Discerning Judgment 

Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.”
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, Minima Moralia

I’m not sure there are too many places with less ambience than law libraries. Morgues, perhaps. Or dentist waiting rooms, I suppose. But if oppressive silence mixed with stifling beige is what you’re after, then the Library of Law is the place for you.

It’s always seemed a shame to me that the endless stacks of periodicals, journals and peer reviews don’t hold a few more literary titles. Lawyers are probably the only profession other than writers for whom the use of language is paramount, so a few examples of words at their most beautiful wouldn’t be completely out of place. But maybe they don’t like to taint the imaginative with the dry, and in fairness some of those law texts make War and Peace look like an early reader. Better to stick with the weightier tombs, titles like Local Government Law Journal, Stanford Law Review and Lloyd’s Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly (my personal favourite). That being the way things usually are, it’s really quite exciting to see that Brisbane’s Supreme Court Library have undertaken to devote serious time and money to promoting fine art in their space.

Supreme Court Library, Brisbane

The brief sounded simple enough. Discerning Judgment would bring together nine contemporary Australian artists whose work in some way spans the gap between art and the legal profession, and pair them with legal mentors in order to collaboratively explore the role of judgment in the lives of both lawyers and artists. To tell you the truth (the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) I thought it sounded a little dull. I had visions of Bill Henson-esque controversies and copyright infringements, artists willing to go to prison for their ‘craft’ and fraudulent masterpieces sold by dodgy New York dealers. But what co-curators John Stafford and Jodie Cox have brought together is nothing like that. Discerning Judgment is witty, absorbing and surprisingly wide in scope considering the size of the exhibition.

The artists selected for inclusion are a bit of a motley bunch, in that their art practices and subject matter are so varied. For some, their connection to the legal profession is obvious and deeply personal. For others, the relationship is more arbitrary.

Robert Andrew, whose enormous ochre-dripping mechanical work ‘Information Transfer #2’ dominates the foyer on arrival, is driven by his indigenous heritage, as are Judy Watson and Michael Cook. These are works that reverberate with questions of identity and self worth – Where do we stand, according to the courts? Who are we in the eyes of the law? What role did an act of law, The Aboriginal Act, have on my family and who I am today? Complex and important questions that the law continues to find difficult to answer.

Hot young artist Tyza Stewart is also engaged in a process of self discovery, with self portraiture providing an ideal vehicle for testing the limits, both legal and social, of gender identity and body modification. Is how we perceive ourselves any less valid when it’s not legally recognized? What if we’re recognized legally but ostracized socially?

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Tyza Stewart

Equally personal, but more widely identifiable, is ‘Law and Order’ by sculptor Linde Ivimey. Made while engaged in what was to become an incredibly protracted and emotionally taxing divorce, the work is a catharsis. Each part of the creative process helped to relieve the grief, anger and frustration she experienced as the legal wrangling wore on (NB: to the curators – this work needs more light!).

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Linde Ivimey

After such intense introspection, it is a relief that the remaining four artists are represented by works covering much broader ideas of history, the past and the role art can play in our collective future. Interestingly, and I suspect unintentionally, these artworks are also engaged in a conflict of intent that brings the idea of judgment back in to focus.

Through their inclusion in Discerning Judgment, Joachim Froese and Michael Zavros want to draw attention to art’s chaotic ability to transform and disrupt space, forcing people to consider art by taking it out of its usual gallery context and installing it somewhere unexpected. Victoria Reichelt and Kylie Stillman subvert that entirely, focusing not on using art to fill a void they see exists, but to highlight what we’ve already lost. These works are about what is absent, what we’re missing and what can’t be replaced.

The manifesto behind Discerning Judgment was that it would begin a conversation between two disparate professions and encourage them to find similarities where they ordinarily perceive difference. But anyone who has friends on both sides of this roundtable discussion could tell you that this oppositional hype is just a beat up. Almost every lawyer you’ll meet will lay claim to a frustrated creative side, while almost every artist will tell you life would be easier if their profession had more stability. That common area of discontent is what makes solicitors some of the most ardent and supportive collectors of art in the world. The beauty of Discerning Judgment is that it has slipped so easily in to the space it inhabits, requiring absolutely no justification for its being there.

I’m going to sign off by returning to my literary theme in order to misquote Charles Dickens, who I think buggered it up when he wrote Oliver Twist all those years ago.

The law, as it turns out sir, is an art.

Discerning Judgment
 Supreme Court Library
Brisbane
Until 5 February 2016

Waddell and Winton, the Painter and the Scribe.

Gazing across the choppy vistas of Craig Waddell’s most recent show, I can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Headlands, with its craggy outcrops and deep dark blues, is full of places I’ve seen before but can’t quite think where. Places I know I’ve returned to time and again, yet struggle to find a location for in the old memory map. It isn’t until a friend sidles up beside me and whispers in my ear “far out, this reminds me of a Tim Winton book” that I realise it’s somewhere I’ve only ever visited in the pages of a novel.

