Jan Murphy Gallery: the First 20…

The thing I hear most regularly from people who find out I’m an Arts writer is some version of the statement “you must meet a lot of wankers”, and it’s funny to me because, of all the careers I’ve had, it’s in this one that I’m least likely to encounter the tossers and blowhards. In hospitality, interior design, international travel consultancy, even as a checkout chick at Toys R Us, I met complete knobs on a daily basis who had to be placated and ego-stroked and fawned over. But in the art world, that rarely happens. Artists, performers, creative directors…for the most part they’re too damn grateful to be doing what they love and dedicated to maintaining that lifestyle to blow too hard about it. In fact, the only time I really encounter knob jockey-ness is when people from outside come in expecting the art scene to be something like an Amy Poehler sketch. But they bring that attitude with them, rather than picking it up as they walk through the door.

Don’t get me wrong, there are as many wankers in art as in any other industry, but they aren’t the overwhelming majority that people expect. They aren’t even influential on the majority. They just tick along in the background, going to openings and drinking the champagne – but they seldom leave a mark. Certainly the art being created around them doesn’t bear them any mind.

No, for the most part all I’ve met are humble, engaging and passionate people, who care about what they do and just want to keep doing it. Nowhere was that more evident to me than last Saturday night at a cocktail party at Jan Murphy Gallery celebrating her twenty years in the industry.

Over 140 people crammed into the Brunswick Street gallery to honour Jan, among them some of Australia’s biggest artists, collectors, academics, museum directors and philanthropists, and the overwhelming feeling that night was one of appreciation. Man of the moment Ben Quilty spoke, because he heard there weren’t to be any speeches and he didn’t think that was right. I guess all his media attention in the last few years has paid off because his speech, spontaneous and off the cuff, was a genuinely warm and funny acknowledgement of the support he’s received in the eleven years he’s been represented by the gallery. And when he dragged a reluctant Jan Murphy up to speak, it was obvious he wasn’t the only artist in her stable to feel that way.  She was received with a palpable sense of love by a crowd of people who began as colleagues, clients and suppliers, but have become over time valued friends and comrades. She confessed to being emotional at the thought of the relationships she’s built and the work she’s done, and when her emotions did get the better of her, a blanket of arms reached out to connect and reassure. Not a single person I spoke to had anything even slightly negative to say, rare in a room being served that much gin and regret, and when we all kicked on afterwards it felt more like friends and fun than work and obligation.

Two days later I’m still feeling the ‘warm fuzzies’ of a night spent with old friends and new, celebrating beauty, passion and creativity in all its forms, and that’s no mean feat in Brisbane, where new money and pineapples regularly pass for culture and the cultured.  Congratulations, Jan, on a career you’re rightfully proud of. Here’s to the next twenty!           

Abbey McCulloch’s The Shallows

Swimming in deep water unnerves me. I discovered this about a million years ago when I was a lifesaver on the Gold Coast. Being scared of what’s below you in the darkness is not ideal in that line of work, though it did tend to manifest itself in rather fast swim times just so I could get back into water shallow enough to see through. On the long training swims, way out past the break, I used to chant a little poem by ee cummings to myself to keep my mind calm and focused

“for whatever we lose (a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea”

I hadn’t thought about that for years, until the other night standing in front of Abbey McCulloch’s new show The Shallows at Edwina Corlette Gallery. It was odd the way it came back to me – repeating the line over and over again until the rhythm of the words blocked out the fear; the feeling of being sucked downwards into the depths even though you know you’re still afloat; how strong my arms and back would feel surfing in on a wave; how good for my spirit it was at the end of it all. Once I was back on land I mean.

There is a lot of water in The Shallows, which surprises me as it always does in artists’ work. Using such an obvious trope is a big risk. Art and literature are already so full of stories of rivers and beaches, and waves that overwhelm. Water as a metaphor – cleansing, baptism, renewal – the phases of human life depicted in the ebb and flow of the tide. We stay afloat, tread water, swim against the tide. We don’t make waves, keep our head above water, we’re up shit creek without a paddle. Our language says it’s all been done before.

