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Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.

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The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.

All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.

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Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country

This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.

Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.

To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.

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Sandor Matos & Space

Sometimes it takes years for me to uncover a mystery. I first encountered Sandor Matos’s sculptures in Warburton Lane in 2009. I assumed that he was part of Melbourne’s street artist scene but no-one knew who did the work. Eventually, it was David Tenenbaum, the publisher of Melbourne Books who was able to put a name to the work. Still when I finally met Matos at his small exhibition, Archeology of Tomorrow at Studio 11 in Brunswick late in 2016 I was expecting someone younger and wilder, not a middle-aged Hungarian who works as stone conservator.

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Sandor Matos sculpture with unknown paste-up in Warburton Lane 2009

The packing space series started when Matos had some artificial stone left over from a restoration job at Melbourne University, so he decided to put it to use. He was living in Warburton Lane at the time of the installation so transportation of the heavy sculptures was not a problem.

Studio 11 is a small white walled cubical at the front of this warehouse studio space that the artists, Joe Flynn and Joel Gailer are running. Joe Flynn raised up the roller doors and we looked at it from the street.

Sandor Matos turns negative space into positive sculptures. The use of found negative space as a sculptural area has been explored by several other sculptors, notably Rachael Whitebread in her House, winning the Turner Prize.

Cast from rectified readymade moulds found in the space between packing material. Matos rectifies the packing material slightly, enhancing the geometric compositions and removing any indication what it once contained or other symbols.

Matos has uncovered a mid-century modern style at the core of packaging. It is found in the negative spaces of styrofoam. That the modern style is preserved in packaging is hardly surprising given the connections between modernism and efficient design.


Brunswick Studio Walk 2017

It was always interesting to see behind the scenes, artists at work and inside building that you would otherwise not have access to. Admittedly this was often a concrete warehouse but not always. The modernist building housing Perucci Studio and Plein Air Studio has always intrigued me and this was probably my last chance to see it before the area is redeveloped.

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Perucci Studio and Plein Air Studio, Brunswick

What was a good idea last year has become an annual event. This was thanks to its instigators and organisers, Josh Simpson and Charlotte Watson of Studio 23A in Leslie Street and all the artists and studios involved; there was no corporate or council sponsorship of the event.

This year the studio walk was on Saturday and it was longer and larger. Not that the walk went to all of the studios in Brunswick, not even in the area of Brunswick near the train tracks between Moreland and Jewell station.

Including galleries in the walk expanded it and made this free event even more accessible. There were hundreds of people strolling along the route, especially after The Age ran an article last Thursday promoting it.

I didn’t see everything deciding that I had seen the Counihan, Blak Dot Gallery and Tinning Street Presents recently; see my post “an average week’s exhibitions.”

Soma Art Space had a great exhibition of handmade guitars. There were electric and acoustic guitars but my eye was drawn to some of the more eccentric designed cigar-box guitars by Greg McKinnon, made from reclaimed materials.

The diversity of types of studios from the art studios of Studio 23A and Studio Brunswick, the craft studios of Toast Workroom and SoCA pottery, to comic book art at SquishFace Studio. This diversity of the creative ecology of Brunswick is part of its strength.


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.


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.


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