BACKBURNING

November 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Promotional image, featuring a work by Trish Roan, Even the Most Solid of Things

Promotional image, featuring a work by Trish Roan, Even the Most Solid of Things

This is the last week of Backburning at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, the largest exhibition I’ve curated by myself to date. Backburning has been three years in the making, and draws on seven years of Blaze ACT Emerging Artist Showcase exhibitions at CCAS. The original idea was to curate a Blaze retrospective, but I’m very glad I narrowed the focus of the exhibition rather than try to summarise the diverse work of all 48 fantastic Blaze artists in one exhibition! Backburning is part of CCAS’ Centenary Program, and artists who have been part of Blaze exhibitions and/or CCAS Studio Residencies have also featured in most of the exhibitions this year. The next exhibition, Future Proof (after the CCAS Members Show), is no exception, with four out of nine artists being former Studio Residents and featuring in Blaze after their residencies. Future Proof opens on the 6th of December and is a joint curatorial effort by all of the Canberra based curators from this year’s CCAS program: Alexander Boynes, David Broker, Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak, Janice Falsone, and myself.

Here’s an excerpt from the Backburning catalogue essay (I’ll post the whole thing once the show is over):

Backburning is an exhibition about how we perceive materials and the world around us. The seven artists included, who have all had work in CCAS’ Blaze exhibitions during the past seven years, share an appreciation for seemingly mundane materials and objects, and make them come alive in the context of the systems, spaces, and infinite universe in which they operate.

Originally intended to showcase CCAS Studio Residents’ work, Blaze has expanded to become an ACT emerging artist showcase. Over 45 fantastic artists have featured in Blaze exhibitions. Most are still practicing artists, and many are still based in Canberra as of this, our centenary year. Tasked with curating a retrospective out of these exhibitions, I soon realised what a challenge this was. I decided to focus on the strongest thread running through Blaze, spun by the artists who use everyday materials to create astonishing and enlightening work. For these artists, everyday experiences and taken-for-granted objects provide ample impetus for creating art. In their work, the mundane reveals the infinite and the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

In the tradition of Arte Povera, many of these artists work well within their means and find inspiration in their everyday lives. They get things done and make things happen. Years of conversations with these artists (and others) has led me to appreciate these characteristics as things Canberrans do particularly well. True Canberrans realise that you have to work with what you have and make things happen. This place is only a vibrant one because of the individuals who take matters into their own hands.

You can check out some of the snaps from the opening at the CCAS Social Pages.

Treasures in the Times

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m pleasantly surprised to wake up to two great articles in the Canberra Times on local arts-related subjects. Both written by Sally Pryor, they are a far cry from the usual large cultural institution puff piece or generic Fairfax national/international arts fodder that usually gets a run in the Canberra Times in this day and age of dwindling print media. Perhaps there is hope yet, especially with journalists committed to covering our vibrant local arts scene?

The first article I spied (online, of course, but I may be tempted to buy a paper more regularly if the arts journalism continues to better reflect local goings on) was an investigative piece about some controversial eX de Medici works made at St Clare’s College in 1986. What a fascinating bit of little known local history, and how timely for it to come out as the eX de Medici exhibition, Cold Blooded, draws to a close at the Drill Hall Gallery this weekend. The important bit of local context not given in Pryor’s article is that the Bitumen River Gallery, which eX de Medici was involved with at the time, was the forerunner of Canberra Contemporary Art Space (which eX also has a history of exhibiting and involvement with), and in fact became CCAS Manuka- now nestled into the side of a multi-level carpark instead of on a flat bitumen one.