Drunk as Drunk on Sea Air, 2015

Back home, I rifle through my bookcase. It was organised once, a long time ago now. Too many moments just like this one have thrown the system out. But I know what I’m looking for and I find it soon enough; a tiny hardback copy of Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir.

“We live by the sea not simply because it is more pleasant to be a lazy nation, but because of the two mysteries the sea is more forthcoming; its miracles and wonders are occasionally more palpable, however inexplicable they be. The innate human feeling from the veranda is that if you look out long enough, something will turn up… The beach in Australia is the landscape equivalent of the veranda, a veranda at the edge of the continent.” TIM WINTON, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir

You Have Wandered, 2015

There is something very beautiful about the merging of artistic practice and a love of the outdoors under the male gaze; a particular sort of rugged romanticism that is captured in the work they create. It’s especially pleasing here in Australia, where ideas of masculinity are all about sporting prowess and an adventurous spirit, and only rarely about sensitivity and cultural engagement. You don’t become a Bronzed Aussie Warrior by walking the corridors of our nation’s greatest art galleries, you know? Maybe it’s what made landscape painting and poetry two areas of the arts where Australia’s influence really can be seen internationally. That this country so hell bent on creating super fit, tanned sporting heroes might occasionally produce an incongruous hybrid who also loves the arts and nurturing his creative side remains something of a curiosity.

“As an artist, as someone who writes stories and tries to make words into beautiful forms, it’s vitally important to me, especially in a culture that’s forgotten the value of beauty. It’s a primary source of inspiration, I guess, when so much of what goes on around you is only about money and big swinging dick capitalism. It’s important for blokes to be able to do beautiful stuff, impractical stuff that adds to life. That’s an early life-lesson from surfing.” TIM WINTON, Tim Baker interviews Tim Winton

Bountiful Love, 2015

I know Tim Winton is a surfer, there’s a hint of surfboard wax on the pages of almost everything he’s written, but Craig Waddell’s work isn’t that didactic. Nevertheless, I had figured him for a kayaker well before he confirmed it in conversation. A person doesn’t paint the sea from the perspective he does without having experienced feeling suddenly very tiny in a very big swell; to have felt the immense power of the water as it surges around you and know you are entirely at its mercy.

“I love the sea but it does not love me. The sea is like a desert in that it is quite rightly feared. The sea and the desert are both hungry, they have things to be getting on with so you do not go into them lightly.” TIM WINTON, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir

The Swell, 2015

There is a ritualistic aspect to the activities these men seek out. Both are instinctively drawn to nature, actively engage with it as part of their creative process, and intuitively develop works that resonate with their personal contemplations.

“In her time Georgie Jutland had been a sailor of sorts, so she knew exactly what it meant to lose seaway, to be dead in the water. She recognized the sensation only too well. And that spring she had slipped overboard without a sound.” TIM WINTON, Dirt Music

A rhythmic undercurrent permeates all aspects of Craig Waddell’s life, from the easy too-and-fro between himself and his studio buddy, his wife Jessie Cacchillo; to the way he describes the flow of his first love, cricket, with the sweep of the bowler’s arm as it prepares to hurl leather towards willow, and the swoosh through the air as the batsman sends a ball towards the boundary. It is in the roll of the ocean as he waits atop his kayak for a wave to help him paddle back in to shore, and in the smoothing on and scraping off of paint as he creates the textured canvases for which he is so well known. So too Tim Winton, whose writing has a lyrical beat of its own, pulsating with the same emotive force as the characters he creates.

“She pulled back the sliding door and stepped out onto the terrace where the air was cool and thick with the smells of stewing seagrass, of brine and limey sand, of thawing bait and the savoury tang of saltbush…Georgie stood out there longer than was comfortable, until her breasts ached from the chill and her hair felt as though it was shrinking. She saw the moon tip across the lagoon until its last light caught on bow rails and biminis and windscreens, making mooring buoys into fitful, flickering stars. And then it was gone and the sea was dark and blank.” TIM WINTON, Dirt Music

Forever In My Heart, 2015

Water is everywhere in Winton’s work, but the sea came later to Waddell. Growing up in Galston meant farm life, and the roosters, tractors and faces of his childhood featured heavily early in his career. But subject matter is only a small part of the creative process for Waddell. He is equally inspired by his love of paint and texture, and his constant desire to have fun and enjoy what he does. He continues to explore different mediums, experimenting with random elements like adding concrete dust from a recent home renovation to his paint pots, and revelling in the results. Occasionally he plays with portraiture as a way of validating his artistic ability, but chooses not to paint faces outside his immediate circle of family and friends. With the seascapes of Headlands, he has perhaps found the perfect blend of subject and process, inspiration reaching him like flotsam and jetsam on the tide.