But this is where The Shallows is different. The women and girls in the paintings, all with McCulloch’s wide open face and tumbling braid, swim, dive and wade through the canvases, and yet…the clothes are perfect, the hair is dry. They are in and of the water, but the waves travel around without touching them. The faces are determined, the girls are strong. Grounded in self-portraiture, it’s almost impossible to read the works as anything other than autobiographic, but they’re both more and less complex than that. McCulloch’s self-portraiture is unlike that of other artists. It feels less introspective and more observational. She paints herself the way a lover might. They’re intimate without being particularly personal.

This is the first showing Abbey McCulloch has had since joining Edwina Corlette’s already impressive stable of artists, and it feels like a good fit. Her subtle palate and delicate lines are a perfect accompaniment to existing artists Julian Meagher, Marisa Purcell and Stefan Dunlop, and flows on beautifully from the serenely beautiful show that preceded it, Traversing Undaunted by Carla Hananiah. Inspired by New Zealand’s South Island, there was a lot of water in that one too.

A friend of mine said just the other day that the ocean is a good place to lose a few tears. I don’t know what tears may have fallen to create The Shallows, but it seems on this occasion to have been the right sort of saltwater catharsis.

Abbey McCulloch’s The Shadows runs until 18 April 2015.

Edwina Corlette Gallery
2/555 Brunswick Street
New Farm
ph: 3358 6555
www.edwinacorlette.com

What’s In Your Bag?

It occurred to me today that no one ever has a suitcase in their hand unless something significant is about to happen. Overseas adventures, interstate getaways, annual holidays, family stays (rarely are those last two combined successfully), hospital visits, boarding school, the first steps of an independent young life, travelling salesmen, a scandalised daughter sent away for nine months, a relationship coming to an end, Mormons at your door on a Sunday, absent parents coming back from business trips with presents for the children, the aftermath of death when the closets need to be emptied. A suitcase always means something.

Paul Coventry-Brown, Hat and Suitcase, oil on canvas

When we travel they hold our requirements, our necessities, the things we need to be comfortable when outside our regular spaces. One of my favourite ways to pass the time at an airport is imagining what people have packed in their suitcases – there’s always one who I’m sure has a bag full of bondage gear or smuggled reptiles. My years as a travel agent showed me time and again how proud frequent travellers were of the state of their luggage. Once retired from service, they become the universal symbol for a life well lived, with their knocks and scratches holding just as many stories as the luggage tags and airline stickers we keep to remind us of the places we’ve been.

No wonder beaten up old cases are always such hot items in the antique trade. I’m constantly amazed by how much people are willing to spend on a trunk that looks like it survived both the Titanic and Cyclone Tracy, before being dropped off a truck and run over by a bus. But spend they do. People love buying a bit of imagined history; I see it all the time in the antique stores I trawl through. Imagining a history for an object allows a collector to put their own twist on something that’s already had many lives, before taking it home and making another use out of it entirely. Photographers love them as props, cats love them as beds, hipster DJs love big ones used as tables for their decks.

Joana Kruse, photographer

Museums frequently make use of the strong emotions evoked by suitcases in their exhibits. Holocaust museums worldwide display the suitcases of Jews who packed not knowing what lay ahead; Immigration Museums do something similar though generally with less horrific outcomes; and New York State Museum holds in their collection the abandoned suitcases at the Willard Mental Asylum, still full of personal items of the patients who died there.

A much lighter use for luggage is found in Transport Museums, where vintage suitcases help create the charm of a rail platform or dockyard at the turn of the century. In my current research looking into Reminiscence Therapy for dementia patients, participants and their families work with museums to fill small cases with items of significance as personal memory boxes that can be used to stimulate conversation when the disease takes away a person’s ability to recall their lives.

Outside of the historical context, both real and imagined, contemporary artists make use of the suitcase motif as an immediate emotional hook for their work. Lately I’ve been stuck on the little suitcase hotels of Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson, whose work is part dollhouse fantasy, part commentary on the lost potential in discarded items. Making use of existing tags and stamps, the cases and trunks are returned to the position of journeyman’s assistant in their new role as miniature accommodation houses.