The other fantastic article is about Canberra arts treasure Joseph Falsone and his tireless enthusiasm for breathing new life into Gorman House Arts Centre. As a staff member of a tenant organisation at Gorman House, I can hardly begin to describe the buzz of energy which has only amplified since Joseph was announced as the new Director. Along with fellow Gorman House admin team members Yolande Norris and Katy Mutton, and Tony and Greg keeping things safe and tidy, Gorman House is quickly transforming into a vibrant and interconnected community of its own, with a lot to offer the Canberra community as the place where the most exciting and innovative arts activities not only happen,  but where they begin. Joseph and the team have their work cut out for them – no one should underestimate the superhuman amount they have already achieved in one year or the enormity of what’s left to do – but they have a whole arts centre, and increasingly, a large community of people engaged and excited, and from here anything is possible.

Lashings of Ginger Beer

July 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

Tomboy, Emma Beer, 2013, Acrylic on Linen, 60cm x 50cm

Tomboy, Emma Beer, 2013, Acrylic on Linen, 60cm x 50cm

Emma Beer is a painter’s painter. The formal qualities of her work are front and centre, in a tradition that harks back to Modernism. And like some infamous Modernist painters, Beer has a big personality. Her latest exhibition, Lashings of Ginger Beer, like her previous solo exhibition The Informalities of Shit Miracle, refers to a nickname she is sometimes called by, inextricably and unashamedly linking Emma Beer as Artist to her paintings.

It’s really refreshing to see a woman doing this, as it’s something that is (and certainly has been) mostly engaged with by male artists. And before anyone accuses me (like former PM Julia Gillard) of ‘playing the gender card’, I’d like to draw your attention back to the problem as I’ve described it before, and remind you of the valuable work of CoUNTesses in Australia, and Guerilla Girls in the USA. Work that still needs to continue.

I will say again and again that I think women artists in general need to have more confidence in themselves and their work. And- it sounds cheesy, but it’s true- to work on their ‘brand’, their public, professional persona. I don’t know if Emma Beer thinks about this, but regardless, it is working for her.

Beer has presented a very bold and experimental body of work, building on the style of painting that she has been developing since art school. Her use of colour, texture, and layering has always been magnificent, but Lashings of Ginger Beer pushes all three to a new extreme. The colours she uses reverberate from deep black to intense colour right back to chalky white. Scraped, transparent streaks of paint and translucent linear brushstrokes give a sense of depth, while thickly smeared oil paint occasionally brings you back on top of the surface. Each layer, each colour, and each composition demands to be enjoyed, and it would be very hard not to give in.

Jacqueline Chlanda puts it best in the exhibition catalogue- Beer’s paintings “take – and give – great joy in painting”. They become the medium for transmitting the painterly joy of Emma Beer to the viewer. They are not separate from, but rather an extension of the artist- and that is a really powerful thing.

Lashings of Ginger Beer continues at PhotoSpace Gallery at the ANU School of Art until the 14th. Weekends by appointment with the artist.You can see the works at Jas Hugonnet‘s online gallery but don’t miss the real thing.

Checking in, post ‘Sculpture Week’

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Well, it has been a while. I’ve been focusing on making rather than writing (and occasionally wondering why) but the past week in Canberra has been too excellent to resist a summary post.

Some in the arts were affectionately referring to last week as ‘Sculpture Week’, with the symposium at the NGA, and three fantastic sculpture-based exhibitions opening: the first in a pair of exhibitions by emerging artist Roman Stachurski at CCAS Manuka on Wednesday (the second opens this Wednesday); Wolfgang Buttress at the Drill Hall Gallery on Thursday; and Making Tracks at the ANU School of Art on Friday. The latter is an all-guns-blazing show of many of the spectacular alumni of the sculpture workshop of the ANU School of Art. It’s well worth a look- just about every work had me loathe to move on to the next, from a wonderful work by the late Pamela Lofts, to the mind-blowing work by Louis Pratt, and great works by Anne Neil, Melanie Fitzmaurice, Jacqueline Bradley, Owen Lewis, Jay Kochel and Rachel Bowak, just to name a few (you can see the full list here).