“There is more bounty, more possibility for us in a vista that moves, rolls, surges, twists, rears up and changes from minute to minute.” TIM WINTON, Land’s End: A Coastal Memoir

Sounds of Distant Shores, 2015

I don’t know if Waddell and Winton know each other, I doubt very much that matters, but somewhere in the rhythm of the language they each use and the energy with which they imbue their work, there is a confluence of thought and understanding. That they express themselves through two entirely different mediums is irrelevant. Waddell and Winton, the painter and the scribe, are on the same wavelength.

“There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I would prefer to be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings.” TIM WINTON, Land’s End: A Coastal Memoir

Tied To The Ocean, 2015

Images care of Edwina Corlette Gallery

Take a Running Jump, Nikky Morgan-Smith!

Sitting on Nikky Morgan-Smith’s back deck overlooking the hinterland of Northern NSW, it’s hard not to imagine yourself taking flight and soaring out over this beautiful part of the world. Tucked down a bumpy old goat track in an area west of Byron Bay, the home is a bohemian hideaway situated in one of Australia’s most pristine regions. Veiled by the bush on all sides, it is typical of the bush retreats in the area. It has its quirks, as most places in Northern NSW do. Real estate agents would describe it as a renovator’s dream or as having a unique charm.

Inside, it is the human equivalent of a bowerbird’s nest. Signs of a life gathered together are everywhere. Antique and reclaimed furniture fill the rooms, throw rugs and cushions cover the lounges. There are cabinets full of drawers. A mix of abstract and botanical art covers the walls. A pink plastic flamingo resides in the dining area, a 1920s telephone sits on a hall table on the veranda covered in dust. Out in the garden, an old toilet bowl overflows with fernery. The place has a good feel to it. On that wide back deck, sipping tea and playing with an enormous doe-eyed dog known as Basil, I felt a million miles from anywhere. And I was, sort of.

On the long drive there, I wondered who Nikky Morgan-Smith would turn out to be. We’d only ever communicated via email and text message prior to my visit. I knew nothing other than what I’d read online, and artist bios are never much to go on. I had a sense she’d be a little timid, based on a few things she had mentioned in correspondence, but the fact that she had reached out to me about featuring her on Cultural Flanerie indicated a degree of tenacity and self-determination. I had suggested meeting at her studio before I wrote anything, because I like to know the person I’m writing about (crazy, I know…), but studios are sacred spaces as I’ve written about before, and I was aware Nikky was a little daunted by the idea. Nevertheless, she agreed, and when she greeted me at the door it was with a hug, an apology about the mess, and the offer of a cup of tea all in one go. Though initially nervous about my arrival, we were soon chatting comfortably.

To listen to Nikky talk is to hear an artist in transition, at that point in a career where you question where you are and where you want to be – and have to deal with all the worries and complications that line of enquiry throws up. It is the eternal dilemma of the emerging and early career artists. Hell, it’s the dilemma of the mid-career artist too. Do you stick with what’s selling because the bills need paying, or do you push yourself to experiment with what your instincts are telling you? It seems particularly difficult for those artists with commercial representation, dealing not only with their own indecision, but the added burden of gallerists who see dollar signs where their creativity ought to be. What’s that saying? Something about “creative executive” being the greatest oxymoron? Anyway…

Living out of town, isolated from industry chatter, allows her the distance she needs to ignore external forces and stay focussed on her art practice. The art world is one Nikky knows well, having been raised by parents who are both artists themselves (the abstract and botanical canvases hanging inside turn out to be the work of her father and mother respectively). That she comes from serious art stock probably doesn’t help ease the pressure she feels, especially given how far removed her own style is from either of her parents. Yet Nikky has managed to make a name for herself with her bright, improbable scenes of exotic animals in suburban bathrooms – giraffes taking showers, elephants squeezed into bathtubs and peacocks commandeering hand basins. The whimsically styled, absurdist subject matter is at first glance a bit of topsy-turvy fun, carnivalesque in colour and movement, inspired in part by her travels through Cuba. But Cuban carnavales never exists without an element of chaos. There is always a touch of voodoo, an unpredictable and ominous underbelly lurking just behind the velvet curtain, and these works are no exception.

Like something from the mind of Lewis Carroll, Nikky’s scenes represent more than just animals pretending to be human. The bathtub, a place of serenity and relaxation for most of us, references a period in Nikky’s life when she sought refuge from the constant call of daily life behind a closed bathroom door and the white noise of running water. When the demons broke through the steam curtain she’d created, she used her art as a process of self-therapy, with animals providing the physical embodiment of the human condition – the deer in the headlights, the elephant in the room etcetera. And though she feels she still has more to say on the subject, she is no longer in the place she was, and is beginning to find inspiration in other places, and other states of being. Perhaps that she is now back at university studying art therapy has also allowed her to transfer some of the remedial intent of her work off the canvas and in to helping others.

