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.

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 -

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

OI YOU! Adelaide Urban Art Festival

Banksy: “When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.” At least, that’s what Banksy thought back in 2006.

These days the world’s most famous street artist is included within those trophy cabinets, one of which is on its way to Adelaide for your perusal. Oi You!’s main attraction is the collection of 70 works by ‘the world’s urban art megastars’ owned by New Zealand collector George Shaw. Whatever the collection’s current market value, it’s sure to go up after Oi You! has raised its profile.
Street art has been on a funny journey over recent years. The counter culture with roots in vandalism has become the bargain ingredient of urban renewal and the most reliable way for any major art gallery to capture a youth audience. As the fame of street art has grown and its contradictions thickened, most artists have continued along the path towards ‘legitimacy’ where large commissioned murals replace illegal graffiti. Festivals funded by energy drinks, videos produced by fashion magazines and murals commission by car companies have become the hallmarks of success in the industry of urban art. As artists hold financially lucrative exhibitions, their work on the street starts to function as advertising for their commercial ventures. For some, illegal graffiti was just the early stage in their careers as urban artists. For others, street art’s greatest power will always be its ability to question the value of private property and expand the scope of free expression within public space.
While conservative minds still perceive street art as the cure against graffiti, those who actually make street art realise its ability to cure conservative perceptions. On one level, liking street art makes it harder to dislike graffiti. Once you realise that the same artists are making both types of art, you have to stop and think.
But urban art’s greatest power is its ability to cure the fallacy that art is a luxury, belonging only to financial elites. Street art is free. Appearing spontaneously in public space means it belongs to all of us. As part of our everyday experience of the city it doesn’t require the protection of art institutions, the pretenses of official art theory or even the standard narrative of art history. In the tradition of the situationists, the urban art community is a separate entity from the art world.
The best thing about any festival like Oi You! is the effect it will have on the city. Thanks largely to the initiative of local artist Matt Stuckey, the city streets will soon play host to Anthony Lister, Rone and Beastman, three Australian artists whose work is already recognised globally. Behind the scenes they’ll be connecting with local artists for the first time and uncommissioned collaborations will appear. It’s this work that will capture the attention of the larger urban art community via the blogs that serve audiences around the world.
So if you have a spare wall in the city that’s facing a public space, the last week of April might be the perfect opportunity to start you’re own street art collection. Just give Matt Stuckey a call and make him an offer. Obviously you’ll have to share your wall with everyone else and you won’t be able to sell it, but that’s kind of the point.
Oi You! Adelaide Urban Art Festival
Adelaide Festival Centre
Saturday, April 20 to Sunday, June 2
Please note: The list of contributing artists continues to grow with additional new walls from Kab 101, Vans The Omega, Fredrock, Seb Humphreys, Gary Seaman, Jayson Fox, Yarnbombers, Matt Stuckey and an art giveaway by Rawhide.

Jennifer Moon @ Transmission, until 27 Apr

Unlike her domineering portrait suggests, Jennifer Moon is mild, almost apologetic, in person. As she explains her theories on the unifying potential of love between all people, it's very difficult to imagine that once upon a time she used pepper spray to rob people at ATMs in order to feed her heroin addiction. She freely admits her crime and the story of her subsequent incarceration because it makes her vulnerable, and being vulnerable leads to love.
On the first floor of Transmission are a series of photographs and correspondents from Moon's time in prison that make for a fascinating insight into the U.S. prison system. In the centre of the room are Moon's prison typewriter and a large pile of pamphlets that contain her manifesto for 'revolution.' The downstairs space is arranged as a Boot Camp for Revolutionaries, where the vulnerable artist will make volunteers into a vulnerable audience through a series of trust exercises designed to strip back their beliefs. Through this process they will reach a place of 'abundance.'
It's unusual to find such a cultish recipe for happiness presented through the context of contemporary art. While Moon resists the label of 'irony,' she does admit to her work's playfulness. The result is an excursion into the redemptive quality of love and one artist's attempt to systematise its transformative potential. Sure, it's a little messianic in a way that borrows heavily from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and its honesty alone makes it worth an afternoon's curiosity but not a lifetime's commitment. After all, it's just contemporary art.