And then there was the Skywhale. When one of Australia’s most well-known sculptors is commissioned to create a work for the Canberra Centenary, to be launched in the city where she (Patricia Piccinini) grew up, the alarm bells don’t exactly sound in terms of public controversy. But a public controversy it has been, with all of the usual comments trawled (or is it trolled?) out. ‘But art’s supposed to be bewdiful!’ ‘They’re spending my tax dollars on what?!’ ‘Why isn’t it about x? (In this case substitute x with Canberra/the Centenary.)’ To my surprise I have really enjoyed the debate over this magnificent beast of a hot air balloon. First it was hilarious, with commenters on news websites and community forums such as the Riot-ACT using this mammal of the sky as a lofty platform for humour, both anti- and pro-Skywhale. Then the vitriol started to soar. Then the defenders valiantly rose up, and the celebratory references to our world-first began.

A couple of the best are this article, by someone who has NEVER EVEN BEEN TO CANBERRA, a circumstance I hope they remedy soon; and the Skywhale cake featured within the article, but originally posted on Twitter, it seems. I didn’t have a strong initial reaction to Skywhale either way- as someone who has seen Piccinini’s work over the past ten years, and has felt increasingly indifferent about it- but the discussion that has surrounded it has been enlightening and multifaceted and has thrust contemporary art into the spotlight in a way that is rarely seen. And for this, (and the fact that it’s pretty great and the embodiment of an elegant idea about evolution), I am now a massive Skywhale fan.

I’ll end this little check-in with another link, to an article I just read today; a very considered piece on gender issues in arts organisations by Joanna Mendelssohn- here. Thanks for reading!

 

Voting for the Arts

October 12, 2012 § 4 Comments

The ACT election is a bit over a week away. I wouldn’t tell anyone how to vote, but I would like to give you a few things to think about. And to use this blog as my personal soapbox, because I believe democracy can’t exist unless people say what they think and others engage with what they say/write/etc.

I’ll preface this by saying I am usually a Greens or Labor voter, depending on the candidates up for election. I am less inclined to vote Green this time in the ACT because of their Arts policies, and the way in which the party has handled (along with the Canberra Liberals) the ongoing Megalo situation and the completely unimpressive Inquiry into the use of the Fitters Workshop. Of course, I’m also thinking about non-arts related policies as I make up my mind who to vote for, but the arts is definitely one of my primary considerations.

All Arts representatives- Minister Joy Burch (Labor), Shadow Minister Vicki Dunne (Liberals) and Greens Member Caroline Le Couteur- released their Arts promises/ideas on the 19th of September. Media releases can be found here, here and here. Then that evening all three attended and spoke at a forum hosted by the Childers Group. I went to the forum. You can read their commitments for yourself, but these are the key things I took away from the Media Releases and the forum, and some of the major issues I had with the announcements.

• The Labor Party and Arts Minister Joy Burch are, in my opinion, the only ones even coming close to understanding the arts in Canberra and what they need. They’ve committed six million dollars to the arts in Canberra, and quite well placed, including a badly needed one million dollars to upgrade Gorman House- a ready-made arts hub which houses many of the ACT’s Key Arts Organisations, and has a fantastic new Director, Joseph Falsone. My only hope for a returning Labor Government on top of what they’ve announced is that they can work more closely with Key Arts Organizations to get a better idea of what Canberra’s artists, arts organizations and art-going public want and need.

• The Canberra Liberals and their arts spokesperson Vicki Dunne have committed around three million dollars, most of which has the potential to make the Canberra arts scene very dull indeed. They envision the Cultural Facilities Corporation developing and managing the Kingston Arts Precinct, which is quite baffling. When all of the legwork has been done by ACT government (and I’m talking bureaucrats here, not Labor), including a lot of work on arts hubs, and with ArtsACT’s good relationships with the arts organizations who would potentially move into the Kingston Arts Precinct (including Megalo), why wouldn’t this continue? The Corporation does good work with CMAG, the Theatre, and the ACT’s historic houses, but that doesn’t qualify them to develop a vibrant precinct and engage the tenants that this would require. Maybe the Liberals really do want to slash ACT government jobs? Dunne did have one solid criticism of the current government’s arts record, referring to the choice of public artworks (especially from artists outside of the ACT) by former Chief Minister and Arts Minister Jon Stanhope, which I have written about before, but it seems that Burch already gets this. Stanhope is gone; it is time to move on.

