Sunday, September 3, 2017

Colin Suggett, Arthur Boyd and Others

When in London I make a point of going to the Courtauld. Which is a grand way of referring to a sleep-deprived nightmare in cattle class on the way to see your extended family for two or three more visits before you die. The Courtauld is a palace along the Thames embankment and you can take it in in an hour or two. It's the legacy of a fabulously wealthy industrialist who enriched his life with the very best. One day Mssr. Courtauld's agent informed him that Gauguin's finest work had become available and he should have it. It's Te Raireoa (The Dream), and I go to stand in front of it and weep like you're supposed to do in front of a Rothko. Nothing else of his (Gauguin or Courtauld) quite does that and especially not Rothko who you can see elsewhere augmented by dimensions, lighting and lavish elbow room in prestigious space; none of which are enough (for me) to wet a tie-dyed hanky; mine or Mark's.

On those odd occasions we proles get to see the best there is but sometimes it isn't. Wyeth's 'Christina's World' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York looks like a $10 Wal-Mart print in harvest tones. Somehow it falls disappointingly short on the glowing pink dress that makes it happen in the reproductions. It might be lighting, the flatness of egg tempera, persistence of memory or the genius of uncelebrated printers or fraudsters who know exactly how to make the tiny corrections that a major 'Water Lilies' or an extra 'Irises' require to really make them sing. Well, painting is a bitch. Even if you can recognise a masterpiece it doesn't mean you can paint one. It's not as forgiving as the monkeys with the typewriters doing Webster's Dictionary in the life of the universe: once you are committed you can't go back to repair the composition or the colour harmonies even if you could divine what it needs during those standing - back appraisals towards the end.

During the pre-olympic millenial boom I was working on construction on the Sydney high rises, spending weekends organizing an exhibition, and circulating around the art market and world to schmooze and learn whatever I could. And in consequence I acquired an agent; Stephen Hersh. He was a little Jewish guy in his eighties, secular, irreverent, energetic; a five foot two or four Hollywood cliché of wise cracks and panache who would go around the galleries with his portfolios making a nuisance of himself on our behalf. He liked me and my style; and worked like a drover's dog representing 20 artists for a stinking 3% commission. He must have been living on his pension and savings because our sales wouldn't have paid the rent on his parking space. But then he hit the relative jackpot. Macquarie University art maven Di Yerbury discovered Peter Griffin who was taken on by Wagner Galleries. Peter's work was Kandinskyish, reliably modern, repetitive and the flip side required for serious collections; always identifiable as his own. Of course the first thing that happened was either Wagner's or Peter decided Stephen should be cut out.

Some time later I was half of a two man exhibition in Sydney he had organized and lived at the gallery on the north shore for the duration. One night I attended one of Jane Bennett's openings with my patron of the moment and Jane informed me that Stephen (and by extension his stable including me) had been blacklisted across the local art world. It seems my poor old agent was a very bad man, a liar and fraud who was billing himself as an ex-trustee of the Art Gallery of N.S.W. when he had actually been only a tour guide.

'The horror, the horror!' as Joseph Conrad once wrote and it worked in darkest Africa but fell flat somehow in 'Apocalypse Now' and more so in Sydney 2003. But then I was born in America where everyone is still a relic of the Great Depression, locked in a dreamworld myth about 'making good'. Stephen's brother Morris did arrive and became a patron of the arts, immortalized in a modernist portrait hanging in the Ian Potter Gallery at Federation Square.

Either Stephen's purported fraud or simple anti-semitism explained the Wagner Gallery affair. Arts in the big city was uglier yet far more righteous than I had imagined; a kind of greyhound racing with aplomb- where sociopaths and scumballs transition to 'colourful identities' after which they get away with almost anything. It's the Gucci effect where being shamelessly and publicly fleeced and seen to enjoy it is a big part of social bluff for the nouveaus. There's a wink and nod to these takers but not to you or I or a little Jewish immigrant who escaped the ovens, trying to claw his way up from the bottom, unbroken, still knocking on doors unto the end of life with all the heart in the world. His breach was imaginative and I was impressed – being allowed on a premises to do volunteer work implies trust even if they don't let you take a flutter on the dogs.

