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The Crystal Cave

I was around McLean Alley in Melbourne’s CBD snapping a few photographs of some paste-ups by some of the usual suspects: Doyle, Sunfigo, Kambeeno, Baby Guerrilla, Junky Projects … and this, as yet unattributed paste-up. Following the trail of outlaw artists is not like trying to track down other outlaws. Sometimes they write their names, or at least their tags, two metres high in block letters using a paint roller. They have an online presence and there are regular locations where you can expect to find signs of their activity. Not that I’m trying to catch-up with anyone as I walk around the city, Brunwick, Collingwood, Fitzroy: I am not trying to identify anyone, collect a debt or anything. I run into some by accident and they will tell me that I must come and see their next exhibition.

At other times I know that the person will remain as mysterious as the work itself. I found this cave of crystals built into the brick walls It was hard to photograph the space in the wall was covered in crystals as far back as I could see.

20181019_122155I’m not sure how to classify the crystal cave brick filling. Maybe it fits into the same urban corny craft as painting a pipe top as a mushroom that I saw in the same lane. Urban corn is the craft work of city folk. It is a kind of homemade decoration that evokes a predictable sentiment between a chuckle and smile and no further thought.

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Or maybe the crystal cave is an urban art project, a post-graffiti practice like Jan Vormann’s international project refilling walls with lego bricks.

Or maybe it really was magic portal for mice and cockroaches.

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Windsor Place Studio

The sculptor William Eicholtz and mixed media minimalist artist Louise Rippert have been working in the same studio in Windsor for twenty-five years. They currently shares the studio with ceramic artist Janet Beckhouse, fine artist and jewellery Rose Agnew, painter Karen Salter, and ceramics artist Caroline Gibbes. They have the lease for another four years but the construction is closing in around them as inner city Melbourne grows in height.

Looking at William Eicholtz's studio

More than their art artists love their studios. Their art will hopefully be sold and go but the studio remains a constant muse. Most artist studios that I visit are in former factories or shops, partitioned into smaller individual studios. Aside from home studios I have rarely seen an artist studio who wasn’t sharing with other artists.

Alex Taylor Perils of the Studio (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007) is history of Melbourne art told from the perspective of the artist studio,Taylor shows that artist’s studios at the turn of the 20th Century demonstrated a range of ideas about what it is to be an artist: as an aesthete, as feminine, as a collector, as a scholar and as a bohemian.

Artists studios are considerably smaller and messier than a century ago, as described by Taylor. They are more workshops than lounge rooms. One reason for this is because artists are no longer working from models and are no longer selling art out of their studios.

There are less partitions than usual at the Windsor Place studio. Most of the artists can look up and see each other at work from across the studio. There is some cross pollination of ideas between the artists. Beckhouse has had a subtle influence on William Eicholtz and Caroline Gibbes who are both working in ceramics. They are unusually convivial studio in other ways; they go out together to exhibitions and events. The last time I ran into them at “Spring 1883” when they invited me to visit the studio. On the day I visited both Janet and Louise were wearing jewellery by Rose Agnew.

The day prior to my visit about thirty members of the NGV Women’s Association had visited the Windsor Place studio. This meant that the studio was unusually tidy and there was still left-over, but still delicious, cakes made by Rose. I know my place in the pecking order of the art world is somewhere below that of the ladies who lunch (I find it odd to imagine that such an organisation, as the NGV Women’s Association, still exists).

After morning tea the artist get back to work and I went around the studio seeing their space. I hadn’t met Karen Salter and Caroline Gibbes before so I took the opportunity of chatting with them and finding out more about their art. Salter paints the purity of forms of modernist architecture in 60s postcard colours.

Karen Salter dolls house

Karen Salter was considering if a miniature version of one of her paintings would work in a modernist dolls house.

Louise Rippert in her studio

Louise Rippert preparing the support for her new work.

Rose Agnew diorama

Rose Agnew was using this diorama as a model for a setting for her paintings of a hookah smoking caterpillar.

I will let the artists in Windsor get back to work. What other work place has so many visitors?


Civil @ Tinning Street

In “Tangled Love” Civil’s stick figure folk, a mix between Keith Haring and Matisse, form a gentle community as they sit, walk, dance and ride bicycles. They occupy a large wall in the laneway outside the gallery, Tinning Street presents but sit comfortably on the smaller supports within.

Tom Civil, Wavering Spirit (Tinning Street)

A decade ago I was interested in how street art and graffiti would be exhibited in art galleries. Moving from the street into the gallery is a matter of economics, conservation and, given the structure of the art world, inevitability. At the time stencil art dominated Melbourne’s street art scene so that meant that, aside from the gallery location, the other difference was support, outside walls or other materials.

However, sometimes that location on the street was very important to the art. I have seen many artists work fail to work in the gallery. The worst that I can remember was Urban Cake Lady’s exhibition at Rist; her art which looked enchanting on the street lost its magic inside the gallery.

Often this was because isolated in the gallery is different from being collaged onto the actual streetscape. Maybe they are missing the unexpected moment of discovery on the street, that Prof. Alison Young argues is the core of the street art experience, replaced with the totally expected experience of the exhibition. Sometimes the repetition of the artist’s single iconic image looks repetitious and boring in a gallery. Sometimes it is simply due to issues of scale. Certainly the white, anaesthetic room rarely helps the art look its best.

