Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Van Rudd at Work

“I wanted to be a conservative painter but something…” Van Rudd pauses, searching for the best way to explain his life and the world. Van Rudd, the nephew of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is a politically engaged socialist artist who installs provocative street art sculptures, exhibits the stolen forks of the ultra-rich and parts of exploded vehicles from Afghanistan.

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I wondered what he had been up to since he ran for parliament against Julia Gillard in 2010. As it turns out he is painting a mural the Trades Hall carpark.

It is hard to believe that Van was ever a conservative painter but he was shows me some photos of his early paintings, they are very good but conservative in style. In his late-teens he was painting plein air Impressionist paintings of Brisbane. He then shows me some cool paintings that he did of exploding figures in stylish lounge rooms; paintings that looked like a mix between Geoffrey Smart, James Gleeson and Brett Whitely. He tried the fine art and contemporary art audience and he didn’t get the response was looking for, so he went in search of a different audience.

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Now his audience is not into contemporary art or street art. Now his audience is the union member who has no interest or time for following artists on Instagram or buying art in galleries. It is the person in the street or someone looking at the news. Van sees himself as a propagandist, even though he freely admits that the power of art is minimal compared to economic power. His art is there to support and illustrate the message.

Considering Van’s diverse art practice, from illustrating a children’s book to street art installations, I wanted to know what he did with most of your time as an artist? Did he work in a studio? He doesn’t really have one. When he is not an artist his hobby is indoor football. He also goes to a lot of left wing meetings because he finds that is a condensed way of doing research and getting information.

The carpark walls at Trades Hall are covered in graffiti and Van has had to buff back two large concrete sections. The graffiti in the carpark is a mix of the most basic tagging, by writers like Pork and Nost, along with political slogans: “Unions are part of the detention industry.”

The large mural that he is painting in Trades Hall carpark is just at its outline stage. Van says wants to revive the tradition of political mural painting in Melbourne that happened with Geoff Hogg in the 1970s.

Work progresses slowly, especially with me asking questions. Van with a paintbrush is not as fast as the street artists with their spray cans. He is critical of what he calls the “proletarianisation” and the “hyper-exploitation of street art.” The artist as sole trader has no protection, from exploitation and hazardous conditions especially the street artists working at heights. He tells me that has recently got his CFMEU white card for working on elevated work platforms; scissor-lifts, booms lifts, etc. Not that he is going to be working at height with this mural. He puts on a fume mask to protect against both the paint and car exhaust fumes and gets back to painting.

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An Average Week’s Exhibitions

There is nothing essentially wrong with two or three star art, for such passable art is the benchmark by which quality is measured.Sometimes the art has limited ambitions, content, or scope, a little idea or more of the same but well presented. Other times the art is ambitious but limited by the talent, funding, space needed in order to carry the idea. I am always hoping to see something exceptional but it is inaccurate to only write about the exceptional. For most of the time I see exhibitions that are average, slightly below average or slightly above average. Take for example the exhibitions that I saw this week in Brunswick.

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TextaQueen, Muse, 2016

TextaQueen’s “Eve of Incarnation” is a solo exhibition at Blak Dot Gallery of colour nude photographs of herself on a beach. They could be from a nude calendar for like such calendars they are so carefully contrived that in 16 photographs not a single nipple or public hair is showing. However, TextaQueen does not depict herself a weak or vulnerable, but rather strong, wild and powerful. This is emphasised in the titles: ‘Agitator,’ ‘Summoner,’ ‘Harnesser’. I don’t know if the titles are enough but TextaQueen is an established artist who has worked with nudes and between low-brow and high brow art. So although this exhibition is not in her primary media is not far from her core interests of gender, race and Australia.

Hilary Dodd’s solo exhibition “Anomalous” at Tinning Street Presents is unfortunately not anomalous but all too familiar. So many artists have painted nearly monochrome paintings with an emphasis on the texture of the paint and anomalous tones or colours.

“Unhidden” curated by Kali Michailidis at the Counihan Gallery was not revealing. At its best it was clever but obvious like Kouichi Okamoto’s “Liquid taper cutter work”, 2013 where the ends of strips of tape that have been used to paint a wall black look like paint drips. At its worst it remained obscure.

Also at the Counihan was “As Above, So Below” works on paper by Charlotte Watson and Shannon Williamson. Above; Williamson’s works on paper look like outer space, like nubuela, spectacular, beautiful, random creations, over-laid with geometric notes in chalk or pastel. Below; a more difficult proposition, Watson stitches thread, like geomancy lines in the dark earth. The works are clearly linked in their mapping elements, as well as, their inspiration from Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries.


