America the Brave: Contemporary Indigenous American Art

The Fourth of July, American Independence Day, doesn’t hold much relevance in Australia, but the fact that it’s today does at least allow me an excuse to focus on art from the Americas! Specifically the work of some of my favourite contemporary Native American artists, and the incredible breadth of their collective art practice.

Here’s my top six!

Wendy Red Star

Born in Montana, Wendy Red Star is mixed Irish/Crow Indian, and her art exists at the crossroads of those two cultures. Now based in Oregon, Red Star uses bright festive colours and absurd props, like the inflatable deer below, to lighten the effect of her work without detracting from the seriousness of the intent behind it. Her work is full of humour and life, but anchored very deeply in the history of her people and the issues they continue to face. Kind of like a pinata at a funeral – it’s there to enjoy, but don’t lose sight of what’s going on in the background.


Mateo Romero

Raised in and around the Pueblo culture, Mateo Romero has been making art from very early. Raised in an actively artistic environment, Romero comes from a family of artisans, including his father and paternal grandmother, who are a painter and traditional ceramicist respectively, and his brother Diego Romero who now also works as a ceramic artist. Formally trained in printmaking, Romero’s art practise incorporates elements of printed text and historical photos overlaid with paint, asphalt and ink to create contemporary snapshots of Native American life. He blends the figurative aspects of photography with the movement and fluidity of abstract expressionist painting to create works that pulsate with colour and energy, but are firmly ground in the historical events of early American settlement.

Roxanne Swentzell

Roxanne Swentzell, born into a family with a long pedigree of renowned sculptors and ceramic artists, made her first significant piece of art at the age of four. Having been recognised early for her exceptional talent, Swentzell spent two years studying at the Institute of American Indian Art before even finishing high school, after which she continued formal art training at the Portland Museum Art School.

Swentzell’s figures, cast in either clay or bronze, are quirky and humorous but also possess an expressiveness that is deeply human. Her characters, all with serious dark eyes, are engaged in a wonderous and slightly naive exploration of their surroundings. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that as a little girl Swentzell struggled to communicate due to a severe speech impediment. Her work, cast mainly in clay and bronze, takes me immediately to some of my earliest memories of the world, trying to make sense of what was happening around me, the frustration at never feeling in control, and the determination we develop as children to have our voices heard.

Taking Aim

Making Babies for Indian Market, 2004


Robert Freeman

Entirely self taught, Robert Freeman has been painting for over five decades. Born on the Rincon Indian Reserve in 1939, Freeman was raised in a poor family with little exposure to the arts, on record as saying that he wasn’t even sure what an artist was until he saw a movie on Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Making his way through high school with the assistance of football scholarships, Freeman finished his education and joined the army. Sent to Korea as part of the infantry, he spent his free time sketching portraits for his army buddies of their girlfriends back home, taken from the snapshots they passed around. Having decided he wanted to be an artist, he practiced his technique as often as he was able, and after leaving the army joined a local library so that he could research art history, discovering the work of Rufino Tamayo, Fletcher Martin, Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso.

Developing an art style that incorporates surrealism and traditional American Indian motifs, Freeman began selling a few artworks at fairs and artisan markets, before gaining the confidence to enter his first art show. He has since won over 200 awards, and is considered a major name in Native American art. Now living in San Marcos, he still occasionally paints in the studio he built himself in Rincon.

Lady in Waiting

Warrior and His Horse

Jeffrey Gibson

Now based in Brooklyn, Jeffrey Gibson is a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor originally from Colorado. As a child he travelled overseas with his family, living for a time in Germany and South Korea. This early exposure to a unique mix of cultures continues to inform his art practice, which he sees as a process of drawing together the seemingly vast differences between Western and non-Western worlds. Drawing inspiration from various dance cultures throughout the world, including tribal dance, the rave scene, and 60s Go-Go dancers, Gibson repurposes objects such as punching bags, bells, animal hides, musical instruments…the list of materials he uses is endless. The result is work that energises and uplifts, providing a contemporary context for ancient questions about spirituality, culture and what it means to be different.

Jeffrey Gibson is one of my favourite contemporary artists, regardless of his cultural heritage.