• And then there was Caroline le Couteur. I understand (and decry) that the Greens don’t get to do as much of the big sexy stuff in politics, except in partnerships, particularly with the Labor Party. But one of Caroline le Couteur’s ideas, the thing which she seemed most excited about, was a complete embarrassment. The doozy she came out with, and which left me so seething I felt I could run a marathon (or more aptly, cycle one) was that she wanted artists to make bike racks. The amount of money they would get to do this is debatable too, but completely irrelevant because A) IT IS NOT ARTISTS’ JOB TO MAKE BIKE RACKS, B) THIS DOES NO JUSTICE TO THE GREAT WORK DONE BY THE A.C.T.’S ARTISTS, and C) THERE IS A WHOLE FIELD OF PEOPLE – SOME OF THEM STUDYING AND TEACHING IN CANBERRA AT U.C. – CALLED INDUSTRIAL DESIGNERS, AND THEY WOULD ALMOST CERTAINLY LOVE TO MAKE BIKE RACKS!

What Caroline seems to not understand is that one of the reasons art is so valuable is because it doesn’t need to be functional, or decorative. Because artists are free to make whatever they choose (within reason and certain limitations, of course) they not only advance their own work and art in general, but can be responsible for the progression of ideas and technologies that are very beneficial for society, in ways that all political parties but ESPECIALLY the Greens should be happy to support. I will write more on this very soon, because the value of art in society is something that doesn’t get enough attention.

Oh and then there’s le Couteur’s other idea that it’s difficult to find out what’s going on in Canberra, especially since Canberra Arts Marketing (CAM) was axed years ago. Well, here’s the thing- it seems that no one quite knew what the point of CAM was and no one missed it too much when it wasn’t there anymore. And more importantly, when anyone I know needs to find out what’s on in town the first port of call is BMA’s Gig Guide, either in print or online. Please don’t overlook this territorial treasure or waste money trying to replicate it in a boring brochure or drab website. I know I’ve been pretty harsh on le Couteur here, but I expect more from the Greens.

I am always interested to hear what others are thinking about as the election approaches… Happy voting!

THE WEIGHT OF SHADOWS- Alexander Boynes

September 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s easy to get lost in movement. Soulful beats and the anonymity provided by dark space, flashing lights and a smoke machine combine, and suddenly it doesn’t matter who you are or what’s going on in your life; you’re free and so is everyone else around you.

Alexander Boynes’ works have the same effect. Figures move, flail, heave and fall.  Transparent and reflective surfaces, light, and increasingly, glowing colours, add to the pendulous back and forth between sinking gravity and euphoric lightness.

Dance has become a more and more prevalent source of movement in Boynes’ work. Earlier bodies of work, such as After Hours at CCAS Gorman House in 2009, referenced heady nightlife and urban culture in general; figures breaking free from their prescribed personal spaces. Recent work in Smoke & Mirrors at ANCA Gallery in 2012 used dance and movement in a more abstract way to explore the figure, it’s potentials and possibilities.

The Weight of Shadows, on show at ANU School of Art’s Photospace Gallery, is a new body of work shaped by an extraordinary experience. In July 2012 Boynes went out into the Tanami Desert to Paraku, an Indigenous Protected Area, and nearby Mulan, a community of around 120 people, to partake in the Paraku Project where artists and scientists work alongside the local Indigenous people.

Boynes went into the desert being open to the possibility of making new work, but neither he nor we could have predicted what would result. He had a hand in organizing a ‘shadow dancing’ evening in Mulan, setting up material, lights and even a smoke machine which had traveled with him on the four-day drive from Canberra (“You never know when you might need one!”).