Interestingly, despite the representational nature of her work, Nikky views herself more as an abstract artist. When she talks about her process, she talks about the motion of her brush and her body as she paints. It is an organic and expressive working style, with a fluidity that I would love to see unleashed on large scale pieces such as murals and street art. Tellingly, she mentions having been excited by the artwork she saw on the streets of Barcelona, but strangely unmoved by the great masters hanging in the art museums of Europe. A residency in France last year gave her time to reflect and reassess, though a gallery show scheduled immediately after her trip meant putting on hold whatever creative momentum had been building. A forthcoming solo show at Lismore Regional Gallery, her current focus, will be an excellent opportunity to revisit her time away and explore those contemplations. From what I saw of the new ideas taking shape in her studio, something very beautiful has been ignited by her experiences overseas.

Back on the deck, with Basil doing his best to convince me he’s a lapdog despite being the size of a pony, it occurs to me that I’m not the only one resisting the desire to take off and fly above the landscape. Nikky, too, is ready to propel herself forward into the discoveries she knows lie ahead. Unlike me though, she already has a strong set of wings. She just needs to trust her instincts and take a running jump into the void.

Subscribe up to Lismore Regional Gallery here for details of Nikky’s forthcoming show.

The Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing

When the Dobell Drawing Prize was discontinued by the Art Gallery of NSW in 2012, a real disservice was done to Australian art. Though the name has carried through to a series of curated exhibitions held every two years – the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial – it is no longer open entry, relying instead on the expertise and judgement of curators. As a curated event, it now incorporates aspects of sculpture, watercolour, film and performance as a way of ‘strengthening’ the importance of drawing to art practice and has, as a result, lost the weight of serious recognition that such a prestigious art prize gave an increasingly neglected medium.

It’s a shame. Drawing is an integral part of all art practice, where the imagining, brain-storming, mapping, planning, conceptualising, playing and experimenting takes place. It is a foundation skill upon which all art rises, and is the one art form that we all utilise to some extent in daily life, regardless of our artistic abilities. We doodle on notepads while listening on the phone or sitting through meetings, we make line drawings when trying to describe something visual and sketch mud maps when giving directions. It is one of the simplest ways of communicating our ideas, and the most common of art forms. Sculpture, painting, photography, printmaking, ceramics…these are things that we might never experience in our lifetime, nor have use for, but from the moment we’re given crayons and coloured pencils as children, we begin a lifelong relationship with drawing.

Perhaps its preparatory use in the creation of art, combined with its accessibility to us all, means it is perceived as somehow less impressive. But drawing is a fine art form in and of itself, with a long history of visual expression that existed well before language as a tool for communication. Even now, we learn to draw before we learn to write. It is an intimate and intense art form, unforgiving of artists’ mistakes and trials, with little chance for distraction by texture and movement. Flat and modest compared to other media, drawing requires precisely honed skills to really make a piece sing. The introvert of the art world, drawing demands that the artist be confident enough to let the works stand alongside bigger, bolder mediums.

The Art Gallery of NSW was criticised by artists and audiences alike when they withdrew the Dobell Drawing Prize, for good reason, but fortunately not all our institutions have been so ruthless with the medium. The Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing, held annually at Jugglers Art Space in Brisbane, is one such event.

Unlike other drawing prizes, the Marie Ellis OAM Prize continues to grow and strengthen as it enters its sixth year. With a cash prize of $4000, it is not an insignificant award, providing both financial support and a widely promoted chance to critique current art practices. In a relatively small city like Brisbane, it also affords artists an opportunity for close peer review and support, as evidenced in the warmth and genuine interest of the opening night crowd this year. There was an overwhelming sense of pride, excitement and…I want to say safety. Maybe protection? It felt like a safe place for an artist to expose themselves creatively. This year is a particularly strong show, with not one of the 25 finalists unable to hold its own against the other entries. And with 14 of those finalists being women, it is also a show that bucks current art trends by presenting more female than male artists.

Negotiating the crush of people made viewing the artworks a little tricky, especially the smaller and more intricate pieces, but it was worth the jostling to get in because there are some absolute crackers this year with real commercial potential. Standouts for me were Carolyn V Watson’s lovely semi-abstract entry, and a vast, organic work by William Platz (previously shown at Body Politic in Philadelphia earlier this year). Honourable mentions to Kirrily Anderson for her delicately beautiful drawing, and Robert Vagg, whose monochrome faces reminded me so much of the other Robert, Robert Dickerson. Overall winner, unsurprisingly, was Jeremy Eden with an entry that displayed all the aspects of drawing I mentioned earlier. It is a punchy work that shows total command of his chosen medium.

I don’t profess to be an expert in the life of either William Dobell or Marie Ellis, nor am I particularly sure of what happens after we die, but I’m willing to wager this – wherever William and Marie reside these days, I bet she’s the one punching the air with delight, while old Bill wonders what’s become of the legacy he left behind.

The Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing
Jugglers Art Space
103 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
www.jugglers.org.au
Until 21 August 2015

William Platz, Young Woman Yawning No. 1

Carolyn V Watson, Sheswallowdhertongueuntilitturnedtoash

Tracey Choyce

Caity Reynolds, Of Smallness (1 of 3)

Kirrily Anderson, Before the Exodus

Winner: Jeremy Eden, Self Portrait in Plastic

Hans Silvester, and the plight of the Omo River Valley Tribespeople

Those of us who love the arts know that the thought of life without art is a pitiful one. Some of us, myself included, would even go so far as to say that our lives depend on its inclusion. Likewise the need to reconnect regularly with nature in order to give our minds and bodies a rest, and provide the energy we need to keep going. The importance of art and environment is something we refer to time and again as we plead our case to the wider community for recognition, funding and protection. For the people of Ethiopia’s remote Omo River Valley however, the central role of art and nature to wellbeing is more than just an ideal. It is absolutely essential to their survival.

Renowned for the wide variety of wildlife and diverse eco-systems it supports, the 760km long Omo River is home to approximately 500,000 indigenous tribespeople, of which roughly half live in the Lower Omo Valley. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1980 as a place of outstanding universal value, it is the site of the earliest known signs of homosapien existence. A semi-nomadic people, the tribes of the Omo inhabit one of the few remaining pristine riverine forests in semi-arid Africa, and indeed the world. They are agro-pastoralists who live near the river during the dry season, moving to grassland during the annual floods, grazing cattle, hunting game and fishing for survival. Life in the Omo Valley is one of ancient ritual, with a deep connection to the land and reverence for the environment. Animals are respected for their life-giving properties, with tribes such as the Bodi singing poems to their favourite cattle as a form of thanksgiving. Though they profess no religion, the tribes of the Omo River Valley celebrate nature and a harmonious connection to the spirit world with glorious displays of body painting, decorative scarring and piercing that are both a source of pride and a necessary shield from harsh environmental conditions.

Omo tribespeople begin tending herds from the age of eight, allowing for a lot of time in the fields to practice their decorative techniques. Clay is slathered directly on to skin to prevent sunburn and insect bites, while limestone is used as a pesticide. Red ochre, yellow sulfur, white kaolin and grey ash, common minerals in the region, have more ritualized and superstitious applications that designate social standing, ward off illness and attract partners. Surma children use leaves, branches, seedpods, fruit and seeds to decorate their body, while the Mursi incorporate horns, bones, shells and hides. As mirrors are virtually non-existent, they paint each other and rely on the reaction of their peers to know the overall effect of their appearance. It is a way of life that is pure, relatively peaceful and unchanged for millennia.

At least, it was. The Omo River Valley is now in danger due to the construction of a massive hydro-electric dam known as Gibe III that is being built to support vast commercial plantations in southwest Ethiopia. Already under construction, it will be the second largest hydroelectric plant in Africa on completion. Ecologists and environmental scientists have predicted that filling the reservoir will destroy the fragile ecosystem of the area, and force tribes from their lands as irrigation canals divert water away from the river system and into neighbouring plantations. Both the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank declined to fund the project due to environmental concerns, however alternative funding has been negotiated with China’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the World Bank.

It is a devastating time for the eight tribes that inhabit the Omo River Valley, as they face destruction not only from the Gibe III dam, but also the arrival of multinational corporations who develop large plantations, government-sanctioned national parks and hunting concessions. According to Survival International, the government began to lease out vast blocks of fertile land in the Lower Omo region in 2011 to Malaysian, Italian, Indian and Korean companies to plant biofuels and cash crops such as oil palm, jatropha, cotton and maize. It evicted Bodi, Kwegu, and Mursi people from their land into resettlement areas to make way for the large state-run Kuraz Sugar Project, an area that currently covers 150,000 hectares but which could eventually cover 245,000 hectares. The Suri who live west of the Omo are also being forcibly resettled to make way for large commercial plantations. With competition for land fierce, the Omo tribespeople are experiencing inter-group conflict for the first time, made even more distressing by the arrival of guns from war ravaged Sudan. AK-47s are now replacing tribal weapons with horrific results.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand the thought of a culture that so wholly embraces the things I value being annihilated, hence why I’m dedicating these words and my time to the cause. If you can’t stomach it either, please follow the links below, and if you’re at all unsure, then perhaps these images by German photographer Hans Silvester will help twist your arm…

Survival International
International Rivers

At QPAC, Anything Goes

There are times when I really do have to pinch myself at how lucky I am to do the things I do as a result of this blog. Even though it’s work, it does seem a ridiculous privilege to be invited to watch special performances, meet stage legends and go back stage – especially when shows like Anything Goes sail in to town.


Media calls are odd things. Even crusty old journos occasionally get nervous at them. The performers are on show of course, but so are the reporters, and it makes for a strange energy. I almost never elect to interview because I’d rather play observer, though occasionally I get drawn in by performers wondering who the creeper is lurking in the shadows. But for the most part…you know… “I like to watch.”

