Look! Animals!

29 04 2010


Let’s all take a little time out for some visual quietude… Ah… That’s better.

In a world gone mad, sometimes all we need to make us feel a little better is a picture of an animal. A beautiful picture of an animal. In its natural habitat. Looking windswept and majestic. Reminding us of some of the things that really matter in life. Guaranteed to turn a frown upside-down. Renowned U.S.-based wildlife photographer, Nick Brandt, who in a previous incarnation was a successful maker of music videos and directed Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ clip, is holding an exhibition of his work at the new Brighton-based photography gallery, Source Photographica until Wednesday 12 May.

(Images by Nick Brandt, via sourcephotographica.com.au)


Rats! Another Melbourne Banksy stencil bites the dust.

27 04 2010

The original parachuting rat by street artist Banksy, which - until recently - could be found in one of Melbourne's lanes. <em>Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones</em>Was there a council meeting somewhere to which I wasn’t invited at which it was decided that April should be designated ‘persecute Banksy’ day? If so, I heartily object, your Honour. ‘Twas almost exactly a year ago that Glastonbury Council made a colossal blunder and erased one of Banksy’s stencil works from an unsuspecting wall. And now, we’ve lost yet another of our Banksys (Banksy plural: Banksii? Banksys? Banksies?) – some time ago we mourned the demise of the much cherished ‘Little Diver’, which was submerged beneath a wash of silver paint by an street art iconoclast. And now, Parachuting Rat, formerly of Hosier Lane, just behind the Forum Theatre, has met its demise, scrubbed out by a well-intentioned council cleaning crew.

A couple of questions – where in the name of all that is holy can I get me some of that cleaning fluid? The only sure-fire cure for the tags that periodically appear on my front fence seems to be yet another layer of Dulux.

Another question – street art is by its very nature transient and mutable. Should we be surprised that this is its fate? In line with the artist’s intention (why else would he be making art in such exposed places?), wouldn’t it be best to simply let it disappear? Surely the prosaic demise of Little Diver and the airborne Rat is a crucial part of their lifecycle. They are conceived, made and distributed in such a way that they are guaranteed to have a limited shelf life. A bit like we frail human beings, really… see what he’s doing there? As you can see in the picture of the poor, late, lamented rat, a subsequent visitor to the wall had already made his mark. And so it is in the world of guerilla art. The owners of the wall on which Little Diver resided really sealed his fate by encasing him in a perspex sheet. That’s not what it’s meant to be about. It only becomes a problem once people start getting over-excited about an artist in the art market. Only then do we worry about preserving these gestures that were never really meant to last. Because they may be worth eleventy-bazillion dollars one day. I don’t hear anybody complaining about all the other things that were cleaned off Hosier Lane. Because they weren’t worth anything, cash-wise.

Oh, and to the denizens of the good city of Melbourne? You plan to “implement retrospective legal street art permits to ensure other famous or significant street artworks are protected”? Er – the point is that you won’t know it’s famous or significant until long after it’s made. By which time, at this rate, it will have been painted over or removed. Catch-22, I’m afraid.


(Image: Michael Clayton-Jones via The Age online)

A final word on Sam Leach’s Wynne Prize-winning entry

19 04 2010

Here’s a nice, big slice of schadenfreude pie for those of you who are distressed to the point of distraction about Sam Leach’s Wynne-ing streak (pardon the pun – too good to resist).

I should point out that I don’t include myself in that grouping – no matter how you respond to his work, Leach’s victory poses some very interesting questions about what, exactly, constitutes ‘landscape’. But back to the steaming pile of schadenfreude – success in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes has little or no bearing on an artist’s long-term commercial prospects. During the course of my research, I’ve looked at all of the artists who might be classified ‘contemporary’ (still alive in 1990), who won one or more of the AGNSW prizes. Almost half of the 69 artists who won a single prize have no secondary (auction) market at all. Not a single auction sale. Nix. And these are not emerging artists who wouldn’t be expected to have established a secondary market yet. Most of these are well-established practitioners who won their prize decades ago.

