Friday, October 31, 2008

The people's typeface

Some years ago, I hired a signwriter for a friend who was coming from out of town to make an art installation. My friend said that he wanted an old-school hand-done sign, painted directly on to the wall. When I rang the sign company and explained what I wanted, there was a slight pause.

"You know that we can do anything you want in vinyl?" said the voice at the other end. "Computer cut. You just send us a file of what you want, and we can just print it out. Put it straight up. It'll look perfect. It's how signs are done now."

It was the early 1990s. Designers had recently moved to Macs from paste-up work, jettisoning scalpels and erasers and tins of bull-gum. Typesetters were going out of business and bromide cameras were being relegated to the back room, relics of an old technology for which there was no further requirement. Like hand-painted signwriting, the physical craft of graphic design now seemed ridiculously old-fashioned. You no longer needed a steady hand, just computer skills and -- perhaps secondarily -- a good eye for the page.

I explained that actually I was after a hand-done look for this sign, wonky bits and all. "It's for an art show," I added.

Unsurprisingly, the man the company sent to do the work was getting on a bit. He was greying, and gruff, and balding, and his stomach overhung his trousers, and his nose was a deep crimson. He looked at my friend and I with a kind of sardonic amusement. But when he broke out the brushes, he was an artist. Steadying his arm with a mahl stick, he painted the few words my friend wanted on the wall, in freehand. I stood there and simply stared. I was astounded at the skill, and the speed, and precision, and was utterly charmed by the great beauty of the lettering. It was my own "hairdesser and tobacconist" moment, although rather than being the formative moment in a subsequent career as a painter, it inculcated in me simply a lasting passion for hand-painted lettering.

Colin McCahon, A question of faith 1970, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 208.0 x 261.5 cm, Private collection, USA. Image from National Gallery of Victoria

(McCahon, on the other hand, famously wrote in 1966 of his point of origin as an artist:
"Once when I was quite young… the hairdresser had his window painted with HAIRDRESSER and TOBACCONIST. Painted in gold and black on a stippled red round, the lettering large and bold, with shadows, and a feeling of being projected right through the glass and across the pavement. I watched the work being done, and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting. I watched from outside as the artist working inside slowly separated himself from me (and light from dark) to make his new creation. ")

The typeface my friend had chosen for his installation signage was called Dom Casual. He'd selected it, I think, purely on the basis of its visual qualities -- retro, friendly-looking, with its vertical strokes ending at different heights so it had a slightly painterly, hand-done effect even when reproduced in the font book. But when an acquaintance of his told him that Dom Casual was known as the "people's typeface", he liked it even more.

This was all before the internet, of course, back when it was a lot more difficult to find out more about interesting things that come your way. So that's where my knowledge of Dom Casual began and ended, until the other day when I came across a publication which used the typeface, and I remembered the moment in the gallery as my friend was putting his show together and the signwriter held us captivated as the lettering unfolded across the wall, and I felt that it would be a good time to know more.

Dom Casual was designed in America in the late 1940s by Peter Dombrezian, I've discovered, and it seems to be the only font he published. It was originally called Dom Twixt, and was hand-drawn for photo-typesetting. There were a whopping 213 characters in Dom Twixt, allowing the graphic designer to produce many possible versions for headlines and advertisements; but when in 1951 the American Type Foundry converted it to metal type and renamed it Dom Casual, there were only 52 characters converted, making it much less flexible in its applications. Pete Downer writes that Dom Casual:
"was a rare case in which a type design was adapted to an older technology instead of a new one. While thousands of metal typeface designs were copied to film for photo-typesetting, very few faces originally designed for filmsetting were subsequently cast in metal."

Dom Casual was used by Warner Brothers for its cartoon credits from 1960, and has also featured in the titles for Bewitched (and surprisingly, Neighbours). With its handbrushed, informal look, it remains the archetypal 'cartoon' font -- but as French notes, it's ironic that a typeface cast in metal should be so widely regarded as a textbook example of casual brush lettering.

From Hare to Heir, Warner Brothers, 1960: the first WB cartoon to feature Dom Casual in the production credits. From Dave Mackey's Warner Bros Cartoon Filmography and Title Card Gallery.

I think that what I like about this story is that by hand-painting it on the gallery wall, my friend's signwriter effectively converted the typeface back again to its own point of origin. I'm sure he knew what he was doing, though it's taken me 16 or so years to find out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Remember the soup

I'm always interested in the moments when real life commandeers art for its own purposes -- particularly when the original art being quoted already involved an appropriation from the real world. Here's an ad for Campbell's Soup, dating from 1965 -- three years after Andy Warhol painted his first versions.

Lots going on here: the salon hang of the serving suggestions; the avant-garde white pegboard wall; the Lichtenstein-esque Benday dots on the can opener. But primarily, it's the copywriting that most appeals.

"Any contemporary collection of the creative masterpieces mother cooks up in the kitchen will no doubt include a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup ... Paint pork chops delicious with it ... However Mom does it, it's an art. Ask Pop."

Photographed particularly poorly by myself from Ruth Anna Hobday's Rose Tinted 60s: A Perfect View of the Past.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen?

Dorothea Lange, Tulare County, California. Cheap auto camp housing for citrus workers, 1930s. Image from The History Place.

Do tough economic times make for good art? That's what critic Mark Amery intimated the other day when interviewed by Radio NZ's Kim Hill.

