Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Smith and Gertrude Street Galleries

On Thursday I was walking around the galleries around Smith and Gertrude Streets when I saw lots of men in suits out the front of the artist-run-gallery, 69 Smith Street. They were real estate agents packing up from the auction, the old building and small block of land had just sold for $2 million. The gallery was still open with their second last exhibitions; still life paintings by Martin Tighe and a exhibition of graduating regional artists from GOTAFE.

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As an artist-run-gallery 69 Smith Street survived for many years offering some of the cheapest exhibition space in Fitzroy and Collingwood. Consequently there were many exhibitions by students, amateur artists and a few others. Its final years as an organisation was notable only by an ugly year long dispute about who ran the gallery.

Sometimes I wonder what is the value of my practice of going around as many galleries as I can in a day. Sometimes I do this in different locations (Chelsea Gallery Crawl) but most often it the same familiar galleries. What am I doing exploring often the same territory? Why am I bothering with going to some rental space or small ARI?

I am observing the opening and closing of art galleries, the changes in the street, the graffiti and street art? I observe that a few galleries have closed in the area in the last couple of years. Finally I spotted a piece by Utah and Ether, graffiti’s Bonnie and Clyde, that will help with the book I’m writing about art crime.

In the past I used to write regular reports of these walks, I still do them but now I use the exercise to find a particular art work or artist that I am will write about or just for the exercise of the walk.

I have a late lunch at the Beach Burrito Company on Gertrude Street. It is the only Mexican restaurant I’ve seen with an empty in-ground swimming pool, presumably for skateboards. As I eat my tacos I look at my notes:

Backwoods had its end of year stockroom show featuring art by the usual street art suspects including Deams, Shida, Roa, Reka, Twoone, and Lush.

Collingwood Gallery, “Nepo Rab” new paintings by Eric Henshall, a whole series of acrylic paintings on canvas depicting colourful scenes in American bars. Why American bars in Collingwood?

Gertrude Contemporary, there was too much to read at the “Gertrude Studios 2016” exhibitions. Pages and pages of notes for a single art work, more pages for another one, along with a room sheet in 10pt font. What ever it is, contemporary art appears to be a form of literature.

This Is No Fantasy, Neil Haddon, “New Works” are lush paintings that fracturing, in several ways, including between sort of landscapes and silly portraits with two round eyes.

Seventh Gallery, several strong contemporary art exhibitions at this ARI, including an upstairs space (shows how long it has been since I was last at Seventh) where Elizabeth Presa “In Playland” depicts the frozen memory of playtime in plaster. Downstairs in the front gallery Freÿa Black “Umbilicus in Flux” is an impressive, expanding weaving of donated clothing, fabric and yarn that grew during the exhibition.

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Elizabeth Presa, In Playland

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Freÿa Black “Umbilicus in Flux”


Factivism @ Counihan Gallery

Liz Walker’s Still Life is based on the flower arrangement at the wake for murder victim, Jill Meagher at the Brunswick Green. It is a mix of beauty and danger, violent and domestic elements. It is all made from found and recycled materials. The sharp shards of the broken beer bottles are open like lilies, the stamen are knitting needles and bullet casings, the leaves are knives painted green. It is referencing the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

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Liz Walker, Still Life, glass, recycled and found objects, 2016

The facts:

On the first Thursday night of the month there is an exhibition opening at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. It is the final exhibition for the year, the public end of year for the gallery, the Moreland Summer Show, an exhibition of artists connected to the City of Moreland. This year there are forty artists producing work on the theme of “factivism”.

Counihan gallery’s curator, Victor Griss said that he wanted a word to be “diagonal counter” to slacktivism, the superficial show of online support for a cause. To have a theme that has both infinite possibilities and limits.

There were almost two hundred people, wine, nibbles, the obligatory speeches, from the Mayor of Moreland who won’t be Mayor in a week or so, the curator, Victor Griss and former curator, Edwina Bartlem. It is an inclusive community; for the first time there was an Auslan interpreter to translate the speeches into sign language.

Edwina Bartlem is a former curator of the Counihan and a local resident, who is now the Exhibitions Manager at the state Library of Victoria. Edwina recognised the community aspect of the exhibition opening suggesting that everyone talk to someone they hadn’t met. I already had, I had to compliment the recycling cyclist on his amazing waistcoat pinned with objects.

Lots of people to say hello to. It is a community that I have been writing about in this blog for many years. I have seen some artists develop from early attempts to their current work. I have written whole blog posts about some them: Wendy Black, Julian Di Martino and Alister Karl.


Is the NGV a high end Department Store?

Have the couturier fashion hijacked fashion as art? When the NGV or even the Metropolitan museum in NYC have a major fashion exhibition it is from a couturier fashion label. Fashion is like the art world in the nineteenth century, pre-Salon d’Refuse or the Vienna Session. The guild masters are still in charge and there are no independents or primitives or popular commercial lines.