Random CDs from the car provided the music, until the kids took over and put their own favourite new Rap and R&B music on. Boynes said that the night quickly turned into “an all-in showcase of some of the best booty-dancing, shirt-swinging and karaoke singing ever seen – somewhere between Bangarra and a Baltimore club.”

Boynes photographed some of the kids dancing, capturing their joyful smiles and creative dance moves. These photographs are the basis for his work in The Weight of Shadows. Boynes acknowledges that it’s difficult for a non-Indigenous Australian to talk about or make work about Indigenous people or issues- there is so much history and so many landmines under the surface of that territory. But the experience at Mulan and Paraku brought these issues into the light for Boynes. Everyone at Mulan and Paraku were incredibly welcoming and lovely to the visitors, but it was the children who made the biggest impression.

Children are open and adaptable, willing to accept anyone who will play and laugh with them. In addition to this, Boynes noticed how technology was making the world a much smaller place for these kids. All proficient in touch screens and downloading music from the internet from a very early age, these Indigenous children have the tools to connect with the rest of the world. But as important as the internet is in breaking down time and space barriers, Boynes found that physically sharing time and space with the people of Mulan and Paraku was truly wonderful.

When it comes down to it, despite the horrible history we share as Australians, we’re all people, and by connecting with each other in time and place, by relating to one another and having a great time together we can all shape the present and the future. “Moments like that are small victories”, Boynes said.

The amazing presence of the kids in Boynes’ works is heightened by the crisp lines and strong tones he has built into the photographs, both within each figure and in the background;  sculptural bodies, clothing in motion, surging smoke-machine vapour and fold-lines in the fabric shadow screen.

The aluminium on which these photographs are printed reflects light differently at different angles, emphasizing the sense of movement in the works as you move around them. Bold colours provide a sense of excitement and playfulness, whilst the kids’ clothing exaggerates their dynamic movements. And close up, the black that defines many of the images, such as Mulan Shadows (pictured), reveals itself as being made up of tiny specks of shimmering colour from the printing process.

Each work is a diptych or triptych, the figures holding their own but relating to one another in their ecstatic dancing. The separate pieces also allow for colour to glow around the edges of each work, thrown onto the walls by neon paint behind the works.

All of this dynamism and exuberance is taken back a notch by a reflective poignance, shadows both literal and metaphorical. The shadows that loom from and over the subjects are darkly outlined heavy shapes, hinting at the weight of history. But at the same time, the kids are so dynamic that they seem like they could break free from their shadow at any minute, like Peter Pan. Maybe that’s the key- to maintain our inner child, our ability to laugh and have fun with our fellow humans despite differences and past wrongs.

All in all, Boynes’ experience at Paraku and this resulting work in The Weight of Shadows is full of hope and positivity. This new body of work holds youth aloft as a powerful and joyful state, with hope that this fresh generation of Australians will engage powerfully with each other and with the world, in ways that weren’t possible a generation ago. Similarly, Alexander Boynes has made works that engage very differently and very playfully with movement and the human figure. The Paraku Project (and a bunch of smiling kids) have been a catalyst of sorts, and it will be very interesting to see what Boynes does next.

The Weight of Shadows is on now at ANU Photospace Gallery, closing 15 September.

Creature Comforts – Fiona Veikkanen

April 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I highly recommend going to see Fiona Veikkanen’s exhibition Creature Comforts if you can make it and haven’t already. Creature Comforts opened at CCAS Manuka on Thursday evening and closes this Sunday at 5pm. Fiona is an incredibly talented and conceptual artist who makes work about craft and functional objects (‘about’ being the key word here). She is rightly coming to be acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with, including by Yolande Norris at Useless Lines, and her successes are steadily accruing despite the responsibilities of a young family. In fact, her work is influenced by her home life in a way that really sets it apart from the kind of work made in a studio- it is not separate from life, but made around it and intrinsically part of it.

Fiona asked me to write something about her work in the show, so here it is below, but it looks much nicer in the catalogue Fiona had printed!  I’ll try to get some photos up soon but you can see some of it lurking in the backgrounds of David’s photos as well as his write-up at the CCAS Social Pages. You might want to visit Fiona’s blog too!