I've heard him say similar things before, and my impulse was then, as now, to strongly disagree with him. I refuse to countenance the idea that hardship is a virtue (blame it on a devoutly atheist upbringing). The notion of the artist as financial outsider belongs back in the gloomy garret, along with the palette knife and the severed ear. I think it's a great thing that the New Zealand art market has grown to a point where it's possible for some of this country's most prominent artists to make a decent living from their work: it's not something that happened for artists of McCahon's generation, the prices of whose work rose sharply only after their deaths. In my observation, it's not the case that strong sales of artwork automatically equate to an artist who's sold out artistically. And perhaps most critically, I just don't believe the inevitable corollary of Amery's argument, that times of plenty produce worse art than lean times do (though I'll accept there's more of a market for rubbish of any sort when economic indicators are good).

Most successful artists of my acquaintance are completely aware of the dangerous seduction of their market, and the balancing act required to simultaneously feed it while keeping one's distance from it. If you want to make a living as an artist, you need to make saleable works; but if you want to make really good work and achieve critical acclaim and industry recognition, you need to experiment and take risks. (Pull both off at once, however, and you're made.) It's a dangerous game, and the most successful artists understand on which side of the fence they need to stay. Damien Hirst -- whose overall subject is arguably the art market itself -- puts it best, in the apocryphal remark originally attributed to his manager, Frank Dunphy: "Money should chase art. If art starts chasing money, the whole thing is fucked."

In my experience, financial hardship is not in the slightest conducive to creativity. The opposite, in fact. If you're worried about paying bills, or eating, or keeping warm, the last thing on your mind is making art. At that point you're interested in making money. Boredom, on the other hand, is what's always driven me to do anything new, and it tends to surface more readily in times of plenty.

The current straightened economic times, however, will undoubtedly reshape the artworld in various ways, as collectors tighten their belts and sponsors pull back on their commitments. Jerry Saltz, reporting recently on the impact of financial troubles on London's Frieze art fair, made the following predictions:
"If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet."
Most importantly, suggests Saltz, money will stop being the only measure of success in the artworld. This seems like quite a good thing, athough maybe more relevant to parts of the world with larger markets for art than New Zealand's. But while the recession might clear out some of the deadwood from the edges of the art market (as well as from other sectors), I would doubt that it will be the catalyst for the production of noticeably better art than in the good times.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

5.55pm: time to buy some art

A spread in the October issue of Harper's Bazaar, from a shoot showing how the Harper's woman spends her day (5.55pm: the art purchase), which I photographed at the hairdresser's the other evening after grilling some chicken nuggets (5.08pm), scrubbing the small guy's dirty feet with a nailbrush (5.40pm), and giving the baby a quick feed (5.56pm). I see now where I've been going wrong...

Monday, October 27, 2008

The day the newspapers died

The death of newspapers has been predicted for some time now: the culmination of a long, slow, bloodless decline brought about by the rise of the internet as an increasingly preferred source for both real-time news and candid opinion, particularly among younger people, for whom newspapers appear both anachronistic in form and hopelessly late in delivery of content. Philip Meyer, emeritus professor of journalism and author of The Vanishing Newspaper, says: "It is now clear that [the internet] is as disruptive to today's newspapers as Gutenberg's invention of movable type was to the town criers, the journalists of the 15th century." In a much-repeated (but slightly misleading) meme, a day in the first quarter of the year 2043 has been calculated to be "the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition".

According to The Economist, newspaper readership has been falling for decades in western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. In this country, daily newspapers have cut back hard on the employment of journalists and editorial staff, and have increasingly turned over their pages to columnists (who as independent contractors are cheaper than a stable of in-house writers), buying in syndicated features, and adding life-style sections, which require fewer resources than "old-fashioned" investigative journalism. Meanwhile the advertising money has followed the readers to the internet: Trade Me has sucked up garage salers while New Zealand's corporates are defecting to online campaigns and are direct marketing to prospective targets.

Several journalists were laid off last week at the Listener, whose once-incisive current events pages increasingly read like excerpts from a self-help manual while the magazine itself looks as if the janitor laid it out in his or her downtime. The latest casualties of the editorial axe at a New Zealand newspaper, however, are the Dominion Post's visual art reviews -- ironic in Wellington, a city which styles itself as New Zealand's cultural capital. But then, newspapers these days are primarily run as a business, not a social good: the role of the Fourth Estate in keeping society's elected representatives honest looks increasingly shaky, while its role as a champion of excellence in cultural matters seems likewise a relic of the past.

It strikes me that Mark Amery, recently let go as the DomPost's art reviewer (and interviewed by Radio New Zealand's Kim Hill yesterday morning), will find another outlet for his criticism, much as John Hurrell has. (Or at least I hope so: he's too good just to unplug the keyboard and walk away.) In the deep distant past, John Hurrell reviewed art for the Christchurch Press: he is one of a long line of fiercely independent art critics employed by the paper including now prominent curators William McAloon (Te Papa) and Justin Paton (Christchurch Art Gallery). Despite using a blogging platform to regularly record his impressions of the art shows he visits, swap banter with his readers, and promote his public appearances, Hurrell protests that, all appearances to the contrary, he's not a blogger: "For me the term is too linked to the diaristic and petty gossip to be applied to this site." (Sounds like he thinks blogging's a job for girls...)

