Tuesday, May 25, 2010

TOO MANY BROMLEYS


At the start of this year painter David Bromley was dropped by both his Sydney and Melbourne galleries. While some might find this surprising, considering the strength of Bromley’s brand, others could have seen it coming a mile away. It’s the same old story and the lesson is clear: Don’t treat your art like a commodity.

For the last 10 or so years Bromley’s output has fit into two categories of painting. The first category are paintings of children who seem to inhabit an idealic, 1950s dream world. These paintings bare a striking resemblance to several illustrations of the British boys magazine Boys Own Paper that were often contributed anonymously, blurring the question of copyright. The second category are nudes painted in black outline over decorative colour combinations, applied boldly for dramatic effect. So often have I seen these paintings in the front windows of almost every gallery around town that I decided to do a quick survey. After a few enquirers I managed to turn up 36 Bromley for sale around Adelaide plus another 4 on Ebay. When you multiply this figure by the quantity of paintings you’d expect to find in all the capital cities around the country it begins to look like a severe glut in the market for Bromleys. From the perspective of the galleries that represent Bromley such glut or ‘bubble’ presents a big problem.

“We could no longer guarantee exclusivity,” said Tim Olsen of Tim Olsen Galleries, Sydney. He continued “there was just no point in us continuing to represent David when anyone could buy his work around the corner at discounted prices”. While David himself was apparently unable to account for how this market situation came about it’s pretty easy to fill in the blanks if you take a closer look at his studio practice.

We say ‘studio’ because David Bromley is an artist but the term ‘factory’ is a more truthful description of the production line of workers who do the majority of Bromley’s actual painting. If you’re lucky the artist himself might have flicked the switch on the projector and traced out the actual design of any given nude but why should he even bother? With such a mechanical process why not just pay someone else to do the actual work? Warhol did it so why can’t Bromley?

There are several serious problems with this attitude towards painting. Perhaps the most obvious is that a mechanical process is very easy to duplicate which leads to fakes and no means of proving authenticity. But even if fakes don’t flood the market the artist’s own production line probably will unless the artist deliberately limits production, defeating the purpose of having a production line in the first place.

But the real problem with mass produced art is that it dilutes the meaning and substance of the work. As Tim Olsen puts it “There is always art when there’s never enough but there is no art when there’s too much”. Sure, pop-artists did it back in the 60s but that was a contemporary comment on the rise of mass production throughout the western world. To make pop art in 2010 is just indulging in nostalgia that’s going nowhere. In this sense, mass-produced art has nothing to do with self-expression and, as history shows us, soulless art just doesn’t last. So, knowing all this, why would any artist choose to treat their art like a commodity? There is only one answer: money.

“It’s true he’s commercially orientated” adds Olsen “and there was a time when that was good for the gallery but there’s got to be a cut off point.” One wonders why Bromley didn’t enforce that cut off point himself. Some artists, if they’re lucky, are faced with a moment of decision when they realise they’ve found something that the audience really loves. The question arises: ‘Do I give them what they want or do I continue forever searching for what satisfy’s me?’

For the artist, the temptations of wealth and stability are just as great as its’ dangers are hidden. As soon as the artist begins to follow the desires of their audience the roles are reversed and the art suffers. The problem is that truly great art can only come out of searching. The artist must always keep moving, changing and growing or else the art becomes stale and dies.

But at first it must have felt more like a flourishing than the beginning of the end. As the children and nude series were growing in popularity it must have become harder and harder for Bromley to move on from the themes that had made him a success. Surrounded by collectors eager to buy and galleries eager to sell, why wouldn’t he think he was onto a good thing? He would have been crazy to not focus in on why those themes really worked and pushed them for all they were worth.

The problem is that once an audience starts to consider Bromley’s commercial motivations they begin to see the children series as a patronising attempt to illicit nostalgia from comfortable baby boomers and the nudes seem tailor made for cashed-up bankers. In short, tits and tots comes across like a formula, a marketing strategy designed to provoke its target audience into opening their wallets. It’s almost tempting to tip your hat to him as if he’s duped them. But the truth is that he’s working for them. He’s painting their paintings, not his own.

When you combine this with a market flooded with discounted paintings it probably wasn’t hard for the galleries to admit that they’ve had a good run but it’s time to pull the plug. But where Tim Olsen can bailout of ‘Bromley Inc’ with phrases like ‘I’ve not only lost an artist, I’ve also lost a friend,’ the escape for the artist himself is not so easy.

In light of such brutality one can’t help admiring the courage of artists who choose to engage with the market rather than shelter behind the esoteric and elitist rhetoric of institutional art. But that admiration can evaporate if it appears that the market has consumed the artist and the direction of their art.

However for artists like David Bromley there is always a second chance, an opportunity to reinvent oneself; to stop pandering to the audience and return to that internal spark. Such a move takes courage and it takes a special kind of audience to recognise and respect that courage. Whether Bromley’s attracted such an audience is questionable. But the real question is whether Bromley’s still got the spark.

Some still think so. “I am concerned but to a lesser extent because I’ve lived with it for a longer time” Says Sam Hill Smith of Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide. He continues, “The truth is that David is still searching. He just needs to decide what he really wants.” Hearing this, it’s tempting to assume that it all started from good intentions that got lost somewhere along the way. At the end of the day it’s in the hands of David Bromley and he might yet have a trick or two up his sleeve.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop



“People either love me or they hate me, or they don’t really care,” admits Banksy, the mystery figure whose iconic street art has made his name more recognisable than any other contemporary artist of our time. His new film Exit Through the Gift Shop is sure to satisfy all three levels of appreciation.

In the brief history of graffiti culture the documentary has played a pivotal role in disseminating ideas. None more significantly than 1984‘s Stylewars which views like an instruction manual for a culture built around the heady mix of Hip-hop, break dancing and aerosol based graffiti. Bootlegged and passed along an endless chain of underground connection, Stylewars circled the globe. Before long, New York style graffiti was appearing in every city in the Western world.

But this insular subculture in which the non-refundable currency of ‘respect’ was awarded for displays of finesse and daring was limited by its own restrictions and doomed to stagnation. Inevitably some graffiti writers began to tire of writing their names in ever more elaborate styles and garish colour combinations. Some hit upon the idea of shifting the subject matter of their art to something other than their own name. Street art was born.

By this time the Internet was in full swing and a few key artists would be able to ride the international wave of fascination that ensued. But none did so with a brand as strong as Banksy’s. His mainly black and white stencils conveyed none of the ‘style’ so prized by the previous generation of graffiti artists. In its place was a message, often political, always irreverent, clear and immediately effective. Banksy was a new kind of rebel, seemingly tailor made, for a new kind of youth who found little expression in the sexual rebellion exhausted by their parents generation.

The new front line was the sanctity of private property upheld by a painfully superficial society, obsessed with lifestyle and oblivious to its own terminal malaise. But for every one of Banksy’s images that convey a profound message with beautiful simplicity there are several more that seem no less superficial than the society that they set out to ape. But more than anything it’s his taste for hype that threatens the authenticity that forms the bread and butter of Banksy’s myth.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is a masterpiece in myth maintenance. Rather than making a film about himself Banksy has made a film about another street artist, Mr Brain Wash. A latecomer in the game, Mr Brain Wash mimicked the hype and branding methods of his idols with such skill that it threatened to expose the superficiality of the whole movement. The story is intended to make us think twice about authenticity but it's obvious that Banksy’s been wondering about his own authenticity. In this sense, those who love him will be pleased to discover that Banksy understands why he’s loved and that he’s not about to give the game away any time soon.