Welcome to art & about where I explore art and culture. I’m a practising artist, dabbling in paint and print as well as a writer. I’m inspired by good design, by graphics and fabulous art. I love wandering down side streets and alleys and drawing inspiration from posters, graffiti, photography and design as well as exhibition in galleries and museums.
In a post-post-modernist world, how many people are familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the modernists? They were the pioneers of colour, form, daring simple styles and subject matter previously deemed unworthy of artistic endeavour.
I was a bit sceptical about going to see Modernism at Queensland Art Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grace Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston. Putting those three women’s work together seemed a bit like an afterthought – we’ve managed to secure paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe but not enough for a stand-alone show, or curating a show out of whatever’s not recently been seen from the stockroom. Certainly it seemed odd to show O’Keeffe with the other two Australians – Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith.
But each artist has transformed traditional still-life into a more vibrant and modern aesthetic. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings fill the canvas with close-ups of magnificent blooms, their bright colours and abstract quality conveying a distinct sensuality. Margaret Preston’s graphic paintings focus on design and pattern and remind me of the early Russian modernists with their focus on constructivism and utilitarian design as well as the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. One of my favourites is a very minimalist painting of a tray of cups Implement Blue (1927), highly stylised and beautiful in its minimalist, industrial design. I love the play of light and use of geometric pattern and colour. I’m not a fan of Preston’s later work where she appropriates colour and design from a quasi-Aboriginal aesthetic – all these strike me as being works of design rather than landscape painting.
In a way, Grace Cossington-Smith is the odd one out; her paintings seem more post-impressionist rather than modernist – apart from The sock knitter (1915) – and her subject matter less interesting. The sock knitter is a portrait of her sister knitting socks for soldiers fighting in France. The interesting thing about this painting is it’s emphasis on compositional structure: the play of horizontals and verticals through the misalignment of the cushions on the back of the sofa which sit at odds with the intimate and commonplace subject matter. It’s one of Cossington-Smith’s best (if not the best) paintings). A tension between subject matter and surface, which reminds me of Matisse.
Christopher Allen in his review of the exhibition (when it showed originally at Heide) wrote: The exhibition includes a number of abstract or semi-abstract works from O’Keeffe’s earlier period, including the years when she shared a home with Stieglitz at Lake George. These are finely painted with a sensuous pleasure in surface texture and a love of seductive, even sexual forms, even if the notoriously vulval flowers are barely present here. And it is this erotic vitality that separates her so starkly from the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians.” And it is indeed this aspect that made me sceptical of seeing this show.
I first came across Georgia O’Keeffe when I was a young art student in the 70’s. Back then she was very much a feminist icon – her bright paintings of canna lillies and other exotic flowers were often described as images of vulvas, though O’Keeffe always denied this. In some way O’Keeffe’s work became conflated with that of Judy Chicago’s (one of the “first-generation feminist artists,” who was part of the Feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art and at the time and who were heroes to many young women seeking to advance their own artistic practices).
Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party was a collaborative piece that made no hierarchical distinction between art and craft, indeed it was the very inclusion on some of these crafts (hand women settings, pottery, embroidery etc) that made the installation so significant. I was lucky enough to see it in the 80’s at the Melbourne Exhibition Building, which was still functioning back then. The Dinner Party is considered as one of the first epic feminist artworks, serving as a symbolic history of women in Western civilisation. It consisted of three large tables put together to form a triangle, covered in white tablecloths on which were 39 elaborate place settings, each representing a significant mythical or historical woman of whom O’Keeffe was one. Each of the plates was beautifully hand painted depicting a flower or butterfly image evoking a vulva.
The works on display at QAG are actually well curated and worth the visit. Depending on your individual taste you’ll find one artist’s work more interesting than others. For all my misgivings about a show on modernism that consisted of these three seemingly disparate female artists, I think it’s interesting to re-visit this long-forgotten aspect of early twentieth century art making and remind ourselves of the trajectory. Certainly some of O’Keefffe’s beautiful pastel works seem like a precursor to colour-field painting, especially the paintings of Helen Frakenthaller and I loved some of her dark almost abstract landscapes. I also found resonance with Tim Maguire’s beautiful close-up paintings of flowers, especially tulips. Whatever the connections, whatever the inspirations, it’s always good to see some art and be reminded of how it’s an ever changing landscape (pardon the pun).