I disagree with Amery and Hurrell at least as much as I agree with them, but consistently I'm interested in what they have to say. More than that, I like the ways in which they say it. I've come to appreciate the online personalities of both writers (although Amery wrote for the newspaper, I read his pieces online, through the Lumiere Reader or occasionally The Big Idea); manifest in such factors as the sense of goodwill both critics exude towards the project of criticism, the enthusiasm for the ideas they're writing about, the sense of disappointment when what they're reviewing doesn't cut the mustard, and the ability to dispense rough justice when the circumstances warrant it.

In New Zealand, art criticism's always been a love job. Sure, you get paid a bit for it; but what you're paid is entirely incommensurate with the amount of time, effort and expertise you need to put in, as well as the argy-bargy you get from disgruntled artists who've been the recipients of a negative review. Art critics certainly couldn't live on what they're paid by the newspapers; writing art criticism in New Zealand needs to be a second, or even a third, job. As a cost-cutting exercise for a newspaper, getting rid of art critics is negligible. It's more a case of signalling a new direction; the move away from newspapers as a source of intellectual debate and towards the publication of general interest items with a consumer focus.

Yet long-term, this may not be the most sensible direction for a newspaper to take: media economist Richard Picard suggests that by trying to appeal to everyone, newspapers are spreading themselves dangerously thin. Currently, newspapers:
"keep offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of content, and keep diminishing the quality of that content because their budgets are continually thinner. This is an absurd choice because the audience least interested in news has already abandoned the newspaper."
Instead, suggests Philip Meyer, newspapers should concentrate on content that makes them relevant to their local communities -- primarily evidence-based reporting -- and aim their pitch at well-educated "news junkies" who appreciate being able to argue from a basis of fact, and reading well-argued analysis of topical issues -- the very readership, I would suggest, who turn to the paper for the art reviews, but will now need to go elsewhere. In Wellington, at least.

When John Hurrell received a grant from Creative New Zealand to start up eyeCONTACT, he was the butt of a lot of ribbing on New Zealand art's free-for-all all-in-wrestling forum, Artbash. Hurrell's CNZ grant (or targeted investment, or whatever they're now calling the money they hand out) was the first occasion, I think, on which the practice of art criticism was nationally supported. With the retrenchment of art reviewing by local newspapers signalled by the DomPost, the decision to fund Hurrell's independent enterprise seems extremely prescient. More power to his arm should he go back for another dip in the public pot: and maybe next time with a bigger grant he could also look at securing the services of, or syndicating the writings of, other well-informed critics such as Amery, Andrew Paul Wood and Jamie Hanton (because art criticism shouldn't be an unpaid love-job when it's being done at that standard), as well as publicising his site more widely to pull in more readers.

I suspect online art criticism's the way of the future. Whether or not one likes to think of oneself as a blogger.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The best days of your life

Shot from my car yesterday afternoon: unfortunate advertising placement, no.1 in an occasional series.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cinema with ease

New Zealand's cultural heritage has just got a whole lot more accessible with the launch of NZ On Screen, a non-profit, free-to-view, "living archive of New Zealand television and film" funded by New Zealand on Air. It's an extraordinary resource: over 250 films and TV programmes have been uploaded, and there are plenty more to follow. I spent yesterday evening working my way through some of the visual art material; it's an absolute treasure trove of great stuff, which is as you'd expect, given the calibre of the people who've put it together, including film industry stalwart Robin Scholes (living proof that there is life after an art history degree), uber-blogger and new media commentator Russell Brown, and Len Lye biographer and film academic Roger Horrocks.

There's the 1977 documentary made by Sam Neill, Architect Athfield, which, when I first saw it some years ago, made me realise that Ath was not only an extraordinarily skilled architect in his ability to create buildings that people enjoyed using, but was also a philosopher of architecture; there's Merata Mita's impressionistic documentary about Ralph Hotere made in 2001, in which the man himself says very little (a quote from Hotere flashes up at the start: "There are very few things I can say about my work, that are better than saying nothing"), but in which the work says a great deal.

There's Leanne Pooley's Being Billy Apple, and Gaylene Preston's Lovely Rita, both from 2007. There's Greg Stitt's Peter Peryer: Portrait of a Photographer shot by Leon Narbey in 1994, a film which the site blurb suggests definitively answers the question of why Peryer photographed himself holding a chicken. (A moody, magnificent image, this one.)

Peter Peryer, Self Portrait 1977, Collection of Auckland Art Gallery

There's a lot more, and they're adding new material weekly. I haven't even got started yet on all the 70s children's programmes (first episode of Spot On anyone? Olly Ohlson singing Fangface?), and I'm saving the first episode of the late lamented cult classic 80s bitch-fest glitter-soap, Gloss (starring art collector Miranda Harcourt), as a special treat. "Monuments and mirrorglass / The city's on the make... " Oh yes. Shoulder pads at dawn, girls, and the devil take the hindmost! Just click through and watch. Great stuff.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Overlooked objects

Rachel Whiteread, Place (Village), 2006-2008. Image from Boston Museum of Fine Arts, via Time-Blog

Like many other British artists of her generation included in the big touring show 'Pictura Britannica', which came to Wellington in 1998, the impact of Rachel Whiteread's work in New Zealand was diminished by the howling public furore which blew up over the inclusion of Tania Kovats's tiny conceptual sculpture, Virgin in a Condom. Originally scheduled to be shown at City Gallery Wellington, a leaky roof sent the exhibition across the road to the big house: a gift-horse whose mouth, in retrospect, Te Papa's decision-makers may have wished to have examined more closely, given the extent of the protests which ensued.

