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Tag Archives: contemporary art

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.

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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”


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.


LOL @ Counihan or how to laugh in an art gallery

People are laughing at the art in the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.

That’s good.

Curators Catherine Connolly and Victor Griss have assembled ten artists with a variety of comedic voices from around Australia. If all the artists in the exhibition were comedians Jordan Marani is the one who swears a lot. In Colourful Language: Charm Offensive Marani moves from the sublime abstract to the profane explicit.

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Stephen Bird

Stephen Bird’s plates are the opposite of the usual delicate, tasteful and pretty ceramics.

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Leon Van De Graaff

Local Brunswick artist, Leon Van De Graaff has created a robotic two-handed routine satirising the art gallery opening: “A show about Everything and Nothing: The episode where Yuri and Leon get really drunk at an opening and sing.” Unfortunately the opening was louder than the volume of Yuri and Leon.

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Brisbane based soft sculpture, Alice Lang ironically comments on communication in popular culture with an Epic Fail.

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Danielle Hakim

Danielle Hakim’s “The End” is a simple, effective and ridiculous one-liner.

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Sharon West

Joking aside, there is the comic vision of Sharon West’s fantastic dioramas depicting scenes in the epic comedy of an alternate Australian history.

Several of the artists have already been compared to comedians. John Bailey in The Age compared the performance and video art of Anastasia Klose to Jackass and Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat. Sydney artists Kat Mitchell was described as the “lovechild of silent film star Harold Lloyd and video artist Christian Marclay” by Dylan Rainforth in the SMH. The Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane described Ronnie Van Hout as “a master of slapstick existentialism” and, I have compared local Coburg artist, Julian Di Martino to a prop comic and wrote that his exhibition “should be in the Comedy Festival.”

Now he is. Is This Thing On? is an exhibition in conjunction with the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Aside from exhibition of cartoons this is the first art exhibition that Rod Quantock remembers in his thirty years of performing at the comedy festival. Which is a bit odd because humour, like all other emotions, is expressed in the visual arts.

So why hasn’t there been an art exhibition before in the comedy festival? Although humour has always been present to some extent in the visual arts, it has only recently become a central theme. This may be due to the epic failure of modernism, changes in public and critical attitudes towards comedy and the growth of importance of the white box art gallery, what the Irish art critic, Brian O’Doherty, compares to “a straight man in a slapstick routine.” (Brian O’Doherty, “Boxes, Cubes, Installation, Whiteness and Money” A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution, 2009) It might just be because people have learnt how to laugh in art galleries.

Not that curator, Victor Griss plans to make a comedy art exhibition a regular feature of the comedy festival or on the Counihan Gallery’s program. That easily become the antithesis of comedy, predictable, dull and obvious.


Wurm Haus & clinamen

Jess Johnson, Wurm Haus and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamen demonstrate two different ways of using imagination and making art. Imagination could be the invention of another world or to imagine another use of existing items in this world to create new beauty. Art as the creation or art as a creative uses.

Both are currently on the third floor the NGV International.

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Jess Johnson, Ixian Gate, 2015 video still (courtesy of Darren Knight Gallery)

Wurm Haus is an exhibition a series of drawings and a virtual reality experience, based on the drawings, The Ixian Gate. Johnson’s imagination created both the drawings and 3D VR Oculus Rift VR experience of the planet Ix from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, Dune.

The VR experience is a five minute magic carpet ride through impressive huge spaces. Five people at a time go through the same experience, each with headphone and headset; the gallery attendant explaining the procedure and wiping down each set of headsets and headphones between each group. The psychedelic intensity of detailed patterns mixed with classical architecture, great multicoloured worms, bat masks, flesh toned figures doing acrobatics.

Clinamen by the French artist and composer, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is a very different kind of art. White ceramic bowls floating in the round blue pool of water with a current running down the middle driving the bowls around in two loops. Bell-like chimes from the ceramic bowls ring out when two bowls bump. There is a variety of tones created when different sized bowls bumped. Chance encounters in a random universe can be beautiful if we take the time to appreciate it.

It was designed for, and originally installed, in the Federation Court of the NGV. However when I saw it there it made little impact on me. Its new location, in its own room, removed from the crowds on the ground floor entrance, it is more conducive to listening and reflecting.

Clinamen is more accidental than the rigorously planned Wurm Haus. The audience’s involvement, both in the duration and  their movement in the space, with it is also less planned and controlled. One artist has created and planned immense amount of detail whereas the other has made a simple idea into reality in all its unplanned complexity.