James Turrell is a master of light, colour and space. His work mesmerises and instils a sense of wonder along with, at times, a sense of fear because you can’t always tell where the boundaries are in the light-space. It can be a perplexing experience. Standing in a room with a wall that was illuminated with a pinkish light, forever morphing in tone and intensity – I turned to complete darkness and realised I couldn’t see anything, nor could I understand where I was in space or have any sense of distance or depth. I could hear other people in the room but I couldn’t see them – not even as shadows or outlines. I stood stock still. The attendant had told me that there was a bench at the back of the room but I honestly couldn’t move because I didn’t know or understand where I was in relation to the back – or for that matter the side. So I ventured closer toward the light and put my hand out. There was a wall. And along this wall I slowly inched my way across until I felt the corner and the further wall. I can’t fully explain my sense of relief. At last I felt that I was grounded and could once again negotiate my way through space. But interestingly too, at this vantage point I watched the light move and change. The light began to look like a huge rectangle of pure colour and reminded me of Mark Rothko’s beautiful series of red paintings at the Tate and his Stations of the Cross. Around the edges of the form (though form is a concept that is very tenuously applied to Turrell’s work) was an outline of white – or the absence of colour. And what this does to your eyes – or vision – is amazing. Light is made up of colour and you see all these variations in that space. Finally I turned away and slowly made my way out, now feeling much more comfortable with the darkness. And of course the closer I got to the entrance/exit the less there was of a sense of absence of all light. To exit the room was another revelation/experience. Your eyes adjust and automatically produce the complementary colours – in this case green.
“My art is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire,” he says. He uses light as a material to influence and affect people’s perception, blurring the boundaries between flat and 3D geometries.“I put you in a situation where you feel the physicality of light,” says Turrell. “I am interested in this new landscape without horizon.”
The Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia explores almost 50 years of Turrell’s work – projections, holograms, purpose-built installations, photographs and prints. Turrell’s works are amazing because they just keep on keeping on. They are an entirely solitary experience and one that at times made me smile with delight. How wonderful is light and colour and how blessed we are to be able to experience it in all its purity and glory.
To learn more about James Turrell, visit his Artsy page.
I first came across David Hockney’s work through the lithographs of Celia Birtwell, way back in the 70s when I was an art student studying printmaking. I loved these images, the simplicity of the line work with its subtle wash – stylised but capturing a moment.
On exploring Hockney’s work further I saw an exhibition of his LA Swimming Pool series and again I was struck, not just by the naturalness of the image/subject matter but at the complexity of the structure and composition that made these images so alluring; they were so quintessentially modern.
Many decades later I was fortunate to see a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia which showcased the work of Dale Chihuly as well as featuring Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon. For me it was one of those ‘wow’ moments. Coming out of the wonderfully curated Chihuly show – which was akin to walking through Aladdin’s Cave – to see this incredibly strange painting consisting of many small canvas boards in the strangest colours was one of the highlights of my art viewing.
What made it so special was a short film that accompanied the work: David Hockney talking about his process in constructing this amazing piece. Not just the footage of him driving his convertible along mountain rides listening to Bach, but also his using photographs of multiple viewpoints and then the process of colour selection. I finally sat down right in front of that painting and it took my breath away. I was able to experience it from so many different points of views (perspectives) that it wasn’t a static image, it was an alive and deeply moving colourful experience. Sadly, the NGA has now hung this masterpiece on a wall over the escalators so that it’s impossible for anyone to really see/view/experience it, or indeed understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t understand why this decision was made as I think it remains of the true great works in the collection.
One of Hockney’s ‘tricks’ is to eschew traditional perspective – a fifteenth century construct which is fixed – and opt for a more subjective view. He sees his objects from multiple perspectives, from many views and many sides and angles and manages to capture the visual experience of being in the presence of the depicted image. Masterful.
So it was with great anticipation that I wanted to see the NGV’s exhibition of Hockney’s new works: Current. And yet, when I expressed my interest and asked if people wanted to go see it with me, the response was lukewarm: ‘nah’, not really interested.
I had talked to a friend who had seen it and she related how impressive the digital/iPhone images were and Hockney’s discussion of his art making on video. I definitely wanted to see this. I had also seen a very short interview with Hockney on SBS about this show and the glimpse of the images impressed me with their bright colour and sheer joyfulness. I was going to see this show.
And so I did. I managed to convince a friend to see it with me – he and I went to uni together to study Art History and although he was sceptical about the show, he was gracious enough to come. I’m extremely pleased to say that he was blown away and thought it one of the best shows he’d seen. Hockney is not just a master of colour he is a master of invention.
