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Buff After Reading – the art of buffing

To ‘buff’ is to paint a wall to remove the graffiti or to prepare it for another piece of graffiti. But sometimes the results of buffing can be strange.

Buffing comes in several styles: colour field, hard edge abstract and more abstract expressionist. Colour fields require the complete buffing of a wall to a single colour. Hard edge abstract art is created by the repeated buffing of parts of a wall in different shades paint. The more abstract expressionist style follows the graffiti covering but not eliminating the form.

Buffing is not the natural enemy of graffiti and is often an ally of street art. People will buff around the stencils and paste-ups to preserve them in Melbourne. People like Baby Gorilla or Be Free enough to avoid destroying them. Then there was the Christian buffing around a crucifix in Coburg. I love it when an artist alters buffing to make something of it.

Altered buffing

Altered buffing, unknown artist, Brunswick, 2011

There were a couple of strange buffing incidents in 2016. Australian artist Scott Marsh was paid to paint over his six-metre-tall mural of Kanye West kissing Kanye West. Reportedly it was Kanye’s management that paid Marsh $100,000 to buff it. Also in 2016, but kind-of the opposite to Marsh’s pay to buff,  when Bologna street artist, Blu buffed everything he ever did to prevent the mayor of Bologna from exploiting it.

Meanwhile, an a fence in Coburg someone fights back against graffiti with paint. As effective a strategy as any but this has now been overgrown with vegetation; if you really want to prevent graffiti vegetation and not buffing is the solution.

bad green buffing

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The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Bizarrely, Picasso’s Weeping Woman was not the first of his paintings to have been stolen from an Australian state art gallery to make a point. In 1967 Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (The beautiful Dutch woman) was stolen from the Queensland Art Gallery. At the time the painting was valued at $200,000 (the equivalent of $2,367,132 today).

Picasso had painted it in 1905 on cardboard mounted on wood, 77.1 × 65.8 centimetres, in gouache, a water-based poster-paint. La belle Hollandaise depicts a young woman wearing nothing but a traditional Dutch lacy-cloth cap. It was painted when Picasso was between his early ‘Blue period’, when he painted sad, downbeat subjects, and his ‘Rose period,’ when he focused on pleasant scenes in a primarily pinky hue.

The eccentric multi-millionaire grazier Major Harold De Vahl Rubin had purchased La belle Hollandaise for £6,000 in 1940 (about $477,882 today). In 1959 he wanted to know its current value, so he put it up for auction and bought it again, setting a record for the highest price paid for a living artist. Satisfied that he knew its value, he then donated his entire collection of modern European art to the Queensland Art Gallery: a Degas, a Renoir, a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Vlaminck, and three works by Picasso, including La belle Hollandaise.

In the middle of the night, on Monday 5 June, Robert Ferguson climbed up some scaffolding on the outside of the gothic brick building on Gregory Terrace in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. The building is now known as the Old Museum Building, but back in 1967 it was the Queensland Art Gallery. Ferguson forced open a top floor window with a screwdriver and entered the Gallery. Fortunately for Ferguson, there was no burglar alarm in that part of the Gallery. Little is known about the 22-year-old New Zealander who had been working as a labourer, but his father confirmed to reporters that his son did have a passion for art and was a frequent visitor to art galleries. Ferguson later claimed to have been motivated by a strange idealism. He was aware that the Gallery was considering the sale of La belle Hollandaise to raise money for a new building to be built on the southern bank of the Brisbane River. So he decided to steal the painting, later telling the police, “I was satisfied the public did not appreciate the painting, so I decided to steal it.”

Once he had stolen the painting, Ferguson’s main problem was where to keep it. He claims that for five days he hid it wrapped in blankets in the bush on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha. How the painting survived two rainy days and nights in such conditions is one of the many mysteries surrounding this theft.

Ferguson then decided to return the painting to Mrs Julie Rubin, the widow of the original Australian owner, Major Harold Rubin. Mrs Rubin was frightened by the sudden appearance of this strange young man at her mansion, ‘Toorak House’, in the inner-northern suburb of Hamilton, Brisbane on Sunday 11 June. However, as he was carrying a familiar Picasso, she let him in. Ferguson wanted her to reconsider her late husband’s gift and begged her to keep the painting for a month before reporting it to the police. Mrs Rubin agreed to this and the young man left.