From memory (I don't have the catalogue of the show, and may well be making this up), Rachel Whiteread's work in 'Pictura Britannica' was a concrete cast of the negative spaces under bench seating. The work was related to her extraordinary cast of the interior of an entire house at the end of a 19th century tenement row in East London, House, which she made in the summer of 1993; a gargantuan project which left her both physically and mentally exhausted, as well as dealing with the challenges of having suddenly become a public figure.

Although I never saw the work (the old house had originally been scheduled for demolition; the same fate met Whiteread's House in 1994), I've always been fascinated by photographs of it; its strange looming bulk, the mismatched fireplaces projecting from the inside-out skin of the house, the blankness of its aspect. It was the kind of house in which both sets of my grandparents lived, in north and east London: ubiquitous in Britain, yet impossibly exotic in New Zealand, in a slightly jokey old-fashioned working-class British sort of a way, like jellied eels and pearly Kings and knotted hankies on the head. Giving solid form to an empty space which was once lived in, Whiteread's sculptural memory of a house is now only a memory itself, and has become conflated in mine with the small dark rooms of those London houses I visited in my childhood.

A "small, somewhat fitful show" of Whiteread's work has just opened at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a new work, a nocturnal townscape of dolls-houses, which the artist has collected for more than twenty years (pictured at top above):
"I think the thread that connects it with all the earlier work is that if you look inside these houses none of them have people in them, there's no furniture. They just have electricity - I was interested in the interiors of these houses and also the fact that they had been through many generations of family. They may have been made by the father. There was a lot of love involved with them and then eventually the love was lost. They were transferred through generations. That transaction is always something that's been in my work. The things that I've used have been second hand."
Time magazine's Richard Lacayo has a terrific short interview with Whiteread here, following the opening of her show in Boston, in which, among other things, she discusses her first meeting with Louise Bourgeois:

"Many years after college, just after I had made House, Louise was at home ironing the New York Times, which it was her habit to do every morning. And there was a picture in the paper that day of House. She saw it and said to somebody: "I want this woman in my house. I want her to come to my house." So I was summoned to see her."
Not for the first time, I've been wishing this morning that a New Zealand art museum would give Rachel Whiteread a call. Get her over to do a show in one of our houses. Or preferably, a survey show AND a new project.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tie me stuffed shark down, sport...

I posted the other day about the sad fact that there's no Australian or New Zealand art luminaries included in ArtReview magazine's artworld top Power 100. However, looking back over previous years, you'll be relieved to note that I've now located the sole Australasian representative: artist and broadcaster Rolf Harris, who appears in 2002 at no. 100, just under Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and sometime visitor to New Zealand, who no doubt was delighted it was that way round. Not sure what this says about our collective art cultures. All together now...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Vegas boneyard

The big guy and I were in Las Vegas a few years ago, indulging our mutual Ratpack obsession by looking for traces of the old Vegas among the tawdry spectacle of the new mega-resorts. In a town that regularly obliterates its own history, dynamiting obsolete hotels and reinventing itself over and over again on the same site, there wasn't much left: the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign as you approach the strip; the run-down casinos like Binions Horseshoe and the Four Queens downtown, with their feather-bikinied showgirls spruiking for business out the front; the "Elvis slept here" sign outside the decrepit Normandie Motel; a tribute act impersonating the Ratpack.

The first few nights, we stayed at the El Cortez, right on the dark fringes of downtown by the grim concrete block motel compounds and pawn brokers and a 7/11 in which the tension in the air was so palpable you could have cut it with a machete. Our room looked like something out of the second half of Martin Scorsese's Casino, after Sharon Stone cuts her hair: an early 80s symphony of smoked glass and brass bathroom fittings and quilted bronze poly-satin. Downstairs old people dragging oxygen machines behind their motorised wheelchairs played the slots like demons.

Image from flickr

Near the hotel we came across a large and extraordinary object: instantly recognisable as the magic lamp from the old Aladdin, studded with bulbs. Dating from 1966 (a year before Elvis and Priscilla were married at the hotel in a small private ceremony), it had recently been restored and reinstalled on a downtown street. There were more signs from the old days of Vegas being restored, we read, including Vegas Vic and the Silver Slipper; we wondered if The Sands sign was among them; we wondered if it was possible to see them; but then we forgot about it, marking it down later as another reason to go back.

Hearing that Vegas's graveyard of dead signs -- now called the Neon Museum, available to view only by prior appointment -- is the best museum this journalist has ever visited made me rueful that we didn't try harder to get there.

Erin Langner writes:
"Cameras immediately came out of pockets as we flocked to the nearest signs in sight: the Aladdin's silver lamp, the atomic letters from the side of The Stardust, the red Golden Nugget sign used in Martin Scorsese's Casino. These are the fallen relics of popular iconography. In the Boneyard, they are made authentic by the rust, scars, and broken light bulbs—the messiness that's absent not only from mainstream visual culture but also from the flawless museum objects of the present. Their histories are explained through the visual details that remain on their surfaces and at our feet in the form of broken glass, rather than in extended wall text and museum jargon."