Though known primarily for her larger figurative works in bone and found objects, Sydney-based sculptor Linde Ivimey’s recent collections have included tiny suitcase dioramas – each opening up to reveal a stage mid performance, leaving us as the viewer feeling like we’ve just snuck in to a show without a ticket. Focused and intimate, the works exclude the world beyond the confines of theirs locks and clasps.

In 2008, Pakistani artist Huma Mulji created a work for Art Dubai that caused more controversy than a backpack full of heroine at Changi Airport when she debuted her taxidermied camel stuffed into a suitcase. Highly offensive to the locals, for whom camels are a national symbol of pride, the piece was removed from the fair after just two days (but not before Charles Saatchi had snapped it up for an exhibition of his own). At the time Mulji maintained the work, named Arabian Delight, was a response to international animal smuggling, but has since admitted to it’s inspiration lying more in the ‘Arabisation’ of her homeland.

Huma Mulji, Arabian Delight 2008

Less politically charged, though still controversial, was a large scale installation at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by interdisciplinary design studio Diller, Scofidio & Renfro called Tourisms: suitCase Studies. Comprised of 50 suspended suitcases representing the mainland states of the USA, each case critically analysed specific tourist attractions across the country. Sounds straightforward (read mundane) enough, but by selecting only famous bedrooms and battlefields to be included, the work became an intense commentary on the voyeuristic nature of scandal sites and disaster tourism, though the fact that Samsonite supplied all the cases would seem to indicate they weren’t too concerned about the impact it would have on traveller numbers.

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Perhaps the best example of what I’ve been pondering today is from a 2012 exhibition called Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, where a small suitcase unwittingly became the star of the show. Found by curators in the archives of a gallery in New York City, it was believed to have been loaned by Charles White, credited with birthing the African American ‘art as activism’ movement in Los Angeles, to fellow artist Dan Concholar who filled it full of his own junk then promptly forgot about it. This history was entirely speculative, yet it became the piece everyone spoke about, even described by one reviewer as the “microcosm for the whole show.” Just the possibility that these seminal figures may have touched it was enough to stop a visitor in their tracks. Is it art, or artefact? Doesn’t matter much I suppose.

Dan Concholar, Suitcase, 1980. Photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic

To live out of a suitcase is not a lifestyle most of us covet in the long term. Who wants to be a human Paddington Bear, forever lugging a trunk around in the hope someone will take us in? Yet there is something undeniably appealing about them that no degree of technology has managed to remove. Your bag might have cost four times that of the guy standing next to you at the luggage carousel, but price has no bearing on the memories held within their compartments.

In any case (wait…that was an accidental pun and quite a bad one), it’s kinda nice to know that even when the tedious job of unpacking is done, there remains a little of our journey locked safely inside.

Seven Stages of Australia Maturing

Last night at the opening of Queensland Theatre Company’s 7 Stages of Grieving, I made a big statement that I don’t really write about theatre. Not because I don’t enjoy it; rather it’s because I enjoy it too much to spend a whole performance trying to remember what I want to say about it. But then I saw the show and my brain went into overdrive.

There are so many places I could take this piece right now. Discussions around family ties, the differences in Aboriginal theatre vs mainstream theatre, Australian politics, Brisbane’s arts scene, the benefit of a good script…lots of tangents I’m tempted to go off on. I could even write about the play itself, I suppose!. But mostly I keep coming back to something that’s been rolling around in my head for a while now, which is this:

Australia really shot itself in the foot when it decided that indigenous cultures had nothing to contribute to modern society. I mean, really. I spent twelve years in the school system of this country and another four in university, primarily studying art, literature, drama and social sciences yet, other than a bit about Captain Cook and a Rainbow Serpent, I learned nothing about indigenous culture. Only thirty years ago, twenty even, the society I lived in didn’t actually believe indigenous people had anything to offer of significant beauty. Just dot paintings and digeridoos. At the end of year twelve I couldn’t have named one indigenous artist, writer or poet. I could have named Ernie Dingo and Yothu Yindi but only in passing, and certainly not with any serious consideration being given to what they may or may not have contributed to society. That seems like a colossal waste of an education. Everything I now know, which still isn’t much, I have learned as I’ve found myself naturally drawn time and time again to the colours and rhythms of indigenous arts practice.