The very next day the police arrived with a search warrant and found La belle Hollandaise in a spare bedroom. It was very embarrassing for Mrs Rubins, who then refused to give the police any information about the young man, except to say that she didn’t know him. This is odd because, who other than Mrs Rubin and Ferguson could have informed the police about the location of the painting?

Ferguson was not arrested until Saturday 24 June. Somehow the police were able to track him down. When they did they found a loaded pistol in his possession. He confessed to the theft, pleaded guilty to the firearms charges and was jailed for a month for possession of the loaded pistol.

La belle Hollandaise still hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.


The Intervention 10 Years On

“A Widening Gap: The Intervention 10 Years On” at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary of “the Intervention”.

Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie, Open Cut, 2017

Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie, Open Cut, 2017

“The Intervention.” it sounds like something that might be staged for an alcoholic friend. The Norther Territory National Emergency Response, as it is officially called, sounds like it might be doing something urgent however when it only implementing two of the ninety-seven recommendations in the NT Government’s Little Children are Sacred Report (2007) in a decade, you know that it is bullshit. So let’s call it for what it is a racist abuse of human rights and a land grab for miners that both the ALP and LNP support.

Curated by Jo Holder and Djon Mundine, from Cross Art Projects in Sydney, the exhibition is a wide examination of the issues imposed on the Aboriginal people in the NT from inadequate housing to inadequate justice; including artwork by an anonymous young artist from the infamous Don Dale Detention Centre.

Holder and Mundine have balanced the large polemic pieces with smaller works, such as the lively paintings and screenprints by Margaret Nampitjinpa Boko and Sally M. Mulda Nagala, that depict NT life with humour and passion, or the engaging series by artists in from Ntaria/Hermansburg, working in the watercolour tradition of Albert Namatjira, of mining operations dominating the landscape. Painting some of the landscapes that Namatjira painted with the addition of big yellow mining trucks in the foreground and, in one painting, a crashed UFO.

Benita Clements, Tjuritja (#396-16), 2016

Benita Clements, Tjuritja (#396-16), 2016

The mining trucks, and the UFO, are symbols of the alien invasion, a lack of consultation, the control of land, along with the environmental damage caused by mining. There are a number of works by Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie about the environmental impact of the McArthur River Mine where thousands of tons of waste released dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide.

This is not the first exhibition that the Counihan Gallery has held about this subject; in 2013 there was “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” curated by Holder and Mundine and featuring some of the same artists. Although it is a timely exhibition, considering that Victoria and NT have just announced that they would started treaty negotiations with the Aboriginal people, I have no confidence that, in 2023, there will not be yet another exhibition about the continuing “Intervention”.

Chips Mackinolty, "and there'll be no more dancing", 2007

Chips Mackinolty, “and there’ll be no more dancing”, 2007


Vampire killing at the Police Museum

Sometimes a small focused museum can be a wonderful thing, at other times, not. The Melbourne’s Police Museum is a small museum on the mezzanine level of the World Trade Centre on Flinders Street. You probably didn’t know that Melbourne had a police museum and this is possibly intentional as the museum, and the gift shop, are really for members of the force only, except that it open to everyone with a gold coin donation.

220px-Thomas_Blamey_-_Reynolds

Caricature of Sir Thomas Blamey by Leonard Frank Reynolds 1926

Aside from one suit of armour from the Kelly gang, the managed carcass of the car from the Russell Street bombings is the centrepiece of the museum. When I visited there was a temporary exhibition about members of the force who died in World War One which tells more about Australian nationalism than policing. These memorials to dead members of the force gets in the way of any other narratives that the museum could present. There is no display showing the development of handcuffs, uniforms or police radios. Technology, such as bomb disposal is presented in isolation rather than as part of a progression. This is because conservative history and museums are about memorialising the past rather than examining or explaining developments.