Hockney’s use of the iPhone (and then the iPad) to create ‘pictures’ is mesmerising. His use of colour is breathtaking and his skill, well, I think he is one of the greats. And at age 90 he is making inroads and creating works that not only astound but delight. If ‘joy’ was something I had expected to experience, I found it to be so much more than I could ever have contemplated. There were so many ‘wow’ moments in viewing those works; so many mouth-gaping ‘how is that possible?’ that I came away convinced that I had seen one of the greatest shows of the 21st century (second only to an exhibition of Anselm Kieffer that I saw at the Royal Academy of Arts in London).
On a recent visit to the Queensland Art Gallery I was intrigued by a number of images and realised that they reminded me of works by other artists.
First up was a small group of photographs in the Asian section which I found striking in their simplicity and in the power of their gaze. They were by an Indian photographer – Pushpalama N, – whom I’d never heard of – whose images are very much like those of Cindy Sherman. And like Sherman, Pushpalama N. explores narrative figuration and uses herself as the model, in a variety of guises.
She was born in 1956 in Bangalore and originally trained as a sculptor then went on to work in performance photography and film using elements of popular culture to explore place, gender, history. According to artsy.net, Pushpalama N. is a “photo-and video-performance artists [who] plays the subject in images that critique female stereotypes in India and the reductive classifications furthered by ethnographic documentation.” Hmmm. Not sure what that means but essentially she re-enacts historical representations of women in order to subvert them. Just like Cindy Sherman.
No matter the text (or for that matter the sub-text), the works are striking and powerful and well worth checking out. I have to praise the curator of this little show for the strength and vision here; I browsed the web for images of Pushpalama’s work to illustrate this blog and mostly I was unimpressed with what I saw. But the selection of black and white photographs at QAG is quite stunning and well worth a look.
There’s a large show of recent Cindy Sherman works at QAGOMA which I had seen on a previous visit but had to see again. I’m a Cindy Sherman fan; her earlier photographs remind me of stills from film noir but more than that I’m fascinated by her craft: her skill in creating narratives and in transforming herself into highly constructed character studies. They are performance pieces. Interestingly, according to QAGOMA, “Cindy Sherman is one of the most recognised and influential artists of our time”. Yet no-one really knows what Sherman looks like. She uses herself as a model for all her works, but through the use costumes, makeup, prosthetics (and more recently digital photography) Sherman transforms herself into highly stylised characters. There are no depiction of Cindy Sherman.
The images in this current show are very different to previous ones – in content, scale and in Sherman’s use of digital technology, especially Photoshop. But the biting satire and commentary are still there. There is a wonderful series of 5 metre-tall ‘society portraits’ from 2008, and two rather subversive fashion house collaborations, the Vogue-commissioned ‘Balenciaga’ 2007–08, and ‘Chanel’ 2010–2013 in which Sherman clothes her everyday women in haute couture, placing them in incongruous settings. They’re not fashionable or stylish and the result makes you re-think the whole notion of ‘fashion’, of who it’s for and how it ends up. It’s also a commentary on our society’s fascination with aspiration, narcissism and the cult of celebrity.”
The other works that impressed me (and that I had to come back for another look) are by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (my spellcheck’s having difficulty here so I’ll refer to her as Sally Gabori), a Kaiadilt woman (from the Gulf of Carpentaria, off north-western Queensland) who began painting at the age of 81.
Large intensely coloured canvas, bright and block like. Powerful images. This was new indigienous art and I was impressed. I’m not sure that anyone’s really game to talk about indiginous art except in very traditional non-formal terms. For some reason (the ovious ones) aboriginal/indigenous art isn’t scrutinised and critiqued in the same way as other art. What I found so refreshing about these works was not just their vibrant palette but their intensity and the way the paint was applied – not a dot or line to be seen – let alone a smudge of ochre. It was almost colour-field and indeed reminded me very much of the huge fluid painting of Helen Frankenthaler. Interestingly, the little extended labels (the things that people most usually look at longer than the art work) said not a thing about the construction of the work. Instead it was all about ‘country’. I didn’t really understand what the relationship of country was to the visual representations on these framed canvases but I was keen to find out.
This exhibition is a retrospective; it includes her early paintings, her large collaborative works with other Kaiadilt women, and her almost monochromatic recent paintings and works on paper. The experts say that the paintings are “depictions of her homeland …. abstract in nature, but retain representational elements which map traditional country and cultural identity in monumental paintings.”[Jeremy Eccles,SMH] One thing is certain: in both the design and the boldness of her colour Gabori’s work is unique in Aboriginal art.
And finally, a piece that made be laugh out loud (particularly in it’s quotidian pasticheness) was a 3-D glass and metal sculpture in situ outside the art gallery: a mini pyramid, paying homage to The Louvre’s Pyramid. l I have no idea of who this is by – or for that matter, what it is – but I thought it was imminently fitting that it was there.