But my old agent is here because he had a story. He probably invited himself, but he went to see Arthur Boyd at Bundanon, and Arthur showed him around the studio where he had a slew of similar canvases lined up like some kind of assembly line. “This is for the dealers,” he said. And in another room he had something else going; “and this is for me.”
I believe it now because a friend who was leaving to try and reconcile with his wife and family in Melbourne gave me a heavy box; many years worth of auction house catalogues, beautiful thick glossy art books and I thought I had hit the jackpot. But going through them was embarrassing; each one across so many sellers and years and auctioneers was almost identical. Always a burning Tim Storrier rope or hay bale on a dark ocean beach, a white Arthur Boyd 'Bride' floating over a sullen aboriginal, a dark and banal rat-faced Dickerson charcoal portrait of no-one in particular and so on. I gave all the books to the polytechnic; they could be distributed around the art class and everyone could have it all, just like in Point Piper and Rose Bay. So the spirit of Henry Ford lives on in the most unexpected places, and this is why you should always stop at MONA whenever you are in Hobart; because Boyd's 'Melbourne Burning' is always there whatever else pot luck might offer. He painted it for himself and you'll never see it or anything better of his again although it has lost elbow room recently and consequently something more.

There must be quite a number of unknown masterpieces out there that should belong to the world and everyone who stays with it long enough may well produce one in their lifetime if only by accident. Sometimes it is enough to make a reputation, but without a providential name or agent and another confirming triumph it probably disappears in the market or gets worked or painted over or ends up hanging anonymously on some suburban wall. If it remains unsold it must eventually get hauled out with the other trash at the behest of some distraught or relieved widow. Widowers are more sentimental, more often patron than victim they resignedly and affectionately stack her crap on ceiling joists in the garage.

I had seen another masterpiece; just made for MONA and not long ago I phoned the artist, Colin Suggett, curious to find out where it was. He lives south of Melbourne, retired like me and at some stage you start considering posterity.

What's going to happen to your children?” I asked.

Colin is a very literal man. “I don't have any kids.”

Of course I meant his flawless constructions in mixed glass, wood, metal, plastic, fibreglass and electronics– super imaginative though often (to me) a bit light on and amusing but there was one piece especially. It is deceptively simple; a plate glass (Belgian bronze) box like a fish tank; in the middle of a dark, empty room. The bottom consists of a diorama of a new and unsold building block in Werribee. In near darkness, it is newly fenced, curbed and guttered. There is a small do-it-yourself galvanised iron toolshed by the driveway and a realtor's sign fixed to the fence. It is lit by a single streetlight on a tapered, curving standard with a shaded diode at the top. The attention to detail is incredible; even to an airbrushed fluorescing fuzzball of light centred directly beneath the streetlight; diminishing perfectly as it illuminates more distant parts of the street, verge, gutter and fence with a ghastly yellowish- green glow. It is the coldest and emptiest thing ever. Edward Hopper was a comparative Piker and in all directions you see an infinite regression; hundreds, thousands of identical empty blocks marching off into the horizon. It's all there; tomorrow's 'Jobs and Growth', financially doomed young families sucked into the Australian dream of forever capital gains on the housing ladder with super low- interest mortgages, the bustle of trucks and tradies and then nothing; just an extended scrag end of town with few amenities, bored desperate housewives and their kids experimenting with sex and drugs and alcohol; unemployment and a clamour for compensating exponentially-increasing new projects; ever more suburbs or coal mines from the Latrobe Valley to central Queensland.
Latrobe Regional Gallery has the lot and are housing and looking after it all,” he explained.

Oh. I have a son who says he wants it all, so my stuff is going back to him in Canada, which also gives me a trouble-and- humiliation -free pension. If they don't give a s** about it here while I am alive and need the money they can f** themselves when I am dead,” I answered. He must be a man of huge social conscience on top of his many talents because it fell on a flat silence.

Stephen Hersh once called me something in yiddish meaning a loser who busts his backside working for other people. That's not an accolade in Brooklyn's Williamstown or Tel Aviv or anywhere but it ought to be. The fact is, that's life for most people. It isn't stupid outside the 'making good' dreamworld; the statistics on small businesses are abysmal and the visual arts must be at the bottom. (Writers are even further down). Stephen should have learned something from his own long struggle; that wages are always better than uncertain enterprises, most especially indentured unpaid labour for a gallery. Of course you die in the end regardless and there's nothing to lose bequeathing your work to posterity, but that would make sense only if you respect the taste and good will of your fellow man AND there might still be some of those in the world in another century, maybe even with time on their hands for aesthetic interests.