American Girl, 2013

Trade, 2011

Beaded Column, 2012

Rawhide Painting 6, 2012

Rick Bartow

Rick Bartow, a member of the Wiyot tribe in northern California, is another self-taught artist. Raised by a waitress mother and a fisherman father, Bartow never considered art as a serious employment option. Initially working as a bartender himself, then as a teachers’ aide with handicapped children, Bartow eventually joined the army and was sent to Vietnam. Upon his return home, the now seriously war-damaged Bartow turned to art to exorcise the demons he carried with him from his tour of duty. His first solo show after Vietnam was understandably stark, with black and white imagery and heavy subject matter. In the years since though, his work has morphed into a lovely balance of ancient spirituality and mysticism, and contemporary themes and colour palates.

Bear Heart

Little Spirit in the Ground

Anxiety

Voices II

William Bustard: Painting With Light

“I can only say that I am captivated by the rich contrasts, beautiful skies, trees and clear light of this great land, and I am happy to say that I find countless people who respond in a similar way; and consequently derive great enjoyment from the never ending beauty of the Australian country side.”  William Bustard, 1955

You need only have driven any of the roads winding through the Sunshine Coast hinterland or Northern NSW to recognise the effect of sunlight on the landscapes in William Bustard’s paintings. Dappled leaves, shimmering rivers, a fishing line glistening as it moves with the tide.  These are scenes of my childhood – holidays in Noosa, day trips to Maleny, picnics along the bank of the Tweed River with my grandparents. The artwork is a comfort, and the memories soothing.

Tying Up, Surfers Paradise, c 1950

Funny that a man from Yorkshire could depict Queensland light so perfectly, but perhaps having eyes used to the British gloom made the light here particularly spectacular. There is no doubt William Bustard was acutely sensitive to the transformative effect of sunlight on a space, a talent he gifted to us via the buildings throughout Brisbane bearing the leadlight windows he designed.

The Shambles, 1941

Trained in the precise art of stained glass, Bustard travelled throughout the British Isles, Ireland, Europe and North America working on designs for cathedrals and civic buildings. In 1921 he migrated to Australia with his wife, and began the life of a bohemian expat in Queensland. Here, he worked on the lead-lighting in many of Brisbane’s churches, as well as buildings and memorials in Rockhampton, the Gold Coast and Darwin, while also teaching art part-time at the Central Technical College of Brisbane. He was made president of the Royal Queensland Art Society in 1932, and a foundation member of the board of trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery from 1931 to 1937. Bustard also held the position of Chairman of the art advisory committee for Queensland Art Gallery, but resigned when the inherent conservatism of the board got the better of him. Upon retirement, the man known as ‘Bill the Swift’ to his contemporaries moved to Labrador, where he lived and continued to paint up until his death in 1973.

Fibro Beach House, c 1950

This exhibition, one of the largest retrospectives of William Bustard’s career, covers all areas of his multi-faceted art practice. Examples of his early, pre-Australia paintings sit alongside replicas of his most well known stained glass windows, as well as illustrated copies of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe he released in the 1940/50s. In addition to the Museum of Brisbane’s own collection of Bustard’s paintings, there are works from the Queensland Art Gallery, Gold Coast City Gallery and private collections also on display. Together, it makes for expansive and thorough coverage of the career of a brilliant and much loved artist.

I have come to expect that exhibitions at the Museum of Brisbane will impress. Situated atop City Hall, the museum is a true hidden treasure of the city in that very often, locals have never heard of it. Or they have, but they’ve heard ‘Museum of Brisbane’ and pictured the other museum in Brisbane, the Queensland Museum in South Brisbane.

With a relatively small but very beautiful space to work with, their team of curators and designers consistently manage to create intelligent, thoughtful exhibitions that extract the very best of Brisbane’s history. As a source of local knowledge, it tells stories otherwise missed in the narrative of our state – stories that provide layers of culture and context often assumed not to exist outside of Sydney and Melbourne. As Queensland continues to grow culturally and move beyond our reputation for being about sport and pineapples and surfboards and renegade politicians, the Museum of Brisbane will be the place to seek out the stories that resonate on a personal level. My advice is that next time you find yourself walking through King George Square, you should take a detour through City Hall and check it out.

