A Different Form of Advertising: Art by Geoff Harrison

Mass media advertising has a tendency to skew our priorities.  It has us yearning for the unattainable, it glamourizes exotic locations by only showing them in perfect weather conditions.  It convinces us that owning a luxury SUV will transform our driving experiences regardless of our congested roads.

But most of all, the insidious nature of advertising is that it has us valuing objects rather than feelings and ideas.  As argued by author Alain de Botton, advertising has us losing sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much.  “We are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.”

And here, art can act as a corrective to our skewed values.  In 1503, Albrecht Durer asked us to have some appreciation for some grass.

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Thanks to advertising, what we call glamour is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or famous.  And yet, the artist Chardin asks us to consider the value of a modest moment in a domestic setting.

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Art can teach us the value of a walk down a quiet country road during a stormy evening where we can contrast the peace of a rural setting with the drama taking place overhead.

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

It’s unlikely a travel brochure would wax lyrical about the frozen north, but I would argue that when the ice and snow has melted during the arctic (and Antarctic) summers, these regions have their own unique beauty.

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

De Botton argues that it lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It may teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances.

Public Sculpture; Inclusive & Exclusive Of The Public by Geoff Harrison

In comparing the works of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor (now Sir Anish Kapoor CBE RA), it strikes me that in terms of motivations they could have come from different planets.  I was thinking of this the other day whilst travelling on Melbourne’s City Link towards the Bolte Bridge, with that hideous yellow chopper leaning menacingly over the road.  As far as I’m concerned, this sculpture serves the cause of art in this country no favours at all.


There’s a long tradition in this kind of alienating sculpture.  For decades the American, Richard Serra has specialized in huge sculptures of steel which, should they collapse, would squash you like a bug.  But so what?  In her book “The Re-enchantment Of Art”, Suzi Gablik argues “we no longer need old authoritarian ideologies which demand that art be difficult, willfully inaccessible and disturbing to the audience.”  Modernism’s general themes seem to be alienation and displeasure with society, and the heroic and belligerent ego cut off from the social world.

The genesis of this displeasure may be the general horror felt by artists at the carnage of the First World War.  But that was a century ago and it’s time we moved on.  Gablik writes of modernism “loudly proclaiming the self sufficiency of art, the untrammeled self, the avant garde proceeding to scorn notions of responsibility towards the audience.”

Richard Serra                                                 TIlted Arc                                           Manhattan, 1981

Richard Serra TIlted Arc Manhattan, 1981

She cites the example of Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ installed at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981.  The 120 ft long, 73 ton leaning curve of steel could be considered the “epitome of uncompromising, modernist art.” GABLICK.  Some critics thought its willingness to confront the audience gave the work its moral dimension.  But the public hated it.  One employee at the plaza said it dampened our spirits every day….a hulk of rusty steel…and has no appeal.  A petition signed by 1300 employees in 1985 asked for its removal.

Serra sued the government who wanted to remove the sculpture claiming the government had “deliberately induced” public hostility to it.  The notion of artistic freedom is raised here.  But freedom in this issue could be interpreted as the power of having one’s way, pushing things around and being invulnerable.  Serra lost the case and in March 1989 the sculpture was finally removed from the plaza and taken off to storage in Brooklyn.  It hasn’t been publicly displayed since, in deference to the artist’s wishes.  Gablik asks whether the aesthetic value of an artwork can be sustained without responsibility to the social feedback it receives.

Anish Kapoor has different ideals.  In 2006, Kapoor installed “Cloud Gate” at the Millennium Park in Chicago to general acclaim.  It’s approximately 20 metres long and finished in seamless polished chrome.  The city didn’t know how to budget for it.  They initially set aside $9 million, but it cost $23 million – but hey, this is Chicago we are talking about.  A budget has also been set aside for daily cleaning.  The public adore it, they have found the work engaging, beguiling and it has become a popular meeting place.

Anish Kapoor                                                    Cloud Gate                                                    Chicago, 2006

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate Chicago, 2006

Kapoor believes the idea that one is involved is fundamental to sculpture. He likes to take the viewer on a journey into a sculpture. His work engages the eyes, the nerves, the emotions.  You seem to be on the edge of being outside and inside the work. His breakthrough was being Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 1990.