I thought I had a masterpiece once and put up $100 for the entry fee and a roll of Kodachrome 2 to enter the City of Hobart Art Prize (Sculpture). It didn't make selection which was unremarkable except they flew some 'name' in at great expense from London to humiliate the city and everyone involved; the winning entry from an impressive offering was a mismatched pair of piano trolleys; two little rectangles of carpet-covered plywood on casters. Four years later when they had worked through the media and came back around to sculpture, Hobart did it again. The winning entry was a board purporting to be from Scott's hut with dog kibble glued to it. Perhaps it was a circuitous reference to the deaths of Scott and Oates by vitamin poisoning because they ate their dogs' livers when they should have eaten the dogs' rations instead. And so little Tasmania's jewel in the crown struts proudly in the modernist vanguard along with so many other great cities of the world, but if the judges/selectors had done that to Courtauld he would have had them strangled. 
Incomprehensible is popularly conflated with depth by non-practitioners; necessarily because everything is poisoned by comfortably- paid functionaries' brazen contempt for the bourgeois concept of merit and their pursuit of the 'controversial' adjective for their own CV's. They too are aiming for the moon. You could laugh –but it doesn't do much to attract public appreciation and support for the arts in general. Most people don't care much anyway,  like an under-unemployed dozer operator who has actually seen real crushed fingers and endless vistas of Cradle Mountain as he smashed his way towards it 40 hours a week and formless black puddles when he changed the oil. But it's also destroying those talented and serious wide-eyed kids loading themselves with debt to get on the ladder; imagining there is nothing to it.  It begins in grade 7; socially and academically challenged left- handers enamored of cute pussycats or horses they could knock out from ten years old; encouraged by parents and teachers towards an apparently attractive option. But the numbers say nearly everyone must fall by the wayside, the earlier the better so they can get real jobs. And it reaches all the way to the dux of the class too. A friend of my son's came up with an untouched shtick; bundles of bent and otherwise damaged aluminium irrigation pipes with holes blown through all over with an oxy torch.

If I'm not famous before I'm 25, I'll just take over running the farm,” he said.

No prizes for the million dollar question. Maybe he had or hadn't heard of Clement Meadmore (Australian) who started designing Ikea type modern furniture and during the dreamtime of my son's farming friend had brought a collection of perfectly rendered umbrella stand to monument- sized soggy bronze french fries (sticking out of a plinth in vertical bundles) back to Sydney before he died. They were all over this gallery garden; starting at $30 thousand; US currency only thank you and touted to be almost exactly like a piece one of the actual Rockefellers has down along his own garden path somewhere in the Hamptons and you too......

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Washington DC

Wash. D.C. in sum is gorgeous beyond words compared to say New York but then its a heck of a lot smaller with a lot more per capita dollars.  So its no surprise it can have a wealthier average demographic.   The best part is that all the attractions here are free, compliments of Uncle.  Not that the local grinches notice, who have seen it all and sport license plate messages 'taxation without representation' meaning to say they feel cheated because as a non-state they don't have crooked congressman and senators to plead their regional cause.  Actually they don't pay any more than anybody else, which is less in terms of D.C.s well- kept infrastructure, unlike what everyone else has to wear by which I mean the visitors that are all you see this time of year, meandering by the thousands up and down the mall.  Groups of school kids in blazers and grandparents wander aimlessly, in awe of the grandeur of their nation and its glorious history as reflected in dotted monuments to the glorious dead who have died  for freedom and democracy.  For which everyone alive here pays at least a token price on a day to day basis of precisely prescribed thought, word, and deed on signage everywhere in the the silent thunder of the monuments.  Daily motorcades of darkened black limousines preceded by a procession of cops on flashing, warbling and  thundering Harleys who commandeer each intersection on the route are the only sign that there really is an executive branch  and an underlying point to everything. 

 Tony Abbott was here a few days ago, darling of Canada's Stephen Harper and the local Tea Party.  Maybe he was given one of these, maybe he even had a couple of the empty decoy limos that all important personages require in the wild west where everyman has the right to bear arms and a lot of them are fruitcakes.  Not your harmless up-front garden variety ones with signage, but crazed and vicious loners who live with their  mothers and polish their automatic weapons, dreaming of the apocalypse.

Even in the capitol building there isn't a single mover or shaker to be seen hurrying  to his tasks, only a circle of dead heroes immortalized in bronze beneath the rotunda.  Recent arrivals are Gerald Ford and Ron Reagan who our guide tells us won the cold war and stands on actual rubble from same. 
"Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev, " he said and it happened and so  we may say "this was his finest hour."  Of course the Germans were left to actually pick up the pieces after the fall nor did I see so much as a recognizable crumb of concrete. 

