Tag Archives: surrealism

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.


Lurid Beauty and Australian Surrealism

Although the island of Australia is included in the 1929 Surrealist map of the world, this is probably due to Australia’s aboriginal population rather than its artists. It is shown as smaller than New Guinea and about the same size as Borneo.

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What surrealism created by Australian artists was mostly an off-shoot of English surrealism. England being that black dot on the map between Ireland and Germany. Importing surrealism directly from the European mainland, in the case of the Marek brothers, was not well received. Surrealism in Australia was, like international art speak, poorly translated from French texts.

Lurid Beauty, Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at the NGV Australia is an awkward exhibition as most of the art in the exhibition is not surrealism. Lurid Beauty fails in distinguishing between being the current style trend and being old-school or hardcore, like James Gleeson or Eric Thake. These are important distinctions to make when you are considering something between an arts association and trend. Roy de Maistre painted in at least three other modern styles and his involvement in surrealism is like Picasso’s pieces working in the current trend and the exhibition’s mix of modern art with contemporary art is not resolved well.

Every generation needs a look back at surrealism in Australia and each time that they do the same small set of paintings are exhibited. Almost all the older work was last exhibited together in the 1993 Australian National Gallery exhibition Surrealism Revolution by Night section of Australian art. Lurid Beauty does include some great new James Gleeson paintings but only the series of Clifford Bayliss drawings have not been regular features of previous exhibitions of Australian surrealism.

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

There are plenty of great works of art to see in the exhibition but my question is did we need to see them all together? Did surrealism transform or have that much of an impact on Australian art? The relationship between the artists that would identify as surrealists and the contemporary artists influenced by surrealism is tenuous. For example, Peter Daverington’s The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh 2014 looks surreal but has so many other references to all of art history in this painting from Renaissance landscapes to modernism in the drips along the lower edge. For the surrealists there was only Freudian psychology but now there is a multiplicity of psychological theories.

There is no cross over between the old school surrealists and the contemporary artists because there were so few hardcore surrealists in Australia. Erik Thake’s Accidental Animal 1967-68 series of photographs of found paint splatters is as close as it gets.

The curators of Lurid Beauty only hint at the conservative Australian art world; the NGV, Australia and surrealism were all very different places then. Blink and you would have missed the important progressive role of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS).

It was CAS that advanced modern art in Australia in response to then Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies reactionary attack on modernism at the opening of the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937. The evidence for the CAS transforming Melbourne’s art world is there, the first to exhibit photography as art in Melbourne and if you look carefully at the frame of Gleeson’s We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit 1940 you will see that it is “presented anonymously through the Contemporary Art Society.” (For more on the history of CAS in Australian art see my post on their 70th anniversary).


Person of Interest – Desmond Morris

This is the first entry for a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life.

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This starts with the cover of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976) because of the cover the book stood out amongst the rest of the books on my father’s bookshelf. I was eleven years old; I liked the colours and the biomorphic creatures. The cover is a reproduction of a painting by Desmond Morris “The Expectant Valley”, 1972.

The painting is a of colourful biomorphic creatures on a strange verdant landscape. The largest of these creatures has a large red body and with a purple head of four soft antlers and a black curl; as a child I identified this as the central character of the narrative. It is like the paintings of Miro; Morris exhibited with Miro in 1950 at the London Gallery in an exhibition organized by the Belgian Surrealist Edouard Mesens.

Biomorphs were invented by Jean Arp in 1915 or 1916 and are influenced by the microscopic animal and plant world. William Rubins observed that biomorphs are “the nearest thing to a common form-language of the painter-poets of the Surrealist generations.” (Rubins, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, p.42)

I really liked the cover of The Selfish Gene and as a child expected that the book would contain a story about these biomorphic creatures on the cover. I was disappointed to find that there were no more images inside the book. In a way Morris’s biomorphic creatures are the perfect illustration for The Selfish Gene and Morris has painted a picture based on Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.

Richard Dawkins owns “The Expectant Valley” and another painting by Morris, “The Titillator”. David Attenborough also owns a couple of Morris’s paintings – none of Morris’s paintings are in public collections.

Surrealism was slow to catch on in Anglophone countries and the British Surrealists have largely been ignored in even histories of Surrealism. Desmond Morris was part of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Emmy Bridgwater, John Melville and William Gear. The interest in Surrealism by eminent British scientists (Morris, Dawkins and Attenborough) continues to renew my interest in the art and philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism was profoundly influenced by the sciences (physics and biology) in more ways than any of the other modern art movements.

Desmond Morris never really decided between a career as an artist, as a scientist, a science writer or a television presenter. Morris even managed to combine his interests studying and exhibiting “picture-making behaviour of the great apes”. This diversity of activities makes Morris an interesting person – his new publication The Evolution of Art will include image-recognition technology that will allow readers to see animations and other extra content.