Who knows…it might just make you as proud to be a Queenslander as the State of Origin says you should be – and you don’t even have to suffer the indignity of wearing maroon to feel it ;)

Gordon’s Crossing, Pine River, 1936

The CO’s Hut, 1944

Jacaranda in Bloom, Farsley Hill, Hamilton, c 1950s

Boys and Boats, 1944

Farm Near Maleny, 1945

Absinthe by Spiegelworld

“Everyone should be fucking clapping right now, unless you’re that one asshole who won’t clap for anything the whole show.”

And so begins the latest offering by New York-based, Australian influenced, entertainment group Spiegelworld. Named after the mysterious green elixir believed to have been both the inspiration and ruin of artists, vagrants and the bourgeoisie during la belle époque and beyond, Absinthe is in your face and full on from the get go. Set within a stunningly beautiful, 150 year old Belgian spiegeltent, Absinthe is a raucous blend of circus, cabaret, burlesque and vaudeville. Emceed by The Gazillionaire, a sort of Benny Hill/Borat/Les Patterson lovechild, and his dippy but horny sidekick, this is a show of sexual innuendo, biting New York humour, filthy language and absolutely no regard for political correctness, backed up by some incredible acrobatic acts and feats of strength. It’s dick jokes and sperm stories and nipple tassels and lesbian aerial acts, it’s strippers and cross-dressers and bulging lycra leotards, it’s festive and jovial and doesn’t take itself seriously even when seriously brilliant artists are performing in front of you. It was like having the best drunken sex of my life even though my mother was sitting right next to me…and it was hands down one of the most enjoyable nights out I’ve ever experienced. That it was here in Brisbane made it that much more incredible. I have been trying to get to a show at the Spiegeltent for years now. Every previous season I’ve promised I’d make it but had to miss out for one reason or another, so this performance came with a huge amount of expectation on my part. It didn’t disappoint. In fact, it went far beyond my expectations. It is a must see experience, where reality is suspended in favour of naughty Prohibition Era spectacle and scandal.

Don’t miss it.

Absinthe at the Spiegeltent
King George Square, Brisbane
Get tickets here!             

Controlled Chaos

“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos, lurks an even eerier type of order.” Douglas Hofstadter

Let’s talk about chaos and control. Specifically, let’s talk about the chaos and control currently on display in the Amber Wallis/Ari Athans joint show at Edwina Corlette Gallery.

At first glance, the respective art practices of Wallis and Athans don’t appear to have a great deal in common. Wallis, based in Byron Bay, is a free-spirited painter of busy, emotional compositions full of bright colour and expansive brushstrokes. The work is abstract, though not entirely, with subtle reference points that allude to interiors, landscapes and dicks (yes, you did just read that). I suspect, however, that the contemplations underpinning the works are slightly less whimsical. The type of humour required to create works with titles like Still Life with Cactus, Skelephone and Dildo is one with an edge, a little like a wise-cracking street kid who plays tough to deflect attention elsewhere. They are ultimately happy, very pleasing paintings, but I get the sense they were made with the energy that comes from a degree of inner turmoil.

Athans, conversely, produces work that is a study in science and technique. Working with a steel base, Athans applies enamel paint, oil pastel and graphite in layers, sanding back and reapplying as she goes. Oxidisation, rust and pitting are all part of a process that allow for natural reactions between very unnatural materials. The outcome is artwork that glows like light refracted off a prism, which given Athan’s background in jewellery, gemology and geology isn’t altogether surprising. Her artwork is the tangible, and very beautiful, result of the scientific world colliding with the creative.

This isn’t the first time Edwina Corlette has juxtaposed the work of two artists in the gallery, and it’s an approach I love. To see artists hang alongside each other is to see how different art practices work together to complement and inform. Right now, with the  spontaneity of the Wallis works played off so well against the rigidity of the Athans pieces, it is an energising feeling of controlled chaos that hits you as you walk in the door.

Edwina Corlette Gallery
Until 27 June 2015

 AMBER WALLIS

ARI ATHANS

  

Ilya Zomb

Okay, imagine you’re a sorcerer with a massive magic cauldron in front of you, and you’ve been tasked with creating today’s artist.

You know they’re surrealist, so you throw in a big chunk of Salvador Dali, but they’re absurdist too, so you want to add a bit of Magriette, Cheval and the writing of Lewis Carroll. You want people to take this art seriously though, so you anchor it with a good dose of Flemish still life and Renaissance portraiture.