But it is here, in front of the building that I found my own patron saint.  A self- taught artist, Henry Schrady entered a contest and  won the commission to build the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  All the stonework of and surrounding including the huge reflecting pool is in sawn and polished blinding white marble.  Atop the central plinth stands a grand equestrian statue in bronze of General Grant (4th largest of such things in the world) above with a bronze bas relief plaque on each side of the plinth commemorating the infantry.  These are similar and almost comparable to St. Gauden's  masterpiece about the black 53rd Regiment that took him 15 years to complete.   Surrounding Grant are four smaller plinths, with identical, sadly laconic resting lions.  But the best parts are the wings.  On Grant's left the artillery; a team of horses struggles to drag a gun crew with cannon across a battlefield.  All the details are perfect; Schrady studied and researched for years to get it right.  On the  right is a dramatic cavalry charge.   One of the upraised sabres has been souvenired along with the barrel of a Spencer carbine which has been replaced by a length of rusting rolled steel round.  Well, this has been here for a long time, and the artist himself is still present, almost obscured by his cloak and struggling to extricate himself from beneath his fallen steed which is exactly how he felt because this endeavour consumed his entire life. He died of overwork barely 50 years old two weeks before the work was dedicated and the infantry panels had to be built from his sketches by someone else.

All over this city is the handiwork of countless thousands of mostly nameless journeymen who worked their entire lives to build something grand that millions still can believe in  and struggle for right or wrong and they come from all over in their matching T-shirts lest someone get attached to the wrong tour and never be seen again.  They visit the JFK grave at Arlington, and at the simple black retaining wall of the Vietnam memorial you can locate names of dead friends and family via provided lists.  This would otherwise be a Herculean haystack- needle search; for they are listed as they fell.  This was 'Peace with Honour' and somehow California never got around to providing a Nixon statue for the capitol rotunda.  He was the main reason my father left the States after the election in 1952 or I might have been listed there myself.  I was pretty slow


at that age and will never forget the look of rage and contempt on my father's face in '66 after  graduation when I had mentioned the war as a possibility in a throw-away line.  Well, that's how it is with kids - searching desperately for a respectable persona.  He had come back all shot-up and bemedalled so why shouldn't I?  But dumb didn't cut it with my dad.

And you can go to the Herschorn and Freer -all free- and the National Gallery where there is the biggest collection of impressionists outside the Louvre and you can weep in front of a Gaugin or on the lower floor in a roomful of the most beautiful bronzes ever -the art deco/nouveau work of Paul Manship;  like you are supposed to do in front of Mark Rothko.  Who can be seen there too, but along with the attendant Calders and Pollocks and Serras and Stellas and Warhols would be relatively less than NOTHING if they weren't fabled, American and imbued with inarguable respectability; figuring as they do in the stinkfinger games of the idle rich where the utterly worthless and banal is the ultimate display of net worth.   Sycophantic curators and city fathers grease the wheels of this juggernaut but nation states still revere their actual treasures.

The Capitol Building tries to please too many as well as having undergone war and renovation.  But the Library of Congress is splendid.  It holds a marble staircase, carved by French immigrant Philip Martiny, who was very well known at the time and whose workshop produced a lot of the details on New York's finest buildings also.  How much of his life was thereby consumed, or even his name doesn't matter, he's long dead and can never appear on Oprah.  Better yet he has left something extraordinary and still only a mote amongst a cityfull  of  wonders that will never be some forgotten anachronism or de-accessioned or contemptuously thrown on a barricade.




Friday, June 27, 2014

New York Modern

I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by neural plaques, the calculus of self- interest and unfettered omega 5's consuming, casual addicts at the golden arches......  OK I am in New York and thought I might sort out some kind of sight-seeing itinerary starting with Ginsberg's 'Howl' but sixty years plus after the fact of that and my own birth, self- imposed/important urban victimhood has foundered on the rocks of deja vu.  And you can jump on the down escalator anywhere -its just somehow a bit more romantic here than in Tasmania where there isn't such a big choice of has-beens or wannabees to party along with. 

So off I went to Chelsea to see where the art market is really at these days and only the featured artists have changed from last time.  Or not, you would be unlikely to remember, there are no touchstones or even architecture here except the plastic bollards; interminable tearing up the streets and traffic patterns.  The gallery girls and guys stare silent behind their computer screens ignoring browsers and everyone else; its the Gucci routine and they know you aren't a customer or a 'name.'

