Sunday, November 3, 2013

'Australia' According to London

A review of Australia, the first major survey of Australian art in the UK for 50 years.   

(This article was originally published in the Melbourne Review and the Adelaide Review)

Having spent the past year in the UK, it was strange experiencing Australia in London. Maybe it was just the drizzle outside but Tom Roberts’ Breakaway seemed a little hotter, a little dustier. Fred Williams seemed a little more impressive and Sidney Nolan, a little less. Most of all I was struck by three questions that time and distance had made impossible to ignore: Why is Australian art still divided by race; why does Australian art seem obsessed with landscape; and why are we still exporting these questions to London?
Beyond the obvious arguments against the tradition of sending off our cultural report card for assessment at the Royal Academy when we could just as easily send it to Beijing and achieve something new, Australia the exhibition offers the opportunity to see ourselves in summary, as others would like to see us.
"I wanted the visitor to be placed right in the centre of Australia, to get that sense of texture and depth, to get that feeling of that long, endless straight road" says Kathleen Soriano, director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of London. In this way the exhibition Australia employs 200 artworks to reinforce the cliché that Australia is essentially a landscape, full of mystery and adventure.
Most Australians go weeks, months, even years, without contemplating the Australian bush because we live in cities. When we do confront Australia’s centre with any honesty, we encounter a severity that outstrips the sentiments of most art. Those endless straight roads are more often a test of endurance than a theatre of romance.
But don’t let that distract you from the tired myth of spiritual redemption waiting just over the shimmering horizon. After all, the history of Australian art is built upon that myth, upon Britain’s appetite for believing it and upon our own willingness to dish it up.
Shaun Gladwell knows how it’s done. His film showing a Christ-like motorcyclist hurtling through the outback makes an appropriate introduction to the exhibition. Following this is a room filled with enormous paintings by indigenous artists, all created in the contemporary era but immune to contemporary critique. The reason for this is spelled out in the wall text that speaks of “spiritual resources” that are “often imperceptible to foreign eyes”. After that the exhibition unfolds in chronological order from settlement to the present day.
British press coverage of the exhibition has been full of confessions of ignorance towards the big names in Australian contemporary art but it’s hard to blame them. Without the media spectacle of the Turner Prize, Australian contemporary art has no trick to disguise its subjugation to mass culture and no mechanism for propelling Australian artists to the status of celebrity. Patricia Piccinini’s comes close but you only have to see a flying boob whale once to wonder whether we really need celebrity artists the way that Britain seems to.
Rather than attack the Royal Academy’s landscape fixation, Australian critics have lined up to take the bait from British hacks like Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times who treated the exhibition with the kind of lazy ridicule reserved for topics of little consequence. John Olsen's painting earned the delicate phrase "a cascade of diarrhea" which seems fair, even if Januszczak is just trolling for a reaction. When inflated turkeys like Olsen get shot down by foreign critics it's doubly embarrassing because we're the ones who have let Olsen fly around for decades in a haze of uncritical praise.
The same goes for the exhibition’s contingent of indigenous art, which Januszczak dismissed with a similar degree of sensitivity. While Rachel Campbell-Johnston of The Times saw nothing problematic in describing this racially defined category of art as somehow possessing its own ‘magic’, Januszczak seemed less willing to surrender his critical faculties, focusing on the work’s canny commercialism.
What Januszczak easily recognises, whether we admit it or not, is that the category of aboriginal art has become an industry that permits non-aboriginal people to indulge in the belief that 40,000 years of connection to the land can somehow be repaired and purchased in a canvas that’s hung on a wall. If that’s ‘magic’ it’s a spell for atonement.
Perhaps this is the motivation behind Australian art’s apparent obsession with the land; a hunger for redemption that’s as satiable as our cultural affiliation to Britain is temporary? As Australian art orientates itself away from Europe and towards Asia we might expect British institutions like the Royal Academy to cling to the old narratives that tacitly support their own role as narrator but we need not listen.
For a little perspective, the Royal Academy is the same institution that in 2011 appointed Tracey Emin its professor of drawing. Would we respect an orchestra that appointed Miley Cyrus its conductor? If that isn’t a fair analogy, allow me to soothe the insult by adding that the catalogue to Australia features a touching foreword by the Prince of Wales, presumably an authority on Australian art.
Beyond the central conflict between a love for what Australia is and a remorse for what it took to create, anyone visiting this exhibition might have trouble discovering anything new. Survey exhibitions generally aren’t supposed to point the way forward and, considering its context, this one would be particularly ill equipped. Considering that Australia is more a work in progress than most nations, I was mostly left wondering whether art will follow change or will change be made to follow art.
Australia shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until December 8.
Shaun GladwellApproach to Mundi Mundi, 2007. Production still from two-channel HD video.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hamlet Emoticons

