Journal

The Hard Hitting But Entertaining Critic by Geoff Harrison

If you are looking for an art critic who can make art understandable and accessible, then English born Waldemar Januszczak could be your man.  He has an easy, conversational style of presentation that I have always enjoyed.  Often humorous and witty, he is credited with doing for the arts what David Attenborough has done for the natural world.

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He began his career as an art critic with the Guardian in the 1980’s before switching to the Sunday Times in 1992.  In 1997 he founded a company called ZCZ Films which has produced over 30 films covering travel, the arts and even dogs.  In his program Puppy Love from 2000, Januszczak takes a swipe at dogs and particularly their owners who he can’t stand.  From the snippet I’ve seen on Youtube, it looks hilarious.

His 2009 series “Baroque! From St Peters to St Pauls” reinvigorated my passion for the arts after a disastrous return to the workforce.  It was dark and brooding in segments, but highly entertaining and informative.  His self-deprecation is something I appreciate yet at the same time his profound knowledge of and passion for art history is clear.

But he has an acerbic tongue, or should that be pen?  His hatred of the Turner Prize is legendary dating all the way back to 1984.  “The British art establishment, having already shown unforgivable ignorance and wickedness in its dealings with Turner's own Bequest to the nation, is now bandying his name about in the hope of giving some spurious historical credibility to a new prize cynically concocted to promote the interest of a small group of dealers, gallery directors and critics.”

One year on and things hadn’t improved, ‘The Turner Prize, like the rot of the Arts Council, the rise of business sponsorship with strings attached, the growing importance of the PR man in art, the mess at the V&A, and the emergence of the ignorant "art consultant" is the direct result of inadequate government support for the arts. Forced out into the business circus, art has had to start clowning around.’  Both quotes are from The Guardian.  Of the 2014 prize Januszczak described it as “yawn-forcingly, heart-crushingly, buttock-clenchingly bad” and urged people not to go.

Unfortunately, Januszczak’s invective has also been directed towards Australian art, in particular the exhibition “Australia” mounted at the Royal Academy in 2013.  The Times seemed impressed with it, describing the exhibition as long overdue.  But over at the Sunday Times, Januszczak disagreed and described it as light weight, provincial and dull.  Yet in his most recent TV series “Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art – Made In The USA” he seemed to be championing exactly that kind of art – at least in the snippet I uncovered on the Net.


John Olsen                                                  Sydney Sun

John Olsen Sydney Sun

Januszczak describes McCubbin’s famous Pioneers triptych as “poverty porn” (work that one out), Fred Williams desert landscape as “thick cowpats of minimalism”, and most indigenous art as “tourist tat”.  He reserved his most fierce attack for John Olsen’s Sydney Sun describing as “a cascade of diarrhoea”.   Olsen responded by describing the comments as foolish and an attempt to put the colonials in their place.

Januszczak’s website ZCZ Films includes a shop that, strangely, contains very few of his most recent programs.  The ABC informed me they were frozen out of negotiations to screen his 2016 series The Renaissance Unchained by the BBC agreeing to an exclusive rights deal with Foxtel Arts. One assumes this also applies to his other recent films.  The Renaissance Unchained is still not available on the website.  This tends to make one feel very lonely in OZ, unless one can afford pay-tv.



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.

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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.

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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.



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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

Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.

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A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 

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Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.

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Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.

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The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.



Oasis In The City by Geoff Harrison

In my exhibition scheduled for June 2020 at Tacit Galleries in Collingwood, I will be exploring the recuperative and consoling powers nature has to offer to all of us. The exhibition will be based around Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which I have visited many times for psychological recovery from the challenges of modern existence, such as losing one’s job, difficulties in relationships or even working one’s way through art school. It’s the responsibility of art to make us appreciate the importance of modest moments in our lives, such as the play of shadows cast by a tree on a path.

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Modern advertising often specialises in glamourizing the unattainable; that is, places that are rare, remote, costly or famous.  Yet here we have an exotic location right under our noses that we can visit at any time.  And the sun need not be shining to appreciate the mysteries of these gardens.   A visit on a quiet and drizzly day can be an oddly therapeutic experience as you get the feeling that you have the whole gardens to yourself – tearooms and all.  Without the perpetual buzz of sight-seeing aircraft overhead, one can absorb the almost surreal beauty of the gardens, the thought that has gone into the landscaping and the far flung vistas.

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

Thanks to the barrage of advertising that constantly assails us, we lose the value of things that are close to hand, such as a quiet secluded area that allows time for contemplation. We become ungrateful for things that are free or don’t cost very much and we lose the value of ideas and feelings.