Ancient tribes with their supposed primitive societies and oral traditions were what provided the world with its mysteries. They are what gave us the layers, the mysticisms and spiritual depths within which we still find value in life. I’m no big fan of religion and fallacy, but without the rituals and relics of past people’s attempts to make sense of the world, our collective history would be a whole lot less interesting. The alternative folklore of American Indians, the Mayans, southern Slavs, Ancient Greeks and Romans, Incas, Aztecs, Egyptian pharaohs, Ancient Chinese and Mesopotamians…collectively, they created us. And right here at our fingertips is Aboriginal Australia, the oldest continuing culture in the world, whose myths and legends of the world’s creation hold much more relevance to modern Australian culture than any religion the First and Second Fleets may have brought along with them. What sort of idiot doesn’t take advantage of all that history, all that knowledge? Well…we know the uncomfortable answer to that question.

Fortunately it’s a culture that continues to survive despite the ravages and repressions it endured. Their stories continue to resonate despite their languages being under threat of extinction, and their art still pulsates with the vibrations of the land that inspired it. As younger artists are coming of age they are pushing it forward with courage, fresh ideas and confidence. They are demanding to be noticed the way their ancestors weren’t able to, and what they are creating is vibrant and unique. Equally exciting is that younger generations of non-Indigenous Australians aren’t just receptive to it; they’re supportive of it, inspired by it and often prefer it to the homogenised shit we’ve been consuming for years. We’re finally realising that a culture with such strong foundations in storytelling and visual representation might just have something to teach us about art and performance today.

As a writer I know what it’s like to carry a story inside me that I don’t feel able to tell. I can’t fathom how it feels to be just one heartbeat in a whole culture feeling that same way. The burden of those untold stories must be immense; we all know how hard it is to move forward when we don’t feel like our voice has been heard. Yet rather than crumbling under the pressure, they’re thriving, and the Australian arts scene is the beneficiary. Bangara Dance Theatre, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, the artists of Utopia and the Western & Far Western Deserts, Dan Sultan, Tony Albert, Danie Mellor, Tracey Moffat, Christian Thompson, Deborah Mailman…contemporary artists making ancient stories relevant and forcing us to listen.

The 7 Stages of Grieving, to return to where I started, was written by Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch 20 years ago. It has been updated slightly – political references, the inclusion of Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry” speech, better staging and technological advancements in lighting and sound. For the most part though, the play has remained the same. I’d like to say it’s entirely due to the writing, which to a certain extent it is, but mostly it’s because when it comes to Indigenous policy, nothing much has changed. A line in the play refers to a man of 48 being old and therefore close to death. It didn’t take long for the laughter to die away pitifully as it occurred to the audience that with a average life expectancy of just 69 years for Aboriginal men, confronting your mortality at 48 isn’t really that absurd. It’s not a perfect piece of theatre, but it’s good. And visually it’s stunning. I wish I could have taken a picture of the stage, with its circles of sand glowing in the footlights. At times it seemed as though actress Chenoa Deemal was walking through one of those canvases I love so much. It was a lovely reminder of how these stories are all interwoven.

Today is National Close the Gap Day, where the focus is on attempting real change in lifting that aforementioned life expectancy. Much is written about the myriad of ways in which involvement in the arts is good for our health. Is it possible that empowering Indigenous Australia through recognition of the huge contribution they are making to our cultural landscape might be a great place to start?

Perhaps then when 7 Stages of Grieving is next due a rewrite, there might be more than just a prime minister’s name that needs changing.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015

When I was five I had a piece of honey cake at a floating restaurant in Hong Kong that remains one of the most impressive culinary experiences of my life. It was so good that, for years, all I wanted was to go back and have more. Thirty-two years later I’m still desperate to get back to Hong Kong, though these days it has less to do with satisfying a sweet tooth than it does the Asian arm of international art fair Art Basel.

Founded by gallerists in 1970, Art Basel was formed around the premise that encouraging and supporting galleries who nurture artists is good for everyone – creators, dealers and consumers alike. And based on the success of the three enormous art shows they put on annually – in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong – it’s a premise that has become a reality.