At this point you’d probably stand back and take a look to see how it’s going, then decide that the subject matter could be getting a little heavy. Mix in some of Henri Rousseau’s naive figures and, for a bit of circus fun, the cartoonish delight of British painter Beryl Cook’s ‘fat ladies’. Don’t let it get too cartoonish though. You’ll need to ladle in a hearty serve of Hieronymus Bosch to show you mean business.

Now, if you’re still with me, take that big cauldron of artistic goodness, and pour it over a copy of the children’s book Animalia by Graeme Base. If you’ve followed the spell exactly, what should result is the work of my latest art crush, Ukrainian-born, New Jersey-based, Ilya Zomb.

Zomb’s work makes my heart sing. It’s pure fantasy, but with a sensitive humanity. It’s Mary Poppins and Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also very much Roald Dahl and the scarier lands of the Magic Faraway Tree. It’s adult themes and childish imagination.

It’s…oh, bugger it – have a look for yourself!

                          

Bruno Walpoth, Grand Carver of Soul

I’m not sure I believe the whole ‘every living thing has a soul’ business (I mean, how much soul can a brussel sprout really have?) but if there is any truth in that concept, then the proof can probably be found in the work of Italian sculptor Bruno Walpoth.

Using one slab of solid timber, Walpoth creates ethereal human forms that are so lifelike as to appear breathing. Natural knots, cracks and textures are incorporated into the portraits, taking on the same imperfections in skin and structure that we humans deal with daily. The semi-translucent paint he uses to stain the work allows the wood grain to show through, a technique that simultaneously retains the warmth of freshly miller timber and mimics the life pulsating under the human epidermis. 

This is the work of a highly sensitive master. Rather than impressing his designs on the timber, Walpoth lets the timber guide him as he coaxes out the spirit within. As the viewer, you can’t help but feel the balance of the two life forces – human and plant – working in complete harmony.

The end result is a gathering of figures on the brink of transformation, just waiting for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy to tap them on the shoulder and bring them to life. 

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

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Erin M Riley’s TapArseTry

When I think of tapestry, I think of my grandparents’ house. Each room had at least a couple hanging on the walls. Not the expansive (and expensive) Belgian ones that decorate the Vatican and other European sanctoriums, but small ones, done by my grandmother, of English interiors, childhood scenes and landscapes of thatched roofs, floral gardens and footpaths that trailed off beyond the timber frame. They weren’t spectacular, and they didn’t reflect any aspect of life as I knew it, but they were special in their own way. I loved watching grandma attach the linen to the stretcher, prepare the wool and count out the starting point. And then I’d watch with fascination as the designs began to emerge. Having said that, I was never so enraptured that I wanted to take it up myself. It seemed a bit too Jane Austen-esque for me. But then Grandma never put naked chicks and lesbians dry-humping on beer kegs in her designs. And the thought of adding a vibrator to her work never crossed her mind. I hope.

The same cannot be said of Brooklyn-based weaver Erin M Riley, whose very modern take on the ladylike art of tapestry sees her appropriate images taken from social media of bathroom selfies, sexy photos that went viral, messy nights out and drug culture. There are personal images of girls flashing their bits, nipple slips, intimate moments and bad decisions. They’re images we’ve seen across our televisions and smart phones a thousand times over, but in the context of tapestry’s long history as a gentle art, they have a shock value lost when seen in regular media. Far from being an exercise in voyeurism, Riley’s tapestries remind us how desensitised we’ve become to these types of depictions.

And yet, the fascinating thing about Riley’s work is that, despite the semi-pornographic tone, her portraits retain a sense of strong femininity. Recreated in wool immediately softens the image. The texture, the warp and weft of tapestry, adds a layer of fragility that directly contradicts what we’ve come to believe of selfie culture and the, erm, art of sexting. They are weirdly feminist this time round, powerful statements about our changing view of women and how we expect a woman to act.

Though the imagery is highly contemporary, the method of weaving remains true to tapestry’s origins. Before beginning a work, the wool is washed, stripped and dyed by Riley, who uses a large Macomber floor loom to weave her kinky magic. Each tapestry takes between forty and eighty hours to complete, depending on size. The finished works show that Riley is masterful in her understanding of both tone and technique.