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

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

In this series I have not bothered with depicting precise species of plants as this is not meant to be an exact botanical record.  It’s a mood, a feeling that I’m intending to convey.


Sadness & Depression - The Difference by Geoff Harrison

It’s well documented that depression will afflict almost half of us at some point in our lives. And yet our understanding of the illness is often confused with sadness. The Book Of Life argues that a number of assumptions that are made about sadness have been inappropriately applied to depression, and this can lead to people with depression suffering more than they need to.

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

While on the surface, a sad person may present similar characteristics to a depressed one, there is one fundamental difference. The sad person knows what they are sad about, the depressed person doesn’t. Unlike a sad person, a depressed person usually has difficulty articulating what they are sad about. They may simply feel that life has been drained of all meaning.

This can leave them open to unwarranted charges of faking, malingering or exaggerating. Friends may end up feeling frustrated at the lack of progress in their attempts to help. A sad person usually doesn’t feel that life has lost all meaning. A depressed person may totally disintegrate as a result of a minor accident such as breaking a glass.

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

For decades now, the idea has been promulgated that depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, a concept very attractive to pharmaceutical companies who are more than willing to flood the market with their miracle cures. But for many patients, so-called antidepressants have only resulted in weight gain.

Psychotherapy has brought some sufferers some relief because it starts from the premise that the depressed aren’t feeling that way for no reason - there is a reason. “They are very distressed about something but that something is proving extremely difficult to take on board, and has therefore been pushed into the outer zones of consciousness.“ Rather than being able to confront what really distresses them, they remain dead to everything. Often, the depressed aren’t aware that they lack insight into what’s really troubling them.

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

There is another key difference between been sad and being depressed. The sad my feel grief stricken by something out there in the world, but they are not usually sad about themselves - their self esteem remains unaffected. “Whereas depressed people will characteristically feel wretched about themselves and be full of self-recrimination, guilt, shame and self-loathing.” In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts.

The Book Of Life suggests that a sufferer can become self-hating as a defense against the risks of hating someone else , a parent who humiliated them when they were a child for example. Despair can be caused by “undigested, unknown and unresolved trauma”.

Psychotherapy can open the door to greater insight, but this can take time and require courage in the sufferer and patience in the care-giver.

This brings me to the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression. This is nothing new. In the 1950’s and 60’s much knowledge was gained and progress made in the use of psilocybin found in magic mushrooms on patients whose depression seemed treatment resistant. Unfortunately, the reputation of psychedelics was tarnished by their use (abuse) recreationally; this and the linking of the psychedelic movement with the anti-Vietnam War movement led to the banning of these substances by the end of the 60’s.

But in recent years there has been a renewal in interest in psychedelic treatments in the USA, the UK and many other countries. The benefits of these treatments is far too lengthy a topic to be covered here. It seems the use of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy is bringing benefits to many sufferers. But I recommend Johann Hari’s book “Lost Connections” as a good starting point for anyone interested in the topic. It was quite an eye opener for me.

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The Importance of Home (and of not having one) by Geoff Harrison

In a recent article in The Book Of Life, author Alain De Botton discusses the psychological importance of home. “One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home.” We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on furniture, crockery, pictures even door handles to create the right atmosphere that reflects “us”.

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

It is argued that having spent time traveling or spending too much time in other people’s bedrooms, we often feel a strong urge to return to our own furnishings, our own environment. “We need to get home to remember who we are”.

De Botton refers to our need to anchor our identity, and that is what the ancient Greeks sought to do with the Temple of Athena which was erected on the slopes of the acropolis.

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“The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.”

Finding objects to furnish our homes that correctly reflect our identity can be an arduous process. We may have to go to enormous lengths to track down the right object for a particular purpose. Although there is the temptation to go overboard.

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

“The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities.”

Which begs the question, what if a person has never experienced a stable, secure home environment during their childhood or adolescence? How are these people supposed to create a stable home environment of their own? Where are their reference points? These people often tend to move from place to place (as I have done) and thus have never felt grounded in any location. This can often lead to a sense of not belonging which can create anxiety. The sky-rocketing cost of housing has resulted in people staying in the insecure rental market for far longer than planned.

Then there is the growing tendency these days for families to be constantly on the move. There is the common practice (especially during the housing price boom) for people to buy, renovate and sell over and over again. For them, the home is simply a money making venture. If home is meant to be the place where “our soul feels it’s found its proper physical container”, does that mean these families are leading a soulless existence? I think so.

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.

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;

VOCABULARY

 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.’”

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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.”

SYNTAX

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.

GENESIS

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