Between April and September 2013 I worked on a street art series in Glasgow that used 16 individual pieces to depict a complete soliloquy from Hamlet. The role of Hamlet is played by a character whose head has been replaced by pixelated emoticon. The initial motivation behind the series was to parody the fragmentation of complex emotions as they pass through technology. Imagine the absurdity of Hamlet reduced to text messages or tweets.

Despite the way that the project's meaning became entwined in my disagreement with The Glasgow School of Art, I'm satisfied with the final outcome being something I couldn't have anticipated. I've learn more over the past year than I had hoped to, more than I can express here. Some of it has gone into my thesis but the rest requires more thought. Until that's had time to settle, please enjoy this record of the completed project.

The Soliloquy from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth;
and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition;
that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; 
this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, 
this Majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: 
why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is man! 
How noble in reason, 
how infinite in faculty! 
In form and moving how express and admirable! 
In action how like an Angel!
In apprehension how like a god! 
The beauty of the world! 
The paragon of animals! 
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 
Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither;

In case you're wondering where the soliloquy first caught my attention it was in the film Withnail and I. See the clip below.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Contemporary Vandals

If you’re wondering where street art is heading, prepare yourself for a facepalm because pseudo-intellectual artist statements are so hip right now.

My favourite scene of the 1983 documentary Style Wars shows gallery goers making their pompous predictions about the death of graffiti as two graffiti writers boast about how much money they’re about to make as, gallery based, 'post graffiti' artists. Imagine their disappointment when the market for gallery based post-graffiti would collapse in 1984, leaving anyone whose last name wasn’t Basquiat, without a career.

Before the collapse, gallery owners like Sidney Janis, encouraged his chosen artists to adopt an attitude of superiority over graffiti writers who still painted trains. After all, they’d become ‘real artists’ and the galleries were offering to include ‘post-graffiti’ within the history of contemporary art. Writing graffiti on the street was about to become a thing of the past. It's easy to laugh at now, but why are we still falling for the same empty promises put forward by the world of contemporary art? 

Today, the trick to making the leap from street art and contemporary art is to get some real funding so you can work on a scale that’s beyond the reach of the chumps on the street. Then you reduce the skill level to a minimum (low skill suggests high concept). Finally, you write a convoluted artists statement that hints at childhood trauma and preferably mentions suburbia.

Despite being one of the world’s most technically skilled aerosol artists, Ian Strange spent two years on an epic project that followed this formula to a tee, only to attract a shrug of indifference from the world of contemporary art. A month later Adrian Doyle, an exhibitionist who lacks Ian Strange's technical gifts, would repeat the formula using a bucket of blue paint and gain enough critical attention to make Strange’s efforts look like an epic waste of time and money. Whereas Strange seems desperate to be taken seriously, Doyle gives off the impression that even he knows that he’s a bit of a joke, making Doyle far more likable despite his work displaying a similar lack of substance.

Ian Strange and Adrian Doyle
At it’s worst, contemporary art is as shallow as it seems and any street artist who dives into that puddle, hoping to gain intellectual superiority, will often come out with mud on their face. At the very least, they should expect to attract suspicion once they start telling us banal stories about their childhood in an effort to inject meaning into their otherwise empty gestures.

After all, street art and graffiti have come this far without self-indulgent artist statements. Using them now seems like a crude attempt to seek validation from the institutionalised world of contemporary art by implicitly invalidating the world of street art and graffiti.

On the same token, it might have seemed like a compliment when former MOCA directory Jeffery Deitch made his attempt, back in 2011, to include ‘street art and graffiti within the context of contemporary art history’. But what he, and others like him, are really saying is that street art and graffiti lack legitimacy without the rubber stamp of a contemporary art institution.

It’s the same trick Sidney Janis tried to pull back in 83 with ‘post-graffiti’ and it’ll never really work because the more street art and graffiti stray from actual vandalism, the less interesting they become. This might seem like a limitation but I’ll take that over the next pseudo-intellectual artist statement, any day of the week.