None of these appeared to be a problem in Tom Civil’s exhibition at Tinning Street presents. Dried botanical arrangements in old milk vats engraved by Civil decorate the gallery. His stick figures appear on a variety of supports: timbre lattice, ply, green corflute (corrugated plastic), doormats, wood and clear corrugated plastic which reminds the viewer of the variety of surfaces in the city. Aside from Civil’s familiar stick figures there are images created specifically for gallery exhibitions of animals from centipedes to chooks. Print making techniques extending from his early stencils on the street to linocut, drypoint etching, screen-prints and woodcuts. These printing techniques offer new material for the exhibition. Inside or outside of the gallery Civil’s images work.


The Australian amorality

In Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) one of Byrne’s repurposed porcelain figure the wistful girl seated on a rock has sewn her lips together and has slashed her legs and arms, self-harming in despair. Byrne is also a ceramics conservator and uses the same conservation techniques to alter mass produced kitsch ceramics. She gives them a new political meaning with the judicious application of enamel paint.

Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) in the background Angela Brennan Redacted then said (2018)

Penny Byrne I heart Nauru (2017) in the background Angela Brennan Redacted then said (2018)

I feel that I have failed as a critic this year because I did not write about “All we can’t see – Illustrating the Nauru Files” at Forty-Five Downstairs in August. Byrne’s figure was just one of the exhibiting artists in that exhibition. I wanted to address the deep systemic problems in Australia that have lead to this, however at the time I felt the pain depicted in the art too much and lacked the energy to write.

The Australian concentration camps are not the responsibility of one political party but are symptomatic of a deep lack of morality. There are so many examples of institutional child abuse, war crimes, genocidal activity in Australia’s recent history that all the apologies in the world cannot disguise the fact the country is amoral.

The cause of this Australian amorality is that either the majority of Australians or basic the structure of Australian politics is or both. At the foundation of this structure is the Australian constitution; a document without any protection of civil or human rights, a document that permits voting laws to be made on the basis of race. However the Australian constitution cannot be entirely to blame, it is merely facilitates a system without a conscience.

Nationalists consider that it a good thing for the subject of Australia’s criminality never to be raised. Denial, distraction and ‘no comment’ are the national character of a criminal state. You cannot have a civil debate when one side does not want to have one. Criminals charges must be brought against all those who participated in these crimes; only following orders, only doing your job, even only obeying the law are not excuses for crimes against humanity. And the Australian constitution completely rewritten so that these crimes can never happen again.


Motherhood is the new performance art

For every parent whose children use them as a climbing frame Tiffany Parbs has a portable climbing frame and a slide; with the mockingly dry formalist titles of structure and slope. Photographs of Parbs and her children demonstrate how the stainless steel structures enhances the parental play gym.

Parbs’s art is both fun and part of the serious thought in contemporary art of using the artist’s body the prime material for sculpture. Turning a woman’s body into an actual playground rather than a political one is fun for most of the family and very amusing for the gallery visitor. After seeing Tiffany Parbs’s exhibition Smother at Craft I thought: motherhood is the new performance art.

This is not the imaginary ‘motherhood’ of ‘motherhood statements’ or the ideal mother but the physical state of being a mother. Performance art is a theoretically elevated, actually denigrated, state. As such it is a metaphor for (artists and) mothers.

Being a mother is everything that performance art always wanted: treating the body as a sculptural object, use of bodily fluids and an emphasis on the sexual without being erotic. Performance art is about endurance and duration where the body is public rather than private.

Pharbs is Melbourne based “conceptual jeweller” whose work is exhibited nationally and internationally including in The Language of Things at The Dowse Art Museum in NZ (2018) and Masked at Holding House, Detroit (2017). And Craft is a great location for this solo exhibition, bringing in the perfect audience for Parbs exhibition.

Conceptual jewellery is a good way to describe the variety of media and crafts used to create the work. Photographs by Tobias Titz of Pharbs and her two children document the performance elements. In attached (2018), they are attached with velcro to Pharbs garment. In fodder (2015) a baby sucks milk from a device that looks like a combination of a beer hat and fetish wear.


Street Art Sculpture 9

This is my annual survey of street art sculptures, installations and other three dimensional unauthorised art in Melbourne.

Tinky, Gigi, Junky Projects and Will Coles all put new work up on the walls of Melbourne streets and lanes but what I have seen most of this year is the work of Discarded. I don’t know if this is because of fate or other factors but I have seen a lot of Discarded ceramic work on the street. Discarded’s work looks like the children of Max Ernst’s frottage and Junky Projects. Cast in ceramic from discarded objects that she finds on the street: paint brushes, tubes of ointment, toy cars, tire tread…

Great to see Drasko, who is better known for his stencils, trying some low relief works. Classical style reliefs with added anachronistic elements like iPads and mobile phones. It is difficult to identify the artist behind these street art sculptures, even though I have seen a Drasko exhibition, I still required the brains trust of my social media network to identify his sculptural work. There is not a lot of room for a signature or ego on a piece of guerrilla public sculpture.

Another problem is that durable weather resistant materials are required for outdoor sculpture and before the twentieth century that meant stone or bronze. Now one solution to the problem of material for a street art sculpture comes from Rooster Terrible; we are in the bag age where all life is threatened by plastic.

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Yarn bombing continues to create sculptural forms in the street. The best example that I saw this year was the installation at Uncle Dickey’s Free Library in Coburg. It is derivative but relevant.

For more about street art sculptures see my earlier posts:

Street Art Sculpture 8 2017

Street Art Sculpture 7 2016

Street Art Sculpture 6 2015 

street art sculpture in the Whitechapel Area

Street Art Sculpture 5

10 Great Street Installation 2014

Street Art Sculpture III 2012

More Street Art Sculpture 2010

Street Art Sculpture 2009


Eight books

Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.

  1. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities. 
  2. Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I  keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art. 
  3. John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
  4. Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
  5. Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas,  the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others. 
  6. Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
  7. Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
  8. Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.

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