Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Robert Nelson is grumpy

“When there bursts froth from one mansion a song of youth and originality, even though harsh and discordant, it should be received not with howls of fury but with reasonable attention and criticism.” Max Rothschild

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Ronnie van Hout, You!, 2016 (at Gertrude Contemporary)

I don’t want to be one of those old critics who go on about how art has lost its path and that some boring, old artist is that last real artist. I don’t want to be Clement Greenberg, Robert Hughes, or, to be more current, Robert Nelson who this week brought out the old complaint about painting being dead.

I have lived a long time and I’ve yet to see the death of painting, although it has been talked about for longer than I have lived.

Nor do I expect to see contemporary art creating an infinite regression of self-referentiality that swallows up all meaning.

Like Nelson I had also seen Nicholas Mangan’s video of the endlessly spinning coin, Ancient Lights at Monash University Museum of Art. I agree with Nelson that it is ingenious and beautiful but where we differ is over Nelson’s conclusion that video has  replaced painting, or that this means that now “most painters lack most skills in painting”.

The critics who thought that modernism would crash like a Ponzi scheme have been exposed as simply conservative. The fact is that the apocalypse will not occur and there will never be a final revelation that modernism or contemporary art are a load of rubbish. This is because art is not like a cult or even a pseudo-science, like phrenology, it lacks the definition of such organisations, it is more nebulous, living and growing, like fungus.

I am sure based on population size that the greatest artist who ever lived is probably alive today. When you consider increased education, social mobility, women’s rights and other factors it is more than likely that this is the case. Now I can’t tell you who this artist is with the same certainty but I am certain that they are out there and I am looking for them.

I am equally sure that the worst artist who ever lived is also probably alive today but what does that prove? I am not renouncing writing bad reviews; if you see a bad exhibition then give it a bad review just don’t see it as some general example of the decline of art.

I am sure that there were awful, dross fourteenth century altar pieces and frescos because I have seen some of them. Four headless saints their necks still spurting arcs of blood bowing to the crucifixion while their heads sit on the ground in a neat arrangement around the cross. Others of it were probably painted over or replaced and thrown out, like an old TV sets.

To go from specific examples to generalisations is always a mistake but when the size of the present from which to cherry pick examples is so large compared to the smaller sample of memories of the past it is absurd to believe that you have evidence of any value.

Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man. The only problem with current music is that it isn’t loud enough. Or, maybe I now need hearing aids.


Some Union Art Connections

Under the portico of Trades Hall is bronze base-relief of John Dias by William Leslie Bowles. I am more familiar with the sculptor for his several public sculptures around Melbourne, including the equestrian statue of General Monash  than the subject. The glass or ceramic eyes are a strange addition to the otherwise unremarkable portrait plaque.

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William Leslie Bowles, John Dias Memorial at Trades Hall

The effusive praise of the inscription on the plaque is unilluminating and almost vacuous: “John Dias – Born May 11 1861 – Died August 13 1924 – A man whose every endeavour was in the cause of the worker and to uplift humanity – a token of respect from those who knew him.” Yes, I can tell he is a man from his moustache and the fact that he has a memorial on the front of Trades Hall would strongly indicate the rest. The shield and motto Credo Sed Caveo (believe, but take heed) reveal that he was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.

Further along the block is Steps Gallery is a large, square, well-lit, white walled room on the ground floor of 62 Lygon Street in Carlton South. Established in 1992 one side of the gallery opens onto Artee Cafe, with its glass roof. Unusually for a Melbourne gallery it is owned by the Meat Industry Employees’ Superannuation Fund. It is not a bad investment, the gallery is a rental exhibition space, two artists had rented it for an exhibition when I was there.

You wouldn’t immediately associate the meat worker’s union with artist ceramics but in the foyer of 62 Lygon Street is the Melbourne Meat Workers Union Ceramics Collection. Three large cabinets house a spectacular collection of around 30 high quality artist ceramics. They were collected by Wally Curran, the union secretary between 1983-1997.

There are many connections between Melbourne’s unions and art as this brief exploration has shown but many are also a bit ernest, worthy and boring, like these examples.


Bruce Armstrong @ NGV

It may not be a Norwegian Blue but there is definitely a large dead bird in the middle of the foyer of the NGV. Although hieratic, priestly, stiff and formal like ancient Egyptian art, Bruce Armstrong’s sculptures somehow have a sense of humour. “That’s what you think” says the monstrous Knuckles holding a club behind his back.

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The two guardians that thirty years ago stood in front of the NGV on St. Kilda Road are now in the foyer of the NGV at Fed Square for the Bruce Armstrong exhibition. They are joined with their maquette, the original model for the sculpture and many other works of art by Armstrong.

The exhibition is in the foyer on each of the NGV’s three floors; It continues the series of local sculptors that started with the Inge King retrospective in 2014, Lenton Parr in 2015 and, now Armstrong.

Fish, gryphon, snake, eagle, bull, bear, cat, crocodile, carved from Red Gum with great big cracks or knotty Cypress wood. Armstrong works is a traditional process; he finds the creature in the shapes in the wood that he carves, as he removes more and more. Big and rough his sculptures are surreal and shamanic taping into our collective unconsciousness.