Now in its third year, Hong Kong is the newest of these massive events. With China the fastest growing market for contemporary art in the world, accounting for 22% of global sales in 2014, it was a savvy move to launch when they did. Art Basel Hong Kong is now the most important art fair in the Asia Pacific region, with high sales reported for the second year running. That they attract the likes of Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons probably doesn’t hurt either.

Big-time collectors have been opting to buy at art fairs rather than privately for a while now, which I guess has a lot to do with how many people get to see you signing the cheque. Squash that many egos and that much money in a room, and Art Basel Hong Kong is an event sure to sell artwork. Not that it’s any different on a local scale. Just last year I had a weird moment when a friend who really liked an artwork he’d seen in Sydney wouldn’t buy it because the opening night had already passed and it wasn’t “as exciting as purchasing it on the night.” I guess it all depends on whether you’re buying the art or the status. Same wank, different city.

In any case, the reason I love these big exhibitions is the sheer breadth of art practice on display. Everything’s covered, from massive wow-factor installations to tiny works on paper, and with almost 250 exhibitors from all over the world it’s a great chance to see what’s inspiring contemporary art globally. What they lack in intimacy they make up for in range. And the real revelation has been in the extraordinary art coming out of South Korea.

This year has also seen the arrival of a new fair, with the Inaugural Art Central Hong Kong taking place alongside Art Basel, and the feedback from exhibitors and audiences alike was the same – this was where the best art was to be found, away from the spectacle of Art Basel. Held at the new Central Harbourfront development, 77 galleries welcomed 30,000 visitors to view the 400 artists on display including Yayoi Kusama, Denys Watkins, Kate Mccgwire, Polly Morgan and Ian McKeever, so they haven’t exactly started small.

The arty merrymaking finished today, but not before Susan Sarandon and Victoria Beckham had a wander around. Whether or not they bought anything no one’s saying, but my guess is they were really in town for the honey cake.

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David Lynch: Between Two Worlds

Blockbuster gallery openings in Brisbane are like…well, I guess they’re like big gallery opening nights everywhere – glamorous events chock full of socialites and celebrities of varying importance, all there for the free booze and the exposure in the weekend’s social pages, and to provide a bit of depth to one’s public profile by ‘supporting the arts’. For the most part I find them tedious, all air kissing and posturing, with conversations that start with “oh, you must meet so-and-so” or “babe, you’ve just got to introduce me to what’s-his-name.” Puke.

Which is why the opening night of David Lynch: Between Two Worlds at GoMA on Friday night was such a refreshing change. A conscious decision on the part of QAGOMA to make the occasion a strictly ticketed affair meant that the usual pack of free ticket VIPs and sycophants weren’t there (even the QAGOMA staff I know had to purchase their tickets), ensuring a room of people who genuinely were there in support of the arts. Or they were just hoping to meet David Lynch and throw him a film script. Either way, it felt like Brisbane had matured a little.  And when the great man himself appeared just before LA chanteuse Chrysta Bell’s set, the lift in energy was palpable. Not that he was among the rabble of course; he overlooked it all from the top of a staircase, comfy in a leather armchair and surrounded by minders. It was, dare I say it, all very David Lynch. But I can’t deny getting a little thrill to look up and see that iconic silver hairdo shimmering above us.

David Lynch, image via skythelimit.wordpress.com

As for the art at the centre of this shindig – it’s weird and wacky and not entirely comprehensible, but if you were expecting anything else from the student art of David Lynch, you’d have to be nuts. And within the collection are some great pieces – his pastel drawings are beautiful and eerie, his series of matchbox drawings deceptive in their intensity, and a wall of his photography is simply beautiful. I could live without his paintings I suppose, but en masse the works give a really good insight into the experimentation and influences that were required to create the film director we know Lynch as now and, given the nightmarish content of most of the work, it’s surprisingly fun to walk around. The breadth of his art practice is wide and varied, and the 200 odd works included run the gamut. It will need a second visit without the opening night excitement to fully take it in.