Tapestry used to be very much a communal craft, with the artist’s identity of less consequence than the finished product. They were functional too, serving to insulate and absorb sound as well as decorate medieval castles. It lost a little of its grandeur over time, and the art world has struggled with where to place tapestry as it shifts from fine art to craft and back again. But textile art it on the up and up, and with artists like Grayson Perry, Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close and Kara Walker incorporating tapestry into their practice in the last few years, I’m predicting a resurgence.

Until that happens though, let’s just enjoy a bit of Erin M Riley’s woollen pornography, eh?

Monica Rohan’s Fall to Grace

It’s a funny sort of self portraiture that keeps the face hidden. I’ve never fully understood why an artist does it. Is it because they don’t want the work pegged solely as self-portraiture? Or they’re rubbish at painting faces? Maybe seeing their face before them is a bit like when I hear my voice on a recording and recoil in horror. That’s not me. 

Perhaps it’s that faceless self-portraiture protects the artist from explicit recognition and having to explain. Whatever events and emotions may be covered in a work, without the inclusion of the face, the identity of the protagonist is implicit and therefore open to various interpretations and denials. It’s disconcerting for the viewer, because we don’t know for certain that it is self-portraiture, and denies us the chance to feel that intimate connection between artist and viewer we crave. We aren’t ‘in the know’, so to speak.

Faceless self portraiture is perhaps closest to what I do as a writer. Not being blessed with any artistic ability, I must rely on words to explore myself and whatever I’m going through. Sometimes that’s hard, because words are definite and don’t allow for detachment from serious scenarios. But depending on the sort of writing I’m doing, I have the option of disguising myself and others through narrative. And on the odd occasion I am forced to describe myself, none of the words I choose ever relate to my physical appearance. If you don’t know what I look like already, you won’t get any better idea from reading my personal view of myself. My written self portrait is a faceless one too.

It’s here within this narrative self that I find I connect with the work of Brisbane artist Megan Rohan. Since leaving art school just five years ago, Rohan has made her career out of faceless self-portraits. We know they’re self portraits because she says so, but without the face to confront and focus us, we are allowed our own interpretation. Her paintings are a tumbling, falling, floating mess of girls shrouded in fabric and textiles. The colour schemes, patterns and movement are what drive the emotion of these works which, done with oil on board, take on the effect of painted tiles and ceramic glaze.

Rohan’s early works did occasionally include the face, alongside muted tones and subdued patterns, but the last two years has seen a stronger use of colour, more intricate patterns, expansive motion, and complete elimination of the face. Whether that was done consciously or instinctively, it is easy to see her new works as more confident and buoyant, despite the apparent shyness of the subject. Her recent solo show at Jan Murphy Gallery, called Topsy-Turvy, felt joyous and triumphant, even with angst ridden names such as Yeah Right Okay, Consequence and Predicament. The satisfaction and wonder evoked in me must have hit the mark elsewhere too, as the show was an immediate sell out.

Having last year completed a residency at Tweed Regional Gallery, Rohan’s work will be on display there until 4 October 2015, and will soon be seen in QAGOMA’s forthcoming GOMA Q exhibition from 11 July 2015.

It’s too corny to say that despite painting herself as falling, Monica Rohan is most definitely on the rise – but bugger it. I’m going to say it anyway.

Damien Hirst at Fifty

I’m having a midlife crisis on Damien Hirst’s behalf.

He turned fifty on the weekend, and from what I’ve seen of people who turn fifty, it’s no cakewalk. It’s when people start buying convertibles, leaving their partners, changing jobs, cutting their hair, and having unnecessary surgery to remove features no one even noticed in the first place. It’s when people say stuff like “but I still feel like a teenager” and “where did my life go?”, along with “I no longer care what anyone thinks” and “it’s so freeing to do feel I can do what I want.” Weird, all this crisis. Turning fifty becomes the impetus for a total life evaluation, a time to take stock of where you are and what you have achieved thus far.

The thing is, for a guy who’s already chainsawed a farmyard’s worth of animals in half and presented them in formaldehyde, what’s left to do when the “I no longer care” moment hits? The rest of the 49 year olds on the planet might be relishing the freedom turning fifty brings, but Hirst has already exhibited a rotting cow’s head encased in a vitrine of flies and maggots. I’m concerned he may have peaked too early.