"This is the 5th Avenue of the art market, try Brooklyn maybe."  Maybe Ginsberg could have said it better:

Down metaphorical 5th from the Met primped and powdered nail-salon baba yagas; claws paralytic extended as to predate Aryan babes- in- the- wood; and sitting on- the- street cafes with little white lap dogs eating bagels, pastrami and carefully- engineered pickles so each goddamn bite tastes the same.  Far from freaking un-ever-forgettable Hester Street where my family got its start too; interminable arse-off working unto oblivion nobody goofed off until the REAL thing and no-one made good either.  Argh!

And on  23rd Street heavy impasto is in, paint on polyurethane foam, penis photos in the next gallery where looker's eyes drop briefly to your own crotch Jesus I am 65 years in this desperate world ; next gallery raging sophomoric feminist boozhwah-bait:  traditional reclining nudes splashed red pudenda -Ooh this is scandal; the modernist REAL THING.

Further uptown competence manifests, some of these people can actually paint.   But they are indentured labour; stuck doing the same trademark crap forever to make a living.  Its an investment where the rent is finally paid after dedicating years to the all-important CV and dealer who has also invested lottsa and collectors who hope they are riding winners so heirs might even see valuations cover the dealer's mark-up. For there are many who hear the call and as many who fall by the wayside.  Glory be to his name and provenance. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

New Press Finally Finished

This has been a bigger project than I thought it would be.  Intended to be a full size studio press it has shrunk due to costs - most of the components cost next to nothing from the recycler but the platen was the problem - to get a seasoned cast iron plate AND have it milled made it completely uneconomic.  And my back would have been in no condition to handle it.  So it was reduced to fit an available offcut of fiberglass re-enforced phenolic switchboard panel supplied by Stephen Twohig at Fitzroy Etching Presses & Printmakers, the only place of many I tried where they didn't want(even as far as India) to take me for a ride; like $1000 plus.

Having had shoulder surgery I didn't want a big wheel to hang from (remember the cross Rose Lindsay had to bear, editioning for Norman) and so it has a nice heavy steel flywheel and that drives directly through the little green 8:1 planetary gearbox from an old industrial electric motor.  There is a 1:1 chain drive to the lower roll on the other side of the press, D=145 mm.  The rolls are heavy tubes from a large scrap hydraulic cylinder, 650mm long.  This was too long for my lathe even with a steady and bearing replacing the tailstock.  So it had to be reversed to true it up.  I made a mandrel to set the tail up at the headstock, realigned the lathe before I started and like a fool tried welding up some deep damage on the cylinder and thereby spent a lot of time on it with a mill file.  Should have simply selected better sections, it was a very long cylinder.  But using a four-jaw chuck and run-out gauge the cuts met perfectly in the middle.  The platen is 1240mm. long, the little support rollers sit on 16mm round and are made of nylon with a bronze bush pressed in at each end, pressed in and reamed to fit after the millscale was filed off the rods.  The pressure adjustment handles are only 150 mm long all up in case I or some other idiot - if I lend it in a moment of madness - is less likely to overload and thereby jam the system when it hits the plate at full throttle with that heavy flywheel.
Other features are shelves under the table which has adjustable feet to maintain alignment

 And here are my most recent prints, these are available by emailing me.

Fukushima: The Evacuation of Tokyo with details,  44 x 60 cm,  copper plate etching,  edition of 20

Bandicoot and Magnolia

My wife is the most fabulous person in the world.  For me I mean.  Who else would have put up with this specimen on the dining room table for a week while I was creating the plate?

Edition of 20, 22x30 cm, intaglio from copper plate.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

New Blog

Have decided to save my art blog for ( for visual arts only. will be devoted to literary efforts and with general observations, scientific and  political commentary, and occasional links to other articles.  In general it will be about things I think are worth sharing and hope others will enjoy.

Best wishes

Friday, October 5, 2012


A New Print Series

Have been doing  intaglio editions on copper plates using acrylic resists and ferric chloride mordant,so I can do this out on the lawn having been banned from the bathroom for ruining the bathtub.  That stuff stains and is nearly impossible to remove but the grass doesn't seem to mind.
 The series is mostly about Japan and inspired by traditional themes, line work etc.   Printmaking those centuries ago was part of the popular culture and took the place of present day glossy mags, They were sold on the street and were the equivalent of everything from 'People' to 'Hustler'.  As nothing changes, economics required they push the limits of the acceptable - many notable artists like Utamaro did prison time for offending the sensibilities with some of his erotic work.  Much of which is too explicit for my own tastes - so I have toned my own efforts a long way down from their matter of fact material.

The Floating World of the Antarctic Spring 34x29 cm.