I realised this week though that I also like to listen. Sitting in the Lyric Theatre waiting for the proceedings to get underway, I could hear the dancers offstage in their tap shoes, shuffling and giggling; Gerry Connolly somewhere there too, relaying a joke in his instantly recognizable voice; the orchestra in the pit rustling sheet music and tuning instruments; and a lighting tech buzzing around checking marks with the guys in the booth. They’re the moments outsiders aren’t generally privy to, and it’s thrilling to sense the anticipation building. It reminds me of when I was little and a performer myself, waiting in the wings for my cue. Trying to walk quietly in tap shoes was never something I could master (dancing in them was a struggle too, hence why I’m strictly an auditorium dweller these days).

To see a cast perform at a media call is to immediately pick up on the relationships between players – who gets along and who doesn’t, how the ensemble reacts to the star of the show, whether there’s chemistry between leads, and if there’s any cracks in the façade.  A production like Anything Goes is polished to perfection by the time it’s performed, so the media calls are a lovely chance to glimpse behind the scenes and witness the peculiarities of a stage performer’s life, and the boundless energy required to sustain it. For the cast of Anything Goes, who had won three Helpmann awards the night before, there was an extra bounce in their step and they didn’t mind us knowing it.

Established as a classic a long time ago, Anything Goes is probably the best loved of Cole Porter’s musicals. It is witty and funny in a 1930s way, with a bright set, stunning costumes, energetic choreography and some of the most well known musical numbers ever performed. On opening night, almost every song was met with coos from the audience as they recognized the first bars of You’re the Top, It’s De-Lovely, I Get a Kick Out of You, Blow Gabriel Blow, Let’s Misbehave and Anything Goes. That it has an ending my mum’s blind dog could see coming from behind a brick wall, and a moment of racist profiling as awkward as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is forgivable because the rest of it is so damn joyful. It isn’t a show that takes itself seriously for one minute, though the recent addition of a reprisal of the title song in Mandarin as a nod to contemporary times doesn’t hurt either.


It feels a long time since Brisbane has played host to a proper Broadway extravaganza. Oh, I know we’ve had some great shows recently, but there’s been something a bit lacking in the spectacle of it all. Or maybe it’s just that it’s been a while since we’ve had a megawatt theatre star like Caroline O’Connor treading the Lyric Theatre’s boards. Whatever it is, Anything Goes perfectly fills that void. A joint effort between Opera Australia and John Frost, this revival was originally produced by Lincoln Center Theater in New York, and the benefit of their influence is apparent throughoutAnything Goes has always existed purely to entertain, and slick direction and excellent casting have ensured that remains true of this production. But ultimately this Caroline O’Connor’s show. 

Cole Porter may as well have written the part of Reno Sweeney for O’Connor as for Ethel Merman, and the producers halted production in order to fit in with her schedule. It was worth the wait. From the minute she appears onstage to show-stopping applause, O’Connor has the audience eating out of her hand. Having appeared in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely back in 2004, we had some idea of how she’d play it, but to see her live onstage in the role is to witness a homecoming of sorts. Sutton Foster wowed me on Broadway in the same role a few years back, but after seeing Caroline O’Connor’s Reno I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. She is a powerhouse, a tiny but commanding stage presence, yet she appears a generous lead who is happy to share the spotlight with her cast mates. Plus she can belt out a tune after an eight minute tap routine, something I couldn’t do even with a week’s rest in between. Perhaps she’s bionic. She’s certainly without peer in Australia.

So, was opening night a success? Well, Brisbane audiences rarely get to their feet, even on opening nights, so two standing ovations and seven bows is a bit like seeing a unicorn bounce through QPAC. It was wonderful to see locals so enthused by a night at the theatre, humming and jazz-handing their way out. 

My advice is to get in quick, because as word gets round about the fun being had aboard the SS American, good tickets will be hard to come by. And you’ll high-kick yourself if you miss out.

PS: If you’re a fan of Cole Porter & haven’t seen De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline, you ought to give it a look some time. Here’s a snippet, featuring Caroline O’Connor:

Beautiful Mourning

About six years ago, my mother and I were lunching in a restaurant in London’s Primrose Hill when an unbelievably beautiful funeral procession came past. Two dappled grey horses with black feathery plumes on their heads pulled a shiny black carriage with glass windows, through which we could see a white coffin covered in flowers. The attendants atop the carriage were in full mourning attire, with top hats and grey striped cravats, the effect like something out of a Dickens novel. It was an odd sight in the middle of 21st century London, and had mum not been there too I’d have wondered if I’d imagined it. Of course, I immediately began planning my own funeral, such is my love of the Victorian Gothic period.

Victorian customs surrounding love and death, Memento Mori and the rituals and mysteries of the world’s cultures hold endless fascination for me. In an era where dying was as much a part of life as living, the Victorians had a surprisingly romantic view of the world. Disease, poverty and crime meant that premature death was not just possible but likely, and in order to cope they made mourning an art form. Death was sad, but it had a peculiar glamour to it. Grief became a spectacle.