Critics argue that Kapoor’s work is very accessible to the general public because it’s not based on a script that’s not evident in the work.  Kapoor says “I don’t have anything particular to say as an artist, I don’t have some grand message to give to the public.”  His exhibitions are all about experience - “It’s about not having too much to say to allow space for the viewer.”

Anish Kapoor                                  Dismemberment - Site 1                                  Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

Anish Kapoor Dismemberment - Site 1 Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

International Art Jargon by Geoff Harrison

In 2012 the art journal Triple Canopy published a treatise on IAE (International Art English) written by Alix Rule and David Levine.  We are told the international art world relies on a unique language.  And by the art world, what is meant is not just artists and curators, but gallery owners and directors, bloggers, magazine editors and writers, publicists, collectors, advisers, interns, art-history professors, and so on.  The growth in IAE in recent times seems to be inextricably linked to the Internet and the biennale as artists, gallerists and others strive to reach an international audience. 

And this brings me to e-flux, described by Rule and Levine as the art world’s flagship digital institution.  “Essentially, e-flux is a listserv that sends out three announcements per day about contemporary art events world-wide.”  Unlike similar services, e-flux is curated. And because e-flux press releases are implicitly addressed to the art world’s most important figures, they are written exclusively in IAE.  Rule and Levine collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux and then used some language-analysing software called ‘sketch engine’ to discover what, if anything, “lay behind IAE's great clouds of verbiage.”  In 2012, e-flux had twice as many subscribers as Artforum.

Rule and Levine break down their analysis of IAE under several headings;


 Apparently, IAE is critical of English for its lack of nouns, so visual becomes visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentiality and experience becomes experiencability.  Space is a word whose meaning has been transformed by IAE.  An announcement for the 2010 exhibition “Jimmie Durham and His Metonymic Banquet,” in Spain, (pictured) had the artist “questioning the division between inside and outside in the Western sacred space”—the venue was a former church—“to highlight what is excluded in order to invest the sanctum with its spatial purity. Pieces of cement, wire, refrigerators, barrels, bits of glass and residues of ‘the sacred,’ speak of the space of the exhibition hall … transforming it into a kind of ‘temple of confusion.’”

Jimmie Durham.jpg

Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- are particularly popular in IAE because they “expand the lexicon exponentially, which is to say without adding any new words.”  Words such as reality seem to be given non-specific meanings in IAE. One exhibit invites “the public to experience the perception of colour, special orientation and other forms of engagement with reality.”


IAE loves adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” IAE recommends using more words than are necessary.   An example is “when Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Yellew Fog’ is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.”   IAE also groups unrelated terms “her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”

IAE also loves lists “forms of practice, techniques, formats and aesthetics … not dissimilar to the functions of the concepts of the filmic or the literary that entail activities such as organization, compilation, display, presentation, mediation or publication ….”. I’ve also encountered the extravagant use of lists in job descriptions.


Rule and Devine end up asking how, when we write about art, did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?  They argue the origins can be traced back to an art journal called October founded in New York in 1976, whose editors sought a more rigorous interpretive criteria for art criticism than was common at that time .  They looked to the French post-structualist philosophers for inspiration.  They quote expressions such as “the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”. IAE’s role in a much expanded art world was to consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and most importantly, contemporary.

They argue the use of IAE is all about power, and it’s about trying to gain insider status in the fiercely competitively art world.  In other words, IAE has made it harder for non-professionals. And they suggest a more cynical aspect to IAE; it’s showy vagueness can also be commercially pragmatic: "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work," says Levine, "the more you can keep the value high."

Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE's precise effect on artists; they haven't researched it. But Rule does say: "It would be naive to say artists are not influenced."

They are not so sure about the future of IAE. Given the competence in it is so universal among art professionals, it’s losing its allure as an exclusive private language. But rest assured, if IAE does wither on the vine, a new form of art gibberish will surface in the near future.

SOURCE; “International Art English” - Rule and Levine, Triple Canopy

“A Users Guide To Art Speak” - The Guardian, Jan 2013

Minor Sculpture - Major Impact by Geoff Harrison

“She looks like a monkey, an aborted foetus.  If she were smaller one would be tempted to pickle her in a jar with alcohol.”  This is a sample of the vitriol that was hurled at Edgar Degas’ sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Aged 14” that was included in the French Impressionist Exhibition of 1881.