CREATURE COMFORTS

In her solo exhibition Creature Comforts, Fiona Veikkanen engages with the multifaceted concept of craft. Craft is interesting for so many reasons. It is accessible and invites the participation of others; it involves familiar, repetitive processes; it provides tactility and a sense of comfort and care and homeliness. Veikkanen explores all of these general aspects of craft, but she goes many steps further.

For Veikkanen, craft really gets interesting when it gets personal. Most crafts involve rigid patterns and rules, but a person’s individual choices and mistakes can make something really beautiful and personal. Better yet, when someone throws out the rulebook and starts with a technique or idea, the results can be startling. African-American quilt-makers in centuries past made quilts from irregular shaped and sized fabric scraps. Made using no measurements, templates or designs, these functional quilts are extremely unique and personal. A certain aesthetic comes out of this emphatic one-of-a-kind-ness, all the more beautiful for its imperfection. This aesthetic is present in Veikkanen’s works, but the one-of-a-kind-ness is derived from her idiosyncratic ideas about craft and specific objects- sleeping bags, jumpers, pompoms. Her works become embodiments of these ideas rather than ordinary, functional objects.

Craft is usually preoccupied with functional objects and masterful techniques, but art exists on a much more hypothetical and imaginative plane where ideas about craft and craft objects can be interrogated. In many of her works, Veikkanen actively detaches the object from its function. In her unravelled and remade Available In works, the knit garment is no longer wearable. Pompoms are interesting to Veikkanen because they don’t have a particular function- they are an afterthought to a beanie or other object, or an amusement or decoration in their own right. In Veikkanen’s A Case for Sleep works, function is almost a contrary consideration.

Sleeping bags are normally vaguely rectangular, and made using a pattern that accommodates the human body. But Veikkanen’s A Case for Sleep works start with a small circle of irregular triangles of fabric cut from sleeping bags, and work outwards, forming a homely, quilted effect. Each irregular concentric circle informs the next, growing organically. Veikkanen often uses circular forms in her work, and this makes a lot of sense- working outwards in a circle seems almost natural if there isn’t a function in mind; if no corners are needed to spread over a bed or floor or table.

Veikkanen brings the unique and personal effects of craft to objects that are typically man-made, industrial and impersonal. When objects have a function, we think about them primarily in the terms of that function. But when function is removed, we experience the object in all its glory. A Case for Sleep becomes about the experience of sleeping outdoors- the cool touch of sleeping bag material that warms up quickly on cool nights spent by the smoky campfire and then curled up in the tent. Feeling at home when not at home.

As well as the personal nature of craft, Veikkanen is fascinated by its social and collaborative possibilities. Have A Ball is a collaborative work that brought Veikkanen’s family and friends together to learn a craft (pompom making) and contribute towards a communal project. It amazed Veikkanen to observe that when two different people are given the same materials and instructions, they may end up with two very different results. The pompoms cluster together in the gallery space and disperse again as exhibition viewers take them home. Viewers are invited to choose a pompom that appeals to them, snip it from the cluster, and take it home as a unique and precious object in a perfect brown box. This clever experiment demonstrates how craft can be intensely personal and communal at the same time.

Veikkanen has continued to explore these ideas through her craft kits, Manageable Packageables, which are available for purchase. Each kit provides the materials, tools and instructions to make a second-hand jumper into an art object by unravelling the jumper and French-knitting or making pompoms out of the unravelled yarn. Veikkanen poses fascinating questions about whether these works, made by someone else, are art objects… and if so, is Veikkanen the artist or is the maker the artist?

Creature Comforts further establishes Veikkanen as a most interesting artist who illuminates our experience of the environments that we make ourselves at home in, and in particular the objects that facilitate our comfort in these environments. Her work considers and defines the relationship between art and craft and between the personal and the shared, proving there’s a lot more to objects than their functionality.

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