Of the 26 artists who have won two or more of the prizes, the majority have average auction prices in their primary medium (in most cases – painting) that fall in the mid to low four figures (less than $5,000). This includes artists such as Judy Cassab, John Peart, and Salvatore Zofrea. Eric Smith, who won the most prizes (a total of eight), has an average auction price of $1,379. And, in the art market, the absence of demand in the secondary market translates to diminishing commercial prospects. Not that the dash for cash is necessarily foremost in the minds of most, or even many, artists. But you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that untold riches do not flow from a big prize as a matter of course.

Nothing new under the sun: lessons in appropriation 101

16 04 2010

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.

Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from  a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?

The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.

The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of  the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.

Sherrie Levine.jpg

In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.

(images: Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, via: http://www.tcf.ua.edu; Sherrie Levine, ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, copyright Sherrie Levine, via: www.artsjournal.com)

Does Sam Leach’s Wynne prize entry suck? The art of appropriation.

15 04 2010

File:Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore 1668 Adam Pynacker.jpg

Well, yet again we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Australian art prize pickle. Not since Bill Dobell caused a fracas with his Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943 (is it a portrait, or is it a caricature?) have so many newspaper column inches been dedicated to a debate about what, exactly, constitutes ‘art’. For your consideration – on the top we have Sam Leach’s winning entry, Proposal for landscaped cosmos. Below that, Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, Boatmen moored on a lake shore.

Anyone who knows anything about Leach’s theory and method would not be at all surprised by the nature of his Wynne entry. A cursory glance at his website makes it very clear that he is appropriating (for that, read ‘borrowing’) imagery directly from the great Dutch painters of the 17th century to pass comment on the nature of affluence and, to a lesser degree, the close relationship between the workings of the art market today, and the boom in the art trade that took place in the Netherlands during the 1600s, coinciding with the speculative lunacy of tulipmania where single tulip bulbs were selling for the price of a house. Sound familiar? Leach isn’t the first person to draw parallels between our very own recently deflated stock market bubble and the irrational exuberance of the 17th century Dutch economy. Which also ended with a crash, by the way.

But there are a couple of questions that I’d like to throw into the ring. One is the question of copyright – clearly not an issue in this instance as Pynacker is long-deceased and so not in a very viable position to prosecute Mr. Leach. But, on a broader level, it is an issue worthy of consideration. Reproduction of a work of art or literature is permitted under law if it can be shown to be subject to ‘fair use’ – so, for example, for the purpose of research, criticism and reporting news. Seems pretty straight forward. But, what if an artist takes an image made by another artist, alters it (however imperceptibly), presents it as his or her own, and accrues financial gain from said activity? Although market commentator, Michael Reid, has said in an article in The Age today that “artistic licence lets you cross any copyright boundaries. It’s open slather”, the same is certainly not true for other art forms. The case in the music industry is very clear, as witnessed by the enormous payments made to musicians when another artist ‘samples’ their work in their own – most notable recent-ish example (showing my age, now) was when The Verve was forced to pay The Rolling Stones all of the royalties from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ for using the hook from ‘The Last Time’. And things for visual artists may also be-a-changin’. In the US of A, artist Shepard Fairey, who made the now iconic Obama ‘Hope’ election poster, is embroiled in a far from straight-forward legal case with Associated Press, which claims he infringed copyright by using an AP photograph as the basis for his artwork. Borrowing an observation from a colleague, why are the visual arts treated as different when it comes to issues of copyright? I’m not saying it’s wrong, necessarily – just suggesting that it’s a question worth asking.

Final thought –  Pynacker spent three years studying in Italy before returning to the Netherlands and settling in Amsterdam. He became one of the most renowned Northern painters of Italianate allegorical scenes inspired by the Italian Baroque. He painted landscapes such as this one, showing a romanticised genre scene infused with warm Mediterranean light, and framed by verdant foliage, informed by plenty of plein air excursions in the footsteps of Claude. But the setting itself is, most likely, allegorical and imaginary. So – can a scene conjured up in the imagination of a 17th century Dutch painter qualify as “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours … completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date …” which, according to the Prize website, is what is required of the winner? Perhaps the rule itself is rather archaic and silly. But, it’s a rule nonetheless and one that, presumably, the other entrants stuck to. Again, it’s a question worth asking.

(Images: top – Sam Leach, ‘Proposal for landscaped cosmos’, via: http://www.thearchibaldprize.com.au; bottom – Adam Pynacker, ‘Boatmen moored on a lake shore’, via: http://commons.wikimedia.org)