By this time, Degas’ reputation as a fine painter was well established.  His depictions of ballet dancers were revolutionary in style and composition.  After studying the works of the old masters Degas declared he wanted to be the portrayer of modern life.  That is exactly what he had in mind with “The Little Dancer”.


When one considers his background – wealthy, rather buttoned up, even lonely, it’s remarkable that he should produce a sculpture such as this.

So why the hostility?  Sculpture at that time was meant to be an uplifting art form, with figures cast in marble or bronze.  And yet here we have a figure cast in wax, about 2/3 life size with real hair and wearing a real tutu, and displayed in a glass cabinet which made her look like a scientific specimen.  Then there was that pouting expression on her face, it seemed to challenge every assumption the audience made about art; ie, she was not seeking to be admired.

Her facial features were thought to be based on “studies” being carried out by anthropologists into where humans stood on the evolutionary scale.  People with low, sloping foreheads and jutting jaws were regarded as being more primitive, like monkeys.  The model for The Little Dancer came from a poor family and Degas was known to be a misogynist.  He never married and had no children.


More importantly, this sculpture reminded Parisians of something they didn’t want to know - the goings on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera which contained the ballet school.  Certain rooms were set aside at the rear of the school that were frequented by wealthy male patrons and the young ballet students for extra-curricular activities.  Some of Degas’ ballet paintings are haunted by men in top hats – the wealthy season ticket holders.  Art and prostitution side by side.

It’s curious that The Little Dancer has been immortalised by dance students around the world when one considers what happened to Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture.  The Van Goethems were among the poorest families in Paris, the mother took in laundry and the father was a tailor.  She was the middle of 3 daughters, all of whom attended the ballet school. 

Her older sister Antoinette fell into prostitution (aided by her mother) and was arrested and jailed for robbery, and about a year after Degas completed The Little Dancer, Marie’s life also began to unravel.  Rumours that she was seen in a bar frequented by artists, dancers and prostitutes were circulating and she began to miss her classes.  In 1882 she was sacked. 

What became of her after then, no one knows but it’s thought she ended up on the streets.

The younger sister Charlotte was a success story and was involved in the Paris Opera for 50 years, becoming a teacher.

The Consolations Of Nature by Geoff Harrison

A recent article from the School Of Life discusses the importance of nature, that we should spend more time in its presence for the sake of our mental well being and therefore our health in general. What is less well understood is that “nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity.”

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm

Reference is made in the article to psychologically nourishing landscapes, and that is certainly what I encounter in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which have been the setting for most of my recent work. I always feel refreshed and reinvigorated after a visit to them and it’s always a wrench to have to leave.

Nature give us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the everyday, “an evening sky can lend legitimacy and dignity to our melancholy states.”

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

If you want to experience solitude in the midst of the vast city, visit Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens when it’s raining. Some may find the experience melancholic, but it can be a refreshing change from a world obsessed by buoyancy and cheerfulness. With few people around and no annoying sight-seeing aircraft buzzing overhead, one can really discover the mystery of the place, the variety of plant life and the thought that has gone into the landscaping.

It is argued that for many people, it is not until they reach middle age that they start to appreciate what nature has to offer. “There are so many grander things to be concerned about …..such as romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.” However, by middle age some of our earlier aspirations would have taken a hit, perhaps a large one. We will have encountered some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. We would have encountered a gap between our professional hopes and available opportunities. “One will have had a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One will have been fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly. “

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

So, by middle age it is argued, nature can present a “genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is ready, a few weeks of the year, to be appropriately grateful.” I can only agree. There have been many times I’ve visited these gardens for palliative care.

Surrealism In 21C by Geoff Harrison

I came across an excellent article by artist Anne Wallace in the latest NGV mag (Jan-Feb 2019) on the continuing relevance of surrealism, “…surrealism is so beloved because it taps into that deep well of profound alienation from societal norms felt by sections of each new generation.” You see surrealism everywhere on album covers and in advertising generally due to the arresting power of strange juxtapositions.

It was Sigmund Freud who first made us aware of the power and uncontrollability of the unconscious mind, so it is not surprising to see Freud’s name scattered throughout the literature on Surrealism. Wallace describes Surrealism as freeing expression from the constraints of rational thought - a liberating project to uncover the workings of the unconscious mind that Freud pioneered.

