Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

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

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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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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


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