The exhibition is extremely well curated, which is a relief given curator Jose Da Silva is a friend – so kudos to him for avoiding a potentially awkward social situation for me by ensuring I wasn’t lying when I told him I loved it at the end of the night! Truly though, the curation is good, right down to the presentation of background information which balances perfectly an audience that will either know absolutely everything or nothing at all about David Lynch’s career. There is an assumption made by the memorabila on view that you already knows Lynch’s relevance in pop culture, but absolutely no judgement if you don’t.

I don’t need to predict that Between Two Worlds will be a success for QAGOMA; it has already broken previous records for ticket presales, and curiosity alone will get people through the doors who may not otherwise bother. I will however predict this show will cement Jose Da Silva’s career. The experience of taking what Jose described in a facebook post last week as “a passing thought in San Francisco in 2013″, and turning it into a “reality at the beginning of 2014″ when he approached Lynch directly with his exhibition proposal, should give him the confidence to push ever further the sometimes limiting boundaries that exist in the Australian art scene. Personally, I’m already wondering what’s next.

For images from the night, take a look at Cultural Flanerie on Instagram here.

David Lynch: Between Two Worlds
Until 7 June 2015, Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) Brisbane

For tickets and information on public programs, go here.

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The Value of Shadows: Judith Wright’s Desire

“One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.” Jean Rhys, Quartet

Back in November, I took my mother for a walk around Desire, Judith Wright’s solo exhibition at the QUT Art Museum. Of all the shows I saw last year, it remains the one I can’t fully get my head around – hence the four month delay in writing about it. But the photos I took during that visit are still on my phone, and I still feel compelled to return to them almost daily, so I guess it means I need to devote some thinking time to it.

Desire, made up of room after room of kinetic sculptures and strategic lighting, was a fully immersive experience of ghoulish figures engaged in shadow play. Sort of like a haunted house for grown up aestheticians. My mother hated it almost immediately. I didn’t, but I was unsettled by it.

My unsettling didn’t come from the content – dismembered mannequins, freak masks and teeth-baring wolves. Rather it was that I was picking up on an energy I couldn’t explain. I didn’t at the time know much about Judith Wright, only that she existed, so I wasn’t aware of the daughter who had died at birth or the years spent struggling to come to terms with that loss. I didn’t know about her relationship with her parents, and the sense of disconnect previously explored in her work. I was simply tuning into the palpable sense of contemplation and reminiscence in it all. Great art is like that – otherworldly and transcendent. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, in the work of my friend Linde Ivimey. It’s power lies in it’s ability to touch people differently, though always in a way that is intensely personal.

It’s interesting to note that Wright was a dancer with the Australian ballet from 1966 to 1970, because there is a definite sensibility within her work that shows an awareness of movement and fluidity. It is not just the nuts and bolts of her sculpture, but also the traces of what lies beneath the shadows that turns these sculptures into the hauntingly beautiful collection they are. 

Not that the works are beautiful on their own. With the exception of a perfectly balanced wall of framed curiosities, and some large scale painted timer pieces, these are not works designed to be taken out of context and used to enhance a loungeroom or corporate office. Just like the memories that inspired them, they don’t work without each other. They are the layers of her life, and need to be consumed in one piece to be best understood.

There are some brilliant essays on Judith Wright’s work practice and history, the majority of which can be found on her website. They go a long way to rounding out the person hidden within the shadows, and I highly recommend shining a light on her if you get the chance.

Sister Mary Corita Kent: the Joyous Revolutionary

Okay, so I totally have a nun fetish. It started as a little girl with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, and was cemented with Sally Field as Sister Bertrille aka The Flying Nun. By the time I got to school and encountered real life nuns, I was convinced they were made of magic. That they regularly sat around playing guitars and singing songs about talking flowers only made them even more fascinating to me. As I got older, I began to understand that life in the convent wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, but that only made them more mysterious and alluring. Plus, let’s face it, there’s not much sexier than a good looking nun hidden under a habit. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Not that all the nuns from my childhood were nice, some of them could terrify Satan, but for the most they were dear old things who loved children and always had a smile and a pat on the head for everyone. When the sisters asked which of us wanted to be a nun when grew up, we all put our hands up.This was the time of Sister Smile, a Belgian known also as the Singing Nun, and Sister Janet Mead who was from Adelaide and had released a rock version of The Lord’s Prayer that we used to sing in school without any idea it had been a hit record, much less had won a Grammy. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat…religious themes were everywhere and they were psychedelic and fun. Jesus was a hippy saviour who hung out with children and baby animals, and the nuns were his tambourine playing groupies. Even Andy Warhol thought they were cool enough to portray Ingrid Bergman as one in this 1983 print:

