Contemporary

Living With Art by Geoff Harrison

How are we supposed to appreciate art?  It may seem a dumb question, but art historians and critics tend to tie themselves into knots sometimes when answering it.  It is the belief of many commentators that society has got it wrong by focusing on the technical elements of a work of art, or its provenance or its historical context.

Sure, these issues are important, but what we are not encouraged to do is to connect up works of art with the trials and aspirations of our daily lives.  “It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture” ALAIN De BOTTON. To put it simply, we are not encouraged to appreciate art as a means of instruction on how to live and die well.

The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon remarked that the paintings of Howard Hodgkin were a rebuttal to the dry academic puritanism of much art criticism these days that can’t relate to a work of art until it’s been reduced to a set of abstract concepts.  I recall having an art teacher at RMIT who was embarrassed by the display of emotion in art.

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Photographer Elliott Erwitt was born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and as the war clouds loomed, his family emigrated to America.  He felt being an émigré helped him in his job – being an outsider looking in.  He is regarded as a humanist and humourist.

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold’s photograph could be considered a modern day version of those moralizing images that characterised Christian paintings of the past.  In a secular world and with considerable skill, Arnold brings us face to face with the consequences of letting ourselves and others down.

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

This photo was specifically commissioned for the book Art As Therapy, written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong.  The rationale of this exercise is that art should start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served theological and state needs for centuries.  We are asked here to consider what impact viewing this image might have on a couple whose own relationship is going through some difficulties.  They may realise that other people have the same sorrows and troubles as they have.  They may connect with something that is universal and unashamed.  They are not robbed of their dignity but are learning the deepest truths about being human.

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Even in a secular world it is still possible to feel the emotion pouring out of this painting.  It transcends the perhaps narrow Christian context to touch the viewer in ways many other paintings of that era can’t.  It is a technical masterpiece for sure, but its psychological power goes far beyond.



The Conundrum That Was Brett Whiteley by Geoff Harrison

In writing about Brett Whiteley, it is tempting to simply present the facts and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, such are the contradictions. He claims that at the age of about 5 he re-experienced his birth.  He said it was a fearful experience.  He claims he saw 2 words on the wall of his mother’s womb.  Security.  Rebellion.  He had to decide which one he would go towards.

Brett Whiteley, Self Portrait at 16

Brett Whiteley, Self Portrait at 16

In an ABC program focussing on his work “Alchemy” he discusses his life in a boarding school at Bathurst. He left the security of his mother and found himself in a boarding school “with these morons who talk like rabbits about tractors and seeds.  You are penned in, you don’t know what the crime is (most horrible).”  So he tried to imagine a world that was more constructive and meaningful.  “There were bus trips to church where you were given stained glass window meaningless talk then be taken back school for lunch.”  There is the oft told story of him finding on the church floor a book about Van Gogh and suddenly he felt there was a meaning to existence.  He knew it was in him and had to find a way to get it out.

So it’s a bleak picture that he is portraying here, and yet it’s documented that he was given paints and brushes and allowed to produce works at the rear of the classroom, and he would often return to Bathurst later in life to recharge the batteries.

In an interview with Barry Pearce many years ago, Whiteley’s widow Wendy described Brett as a driven artist.  “He wanted to create his own world and move away from childhood.  We were curious and obsessive, we wanted to take things apart.  He viewed contentment as a dangerous state, bovine.  He needed to put his hand in the fire.”

Some interesting observations were made about Whiteley by his co-workers at Linton Advertising Agency where he worked in his mid-late teens.  They felt he was going full speed at the world with a sense of seeking compensation.  There was a disquiet about him which he disguised by moving fast.

Whiteley threatened to walk out of school if his mother left for England.  She left anyway and Brett felt abandoned.  However he received encouragement from his father Clem in his desire to become an artist.

Portrait of John Christie

Portrait of John Christie

Of the Christie series (works based on the London serial killer John Christie) Wendy said Brett had a lot of pain in his life and so did she.  The death of his father in 1963 raised a lot of questions.  It was recognition that evil and ugliness, good and beauty coexist.  It was about this time he became aware of Francis Bacon and his ability to deal with alienation whilst producing beautiful things.