Update 20-11-13

I've since met Ian Strange and I'm willing to admit that there's more to his practice than this article give credit. He seemed well aware of the inherent shortcomings of contemporary art, street art and graffiti and I look forward to seeing how he navigates between those worlds in the future.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Professional Vandals

The professionalisation of street art is nothing new, so why do some career artists still conceal their commercial strategies behind their anarchist personas? Because it’s cool, right?

Let’s have a look at DALeast‘s recent excursion to London that saw 7 new walls culminate in his first solo exhibition in the British capital. One of those walls went over Jimmy C‘s portrait of Usain Bolt without any consultation. Maybe you’d say, ‘So what? It’s an ephemeral art form, get used to it’. Maybe, but the fact that DALeast went to the trouble to get permission from the building’s owner whilst disregarding Jimmy C does say something about his priorities. What’s more interesting is DALeast’s own excuse.
When Jimmy C found DALeast painting over his mural, the newcomer shrugged an apology down from the scissor lift and explained that his ‘manager’ had organised the wall for him. When RJ in a recent interview with DALeast asked ‘what makes you want to paint a particular wall or not’ the artist simply replied, ‘fate’ which sounds so much cooler than ‘my manager picks my walls for me’. It’s easy to see why DALeast would avoid that part of the picture but it does makes you wonder what a professional street artist really is.
As it turns out,
DALeast’s manager is none other than the owner of the popular blog StreetArtNews (edit) the ‘manager’ DALeast was referring to seems to have been Rom from StreetArtNews, who while not technically DALeast’s manager did help to organize some of DALeast’s walls in London and worked with him on the contest/gallery show project he did there. StreetArtNews regularly features DALeast’s work whilst neglecting to mention any conflict of interest. I guess it must be handy to have a
manager (edit) business partner who runs a trusted publicity platform but, for those of us who view street art as a DIY counterculture, we’d better get used to questioning where our ‘news’ comes from.
Traditionally, the journey from vandal to professional starts with the artist’s first commissioned piece which leads to bigger and bigger murals and ends with a show for Jeffery Deitch and a line of sneakers. You’d think that this career trajectory might have become boring by now, and let’s hope that it has, but old market strategies will always be replaced by fresh ones that find new ways to feed the bottomless appetite for adolescent rebellion.
With a new spin on an old cliché, artists assume the pose of ‘fuck the system’ until their audience wise up to the contradictory and masturbatory claims of an industry that apparently aims to fuck itself. Moving on, the informed audience is quickly replaced by the next crop of pubescent rebels, all too eager to buy the OBEY cap, adopt Brooklyn slang and congratulate themselves for being authentic.
For anyone that believes street art can be more than the lucrative exploitation of teen angst, it’s important to call bullshit whenever it appears. Put simply, be a capitalist, or, be an anarchist, just don’t tell us you’re both.
-This article was originally published by Vandalog on July 2nd, 2013 -

Stations of the Green

Still from Michael Mersinis's 3D model of Glasgow Green Station

Stations of the Green was an exhibition at the New Glasgow Society Gallery on display from 26 April – 17 May 2013. 