Morris’s painting “The Expectant Valley” was one my earliest taste of Surrealism; I will following up my interest in Surrealism in other posts about persons of interest. Following up on my interest in his painting I read Desmond Morris’s books, The Secret Surrealist (Phaidon, Oxford, 1987), The Naked Ape (1967) and Peoplewatching (1978) and this is why I am recommending Desmond Morris as a person of interest.


Anti-Catholicism & Surrealism

He who sleeps with the pope requires long feet.

If you see a priest being beaten, make a wish.

For good luck, nail up consecrated hosts in the bathroom.

– Benjamin Péret

Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism needs to be re-examined in the light of the increasing evidence of the extent of paedophile Catholic priests. In the past the anti-Catholic aspects of Surrealism were regarded simply as a provocations designed to annoy the establishment but what if they were expressions of serious revenge fantasies?

The Surrealist most noted for expressing his dislike for Catholics is Benjamin Péret (4 July 1899 – 18 September 1959). There is the famous photograph of Péret insulting a priest in the street. Although most of the Surrealists were raised as Catholics this left them with a low opinion of it. Benjamin Péret received little education due to his dislike of school. Did he dislike school because he was he abused in school?

Marquis da Sade was a favourite of the Surrealists and De Sade’s stories are full of Catholic clergy engaged in sexual abuse. He was educated by his uncle, Abbé de Sade and later at a Jesuit lycee. Was the Marquis de Sade sexually abused as a boy?

There are so many examples of anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists that this can only be a small sample. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were anti-Catholicism and both were raised as Catholic in Spain. As a youth, Buñuel was deeply religious, serving at as an altar boy, but at age 16 he grew disgusted with the Church. There are many reasons why a 16 year old would become disgusted with illogical religious dogma but the prevalence of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy can no longer be ignored as a reason for anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists.

The denial and cover up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church makes it is difficult to properly assess the significance of the Surrealists. It is further complicated by the religious and political judgements interfering (subverting and misleading) with the aesthetic and historic assessments of Surrealism.

Take a very small example of the Viennese Fantastic Realists distancing themselves from Surrealism. Two of the Viennese Fantastic Realists Rudolf Hausner and Ernst Fuchs both moved to Paris in the late 1940s and had contacts with the French Surrealists. Michael Messner writes about Hausner’s “problems subjugating himself to the strict dogma of the unreflected, sub-conscious act of painting as espoused and propagated in the form of manifestos by Breton.” (Michael Messner, Visionary Art, v3 p.28) However, by the late 1940s the dominance of automatist Surrealism was long over. Breton had only just returned from America in 1946 and by 1951 the ‘Carrouges Affair’ had further isolates Breton. Blaming Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism is a popular excuse but his influence at the time was limited to Paris and there are likely to have been other reasons. The obvious but un-stated reason is that Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic convert, must have had problems with the Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism.

Earlier this year I attended a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes.” Juan Davila’s gave the opening address of the conference with a talk and slideshow. David Lomas looked at the Linaean botonical introduction of the word “sexuality” and how this related to Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” and Max Ernst’s floral paintings. Michael Richardson carefully dissected Breton’s attitude to homosexuality and his alleged homophobia. Janine Burke looked at the influence of Surrealism on two female artists and Natalya Lusty spoke about Surrealist masculinity. Sexual abuse and Surrealist anti-Catholicism were not mentioned in any of the papers given at the conference – there is room for much more research than I can do in this post on the subject.


The End, this art style is over

When ever hear someone say something like: “street art is over” I think about the end of Surrealism, if Surrealism really is over. I am sceptical of claims that a particular art movement is over, especially when artists make the claim as they have a clear financial motivation for an end limiting the supply of authentic x art. I’ve heard that graffiti art was over before, back in the 1990s after the death of Keith Haring and Michael Basquiat.

In Cold War both sides took critical shots at the Surrealists. Surrealism was dismissed as a spent force or even a curious sideline to the mainstream of art history. The historic end of Surrealism is important to a number of concerned parties, including the Surrealists, the Soviets, the Americans and a few European countries. Both the Soviets and the Americans wanted Surrealism out of the way at the end of World War II in order to further their own art histories. Maurice Nadeau claimed in his 1945 Histoire du surrealisme that Surrealism ended with WWII. And Surrealism was the obvious hole in Clement Greenberg’s attempt to rewrite a progressive modern art history for Cold War propaganda purposes.

The Surrealists themselves, along with a few countries, like Belgium and Czechoslovakia, want a continuing history of Surrealism to establish the pedigree of contemporary Surrealist artists. “Surrealism in Belgium” was at an exhibition tracing Belgium Surrealism from 1924-2000.  Also advancing the history of Surrealism is Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968, (Thames & Hudson, 2005). Mahon argues that the Surrealists, especially in post-WWII, used the unconscious to focus on an exploration of Eros. As a history of the little discussed post-war French surrealist movement Mahon’s book is a fascinating read and clarifies the confused time line of French Surrealism. Mahon points out that as a result of the post-colonialism advocated by Surrealism meant that many of the following generation of Surrealist artists were not from Europe and their activities have been largely ignored in US/European art history.