Ingrid Bergman, The Nun 1983

At least, that’s how I remember it. I may have romanticised it a bit, but my early memories of religious education are all happy ones and totally unlike the later tedium that led me to become the atheist I am today, albeit one who works part time in a museum devoted to the Sisters of Mercy here in Brisbane. But the era of the ‘modern nun’ that arose after Vatican Two and their struggle to adjust to new freedoms has never stopped being a story I enjoy revisiting – the human side of these strong and determined women (think Brides of Christ, but with a slightly less photogenic cast).

Anyway, this whole ramble is because the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is holding the first full scale survey of the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent, an American Catholic nun who was both a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (such a mouthful) and an artist and art educator. Though she ultimately left the order to focus on her art in 1968, she was probably the coolest nun to ever have existed.

Working almost exclusively with silkscreen, Kent was instrumental in establishing serigraphy as a fine art medium. Becoming one of the most popular graphic artists of the 1960s and 1970s, she was fascinated by words and wordplay. Heavily influenced by Andy Warhol and the pop art movement, her prints combined consumerist imagery with spiritual texts, quotes from literature, song lyrics, newspaper headlines, activist chants and pop culture sayings to become transformative works of love and positivity. In a career that spanned over 30 years, she influenced fellow creatives Charles & Ray Eames, Alfred Hitchcock and Saul Bass, and was even responsible for the most successfully issued stamp of the US Postal Service, the ‘Love Stamp’ in 1985.

Corita Kent died of cancer in 1986, aged just 67, but – and I know this sounds cheesy – her work is no less pertinent now as it was in her heyday. She encouraged her students to find the unusual in the everyday, and to seek out revelations wherever they may be found. Artist Ben Shahn referred to her as “the joyous revolutionary” and god knows there aren’t too many of those people around nowadays.

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Sister Mary Corita

Art, words and nuns…what’s not to love?

For more information, check out the Andy Warhol Museum

Fashion as Art…so…FART?

Oh, blerg. It’s ‘fashion as art’ season again.

This happens every few years – the major public galleries around the country throw their doors and wallets open and devote their main exhibition spaces to blockbuster fashion shows. There was Vivienne Westwood at the National Gallery of Australia a decade ago, the Valentino retrospective at GoMA in 2010, and I vaguely recall an Yves Saint Laurent one happening during a Sydney trip in the heady 1980s (Pixie Skase and Eileen Bond must have been all over that). Right now, we have no less than three fashion exhibitions running concurrently across the country. Everywhere you look it’s corsets, collars and haute couture. There’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the National Gallery of Victoria, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at Brisbane’s QAGOMA, and the Art Gallery of South Australia has Fashion Icons: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Musee de Arts Decoratif in Paris. That’s a fair chunk of our major art institutions given over to the fashion industry.

FASHION ICONS: MASTERPIECES FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE MUSEE DES ARTS DECORATIFS, PARIS

I’ll be honest. I enjoy fashion about as much as a vegetarian enjoys a meat pie, so that’s my first disclaimer – I am naturally biased against fashion and the fashion industry. Clothes shopping makes me turn into my father. I’d rather be doing anything else, and if you’ve seen how I dress you’ll know that already. So when a gallery turns their much sought after space over to the fashion industry, I get a little shirty. I appreciate the artistry behind fashion design. The technical skill, the creativity and the various influences on the designers, many of which come directly from the pages of art history text books. I get all that. I can’t sew for shit and have no real desire to learn, but I have grown up with women who were and are great sewers and one of my best mates is a fashion designer. I recognise the work that goes into what they do and the talent behind it. Truly. I am constantly impressed by what appears once the buzzing of the Elna has ceased. But to put it in an art museum?