There’s a great bit of footage from 1965 in which Bob Dylan meets a devout fan who asks Dylan the ‘meaning and philosophy’ behind the T-shirt he wore on a recent album cover. With enough wide eyed sincerity to make anyone wince, the fan unfolds his intricate theories only for Dylan to reply “I don’t really remember too much about it” with a mixture of amusement and fear at a fan clearly intoxicated with idolatry. I like to imagine that Douglas Gordon might react similarly to Stations of the Green if it were ever brought to his attention.
In 1990, the same year that Glasgow was wishfully dubbed the European city of culture, Douglas Gordon paid some other artists to paint 6 dates on an abandoned railway station along with the word ‘Mute’. At the time no one really knew what it meant and cared so little that by 1996 the site of the mural had become overgrown with vegetation. However, that same year Gordon won a prize that was fast becoming the main P.R. engine of British Contemporary art. Interest in the mural began to grow until now, 17 years later, Stations of the Green presents an exhibition dedicated to its memory. Such is the gilded light cast upon the Turner Prize recipient that it illuminates not only their future but also their past.
Last year the ruins of the Glasgow Green Station, upon which the mural was painted, were demolished, prompting curators Johnny Rodger and Mitch Miller to sift through the wreckage. Around the time of the demolition the BBC were in town making The Grit and the Glamour, in which Alan Yentob (jolly culture guy) fawns over the city’s contemporary art starts in a struggle to inflate the myth of the ‘Glasgow miracle’ without fainting. ‘Miracle’ because Glasgow’s identity was meant to be drenched in blue-collar authenticity, which isn’t very arty, right? But in the 90s it fit perfectly with the ‘brash rebel’ cliche of the Cool Britannia brand. So when Gordon’s mural was about to come down you’d think Alan Yentob and his BBC crew would be all over it, but no. Apparently Glasgow’s shrug of indifference at the mural’s destruction might have conflicted with the documentary’s premise that the ‘Glasgow Miracle’ had something to do with Glasgow.
So what is this mural all about? A general consensus holds that the dates refer to significant events in the city’s history of the labour movement that took place on or around Glasgow Green. The problem is that Gordon has never really confirmed this theory which leaves the door wide open for a long game of forensic inquiry. So, like an episode of Taggart, Stations of the Green is on the case.
Curator Johnny Rodger traces the last three dates to an essay by John Taylor Caldwell titled ‘The Battle for The Green’ published in a Workers City publication in 1987. According to the essay a bye-law was passed in 1916 that banned almost any form of public gathering that could be employed to political ends. The law was actually enforced in 1922 and finally revoked in 1932. A perfect match! This clue even suggests an explanation for Gordon’s use of the word ‘Mute’ in the fact that the law suppressed discourse. Rodgers goes on to postulate that ’1820′ refers to The Scottish insurrection.
The last two dates are harder to nail down. In fact you start to wonder “why am I nailing down dates at all”. Rodgers suggests that the whole thing might be a parody of the reductive practice of memorialising entire dates via public inscription. With typography so stark and authoritarian you might even hope that the mural is a parody. But it seems more likely to just be as critic Craig Richardson states that the dates suggest an alternative to the ‘centrally validated view of Glasgow’s history.’ I didn’t realise there was a ‘centrally validated’ view of Glasgow’s history but I guess it could be fun to imagine you were rebelling against one.
Aside from the wealth of investigative documentation, the exhibition includes responses to the mural in the form of new artworks. Photographer Michael Mersinis has captured some beautiful black and white textures of the earth where the wall fell that convey the violence of erasure and the sterility that remains.
Illustrator Mitch Miller dérived his way around Glasgow Green and produced a series of songlines that imagine the spiritual connection to the places where protestors marched and fought and sang.
Behind a dark curtain at the back of the exhibition rests a stone autopsy in the form of three large fragments from the wall itself. Recovered from a council depot in Shettleston, these six letters from the Glasgow Gr-EE-n Sta-TI-ON sign convey just how big the wall actually was. The letters set the structure of a haunting musical composition by Stephen Davismoon that plays in the room. A projected 3D model of the mural by Michael Mersinis (pictured above), spins on the wall.
Like a great cover on a bad album, I enjoyed this exhibition but not the memory of Gordon’s mural. Despite the riches of documentation provided, the mural still seems stark and craft-less to the point that the two men who were hired to actually paint the thing could barely remember doing so. Such a minimal approach might have worked if the concept was stronger or if the subject matter of the labour movement didn’t have its own visual traditions that Gordon chose to ignore. Gordon’s former lecturer David Harding might have been right in his belief that, when it comes to public art, “context is half the work” but there’s still the other half. The dates allow the mural a piggy-back ride on the significance of past events to which it contributes little besides the necessary amount of ambiguity to satisfy an insider audience’s habit of fondling their own interpretations. All this is brilliantly captured by Stations of the Green, an exhibition I enjoyed very much for many reasons, not least of which was the assistance it gave me in realising my distaste for the mural itself.
Image - Still from Michael Mersinis’s 3D model of Glasgow Green Station
- This article was originally published by Central Station on 31 May, 2013 -

The 4th Marmite Prize for Painting

The Marmite Prize for painting (installation view)

Review of The Marmite Prize for Painting, an artist-run, painting prize and touring exhibition that aims to showcase the best in contemporary painting from the UK and abroad. March & April 2013 in the Mackintosh Museum, The Glasgow School of Art