Anne Wallace “Daphne”

Anne Wallace “Daphne”

“Surrealism allowed artists to be frankly weird, degenerative and perverse in their obsessions.” Reference is made to Surrealism lighting up “the dark caverns” and artists such as Cindy Sherman and film maker David Lynch are also mentioned.

Wallace makes reference to the challenges facing surrealist artists in modern times due to the representational nature of the genre which is seen as anomalous by the avant-guard with its obsession with minimalism, abstraction and a dry conceptualism. Wallace claims that by the time she went to art school in the late 1980’s, painting, and especially representational painting, was seen as passe and an art form of consumption and decor. That is certainly the impression I was under when at art school in the 1990’s.

But Wallace believes surrealism “continues to be relevant not as a kind of kitsch aesthetic to be appropriated but as a kind of philosophy, a destabilizing principle, the invisible worm that corrupts our notions of normality……artists should be allowed to be obsessive, to pursue the enigmatic, to experiment - this is the philosophy of Surrealism.” Here here to that.

Emotion In Art by Geoff Harrison

While studying art at RMIT University in the 1990’s I felt a not-so-subtle pressure to steer clear of sentimentality and emotional subject matter in my art practice.   I’m not sure why emotion was so frowned upon, a sign of the times perhaps but there was a clear preference for dry, conceptual work.

Thus I often felt alienated at university, and I do recall a presentation given by one of the lecturers who was most adverse to emotion in art.  It soon became clear to me that she was in denial – almost in denial of life, so I formed the opinion that this issue of emotion was her problem, not mine.


I was reminded of all this when viewing Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 1996 series “A History Of British Art” on DVD.  He argues that because of their intense colour and blatant sensuality, Howard Hodgkin’s paintings (above) have met with an uneasy response in Britain.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as a rebuttal to puritanism, especially to that intellectual puritanism which is embarrassed by pleasure or any form of strong emotion and are only comfortable with pictures once they’ve been reduced to a set of abstract ideas.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as expressing a language of emotion, a language of the body.


And for some reason, a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, made early in his career, also came to mind.  The subject is Sien, one of his early mistresses who was a pregnant prostitute.  You can see the emotion pouring out of this work.  How put-upon I would have been producing a work like this at RMIT, regardless of the technical skill it may have embodied.

then and now 4 copy.jpg

I need to be moved in some way by a scene before I will paint it.  The aim always is to create a mood which allows the viewer to enter the scene and absorb the atmosphere in there.

Nadia - The Autistic Child Who Could Draw Like Picasso by Geoff Harrison

The story of Nadia Chomyn (1967 - 2015) is remarkable. Born to Ukrainian parents who moved to England in the 1960’s , she was diagnosed as severely autistic.  She needed help dressing and feeding and was unable to effectively communicate and yet from the age of 3 was able to draw superbly.  She broke all the accepted rules of the development of graphic representation in children.  That is, she never went through the usual childlike stage of scribble, stick figures etc and was able to draw seemingly without motivation.

Nadia Chomyn 2.jpg

Once finished she would push the drawing away or draw over it.  Her drawings raised questions about the relationship between the conscious and instinctive mind.  She was at her most productive between the ages of 3 & 9 and when her drawings were published in 1977, they created quite a stir.  She came to the notice of the renowned neurologist Oliver Sachs and her remarkable talent is still frequently cited in textbooks on developmental psychology.


Her inspiration seems to have come mainly from picture books, especially the Ladybird series, whose pictures were often based on photographic images.  Her drawings show a clear understanding of single point perspective, overlapping and the correct use of proportion.  Throughout this period, she was very passive and totally unresponsive to social engagement.

Nadia Chomyn.jpg

From about the age of 9, Nadia gradually lost the ability to draw realistically and eventually her drawing ceased completely. Whilst there have been other autistic artists and savants identified and studied over the years, none have shown such a prodigious talent at such a young age.

 “As yet there is no single explanatory theory for her prodigious talent. But, without question, Nadia’s drawings introduced many psychologists to the conundrum that is autism.” THE GUARDIAN

Sources: The Guardian

: The Secret of Drawing - BBC 4