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Viktor&Rolf, Wearable Art, 2015-6 (photo by Team Peter Stigter)

I started to consider this when comparing the Metropolitan’s Modern American art collection their fashion exhibition, Manus x Machina, Fashion in the Age of Technology. In the Met’s art collection there are outsider artists, primitives and even a Norman Rockwell. However at the fashion exhibition there was only work from couturier labels and no outsider, primitives or mainstream fashion.

I considered this again when I read Natty Solo’s brilliant critique of Viktor & Rolf exhibition. Natty Solo is focused on sexism in the NGV’s choice of major exhibitions but still raises the question: “Have we sold out art by turning this museum into a high end Department Store?” This is another aspect of that conservatism that favours male artists for NGV exhibitions. This is about not thinking and making easy choices for sponsorship.

Admittedly the NGV has had an exhibition of t-shirts and the popular streetwear label Mambo but both were in the NGV Studio and not major exhibitions. In some ways Bendigo Art Gallery has done better in its choice of touring fashion exhibitions. By looking at fashion through Hollywood stars, Marilyn or Grace Kelly provide the focus for the exhibition rather than a couturier label. The exhibition is not a promotional vehicle for a label but an examination of fashion history.

The domination of couturier fashion in art gallery exhibitions raises the questions about independence of the gallery and its curators in their choice to promote certain labels or designers. The gallery is acting as a promotion vehicle for their product, some of which is sold at the gift shop at the end of the exhibition. It questions the reason for NGV or the Metropolitan’s existence, because promotion is neither an educational nor an aesthetic reason for an exhibition.


Emily Floyd’s Signature Work

The big black bunny is clearly a toy; it’s blocky features and simplified form is a result of it being a toy and not modern art. I had only seen in Emily Floyd Signature Work (Rabbit) in a photograph that mislead me about its size. As always with these things I was expecting something larger but Melbourne’s Docklands with it’s multi-story buildings is so large that the rabbit would have to be huge to compete.

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Emily Floyd, Signature Work, 2004

When I first saw Floyd’s work years ago in Anna Schwartz Gallery I didn’t like it. I haven’t liked her subsequent exhibition either including; The Dawn, a solo survey exhibition at the NGV in 2014. All the bright colours and toy like forms seem prosaic when you realise the dull question that they are based on: if art is about communication can we learn from it?

Her public sculpture made me reconsider work. Her Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) on EastLink or her Signature Piece (Rabbit) in Docklands work appear to be fun contemporary public sculptures. They work in that they are effective at creating recognisable landmarks for the otherwise anonymous locations.

Her gallery work is different; you aren’t going past it in a car. It is somehow different even when she is using the same toy rabbit form. I keep hoping for fun, irony, or play in them but there is never enough to balance out the serious pedagogical inspiration of her work. The art-speak about her work reduces the fun even more. Phrases like: “text-based sculptures and pedagogically-inspired works which combine formal concerns with an interest in the legacies of modernism.” Is there that much depth to Floyd’s work? Possibly there is but it does suck all the fun out of it. The deeper that Floyd attempts to make her art, the shallower it seems to me.

In her 2015 exhibition Field Libraries, the pedagogical inspiration of her work is clear, as she turned her brightly coloured play blocks into book shelves. The painted aluminium shelves were stacked with booklets printed, “fair use” from the internet. A series of uniques state screen prints illustrating books, representing the idea of Floyd’s ongoing library. Subjects in the library include ‘Zombie Marxism’ and ‘Feminist Autonomism.’

Emily Floyd’s sculptures might look like toys but this is serious art. It is a bit too serious, too prosaic in its pedantic intent. Floyd is not playing with these big toys, she is using them to demonstrate ideas. The more you look at her art the less fun you have.

Does everything have to be an educational experience? What have you learnt from this?

Emily Floyd, Public Art Strategy, 2006 (19 EastLink)

Emily Floyd, Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) 2006, photograph courtesy of EastLink


Train Lines and Graffiti

I was intrigued when I saw a couple of these notes from the train, travelling past them at speed I couldn’t be sure of what I read. I knew that there were probably more and so I rode my bicycle along the Upfield bike track to photograph as many as I could find in Brunswick.

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The more of these messages that I saw the less interested I became. Soon it wasn’t as interesting as some of the graffiti and street art that I was seeing.

What is it? Why is it there? It wasn’t graffiti because there was no tag and the stencilled letters had no calligraphic quality. It had no obvious appeal or charm so it wasn’t street art. Therefore it had to be contemporary art, or, maybe post-graffiti, if there is a difference.

Why it was there became obvious when I saw the MoreArt 2016 program. Train Lines is the creation of interdisciplinary artist writer and director, Marcia Ferguson is the artistic director of the Big West Festival. Ferguson intended Train Lines to be a poem based in interviews about the use of the Upfield line as mortuary transport to Fawkner Cemetery. Again you would have to have read the MoreArt’s program to know any of that.