The Boneyard of dead signs is a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, notes Langner, an open-air museum crammed with bizarre objects but mercifully lacking the explanatory devices of contemporary museology which tell you precisely what you're looking at and in the process, remove your sense of curiosity and wonder. "The overpowering curiosity that comes with entering a space abounding with unlabeled artifacts is a natural inspiration to look closely and to ask questions, two tasks that mainstream museums spend large amounts of time, money, and text trying to encourage in their 21st-century audiences."

The Neon Museum has so far restored ten historic signs and put them back into the public thoroughfare in downtown Vegas, thus turning them into public art works accessible to the community and tourists at no cost. The purpose is to build community, by injecting the artefacts of its own history back into a place with no time for it. Back in 1972, architect Robert Venturi (who coined the saying "Less is a bore" as an antidote to Mies van der Rohe's dictum) shocked the modernists by stating that architecture had a great deal to learn from the commercial landscape of Las Vegas: I think his comments may apply to museums, as well.

[I am a bit hopeless at this sort of thing, but to see the Boneyard from the air, type these co-ordinates into Google Maps and zoom in: 36.177312,-115.134498.]

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Miscellany

A few bits and pieces that have caught my eye this week.

1. Before Madonna and Posh Spice, there was ... Rita Angus?

Rita Angus, Self Portrait, 1936-37, oil on canvas. Image from The Angus Clan

Hamish Coney reviews Te Papa's 'Life and Vision' show in Idealog magazine, and decides that Rita Angus, "Christchurch's answer to Greta Garbo", produced the blueprint for post-feminist girl-power in New Zealand.

2. The poetry of the street

Exasperated by his sons' wrestling antics, essayist and blogger Martin Edmond sent them for a run around the block. On their return he asked them to write down what they saw. A great fan both of peculiar lists and the detritus of the street, the results made me laugh like a drain.

3. Vegetable man

Growing up in Christchurch in the 1980s and listening to Flying Nun bands, for my friends and I a supergroup like Pink Floyd represented the enemy; on a par for all-round crapness with REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Emerson Lake & Palmer. Yet Syd Barrett, their early lead singer, was somehow exempt from our scorn, and after I heard that he wrote Vegetable Man, covered by the Jesus and Mary Chain, I bought the single and played it non-stop for a while. Various commentators have suggested that the song documents the beginnings of Barrett's monumental breakdown, in which he left the band, shaved off all his body hair, grew very stout and lived as a recluse for the rest of his life.

I was interested to read about an exhibition of Barrett's paintings due to open in his home town, Cambridge, next week. A report in The Independent notes that few of the paintings he produced during the last twenty five years of his life survive, due to his tendency to spend weeks on a project and then photograph the piece before burning it.

4. Table stakes

The 2008 version of the artworld's Power 100 list is out, published by ArtReview. There are four criteria, as judged by a panel which includes John Maeda from the Rhode Island School of Design, and art critic and TV presenter Matthew Collings: "genuine influence over the production of art, international weighting, art-market relevance and their contribution to the art world over the past 12 months". Unsurprisingly, Damien Hirst comes in at no.1: perhaps equally unsurprisingly, no Australasian dealer, collector or artist appears on the list.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sky hooks

Neil Dawson, Echo, 1981, photo from Christchurch City Council Artists Register

One of the things I enjoy the most about Neil Dawson's public sculpture is his ability to produce perceptual puzzles which appear effortless, yet involve considerable feats of engineering and construction.

There's a moment of delight and wonderment when you run into a work by Dawson, in which the rest of the world recedes for a moment while you consider the conundrum of an enormous feather changing direction with the prevailing wind (Kahu, Takahanga Marae, Kaikoura); a drop of water creating concentric ripples in the sky (Ripples, Waikato River, Hamilton); or my favourite public sculpture by Dawson, Echo (1981) at the Christchurch Arts Centre, pictured above, which flips back and forth in the mind like a 3-dimensional form by Escher as you walk around it, and which might well be the sculptural equivalent of the Christchurch Style architecture I blogged about yesterday. The works seem to hang in the sky as if by magic; you notice the fine wires which support them much later, if at all.

Just for fun -- here's a photo the big guy took yesterday in Wellington's Civic Square, which shows the everyday world playing a visual trick of its own on Neil Dawson's Ferns.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Modern Gothic

Years ago, I visited the artist Bill Sutton at his house in Richmond, Christchurch. I went to interview him about the Christchurch art scene in the 1960s, in which -- as in several other decades, too -- he was a major figure, variously as a teacher, practitioner, and champion of both the arts and fellow artists.

The house was fantastic: like the man himself, compact, modest, unassuming, well put-together. We sat in the lounge on low modernist chairs with wooden arms, facing a tiny conservatory area festooned with well-tended plants. I remember that after a while Bill brought out tea and biscuits: he turned the plate so that the pink wafer biscuits faced me, and smiled. "Perhaps you might like these," he said.

I did.

The photo above shows Bill's house (via the excellent and often enjoyably vituperative Canterbury Heritage site), and gives an idea of the equally significant garden in the modernist style which he designed and planted. The house itself was built in 1961, but I'm not certain of the architect. The 1960s were one of the great decades in Christchurch architecture. The city's best mid-century modernist architect, Paul Pascoe, was still working; while a new generation including Ian Athfield, Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney, Don Donnithorne and Peter Beaven were beginning to make their marks on the city scape, developing a distinctly modern and brutalist architectural style which at the same time acknowledged the region's vernacular building history, with tall chimneys and sharply pitched roofs.