If you get a chance to see this film, do so. I thought I was going to see a light-hearted comedy/satire but it’s so much better than that. The film is based on a true story about a very wealthy woman, Florence Foster Jenkins who, believing she was a great coloratura soprano, gave a concert at Carnegie Hall (which she paid for) in 1944. Gossip columnist for the New York Post, Earl Wilson, observed drily, “She can sing anything but notes.”
Yesterday we set off to the NSW Art Gallery to have a look at the exhibition from the National Gallery of Scotland. We’d been there a number of times and its an amazing collection worth seeing time and time again. My husband was keen to see the show because he grew up with so many of those works – having spent many trips there as a kid. A bit of nostalgia.
It was a long weekend and very hot and we had planned a picnic to follow the show. It was hot. Very hot. A burst of Australian summer heat in Spring. So of course the gallery wouldn’t be crowded. However it still surprised me that we could both find a park directly in front and that inside there were no queues. ?? Turned out the Scotland show wasn’t yet on – we were just fooled in thinking it was because of all the advertising (nb: read the fine print – or at least the pertinent details).
No matter, it gave us an opportunity to wander about and look at the collection. We all went our separate ways, looking at whatever took our fancy, drawn from one work to another. The AGNSW has a wonderful collection, much of which isn’t shown (hence their proposed expansion) but they do curate shows from their collection and these were wonderful.
Here are just a few of the works that made me smile.
From the John Kaldor Family Collection:
Paul Chan’s “Oh why so serious”, 2008. I loved this – the keyboard comprising of gravestones which looked very much like those very old keyboards we used to use before there were colour computer screens – but when I noticed the title I literally laughed out loud.
In the same collection was another ironic comment on our technologically driven age and a comment about how these devices have been relegated to the graveyard or prehistoric era. Petrified petrol pump is made from fossil-filled limestone. It is a provocative memorial to the ancient life forms whose decomposition, over the course of many millions of years, created the fuels that underpin contemporary society. Its form also resembles a tombstone, alluding perhaps to our doomed reliance on fossil fuels that threaten the extinction of countless species.
I don’t usually go into the Asian galleries but some rather beautiful contemporary porcelain ware caught my eye. And I was very glad I wandered in. Conversations through the Asian collections brings together old and new works in a series of dynamic conversations where contemporary artists treat the art of the past as resource and spur to imagination. Contemporary works are placed beside the historical art that inspires and informs them. Some are laugh out loud clever, some are ingenious others are just amazing to look at, like this ancient Japanese warrior.
Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha is another lol moment; the Buddha perpetually gazes at the TV screen, on which he sees an image of himself recorded by the closed-circuit camera. In a later piece, Buddha Game, two Buddhas sit in front of a screen inside an old-fashioned television set. The box that houses the work is a television cabinet within which miniature videos operating are watched by two bronze Buddhas. Confronting the spiritual dimension of Buddhism with new technologies is a continuing aspect of Paik’s work. The space of the screen where so many people “meditate” every day is provocatively juxtaposed with the sublime attention of Buddhist meditation. The cabinet is covered with pages from an old Korean book making the modern exterior of the appliance seem strangely antique.
The other thing that struck me was just how interestingly this show had been curated bringing together a broad survey of old and new and by turn, reinvigorating them.
Shi Zhiying, born in Shanghai in 1971 re-produces ancient Buddhist monuments into contemporary works. In Cave of ten thousand Buddhas no 3, a Buddhist stele is used as the basis of her large monochrome painting. Her work is very much informed by her reading of Buddhist scriptures and her deep understanding of Chinese history and traditional culture.
And finally, I was really taken with this work by Aida Makoto (Japan, b1965) Groups of girls 1997, mixed media on plywood. At first glance I dismissed it as being not very interesting but on closer inspection I thought it was brilliant. There are four panels depicting school girls. There are two groups – one from the countryside and the other from Tokyo – congregating on subway platform following an excursion to Tokyo’s Disneyland. The girls are evenly mixed over the confined pictorial space, creating a rhythmic uniformity. What you notice are the distinct differences in their appearance and behaviour. The girls from the country are in full uniform, correctly attired, neat and dowdy and somewhat old-fashioned looking. The city girls are like city girls everywhere – skirts as short as they can possibly be, socks worn in a fashionably slouchy manner, hair loose and accroutrements of mobile phones, cigarettes and jewellery. Their interactions with each other are also very different. I also love the way that Makoto uses images of Japanese kitsch (Hello Kitty and Kero Kero Keroppi) as the background that unifies these groups. Brilliant.