When you find yourself feeling weak and absolute defeat seems inescapable, there’s always one last option; the self defeating strategy. By asserting your own worthlessness you deny your adversaries the satisfaction of your defeat. Like the dog that’s rolled over to wee on itself, there’s no dignity left to destroy and, with nothing left to swing at, your adversaries get bored, leaving you to escape and regroup. In this sense, the self-defeating strategy is a temporary last resort, a nihilistic band-aid, a strategy to survive by, not to live by.
At first glance, self-defeat seems to be the strategy of contemporary painting as demonstrated by the 4th Marmite Prize for Painting and echoed by their dedication to the artist collective ‘BANK’. Why would a contemporary painting exhibition dedicate itself to the memory of BANK? Perhaps there’s some answer to be found in the way BANK described itself:
“talentless moronic, bullying, snide, obnoxious, self-righteous, grungy, pathetic, facile, ungracious, idiotic, childish, self-deprecating, critical, uncritical, naive, radical, cowardly, parasitical, big headed, socially inept, attention seeking, freeloading, innovative, outsiders, party poopers, losers, loudmouths, wannabes, stupid, beautiful, BANK”
From 1991 to 2003 BANK strove to live up to these ideals before finally succumbing to the pressures of infighting. In the words of John Beagles, whose talk on the exhibition described BANK as a reaction against the ‘deadening’ of contemporary art at the hands of ‘Goldsmith careerists’. Why a group of London based artists in 1991 would adopt such a ‘grungy’ persona seems obvious enough, but the decision of a painting exhibition in 2013 to dedicate itself to those grungy artists demands some investigation.
Painting, for centuries enjoying status above all other mediums, is today an icon of the past. Since the renaissance, the history of Western art was told as a relay of genius painters until the contemporary era when no painter could ever be called a genius again. Conceptualism took painting apart down to its smallest pieces leaving contemporary painters scratching their heads, trying to put the pieces back together. In truth, painting’s days of glory were numbered the moment that photography was invented. By the time that Conceptualism bumped painting off the main stage, many were glad to see it go. But now, after decades of institutional and theoretical dominance in art, painting is also an icon of a time when artists were still calling the shots.
Displayed ‘democratically’ from largest to smallest, this year’s Marmite Prize for Painting features 32 works from national and international artists have been selected from almost 850 entries to show ‘a full spectrum of approaches in painting.’ Within that spectrum exists the decorative beauty of works by Dan Roach, Julian Brown and Paul Newman but also the stark pessimism of works by Tom Palin, Simon Carter, and James Metsoja. Suitably named after the old English word for a cooking pot, the Marmite Prize is a stew of odd ingredients.
There’s a large amount of purely abstract work from Yifat Gat, Damien Flood, Playpaint, Amelia Barratt, Clare Price, Andrew Seto but only Marie d’Elbee’s Dog Watching Sunset is balanced with the kind of playfulness which that genre of painting routinely lacks.
Other paintings grab the eye with their likeness to the work of famous painters. Virginia Verran’s P L I N Y looks like a cluttered Miro and Matthew Krishanu’sTwo Boys look like they arrived in a box sent by Picasso. There’s a curious variety of suburban landscapes from Greg Rook’s bleak yet suggestive Untitled to Ben Deakin’s mysterious yet meek Hibernator.
There’s also a number of naive works from Alison Pilkington and Sabrina Shah that are so nice to look at that you could swear they hadn’t been painted by grown adults. Slightly less naive, and consequently less charming, is Charles William’s figurative effort although Brian Cheeswright’s is at least effective in its disturbance. Jana van Meerveld’s Bound for Lampedusa succeeds in conveying the tragic urgency of its subject matter, Blake Shirley is effectively fun and Alex Hanna painted a roll of bubble wrap.
When exhibitions like the 4th Marmite Prize for Painting attempt to display ‘a full spectrum of approaches in painting’ they inevitably fall prey to the burden of painting’s former glory. In presenting a survey of the entire medium they are obliged to tip their hat in so many different directions that the exhibition as a whole cannot possibly present a push towards any particular orientation. So the medium remains stuck and seemingly defeated. But within that democratic approach exists a principle worth defending.
At its worst, the self-defeating strategy is the impish masochism of the truly beaten but, at its best, self-defeat can be a brilliant ruse. By putting up a front of worthlessness, you can distract your detractors and hide your true worth until it’s grown strong and formidable. This appears to be the case for 4th Marmite Prize for Painting. Like BANK before them, the Marmite Prize’s hidden strength is its staunch autonomy. Curated and judged by artists, the prize reverses the trend of the branded art prizes that aim to remove artists from their communities by turning them into celebrities. Instead the Marmite Prize, with its absurd name, acts as an anti-brand that could never wield more influence than the communities it serves. Without a brand getting in the way we see only the artists and their underdog medium of painting. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a winning strategy.
Image - The Marmite Prize for painting (installation view), 2 March – 6 April 2013. Photography Janet Wilson. Courtesy The Glasgow School of Art.
- This article was originally published by Central Station on March 21, 2013 -