Modern culture owes a lot to this time. Steampunk, Neo-Victorian aesthetics, taxidermy (whether classical, anthropomorphic or rogue), grotesque decor, eccentricity, nostalgia, spiritual connectivity and all forms of social critique owe their existence to the era that gave us Darwinism, existentialism, Arthur Conan Doyle, steam power, x-rays, Dracula, electricity, telephones, Frankenstein and the concept of the museum. It was a time where exploration, discovery and experimental thinking became worthy pursuits, and it continues to inform contemporary art, design and literature around the world. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Brisbane at the moment, you can still catch a really great example of this influence at one of the local galleries before it closes this weekend.

Two of Australia’s most recognizable young artists, Julia deVille and Leslie Rice sit well alongside each other in a gallery space. Rice’s ghostlike paintings of bizarre still lifes and grotesque portraits, the result of acrylic on velvet, are the perfect backdrop to Deville’s lavishly ornate taxidermy. Having both chosen slightly obscure old art forms, the combined effect of their work is one of eccentric opulence, like entering a mad nobleman’s estate. It is a wonderful balance between pathos and humour, respect for the history of their respective art practice, and gentle humour at how we view it today. Both artists combine the quirks of the past with the quirks of the present to create work that has a place all of its own in the art world.

I don’t suppose taxidermied alpacas encrusted in black diamonds are for everyone, and I guess the same is true of barely visible paintings of deformed skulls and clown shoes. Nor does it seem likely that our current (Western) view of death will ever return to the Victorian one that saw mortality as an inevitable, but beautiful, reality – but if any artists can convince the world otherwise, Leslie Rice and Julia deVille are probably the two to do it. Me personally? I’ll take one of each, thanks!

Julia deVille and Leslie Rice
Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
Until 1 August 2015




Julian Meagher, sensitive masculinity.    

​In one of life’s more curious turns, I ended up owning a cocktail bar about six years ago. Me, the chick with no hospitality experience, who’d never waited tables, never pulled a beer and didn’t know the difference between an ale and a lager, was suddenly having to work out how to change a beer keg and what the hell people meant when they asked for a “CC and dry.” To say it was a steep learning curve is an understatement. It was a world away from my previous life in writing and interior design. But the patrons and I survived the rocky start and now its almost second nature to me. I’ve even won awards for my espresso martinis – go figure!

However owning a bar, even now that I’m rarely actually the one serving drinks, is something that has never sat easily with me. On a daily basis I rely on the culture of drinking to pay my bills, but as the veteran of one long-term relationship with an alcoholic, and as a witness to many more lives lived similarly, I know how unhealthy and destructive alcohol can be. It’s a conundrum, one we all face as we indulge in our favourite wine or beer or vodka martini (or all three, as was the case with me last night). It’s the most social of anti-social pastimes, a dilemma I confront on a daily basis. For every person who can handle a couple of drinks, I see several more who can’t. I see good people become complete arseholes, and arseholes become complete monsters. I see partners treated badly and unborn babies subjected to god knows what damage by their silly pregnant mothers. I see people at their absolute worst. And it remains that way because no one wants to start a dialogue about it, lest it be revealed that they too have a problem with alcohol. I’m including myself in this.

For Sydney-based artist Julian Meagher, it is an aspect of Australian life that he too feels the need to reconcile. How does a male, in one of the highest alcohol-consuming countries in the world, find a way to assert his masculinity away from the beer-swilling pub culture that exists in Australia? What do we do about that guy at every party who continues to buy people drinks, refusing to take no for an answer? How do we find the confidence to say that enough is enough? And when do we start that conversation about what we’re denying ourselves by living this way?

Meagher’s painting style, an ethereal form of oil painting that layers multiple thin glazes to create an effect more akin to watercolour, is perfectly suited to explorations of strength and weakness, as is his subject matter. Empty bottles and beer cartons, offset by flowers and birds, are arranged according to the principles of contemporary still life, but contain much more than a snapshot of daily routine. Perhaps it’s the years of medical training Meagher completed before turning to art, but there is a precise ritual evident in his painting that speaks volumes about the level of concentration, patience and scientific control he has over his art practice. The time required to complete his works must allow Meagher more contemplation of his subject matter, as each canvas seems to gather more weight as he goes along. Though beautiful and light in appearance, they contain dark themes and serious questions.

Julian Meagher is no prude, and his artworks make no ultimate judgment on the society he is analyzing. He is a funny, relaxed and mischievous presence in a room, and bloody great fun to have a drink with. But he is also sensitive and generous with his time, taking obvious delight in being able to make a living from his art. He hugs people readily. He’s a big kid who makes you immediately feel like his protective big sis. He’s humble despite his achievements, and refreshingly honest about how hard it still is to feel confident about his career, regardless of the nods he’s received from the Archibald, the Wynne, the Doug Moran, the Blake Prize…(are you bored with his resume yet?). He is, I suppose, very like his painting. A contradiction in terms, in the best possible way.