THE FASHION WORLD OF JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: FROM THE SIDEWALK TO THE CATWALK

It’s funny. If these were works hanging in a textile exhibition, I wouldn’t think twice about it. But they’re not. They’re clothing, and they’re being exhibited as such. These shows are governed by the money, the media, the trends and the celebrity that go along with it. And I guess I resent that an industry already so over hyped, over publicised and so over inflated with its own importance (think Meryl Streep’s cerulean rant in The Devil Wears Prada), is able to encroach on the already meagre slice of the culture pie given to the Australian art scene. Last count there were about 30,000 artists operating professionally in Australia; artists who are regularly creating and exhibiting work commercially. There are god knows how many more out there who don’t come close to making a living out of their art and are therefore excluded from that figure. That’s a lot of artists fighting for a share of the pie. Add a whole other industry into the mix and, well, the models might not be eating the pie but the designers sure are.

FUTURE BEAUTY: 30 YEARS OF JAPANESE FASHION

Chris Saines, director of QAGOMA, has been quoted as saying that much of the appeal of these exhibitions is that audiences don’t feel challenged by them, that their already familiar relationship with fashion makes them highly accessible shows for audiences to attend, but is that what we want from our art museums? Particularly our contemporary art museums? Isn’t that what we tell ourselves time and time again the whole point of art is? To challenge and make people think? Isn’t that how the art scene has validated their existence for years and years and years? So why take the lazy way out now?

I understand it’s a numbers game, and that these big exhibitions are no brainers for art museums. They’re guaranteed to be high traffic, widely publicised and in most cases profitable. They have significant cultural currency due to fashion’s central position in popular culture. I would just rather see that cultural currency being spent in social history museums where the patronage is desperately needed and where they’re infinitely better suited to conveying the historical relevance held within the layers of these exhibitions.

UNDRESSED: 350 YEARS OF UNDERWEAR IN FASHION

Two major exhibitions currently being staged at Brisbane museums, Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion at Queensland Museum, and Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood at Museum of Brisbane, are excellent examples of how well suited our museums are to this role (like I said before, clothing is everywhere at the moment). Both these exhibitions are beautifully staged, thorough, relevant and have queues longer than you’d normally see at a museum ticket counter.

COSTUMES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD

There’ll always be arguments for and against fashion in art galleries. There seems as much support for the continuation of this current trend as there are people like myself who scream “philistine” at the thought. But as we’ve heard cynics pointing out for years – just because it’s in a gallery, it doesn’t mean it’s art.

ART GALLERY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
FASHION ICONS: MASTERPIECES FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE MUSEE DES ARTS DECORATIFS, PARIS
Until 15 February 2015

NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA:
THE FASHION WORLD OF JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: FROM THE SIDEWALK TO THE CATWALK
Until 8 February 2015

GALLERY OF MODERN ART, BRISBANE:
FUTURE BEAUTY: 30 YEARS OF JAPANESE FASHION
Until 15 February 2015

QUEENSLAND MUSEUM:
UNDRESSED: 350 YEARS OF UNDERWEAR IN FASHION
Until 1 February 2015

MUSEUM OF BRISBANE:
COSTUMES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD
Until 24 May 2015

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Discarded Books Transformed Into Exploding 3D Collages

Carrie McCarthy:

I adore this work by Kerry Miller. There’s life in the old book yet!

Originally posted on TwistedSifter:

Kerry Miller brings old and discarded books back to life, turning them into unique pieces of 3D artwork. The mixed media and collage artist carefully carves out illustrations found within the book, sometimes using inks and watercolours to enrich and enhance the final piece. As Miller explains on her website:

“My work is a means of distilling the essence of a book, whilst releasing the images and allowing them to reach a new audience. I view it as a collaboration, a partnership with the past, giving new purpose to old volumes that may otherwise never see the light of day or simply end up in recycling. As technology threatens to replace the printed word, there has never been a better time to reimagine the book.”

Miller’s works are available for purchase through Lawrence Cantor Fine Art. You can also find her latest pieces on her official website

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