Rita Angus, The artist’s cottage, Clifton c.1945, watercolour and pencil, 240 x 273 mm, Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate. Image from Christchurch Modern.

For fans of modernist architecture, there's a new-ish site devoted to the Christchurch Modern with brief profiles of some of the key architects of the Christchurch Style, as well as contemporary photographs of their domestic work. Highlights so far for me (people are being encouraged to send in images of other houses) include Rita Angus's house on Aranoni Track, Clifton, designed by Paul Pascoe and pictured by Angus above; the prototype "Noddy" houses in Queens Avenue, built by Miles Warren for his parents; and Pascoe's much-loved Piano House in Sumner.

I really hope that the appreciation which people increasingly have for the modernist period of New Zealand's design history results in greater protection for its iconic examples than has been meted out to earlier domestic architecture.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Art house

When he exhibited a urinal at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, Marcel Duchamp's revolutionary gesture was to reimagine the everyday world as a source of readymade objects for the artist, thus shifting the focus of art-making from a craft practice to an intellectual activity. The everyday object became art because it was chosen to be so by the artist. But these transactions between life and art don't only flow in one direction. The everyday world -- and particularly the advertising industry -- frequently uses art as a source of readymades for its own less highbrow business.

Here are a couple of dubious examples I've noticed recently.

From my walks around suburbia: local real estate agents cite art film as blue chip marketing device.

And from The Press's new Weekend magazine: Thomas Gainsborough's Heneage Lloyd and His Sister (1750s) is brought right up to date with the addition of a jet ski and a spanking new executive residence.

Why buy portrait when you can afford landscape indeed? Nice.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pedalling uphill

It's really hard to get contemporary art in the mainstream news media. Unless, of course, it cost a lot of money; is potentially blasphemous; or is made of tiny squares of burnt toast. (Any artist who can hit the trifecta with a single work is assured of top spot on the six o'clock network news in New Zealand.)

But sometimes contemporary art just sneaks into the news without anyone noticing, much. Vis, the "Moobs on Bikes" parade in Christchurch on Friday, a battalion of topless men on two-wheeled transport raising money for breast cancer in a parody of the infamous annual "Boobs on Bikes" parade down Auckland's Queen Street. (Yes, "Moobs" is unfortunately a contraction of "man boobs". It's all class down here in the South, too.)

The gent at the head of the parade in the photo above (from is riding one of Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens's Les Australoïdes cycles, which he enterprisingly borrowed from the Christchurch Art Gallery for the spectacle. The distinctive silver bikes are one of the strongest works in the current Scape biennial of public art, "playing", as the Scape site has it, "on the effects of light and movement to create poetic experiences for viewers." Cough cough.

This sort of functional art work co-opts the rituals and practices of everyday life, in order to suggest new ways of looking at social space. I don't know really why I should have found it so enormously satisfying to be watching at the moment when everyday life co-opted the art right back. But then again, maybe that's one of the possible measures of the success of Janssens's work.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kiss my asset

Jake and Dinos Chapman, from Frieze Art Fair, 2007

The relationship between artists and their patrons is never straightforward. The money gets in the way. And beyond the "owning a piece of you"/"biting the hand that feeds" patron/artist conundrum, there's the sheer incommensurability of the life choices involved. In his review of Marjorie Garber's just-published study of arts patronage, Patronizing the Arts, Joseph Epstein puts it like this:
When patron meets artist, artist patron, what does each think? Does the patron, if only to himself, ask, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" And does the artist, in his turn, ask, "If you're so rich, how come you're not smart?"

It wasn't a question Mark Rothko, the "great thundercloud of 20th century American painting", bothered with when he painted his famous Seagram murals (currently on display at the Tate Modern) for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant, the watering hole of money-men and socialites in the heart of Manhattan. Instead he muttered darkly: "I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room." Rothko probably accepted the commission as it came through his friend, the architect and art patron Philip Johnson: but it involved a difficult personal compromise, making paintings for the "place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off". In the end, though, Rothko couldn't go through with it, withdrawing from the commission and returning the money.

And in another piece of recent art-and-money news, I note that InTrade, a Dublin-based trading exchange, has launched the world's first futures contracts based on the price of the art market. If the credit crunch hasn't left you completely strapped, you can bet your small change on the rise or fall of the global art market using the Mei Moses Art Index as a basis -- without even having to go to the bother of collecting the pesky art yourself. The Financial Times comments that "the move is part of a trend for art to be viewed as an asset class, with the development of art funds and art prices indices."
Chad Rigetti, vicepresident of business development at Intrade, said: "The idea to create a price-transparent, liquid tradable art-based derivative occurred to me after reading about hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin's purchase of Jasper Johns' 'False Start' for $80m in the fall of 2006 . . . Creating a product that would bridge two circles - collectors and financiers - seemed obvious."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The politics of empathy

In the art blogging world today, the politics of empathy seem to be getting a particular workover.

First up is Will Gompertz's full-throttle tell-all review of the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Tate Modern for The Guardian, which begins ominously: "I have been married for 15 years and I think things have gone pretty well." He didn't expect to be emotionally overwrought after a gentle hour tootling round the gallery, but after viewing works that were "so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman," he was. Crikey. He's nailed it. That's me to a T: just filled with rage, fear and frustration.