Further confusing the history of Surrealism are the schism and scissions of the Surrealist movement itself. These are movements as diverse as the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism and CoBrA. And the Paris Surrealists under Andre Breton expelled many of its own members, most notably Salvador Dali. The internal politics of such art movements are often of little concern to many editors and curators although the participating artists vigorously defend the differences. For example, Wolfgang Hutter and Rudolf Hausner from the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism are both included in Alfred Schmeller Surrealism (Methuen, 1956) although neither considered themselves surrealists.

It would be better to say that a particular phase of an art movement is over, “the heroic phase of x is over”. Even better to use more specific terms like “old school x is over.” And it is worth waiting for a couple of generations and getting a complete autopsy report before believing a claim that a style is over. Until then I’ll remain sceptical.


Meet the Forsters

At Anita Traverso Gallery there were two solo sculpture exhibitions by husband and wife, Hendrik and Kerryn Forster. In Gallery 1 there was Kerryn Forster’s “Found + Fabricated II” and, in Gallery 2, there was Hendrik Forster’s “Domus”. The game of identifying the artist’s gender from their art is too easy with these two sculptors.

Kerryn Forster’s sculptures have a lyrical surrealism and the objects and the found wooded branches used in them have been delicately treated. In “The Offer” a delicately carved arm and hand reach out from the end of a poplar tree branch.  There are lots of trees in the sculptures of Kerryn Forster; there is a tree house, trees with birds with rusted washers for heads. There are contrasting textures and emotions in her sculpture, the smooth waxed wood and the rough found objects, hope and sorrow. Her work is informed by Surrealist sculpture, like Giacometti, Miro and Ernst, but also other sculptures, like an early Christo piece of a stack of 44-gallon drums.

Kerryn Forster’s use of rusted metal objects for bases for her sculpture is the only obvious similarity with her husband’s sculptures which also shows a love of rust. It is less obvious that both of them are jewellers; Hendrik Forster is notably for his design of the Helpmann Trophy for live performance in Australia.

Hendrik Forster’s iron sculptures have a beautiful patina. The oxidizing agent has been splashed on creating various effects, dappled, running down from the roofs in streaks, dripping on the walls. The series of twelve sculptures are formal exploration of architectural forms of the domus (or “house” for you plebeians who don’t savvy Latin). Actually not all the sculptures are of houses there are also churches and factories with sawtooth roofs. The architectural forms have been simplified, there are no doors, windows or other details – these are not models of buildings but sculptures about the space that buildings occupy. Only on the roof of “Himmel Street Houses” there is the repeated pattern of bombers, a reference to Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief (Picador, 2008).

The Forsters live in East Gippsland and were, coincidentally, visiting the gallery at the same time that I was there. They were checking on the exhibition at the halfway point and I got a chance to speak with Hendrik Forster about his wife’s sculpture. He told me about searching through rural junk shops for the found materials and the aura of reused materials.


Platform – September 10

“The Resistance of Memory” by Paul J. Kalemba is a surreal underground garden is installed in the last vitrine at Platform (in the Degraves St. underpass at Flinders St. Station). Fruits preserved in jars holding the preserved memory of the last harvest. The peaches, pears and plums glow in the half buried wooden cabinet as moss and herbs, mostly thyme, grow around it. The wine bottle and glass are empty – the party has been over for some time. But how long? The broken clock, full of more thyme is dripping destroying part of the wooden base of the cabinet as the real and unreal merge. Kalemba has created a fantastic surreal garden capable that feeds the imagination images and ideas that confound each other. The title refers to Rene Magritte’s surrealist painting “The Persistence of Memory”.

Paul J. Kalemba describes himself as “an urban edible®evolutionary” and has exhibited in Platform’s “Underground Garden” before but this is his best garden yet.

In Platform’s main series of glass cabinets there are Kieran Stewart & Stone Lee. On one side there are Stone Lee papier-mâché versions of Australian animals. On the other side is Kieran Stewart exhibition of series of small sculptures made from wood, steel, glass and black powder. The wood and steel forms hold glass containers of black powder in a range of formal variations. These engaging sculptures reminded me of the functional elegance of machines used to demonstrate physics principles.

In the large “Vitrine” space there “Voyeurism” by Bernadette Burke combining figure painting and video with videos for faces. The combined images are very effective but I don’t think that they say anything about voyeurism as the figures all look as if they intend to be seen.

In “Sample” there is an exhibition by Merryn Lloyd, curated by Patrice Sharkey as part of Platform’s Emerging Curator mentorship program, which really needed more substance and interest.

In the cabinets at Majorca Building (out of the underpass, up Degraves St, across Flinders Lane and in Centre Place, with “Bellevue Jewellery” in gold letters above them) are two photographs by David Mutch – “The Tourists”. Previously exhibited at Seventh Gallery earlier this year, these two archival inkjet prints show a figure in bare, desolate landscapes; one landscape looks urban, the looks rural both were photographed on the banks of the Yarra River.


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