And this series of works, his booze-related ones, help me to hate a little less what I have to do to make a living. Though they provide no answers, they do in some way provide catharsis, and even a little hope. That conversation we so desperately need to have has already been started, by a guy in a studio in Marrickville. Perhaps now it’s time the rest of us stepped up to the podium.


  

To see more of Julian’s work, including his lovely portraits, check out his website Julian Meagher or contact one of his representing galleries:

Olsen Irwin Gallery
63 Jersey Road
Woollahra 2025 Sydney NSW
P: +61 2 9327 3922
W: http://www.timolsengallery.com

Edwina Corlette Gallery
2/555 Brunswick Street
New Farm QLD 4005
P: +61 7 3358 6555
E: gallery@edwinacorlette.com
W: http://www.edwinacorlette.com

Gallery Ecosse
Exeter Road, Exeter NSW 2579
P 02 48834466
W: http://www.galleryecosse.com.au

Merry Karnowsky Gallery
170 S La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036, United States
P +1 323-933-4408 
E: info@mkgallery.com

Cat Street Gallery
222 Hollywood Road
Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
P: +852 2291 0006
E: info@thecatstreetgallery.com
W: http://www.thecatstreetgallery.com

Aratong Galleries
26 Mount Pleasant Drive, Singapore 298352
P +65 97364666
W: http://www.aratonggalleries.com

Alice – 150 Years in Wonderland

I wonder, when Lewis Carroll was tripping balls writing Alice In Wonderland, he had any idea that 150 years on his work would still be providing such fertile ground for artists, writers and performers? The reasons why are no-brainers for me, because I love Alice In Wonderland (like, legit. I don’t care much about what happens to me after I die, but I want a copy of this book to accompany me there). And the older I get the more I love it. There are so many layers, so many allegories and cunning references to aspects of Victorian society in the text, that it’s impossible to pick up on everything all at once.

Was Lewis Carroll off his brain on absinthe and heroin when he wrote it? Perhaps. Did he really write it for little Alice Liddell, daughter of his friend Henry, or was that just a cover that allowed Carroll to publish what academics consider a damning indictment on the people in his circle? These questions and more get debated year after year, as though we can’t rest until the entire work has been stripped of all its ambiguity. But I don’t really care about that. In fact I hope it never gets clarified, because what I love most about Alice In Wonderland is that everyone reads the book differently. Every person I’ve ever discussed it with loves it for a different reason, finds a different quote that resonates, or has a different understanding of the storyline. It is a book that we all seem to see aspects of ourselves in, yet never for the same reason. I can only dream of one day writing something that profound.

And perhaps because creative types are such a peculiar bunch who live in our own little bubbles a lot of the time, the rhythm and flow of the text, with its crazy made up words and strong visuals, continues to weave its way into all disciplines of the arts. Filmmakers in particular feel a sense of ownership over it, with everyone from Disney to Svankmajer to Burton thinking they can tell the story better. It is the ultimate surrealist fantasy, the ultimate romantic notion, and it easily out-Coelho’s Paulo Coelho with the profundity of its contemplations on humanity.

Anyway, all that is just a bit of guff to add weight to what is a total indulgence for me – a chance to look at some of my most favourite Alice-inspired works. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do :)

Del Kathryn Barton, Girl #6, 2004

Wolfe Von Lenkiewicz, All in the Afternoon, Full Leisurely We Glide

A promotional shot for Third Rail Projects’ immersive dance theatre production ‘Then She Fell’, currently playing at the old Kingsland Ward of St John’s Hospital, Brooklyn.

George Dunlop Leslie, Alice In Wonderland, 1879

Elena Kalis, Alice in Waterland

Elena Kalis, Alice in Waterland

Charles Blackman, The Chess Game, 1956

Rodney Campbell, Down the Rabbit Hole (Queen Victoria Building interior), winner of the Clique Photography Challenge, 2014

Mabel Odessey, from her series Alice in the Garden

Linde Ivimey, Off With Her Head, 2012

Linde Ivimey, Eat Me Alice, 2012

Annelies Strba, Nyima 438, 2009

Salvador Dali, The Rabbit Sends a Little Bill, 1969

  

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland, 1975, an illustrated translation of Lewis Carroll’s original work in Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal language, Australia.

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Yayoi Kusama, an illustrated Alice In Wonderland, 2012

Archibald 2015

After a morning waiting so nervously you’d swear I was a nominee, here are your new art gods Australia ;)

Archibald Prize 2015

Nigel Milsom: ‘Judo house pt 6 (the white bird)’

Wynne Prize 2015

Natasha Bieniek: ‘Biophilia’

Sulman Prize 2015

Jason Phu: ‘I was at yum-cha when in rolled the three severed heads of Buddha – Fear, Malice and Death’

Trustees’ Watercolour Prize 2015

Max Miller: ‘The world of dew is only the world of dew and yet…oh…and yet…’ Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Pring Prize 2015

Viola Dominello: ‘On the river’