Coming up in December, professional empathy has its own art history talkfest: art historians and other academics will congregate at the University of Exeter to discuss the iconology and iconography of one of the most stereotyped groups of modern society, whose members have been "depicted as dangerous criminals, lazy loafers, prey for political demagogues, completely apathetic, happy scroungers or demoralized and desperate individuals" - the unemployed. (Next year I understand they're doing stay-at-home mothers.)

Over at eyeCONTACT, John Hurrell visits te tuhi and weighs up the evidence of Polish video artist Artur Żmijewski's work as to whether or not the artist is a complete asshole (although John spells it the English way). John poses some questions about the artist's seeming complete lack of empathy with his subjects:
What sort of guy would badger a frail 91 year old Auschwitz survivor into having a Nazi identification number that's tattooed on his arm ‘renovated’ with new ink – just to make some obscure point about victim mentality and Jewish passivity? What sort of prick would encourage different Polish communities of opposing ideologies to lovingly create symbolic banners promoting their respective viewpoints, then put them in one space and gradually encourage such mutual interference that civilities break down and they start smashing up each other’s handiwork?

He wonders how on earth Żmijewski persuaded his subjects to participate: "He must be incredibly charming, with a steely but subtle mind that knows all about the intricacies of emotional blackmail and the strategies of maintaining power relationships." (Sounds more like an art curator than an artist, IMO.)

I have no problem at all stating this is the kind of art which I really hate (it's that female rage and frustration thing surfacing again). Manipulating or exploiting the vulnerable for one's own gratuitous ends is one of the kinds of behaviour I most dislike in real life: in the second life of the artworld, it's pathetically unforgiveable. I'm not suggesting that there are no-go areas for art, just areas into which I don't care to follow. (I also really, really hated the idea of Santiago Sierra tattooing a line across the backs of Brazilian junkies in exchange for the drug of their choice, as well as the sex video he made with street people for $20 a head, about which he had the temerity to say: "Nobody said no and for me that was very tough. When I made this piece I would go to bed crying.") Although I wouldn't normally think it at all relevant, I think John's initial question about the character of the artist is, in this instance -- given the relational nature of his work -- an entirely valid one; and one which is probably well answered by John's review.

And finally in today's roundup of empathetic art moments: I note the excoriating critique meted out to the City Gallery's Fiona Hall show by Pundit's new culture critic, Keith Ovenden, the beetle-browed biographer of Dan Davin, in which he considers that Hall "fritters her considerable talents on market-driven conceptual art" and suggests how curator Gregory O'Brien will "surely" feel. Emotionally overwrought? Sure reads that way.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em

Before the Marlboro Man, there was the Marlboro Baby, one of a historical series of hucksterish adverts extolling the great benefits of smoking, which are currently on show at the New York Public Library. Fans of the great Mad Men TV series about the goings-on in a Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960, which recently screened on Prime in New Zealand (Sunday nights are just not the same without it; fingers crossed they buy the second series) will appreciate the full grandeur of the big, expensive lies being told in these images.

Falling into the so-appalling-its-funny category, the posters include images of dentists and doctors promoting Lucky Strikes and Camels ("20,679 physicians say ‘Luckies are less irritating!’"), as well as movie stars, a vice-presidential candidate and sports heroes shilling for their favourite brands. Even Santa turns out to give Pall Mall a plug. Cough cough.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

That art makes me sick

A recent article in The Observer points to the hammering Britain's works of art have been getting, even in the most prestigious national museums. (Once again proving the rule that art galleries would be a piece of cake to run without the pesky visitors.)

Barnett Newman's Adam, at the Tate Modern, has been especially unlucky: last year it was damaged twice in three weeks when visitors tripped and fell against it, leaving dents and finger marks. A work by Anish Kapoor was chipped by a cameraman's tripod. Security guards stumbling round in the dark and dodgy removal men contributed their fair share of damage, while riotous corporate events at the V&A resulted in works being knocked from their pedestals. And at the National Gallery, a very strange man punched Agnolo Bronzino's sixteenth century An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.

The most "unpleasant accident" of all, though, occurred to Carl Andre's Venus Forge, a long floor work made of bronze tiles at the Tate, which needed extensive restoration after a small child vomited on it.
Carl Andre, Venus Forge, 1980. Image from Planet Janet 111.

Reading this reminded me about the time I saw the touring Dale Chihuly show at a provincial New Zealand museum in the 1990s. The show was completely packed with punters, something of a nightmare for the security guards looking after the enormous fragile glass works which had travelled halfway around the globe. A mother carrying a baby in one of those solid framed backpacks leant over a plinth to read the label; whereupon the baby delivered a neat projectile vomit over her mother's head and straight down the neck of one of the tall glass vessels. The woman straightened up, and moved on to the next exhibit, completely unaware of what had happened. Tempting to make some sort of smart-ass remark, but I'll resist it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fancy an ear punch?

I see it most days. Usually I'm driving past, on my way back from the university or the library or the supermarket; and I'm hurrying, trying to get home to cook dinner or take the washing in before the rain comes; and maybe the small guy's chatting in the back, and the baby's grumbling, and The House at Pooh Corner's on the CD player yet again, and school kids are biking three abreast up the road, and my mobile's ringing -- in short I am distracted -- and I see it, and I'm momentarily astounded, and I think that one day I really must stop and have a proper look, but I never do.