BW with Francis Bacon

BW with Francis Bacon

Of the monumental work American Dream, Wendy described New York as floundering in the late 1960’s and Brett pushed himself to the extreme and it took its toll.  American dream was Whiteley’s response to New York and what was going on there.  “The centre panel looks like he vomited all over the canvas which was painted in a drunken state of rage and fear.”

Brett Whiteley - American Dream

Brett Whiteley - American Dream

“He had this desire to know everything….but not being prepared to accept that there are a lot of things you may never know.  He couldn’t concentrate on one thing at a time and became really overloaded in New York.”

Pearce described American Dream as having trauma and failure written all over it, because Whiteley’s intentions were absurd.  “He aimed at nothing less than to challenge America and change it.”  Pearce thought the painting was less about America and more a portrait of Whiteley himself “whipping up hell and heaven to extend the possibilities of art far beyond what it could achieve.”

American Dream was never exhibited in America, the Marlborough-Gerson gallery refused to take an interest in it, and Whiteley fled to Fiji to recover – without Wendy and daughter Arkie.

Brett Whiteley - Alchemy

Brett Whiteley - Alchemy

In 1972-72 Whitley produced another monumental work “Alchemy”, described by Pearce as another self-portrait but without the fierce political agenda of its predecessor.  Drugs and alcohol took its toll on Whiteley’s health during the production of Alchemy and viewing the ABC program based on this work, his motivations for it seemed incoherent at times.

It was after he and Wendy moved to Lavender Bay in 1974 that heroin began to play a major role in their lives.  Wendy spoke of spending time with some very crummy people and the ”whole tragic thing”.  In spite of his addiction, Whiteley produced some excellent work, but “he was just defeated in the end.”

In a letter to his mother written in the latter part of his life, Whiteley mentions her inability to spawn love, a difficulty that he inherited to some degree and this accounts for their vigorous independence.

Pearce argues that in Whiteley’s hunger for physical intimacy, reflected through the sexual themes of his art, emotional intimacy was not part of the game.  In his last days he finished up with neither.

He died alone from a drug overdose in a hotel in Thirroul south of Sydney in 1992, aged 53.







Art In Post Industrial Towns by Geoff Harrison

The town of North Adams Massachusetts was on its knees following the closure of the local electronics industry in 1985.  At its height, the Sprague Electric Company employed over 4000 people in a community of 18000 but cheap imports from Asia killed it.  The factories themselves date back to the late 19th century when it started out as a print works.

rs12879_building-3-deconstruction_002.tiff_wide-3c650aa2e3776b4b30cc9d9b23fc78b5dfe3203f.jpg

The BBC screened a series called Relative Values many years ago and one episode focused on plans to turn the huge factory complex into a contemporary art museum.  I wanted to find out if it had become a reality.

Plans to transform the factory complex date back to the year after Sprague closed, 1986, when staff from the nearby Williams College Museum of Art were inspecting the facility as a suitable venue to exhibit large contemporary art that were not able to be displayed in a more traditional gallery setting.  They realised the buildings had much more potential than as an offshoot gallery.  Several years of fundraising followed and petitioning of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulted in an $18.6 million grant.

rs8598_2011_october_banners_001_custom-e921c96c10777d80f28fff401d26d22d8a7b5f7e-s800-c85.jpg

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened in 1999 with 19 galleries and 9,300 m2 of exhibition space which has since more than doubled with subsequent expansions. In addition to housing galleries and performance art spaces, it also rents spaces to commercial tenants. Music festivals are also held there.



berkshires-full-width.jpg

According to a NPR (National Public Radio) article from 2012, you could pick up a live/work loft space for under $40,000.  Sounds attractive, but Mass MoCA has not been the employment generator that was first envisioned.  Original estimates that the development would create 600 jobs proved off the mark.  The real number is less than 300, although with subsequent expansions this figure may have increased.  There is some skepticism these days that a post-industrial town can turn things around entirely by building art galleries and developing economies based on the so-called creative industries.  It would appear that Mass MoCA is a work in progress.

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn