaches in life drawing and that helped with my sculpture.

I thought that a small cat sculpture would be a good idea because I had a lot of sketches and photographs of my cats. Cats, like sculpture, are all about volume, the thin creature beneath the hair is a very different creature. Furthermore, I consoled myself, as many people like cats, so any cat sculpture however poor will have some admirers.

At the end of Sunday afternoon I took the wax model home; nobody is expected to complete a model in six hours. I plan to do some more work on it and sandpaper smooth out some of its curves. Eventually each of the workshop participants will have their wax model cast in bronze and a patina applied. None of the workshop participants will be involved in pouring the bronze as there are too many health and safety issues involved to even begin to list.

Black Mark did the workshop courtesy of Meridian.


Understanding Graffiti

Some graffiti writers have some strange ideas about who can understand, speak/write, or even properly appreciate the work. The claim that it is anathema for the uninitiated to ‘understand’; that is not only are their explanations wrong but damaging. Street art tours conducted by graffiti or street artists; would you expect all art gallery tours to be conducted by contemporary artists?

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R.A.D Grant points out “to claim that a belief can be ‘understood’ only by its believers is to use the term ‘understanding’ somewhat oddly, since understanding is normally thought to follow upon explanation rather than to be precluded or destroyed by it.” (A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992 p.103).

However, the English word ‘understand’ means both to comprehend and to be sympathetic. Can only the empathetic comprehend? For it is empathy and not sympathy that is expected. It is about the magic of initiation and spirit. Part of this is a need to maintain control of what is considered ‘understanding’ in order to maintain their power.

‘Understanding’ is connected to notions the person being ‘true to the spirit’ as Philip Brophy explains in “What is this thing called ‘Disco’” (Art & Text 3, Spring 1981, p.64)

“To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle-of-the-Road , etc., is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of ‘truthful’ performers and ‘false’ performers exists, establishing a productive difference between ‘artists’ and ‘charlatans’ – and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the ‘artist’ and the ‘charlatan’.”

Likewise the graffiti writer is expected to ‘evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act’ of doing graffiti.

Here is some old graffiti from Brunswick to look at.

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Frog Pond

The thin frog looks so skinny that you can see its bones. It is not meant to be a particular frog but rather a generic Australian native frog leaping fully extended from the water. An amphibious athlete to match the near-by hammer thrower by John Robinson.

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John Olsen, Frog, 2013 bronze

John Olsen’s Frog, 2013 is installed in the Children’s Pond in the Queen Victoria Gardens. The two metre tall bronze frog was unveiled on Wednesday 16 December 2016.

The pond is named after two other sculptures, John Robinson’s Water Children (c.1970) is a bronze sculpture of two children, a boy and a girl, playing amongst the rocks at the source of the pond. It amongst some of the most sentimental sculpture in Melbourne. However, the source of the pond is now a damp bowl and the fountain has been turned off and this post is about Olsen’s Frog and not Robinson’s Water Children, which were modelled on his own children.

John Olsen is well know for his paintings of frogs but he is not widely know as a sculptor. When a major artist like him want to make a sculpture there are people who can help you produce a saleable work that would look attractive in a millionaire’s garden.

Olsen’s Frog is a gift from the property developer Eddie Kutner (Wonderment Walk) to the City of Melbourne in recognition of the work that the city has done in capturing, purifying and reusing stormwater. Water is a reoccurring theme in Melbourne’s sculptures with the first public sculpture Charles Summers, River God commissioned by the council to celebrate Melbourne’s water supply.

About a century earlier another businessmen, Theodore Fink donate two busts to Queen Victoria Gardens. Since then it has slowly been filling with mostly gift sculpture.

But thinking now about the frog; since I have been writing this blog I have been noticing many animals in contemporary art, from taxidermy specimens to drawings of animals. Taxidermy animals in particularly figure prominently in contemporary art. For more on this subject see my posts on taxidermy and contemporary art, and Why look at Dead Animals.

The answer to my question came in Janine Burke’s “The elephant in the room: Uses and misuses of animals in curatorial practice” Art Monthly Australia (Issue 280, June 2015) examines the nexus of animals and contemporary art attributing this to a massive shift in contemporary thinking that challenges the binary human and animal distinction. Burke attributes this to philosophers including: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guttari, Jacques Derrida and Peter Singer.

Humans are feeling more comfortable accepting that they are another animal amongst many. The family of ducks inhabiting the ponds with the sculpture, watching the ducklings explore the pond. Contemporary art’s interest in the soft sciences, zoology and biology, as well as, the social sciences may be a reaction to the high modernist interested in the hard sciences like physics and chemistry.


Examining the spirit in secular art

Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.

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Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4

Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.

The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.

However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.

Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.

Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.


The City As Art

The buildings in the centre of Melbourne are both familiar and unknown, they seem to change around like something out of the movie, Dark City. Exploring the city has to be a regular activity as there are changes occurring all of the time and a once familiar area transforms.

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The city as a creation, as a great co-operative work of architecture, art and engineering stretching over a vast area and reaching into the sky, a larger concept than a medieval cathedral. The creation, curation and alteration of which is a mix of planning, adapting and neglect.

The city draws you along its streets, wanting to see what is coming around the corner. Each street creates a new scene, one block is totally different from the next.

Underneath the city, the ground level is as constructed on foundations. How deep does it go? The labyrinthine network of tunnels, the subway, the subconscious of all cities. There is a mystery beneath all cities, the mystery of  the labyrinth and at its core the Minotaur.

Too much repetition in a city reminds one that it is also a labyrinth where a Minotaur hunts for sacrificial victims. “Bloody tribute!” says Theseus after tagging the wall with an outline of his hand sprayed by mouth in red ochre, or is it bull’s blood?

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Cities are visually dense; signs and symbols compete for our attention. The accretion of images, of advertising and signs. The many shiny surfaces reflect the many lights further confusing the vision. The visual density of the city has presented a challenge to visual artists for the last two centuries.

Graffiti and street art rise to this challenge by imitating the visual intensity of the city, by being part of and by being framed by the infrastructure of the city. Graffiti tries to fit into this environment by becoming a tag, a personal logo in a world full of corporate logos. Both the graffiti writer and the street artist rectifies the urban environment by adding their designs to the layers of images, personalising the alien, impersonal architecture of the city.

The whole of Melbourne could be seen as an un-curated art gallery for graffiti and street art. Except that there are small semi-curated zones, like… roll the credits… Doyle’s Blender Alley and Lovelands, the area of Fitzroy curated by Shaun Hossack of Juddy Roller, Dean Sunshine’s factories in Brunswick. Gordon Harrison, the City of Melbourne engineer should also get some credit of street art in the CBD. I’m sorry if I have missed anyone.

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Cowen Gallery @ State Library

Trying to imagine what the National Gallery would have looked like when it was in the State Library. At the same time as looking in the future at what Patricia Picininni images the evolution, or the genetic alteration of car drivers.

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Patricia Piccinini, Graham, 2016

Prior to the construction of the National Gallery of Victoria on St. Kilda Road in 1968 the National Gallery of Victoria was located in the State Library. It consisted of the Swinburne Hall, the painting school studios and three galleries. What were the McArthur and La Trobe galleries are no longer open to the public, but the Cowen Gallery and the two linking rooms, are still used for exhibiting art at the State Library.

A century ago it would have looked rather different, the now redundant skylights would have allowed diffused natural light into the galleries. The paintings and prints would have been hung Salon style, hanging multiple works right up to the ceiling to fill the wall. Rather than the way it is hung now with a single row of works at eye level along the wall. On the walls would have been Alma Tadema’s The Vintage Festival in Ancient Rome, Watt’s portrait of Tennyson, and John Longstaff’s Breaking the News. In the middle of the room there were marble statues of the royal family by Charles Summers.

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Charles Summers, bust of the actor Gustavus Brooke, 1868

The numerous marble busts by Charles Summers still on exhibition reminds me that he was allowed to arrange the sculptures in the gallery. Summers placed plaster casts of Michelangelo next to a plaster cast of his Burke and Wills Monument to demonstrate his references. Summers’s ego exhibited in this arrangement amused some English visitors but for nineteenth century Melbourne he was their Michelangelo.

The plaster casts and etching of works by other artists hanging in the gallery indicate that issues of originality and even the function of the art gallery was very different.

In the present the art gallery at the State Library is an odd mix of art from Melbourne’s past, with a particular focus on landscapes of Melbourne and portraits of Melbourne identities, along with some contemporary art. Above the stairs hangs a tapestry by the Australian Tapestry Workshop based on a painting by Juan Davila.

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Juan Davila and Australian Tapestry Workshop, Sorry, 2013

Graham was just sitting there in his shorts going viral as people crowded around taking photos of him. After a selfie with Graham in the background the visitor might spend awhile with the headphones and iPads finding out why Graham looks that way and how the collaborated between the TAC, Patricia Piccinini, a leading trauma surgeon and a crash investigation expert produced him. Piccinini’s art makes an impact both in the gallery and online and that makes her work perfect for a road safety awareness campaign.

I wonder how Graham would have been greeted, if he had been created a century ago, and where would he have been displayed in Melbourne. Undoubtedly he still would have received a lot of media attention.


Three Exhibitions in Brunswick

“Rosencrantz: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering. Stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it.” (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead)

There are currently two dark exhibitions on at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick: “Exhume” by Clare Humphries and “An Apprehension of Mortality” by Bruce Dickson. ‘Dark’ in both their colours and in the theme of mortality.

There is often an element of memento mori in the genre of still life but Humphries emphasises it by using personal objects of her deceased family members. The hand-burnishing of the linocuts softens the usual hard edges of the print allowing for subtle gradation of light to dark. The objects that Humphries depicts glow against the blackness of the paper.

Anyone complaining that art students don’t know how to draw doesn’t know that there are lecturers like Humphries. Clare Humphries lectures in Drawing and Printmedia at the VCA and the technical skill in these prints is amazing.

Of course, anyone complaining about today’s art students would point at Bruce Dickson’s exhibition at the Counihan. Dickson has more light than dark but it is a slack light, vaguely suggesting something. There are only three works in the exhibition, an “installation/sculpture” called “threshold”, where some paper that had been dipped in pigment hangs in sculptural manner, and two loops of video of some gauze-like material blowing around. Even when I appreciated the existential vibrations, in Dickson’s video loop “towards stillness,” I found the actual video annoying because of the inelegant arrangement of the three pieces of cloth kept distracting me.

Further along Sydney Road at Soma Gallery, a shopfront gallery is “Bush Nighmarez” by Lou Herrod. Demons with gum leaf horns and a “Bogan Dream Cather” hung with VB can and shotgun cartridges. In her bold and brutal paintings the iconic Australian gum leaf bush becomes a place of horror for Herrod. I haven’t seen art that so excoriates the thin skin of the Australian bush dream since an early Paul Yore exhibition, “Monument to the Republic” at Gertrude Contemporary.


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