Different Art Crowds

In the middle of January, a few galleries were opening again and one of these was BeinArt Gallery. BeinArt specialises in fantasy, pop-surrealist art; the type of art that makes you wonder why there is never really good Freudian psychiatrist around when you need one? If you are into pop surrealism or the macabre art then BeinArt is the place for you.

“Flesh & Bone” was a group exhibition at at BeinArt. The opening reception had turned into one of those Facebook events with 1.6K interested, 460 going and 1.2K invited. In reality a lot less people came than any of those numbers but, as it was a fine summer evening many goths, punks and other yet unspecified kinds of mutants were in attendance.

The Facebook event promised “entertainment from performance artist, Shamita Sivabalan.” I haven’t seen any body painting in decades.

That evening you could smell the crowd inside BeinArt Gallery from the door. It wasn’t a bad smell, it was a warm smell of humanity; it was about five degrees warmer inside with all the people.

It was a distinctly different crowd inside from the wine drinking contemporary art school crowd, or the beer drinking hetro graffiti and street art crowd. I am not simply proposing that different galleries attract different groups of people; that they are dressed differently, drink and eat differently at exhibition openings. Rather that these are distinctly different groups with different aesthetics and different values.

The high end art market and the contemporary art scenes might attempt to dismiss the crowd at BeinArt Gallery or the street art crowds as simply subcultures. That assumes that they themselves are not a subculture and that the dominant mass aesthetic culture in Australia, where the list of visual artists might be: David Bromley, Ken Done, Pro Hart, etc. the kind of artists who are not even exhibited in the state galleries.

I think that there are several totally different art crowds in Melbourne just as there are different music audiences depending on the genre of music. To imagine that there was only one type of music would be an obvious mistake today but not so a few centuries ago. This is more of an issue for a critic discussing these different genre’s than for the audience or artists.

BeinArt Gallery isn’t the only place in Sparta Place selling original art, a couple of doors along is Santa Clara comic book shop with some original art for sale too; art for the nerd and geeks. Faced with the hyperbole of the art in “Flesh & Bone” the depictions of the urban environment in comic book inspired art appeared both more relevant and restrained.

SpartaPlace caters to a wide mix of tastes: the bust of King Leonidas, the contemporary public art pillars by Louise Lavarack, the mass taste of bridal boutiques, the old Spanish Mission revival architecture along with the graffiti and street art in the parking lot.


Confined 8, Indigenous Prison Art Exhibition

Confined 8 is a large exhibition of art by hundreds of Indigenous artists who are currently in, or recently released from a prison in Victoria. There are about two hundred paintings and other works of art are packed into the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery.

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It is impossible to sum up all this art in a few words. There is a lot of variety from traditional to contemporary art and all kinds of mixes in between by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the continent. The art, often painted in prison cells on small canvases, are such careful, delicate and considered works; the quality is often very high for amateur painters basically because of the time taken on them.

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Waridub’s painted football is a great mix of tradition and contemporary life: I’ve never seen a painted football before. “Legends of the Game” depicts Michael Long and Adam Goodes. (There should be a series of these balls; what about Mal Meniga?)

Ray Traplin of Kuku Yalandji people painted an impressive and colourful scene in “Cape York Hunting Grounds”. Traplin and many of the other artists depict animals, birds, fish, lizards, insects in meticulous dots or cross-hatching work however few can combine so many images as Traplin does into one spectacular painting.

The exhibition was organised by The Torch. The Torch runs the Indigenous Arts in Prisons & Community program. It uses art as a forum for cultural exploration to provide indigenous men and women in custody and on release with a new way forward. This has been enhanced by new legislation in 2015 that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to keep any money that they make from art sales. The Torch does not take any commission on the sales and the money from art sales is held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the prisoner’s release. Having money to fund a new life on release from prison is important.

A few paintings are NFS (not for sale) meaning that they had already been given to a relative. It is sad that it might be the only time that they will get a painting is when one of their relatives is locked up.

Prison art is a much neglected part of Aboriginal art history. It is an important aspect due to the over representation of Aboriginals in Australian prisons; “The world’s worst levels of detention of Indigenous people” according to Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission. So you can look at Confined 8 as either rehabilitation or resistance, survival in the face of genocidal policies and cultural destruction.


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.


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