It reminds me that in all its years MoreArts has never come to terms with exhibiting in the same areas as graffiti and street art. Existing in their own conceptual bubbles, each competes for attention without acknowledging the existence of the other. There are so many groups competing to use areas along the Upfield train line, see my blog post from earlier this year.

Ferguson’s Train Lines has the quality of what Alison Young what calls “streetness”: “a quality whose importance derives partly from the fact that the street does not provide passers-by with details of authorship that we take for granted in a gallery.” (Young, Street Art World, 2016 p.35) However, Train Lines is not street art.

Many histories of street art and graffiti ignore that contemporary art also exists outside of the art gallery and often in the street alongside street art and graffiti. From land art to happenings contemporary artists were creating art outside of the gallery.

An early example is Christo blocking a small street in Paris with oil drums, Wall of Oil Barrels – Iron Curtain on June 27, 1962. It was a protest against the Berlin Wall that had been built the year before. If you look carefully at Jean-Dominique Lajoux photograph of Iron Curtain you can see that the street that Christo and Jeanne-Claude used has graffiti on its walls.

“Streetness” or urban locations for contemporary art is it a difference of competing ideas and intentions rather than one of style?


Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade

Turning and spinning are themes that Sean Gladwell’s art revolves around; as in his video Storm Sequence where he spins around on his skateboard. So it is not surprising that his VR art, Reversed Readymade makes heads turn.

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In fact you can turn a full 360 degrees in a VR of an actual warehouse studio while seated in an office chair. It makes you feel very much in control of the VR experience, even if you are stuck in one spot, because you can turn your back on things.

Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade is a beautiful use of VR technology with a big reference to Marcel Duchamp. This is both the most direct and complete Duchamp reference that I have ever seen (I did my Master’s thesis on Duchamp so I have seen a lot). Gladwell takes Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel and makes it his own.

Gladwell actually makes it his own, making his own bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and then rides it around, spinning around in a circle in the studio. The six minute VR experience depicts this along with some bicycle riding.

Marcel Duchamp had the idea of a reverse readymade. It was a reciprocal arrangement to his readymades, where an existing work of art would be used as an ordinary object. “A Rembrandt used as an ironing board” was Duchamp’s suggestion but Bicycle Wheel is more deserving. It also works better for Gladwell who has more experience with wheels than domestic appliances.

Nor should we forget Duchamp’s interest in optical and mechanical art and that the bicycle wheel was his first attempt at optical art. Duchamp made Bicycle Wheel, in part, to be able to watch the pattern of shadows from a spinning spokes for more than a few seconds.

I’d like to think that Duchamp would have been very impressed with Gladwell’s work for its visual, optical and conceptual elements; he would have also probably felt a bit dizzy from the VR experience, I was.

Sean Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade 2016 is part of the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University.


Maritime Art at the Mission to Seafarers

The ANL Maritime Art Awards & Exhibition features the winning artworks and all the short-listed entries. Three rooms of paintings at the Melbourne Mission to Seafarers Victoria at the far dockside end of Flinders Street. It is in the perfect location for the exhibition including exhibiting under the dome of the historic Spanish mission-style building.

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Catherine Stringer, “Lost at Sea” (photo courtesy of Maritime Art Awards)

There are lots of paintings of container ships but it was not all traditional painting there is plenty of modern and contemporary art. Lost at Sea” by Catherine Stringer is a haunting dress made of seaweed pulp in a shadow frame that refers to the convict women who drowned in a colonial shipwreck. This work won Stringer the Bendigo Wealth ‘Emerging Artist Award’.

The maritime theme includes more than just boats, there are whimsical paintings about the shore and social realism about nautical life.

I enjoyed the simplicity of Garry Arnephy’s mixed media work “Cargo” Appleton Dock, Melbourne, made of acetate and corrugated cardboard with a few little marks with paint and pencil.

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Garry Arnephy, ‘“Cargo” Appleton Dock, Melbourne’, mixed media

With all that is going on in Melbourne art, readers may ask why reviewing an exhibition of maritime art? It is unfortunate, but true, that to produce great art you must not only be a good artist but create art that is significant and meaningful. For this reason John Stubbs is the greatest European painter of equestrian themes and I would be extremely surprised if a greater one emerged. The same will be true, with a different name, for Chinese or Japanese art, not because the artists aren’t as good but because the age of the horse is over.

Likewise, the greatest paintings of dogs and ships have already been painted. (I don’t have a favourite artist to cite for these examples.) However, there is still a demand for paintings of horses, dogs and ships and so there are still people who paint them. I noticed that there was an artist who painted dog portraits at Royal Melbourne Show.

I want to look at the long tail of these themes in art, not as anachronisms, but because they shows certain functional aspects of art. Not the simple functionalism of representation but how art functions in response to a theme and within a context where the theme is meaningful. People want art that celebrates, comments or records themes that are meaningful to them.

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