It's a shop window, the middle one of an unremarkable block of three shops, deep in suburbia. The shop on the corner is a dairy, one of those dark, maze-like ones with an uneven floor and a blue fly-killer hanging up and only one of each product on the shelves at a time (this is a city where everyone drives; dairies do their best business elsewhere, where people walk to and from work); the shop on the other side is the headquarters of an upmarket personal trainer. There's an irony to this, of course.

I think what first attracted me to the shop window in between was the arch of its main lettering -- an old-fashioned commercial art device like that used in the 'Hairdresser and Tobacconist' lettering which famously inspired the young Colin McCahon to become an artist -- followed by its sheer volume of information which is nonetheless utterly unintelligible to a passer-by. The font is a wrong-un: crazed-looking, slightly volcanic, wonky, like a home-made tattoo which has bled into the skin. It looks like something from Tony de Lautour's blue period. Each time I pass it, it snags at the edge of my consciousness. Until I walked there in the weekend to photograph it, I had no idea what the business actually was. An accountant? A lawnmower repair shop? Ethnic foods?

Now I've photographed the window -- an exercise which has tamed something of its visual craziness -- I realise that it advertises the premises of a hairdresser and beauticians, albeit of an unusual variety which offers "Wolfcuts" along with "Eyebrowsperm" (very tempting to re-punctuate that one) and "Eyebrowstattoo". (Don't fancy an "Earpunch" much though.)

There's something wonderful about walking where you usually drive. I am slowly becoming a flaneur of suburbia, measuring small journeys round our neighbourhood by effort and distance rather than duration. I'm seeing things I've never noticed: strange graffiti, mysterious signs, a letterbox shaped like the head of a robot.

Yet there's a mystery to car journeys absent from the footpath. On the one hand, there is the microscopic detail of the street level view, with its possibilities of human interaction; on the other, there's the passing glance from the car window, at a scene intuited but not properly apprehended. As a walker, you are a participant; you can stop, and look around, and take it in. You're immersed in your surroundings. In a car, you are a spectator, afforded only a single frame of the passing world; you have to imagine the rest.

Having stood outside with my camera I now know what I'm looking at when I pass the three shops: I can see (disappointingly) that the central word is in fact "HAIR" rather than "HATE"; I can see that the font is constructed from angular multiples of a heart, upside down on the ascent and right side up on the descent; I can see that "Diploma" is written in "serious" lettering in the middle of the mad word pile.

But what I'm wondering is whether all this newly-acquired knowledge of the sign's content will make me stop seeing the crazed beauty of the design when I flash past in the car. The attraction of the visually mysterious, one frame at a time.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I have a great partiality for photographic facsimiles of documents, something I've blogged about before. Whether it's Ronnie van Hout's school reports, Marie Shannon's love notes or the contents of Marilyn Monroe's filing cabinets, there's something entirely different about the experience of looking at a document up on the screen or the wall than reading the same thing on a page. You become aware of all a document's incidental visual properties when you view it as a picture; and somehow this additional information gives colour and context to what you read, steeping it in the style of its own history.

I also have a terrible sneaking weakness for disgraceful high-handedness, wherever it might manifest itself: a personal amusement which is probably due to an early obsession with Evelyn Waugh's novels of British aristocracy in decline. I can never quite bring myself to act like that, but I greatly appreciate a withering put-down when I hear one.

I was intrigued, then, to see the unusual collision of these two somewhat peculiar personal proclivities in this facsimile of a rejection letter from novelist Kingsley Amis to Granta magazine (a neat reversal of the usual order of things), which Granta have just posted on their site. Nice work.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Plastic insects, bathroom primitives

Here's a photo of the small guy's collection of plastic insects, as arranged by the big guy on the bathroom wall, Killeen-style.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"One dog goes one way and the other goes the other."

Without a single doubt, the best art dialogue in any movie is the scene which takes place at Tommy's mother's house in Martin Scorsese's Good Fellas, after Billy Batts gets whacked and Tommy and his friends pop round in the middle of the night to pick up a spade. Tommy is played by Joe Pesci; Jimmy is Robert de Niro; Catherine Scorsese, the director's mother, plays Tommy's mother. Nearly the whole scene is ad-libbed.

It goes like this:

MOTHER: Have some more. You hardly touched anything. Did Tommy tell you about my painting? Look at this.
(Pulls out an oil painting from alongside the refrigerator.)

JIMMY: It's beautiful.

TOMMY: I like this one. One dog goes one way and the other goes the other.

MOTHER: One's going east, the other’s going west. So what?

TOMMY: And this guy's saying, "Whaddya want from me?" The guy's got a nice head of white hair. Beautiful. The dog it looks the same.

JIMMY: Looks like somebody we know.

TOMMY: Without the beard! Oh no, it's him! It's him.
(A thumping noise is heard through the open window from the trunk of the car parked outside.)

TOMMY: What's that?

The oil of the two dogs was painted by Nicholas Pileggi's mother, and is based on a photograph from the November 1978 issue of National Geographic. Pileggi was the author of Wise Guy, a treatment of the life of gangster Henry Hill, on which Good Fellas is based. As chance would have it, Pileggi was present in 2006 when friend and casino developer Steve Wynn accidentally stuck his elbow through Le Rêve, a Picasso painting that Wynn was about to sell to hedge funder Steve Cohen for $139 million.

*Image from The GoodFellas website.