The Police Museum acknowledges that its former Chief Commissioner Blamey was a fascist in displaying a caricature of him. However, there is no examination on how that effected the Victoria Police (whose motto of ‘uphold the right’ has to be viewed differently in light of this association).

The purpose of the museum can be summed up by the strangest of all the museum’s exhibits is a vampire killing kit. Vampire killing kits are a thing and this isn’t a great version. They are about as real as religious relics, almost as common and like many religious relics vampire killing kits are confections concocted out of antiques. The kit contributes nothing to anyone’s knowledge of the police. The simple reason that it is on display in the Police Museum is that it is a curiosity that the police posses after confiscating it from a criminal.

The museum is hardly worth visiting but I did as part of my research into Melbourne’s art and crime. I was disappointed because I learnt almost nothing from the my visit, however, in examining my disappointment I have learnt the difference between a conservative and a progressive museum. Conservative museums are about memorials rather than explanation, events rather than developments, and satisfying curiosity rather than gaining knowledge. And the police museum is a very conservative museum.


Photographs on this blog

I take most of the photographs on this blog, so I thought that I’d put together a slide show of some of the best. The photos appeared on the blog from 2009 to 2018.

 

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Innocent’s Colony

The virtual world of digital art and the physical world of public art seem very far apart. So Troy Innocent was one of the last artists that I expected to have done public art. Public art in the sense that it is in a public space belonging to a privately owned building in Melbourne’s Docklands.

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I remember in 1996 Innocent produced Psy-Harmonics a 50 minute video combining synaesthesia and electronic music. It achieved the pop height of being played on MTV in Europe and Australia. He is now a Senior Lecturer in Games and Interactivity at Swinburne University of Technology. For more on Innocent read my review of a group exhibition, Melbourne Future in 2014.

Innocent uses codes and icons to give unknown meaning to the entrance way of another anodyne office block. In Colony 2008 unknown symbols appear on lights, etched into the concrete walls and as coloured forms on the wall. The symbols even appear on the name plate for the art. How to interpret the symbols in the code is the key to how interpret Innocent’s art. It is all about semantics and the relationship between symbols and meaning.

This is not the first public art that Innocent has done. I have vague memories of a project that he did for Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions. It was an interactive work that built on both Innocent’s digital art and his way-finding “urban codemaking”. And Colony builds on that project in a more permanent form.

I was interrupted in contemplating and photographing the parts of Colony by a security worker. I was asked me to stop photographing. There were no signs saying no photography. I have never been stopped from photographing sculpture on display in building lobby’s before. But discussing the matter with a low-paid security worker was pointless. As I walked through the car park the reason became clear from the signs on the doors of the trucks; the building housed part of Australia’s fascist department, the paranoid psychos of Border Force.


Political Graffiti in 2018

In late April on The Conversation Dr. Flavia Marcello. Associate Professor at Swinburne University’s School of Design, asks “Where has Melbourne’s political graffiti gone?” It is worth asking the question but aside from the yearning for the 70s and the overtly political graffiti of those times there wasn’t much to the article.

The scene on the street is now a more complex system, with greater diversity and more types of graffiti and street art operating. Rest assured Dr Marcello there is still plenty of political graffiti and street art in Melbourne. In all kinds of media from aerosol paint to stickers and even yarn bombing. Some of the best is done by stencil artist like Crisp and paste-up artists like Phoenix.

There is a wide variety of causes being promoted from ending Australia’s abuse of refugees to free West Papua. These causes are now in front of the eyes and cameras of international tourists who throng in their thousands to Melbourne’s graffiti attraction of Hosier Lane. The Free West Papua slogan managed to occupy space in the highly desirable Hosier Lane by using a chainlink fence that the aerosol and paste-up artists didn’t want. Consider the subversive power of a series of paste-ups calling to Free Liu Xiaobo in front of the cameras of Chinese tourists taking selfies in Hosier Lane.

So here is a collection of some of the best political street art and graffiti that I’ve seen in Melbourne in the last year or so. Although I am aware that there are many ways that graffiti and street art can be political, as in, contesting public and private space, I have tried to keep the politics of the collection clear and obvious. 


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