Image: The Guardian 2 April 2012

Perhaps he’s doing life in reverse (or I’m doing him in reverse…so to speak…ahem). The first time I saw his work up close, it was the shark in the tank at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I thought it was the biggest crock of shit I’d ever seen, mostly because it had recently sold to Steven A Cohen for somewhere in the region of $8-12 million dollars and I couldn’t fathom how that could ever have been a thing (little did I know he’d one day try to sell a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million). “It has a great name though” said my mate at the time. Fat lot of good that added to the value, as far as I was concerned, but he was right. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was an inspired name – especially if you ran it through your head while staring at the creature’s wide open mouth. But I still regarded the whole thing as a bunch of bollocks.

Six years and one fascinating interview with Noel Fielding later, I’ve mellowed in my opinion of Damien Hirst and I suspect, at fifty, he’s mellowed too. I guess if you launch yourself forcefully on to the London art scene with a bratty, anti-establishment tantrum like he did in his curation of Freeze in 1988, then follow it up with a professional relationship with Charles Saatchi that results in the shark in the tank, you’ve kind of hit the confidence level most mid-career artists could only dream of right from the get go. It’s hard to reach the point of no longer caring when you appeared to start from that position in the first place. He’s still the ultimate conceptual artist, but today Hirst’s work is less jarring, more settled in to itself. The shock value of his early pieces has been replaced by a strong sense of respect and deliberation over the world he inhabits. There’s not the arrogance of the mass-produced spot paintings and the “my assistant does them because I can’t be fucked” mentality, nor the lazy sarcasm of works like 11 Sausages. There’s more experimentation and genuine exploration of his artistic ability rather than relying so much on his PR and marketing talents. And although the vitrines of formaldehyde, the skulls and butterflies, and the overarching theme of death and mortality are still present, they’re somehow different. They have purpose.

Mortuary, 2003-2004 Painting, oil on canvas.

Oddly, this new approach has made for a sympathetic review of the best of his earlier stuff. Mother and Child Divided, which could so easily be gruesome, becomes melancholic; his butterfly work In and Out of Love is sweet and fragile, and maybe even a little naive. His works now seem eerily beautiful and evocative. They inspire contemplation in a way that doesn’t feel forced or at all contrived. With hindsight, he was probably less an unruly troublemaker than a little ahead of the pack. Kind of like the disruptive class clown who turns out to be the smartest kid in the school. The sharp humour is still evident in his new works, but these days there’s a sensibility that underpins it.

In and Out of Love 1991

A few years back, on the eve of his career retrospective at the Tate, Hirst said of his career “when you’re young, you’re invincible, you’re immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you’re inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It’s fixed. You can’t change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest.” It was a time of reevaluation for Hirst, not the least because he was on record as saying he’d never want his work to hang in the Tate, and there he was being feted by them. But it had been a throw away line from a then-young artist, and we all know bravado is bullshit in a different frock. He wasn’t to know way back then that he’d end up the richest living artist. I can’t imagine anyone foresaw that in the days when his art practice involved painted cardboard boxes and frying pans hung on walls. But he did and he is, and now that we’re at the point we are, it appears Hirst is less interested in creating art than he is in ensuring his legacy is one that won’t easily be forgotten.

Gone But Not Forgotten, 2014

Last year’s major work of a gilded Woolly Mammoth skeleton, Gone But Not Forgotten, was donated to amfAR to help finance their work in AIDs research. This year, having purchased suitable real estate over a decade ago, Hirst is set to open a free public gallery to showcase his personal art collection. Including works by Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin, Banksy, Picasso, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, as well as artefacts, natural history specimens, taxidermy, anatomical models, and various historical objects, Hirst’s planned Newport Street Gallery will allow him to return to where he first made his mark – as a curator and art appreciator. He’s giving back and moving forward.

Always one to do things differently, Damien Hirst’s 50th birthday will likely prove less the catalyst for an “I don’t care” moment than it will the opportunity to prove just how much he always has cared after all. About him turning fifty, there’s no need for me to worry.

All images, except where noted, taken from Damien Hirst.

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!