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Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamen, 2013 (courtesy of the NGV)


December 2015

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Exit 2015, Friday 11th December, Brunswick Arts

On Friday night across Melbourne many galleries and studios were holding their end of year celebrations. But it wasn’t just the end of another year at Brunswick Arts (aka Brunswick Art Space, Brunswick Art Gallery), it is closing permanently. Eleven years ago Joel Gailer established the gallery in a building that featured an old house at one end and a factory space that opened onto laneway at the other end. On Friday there was a final one night only exhibition using the whole now empty building.

I like the tradition of the end of the calendar year but every year I write these terrible end of year blog posts. Barely coherent rambling pieces of writing but what do I expect? As if I could sum up a year in a few hundred words.

Normally in these end of year posts I write that I won’t be posting anything for another month but the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei has just opened at the NGV and Julian Rosefeldt’s brand-new thirteen-channel work Manifesto has just opened at ACMI. I anticipate that I will slow down my rate of writing but you never know what will happen. I hope I will take a break, part of being a self-employed professional means taking holidays, otherwise you will burn yourself out. (There is also professional development, or you will decay over time.)

Sculptures of Melbourne cover

Personally 2015 was a great year, a real point of self actualisation as my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne was published. I had two book launches, conducted several walking tours of Melbourne’s public sculptures (one of these was part of Melbourne’s Writers Festival) and a book talk at Brunswick Public Library. So support a local publisher, your local bookshop and buy my book.

Consequently I am being invited to visit a lot more sculptors at foundries or in their studio, however there has rarely been a story in it. In other public art new this year Mr Poetry on Fitzroy Street had his leg broken by a truck, nobody celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Burke and Wills Monument and Alex Goad’s Tethya was installed on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda.

This year I missed covering the story of Makatron’s Kama Sutra Burger at Land of Sunshine. Censorship, street art and Brunswick, it had all the elements of one of my blog posts, but I can’t write about everything. I also missed the story of the guerrilla exhibition about tagging in the Alexandra Avenue underpass under St. Kilda Road; I finally saw it this week and it had been systematically tagged.

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Grit, an exhibition of tagging, Melbourne

Next year I will be celebrating my 1000th blog post (this is number 992) with a psychogeographical walk in Brunswick on Sunday the 31st January. In March I will also be exhibiting a few of my paintings for the first time in many years. Doubtless I will also be doing a few tours of public sculpture too. (See my events page for more details).

Seasonal greetings and thanks for reading this terrible end of year post.

Live Christmas Decoration 2


Marrnyula Mununuggurr @ Gertrude Contemporary

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Gertrude Street in Fitzroy only had only a single gallery on it at 200 Gertrude, the gallery remains although the name has changed, Gertrude Contemporary. A decade ago there were seven galleries on Gertrude Street and now there are only four, Gertrude Contemporary. The artists supply shops are a more stable feature of the street that the transient galleries. Throughout the decades it is the gallery where for contemporary art in Melbourne without any compromises for attendance, popularity or commercial.

Marrnyula Mununggurr, Ganybu, 2015

Marrnyula Mununggurr, Ganybu, 2015

I followed the window washer with his bucket and brushes into Gertrude Contemporary. It is strange to see the window washer at work in the front gallery with all the shavings of stringing bark (eucalyptus tetrodonta) on the wooden gallery floor. It is another world from the street or a gallery, it smells different and smell is something that visual artists rarely capture. The exhibition is Ganybu by Marrnyula Mununggurr.

Walking across the stringing bark, I notice that some of this stringing bark is the same as the pieces on the wall, except that the pieces on the wall have been painted with vertical and horizontal lines. The delicate geometric painted lines on the bark reminded me of post-minimalism with the small parts building up to a greater image. For this not just an arrangement of geometric lines in natural ochers Marrnyula Mununggurr is reproduces her Dajapu clan design of the fish trap and water. The greater image created with all the 252 bark paintings is the Ganybu, a fish trap.

Marrnyula Mununggurr caught me with the fish trap within the fish trap.

At the far end of the gallery, from the same string bark tree, is a larrakitj, a ceremonial pole painted with the same design. It all comes from the same tree, completing the beautiful minimalism of the exhibition.

There is a major difference between the esoteric use of Marrnyula Mununggurr’s clan design and the eccentric painting of David Egan. I was not as impressed with Egan’s Actually Energy Help Light in the main gallery of Gertrude Contemporary, not that I expect to instantly like every exhibition that I see. There was little catch my interest just incoherence. When I read the curators notes I find that five out of the seven footnotes were to David Egan. A couple of the paintings weren’t bad but I don’t have a clue why anyone would care about it, aside from Egan and the curator.

David Egan, Actually Energy Help Light, 2015

David Egan, Actually Energy Help Light, 2015

I forgot to look at Slide, the tiny space at the front door of Gertrude Contemporary. I am always forgetting to look at Slide.


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