Armstrong’s art is so associated with wood that even when he makes bronze editions wood is still the model. The exhibition reminds the visitor that Armstrong works in other media and that he won the Archibald Price in 2005 of a self-portrait with eagle.

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Bruce Armstrong, Still Life (Mirror), 1994

It also reminds the visitor of Armstrong’s carved big blocks of buildings in the early eighties, as in Worlds and worlds, 1984, where a great building sits on the back of tortoise. For the city is also part of our collective unconsciousness.

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Bruce Armstrong, Worlds and worlds, 1984

Armstrong is well known for his public sculptures in Melbourne. His Eagle, “Bunjil” is perched over Wurundjeri Way in the Docklands. Its maquette and several of its close relatives are in this exhibition.

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Bruce Armstrong, Bunjil maquette, c.1996


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.


Gallery Crawl July

I knew that I would see some art galleries and street art when I went for a walk around Fitzroy and Collingwood. I didn’t have a specific agenda or plan for my walk, there is always something new to see in the area and not just in the galleries.

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Yusk Imai, The Mortal Drama, pearlescent acrylic and marker on canvas

When I started blogging I had a real sense of exploration, I would go looking for new galleries. I yearn for that sense of exploration now but sometimes it feels easier just have to keep doing the rounds of certain galleries and familiar street art locations. Now walking down Flinders Lane or along Gertrude Street seems to be the most efficient way to find an exhibition to review in a blog post.

I was looking for Bside Gallery because I had heard of it so I don’t know how I missed seeing it; I must have been momentarily distracted as I pasted by the shopfront on Brunswick Street. I did end up seeing a gallery that I haven’t visited before, Besser Space.

At Besser Space was “Eve, a photographic exhibition” by Zo Damage of women in rock. Zo Damage claims to be “Melbourne’s busiest music photographer” and she might be; she is half way through her 365 Day Live Music project to photograph a live band a day for an entire year. Not including the hundreds of photos in her 365 Day project there are a lot of black and white photographs in this exhibition, fortunately Besser Space is a large rough warehouse space, perfect for an exhibition of rock photographs.

A dozen surreal paintings by the São Paulo based artist, Yusk Imai hang in his exhibition “The Moratal Drama” at Backwoods Gallery. Imai’s paintings combine painting and drawing with marker pen on canvas. They are a mix of patterns, arty splatters and delicately drafted figures. His surreal forms stand, often on plinths, in the surreal locations of the forest or the empty desert in the rain shadow of the mountains on the horizon, stuck contemplating their absurd but beautiful existence.

Gertrude Contemporary had a group exhibition of its usual contemporary art. I was unlucky with the galleries as many installing new exhibitions, like the CCP and Collingwood, or undergoing major renovations, like Hogan and Kick. Not one of my more successful gallery crawls. On the other hand I did see some interesting things on the street, had a walk in the sunshine and a delicious lunch.


A couple of exhibitions in Brunswick

In Sparta Place there is a new gallery, Beinart Gallery offering “fine art” and “curiosities”. Gallery director, Jon Beinart has been involved with pop surrealism for over a decade, publishing books for several years and collecting a coterie of artists. Beinart says that all the gallery now has a physical presence most of his business is online sales.

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Pop surrealism is the bastard child of Salvador Dali and a Hollywood Blvd hooker. The child grew up in an American tattoo parlour reading underground comics and eating acid like it was candy. Like many of that generation pop surrealism traveled the world, growing bigger, fatter and more popular but is still hanging out in a tattoo parlour reading comic books, or fatter graphic novels.

One side of the shopfront gallery is used for temporary exhibitions, the other side has a selection of diverse works from the stockroom.

The current temporary exhibition is “Transmogrify” a three person exhibition by Ben Howe, Tim Molloy and Jake Hempson.

Howe’s paintings depict the point of disintegration of the head, fracturing or metamorphosing into a tangle of ribbons. I first saw Ben Howe’s work in the Melbourne Stencil Festival 2009 but this is first time that I’ve seen a series of his paintings. His current work aren’t stencil works but oil paintings; Howe completed a Masters of Fine Art at RMIT in 2011.

Illustrator and comic artist, Tim Molloy has a series of watercolour paintings of strange characters based on his work for his graphic novel, Mr Unpronounceable and the Infinity of Nightmares.

Digital animator Jake Hempson also makes actual sculptures. In a series of busts that explore alternate anatomy of human heads with a particular focus on the interior surface of the maxilla, the upper jawbone, or replacing the head with an animal skull.

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At Tinning Street presents there is a tour de’force of paper cutting by Japanese artist, Akiko Nagino. Nagino explained that has only been in Melbourne for a few years and was amazed at how many people have come to see her “Cutting Nature” exhibition. It is obvious. It was also obvious when she was a finalist in the Victorian Craft Awards in 2015

Her designs are of butterflies, patterns and decay. There are lower edges that are dripping, distorted or melting, there are broken chains, all perfectly cut out of paper.

The cut paper is a substitute for clothes or jewellery; there are two butterfly patterned kimonos, a giant necklace, a handkerchief and several shawls. In some of the works the paper has been treated and coloured with iron and copper finishes.

Large scale hand cut paper pieces are complimented with dry embossed prints of the cut paper pieces. The subtle white on white of embossed paper balancing the high contrast of the cut paper piece.

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