The wondrous Medieval Bestiary

In conversational English, the word “medieval” carries plenty of negative connotations. Many of us see that era in Europe as a time of superstition, stagnation and fear that was, thankfully, superseded by a much-needed “Enlightenment” in the 1700s. Although such an impression of the Middle Ages continues to prevail among the masses, serious historians now maintain that the term “Dark Ages” should be applied to just the period immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire (around the years 400-500). The span between the late 700s and 1500, it is understood, brought a considerable amount of social stability, political organisation and educational activity, including the flowering of the first universities.

Cranes take turns at night, watching for enemies, Harley Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For all its flaws and challenges, medieval Europe was a fascinating place and epoch. And medieval men and women, full of faith, adhered to a conception of the cosmos that was theatrical and imbued with sacramental meaning. They constantly looked for proportions and patterns in Creation and believed in the interconnected of all things. In their worldview, matter transcended itself to communicate truths of supernatural importance.

According to the Italian scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the philosophers and theologians of the period believed in a universe that was filled with light and optimism. In both poetry and painting, medieval people portrayed themselves as living in extremely bright surroundings. We can see this in the illuminated manuscripts. Eco writes in History of Beauty (2004) that even though they were probably executed in environments “where the gloom was barely relieved by the light from a single window, they nevertheless brim with light, with a particular effulgence engendered by the combination of pure colours: red, azure, gold, silver, white and green, devoid of nuances or chiaroscuro.”

There is a category of the medieval illuminated manuscript that stands out: the bestiary, known in Latin as bestiarum vocabulum. The bestiary, as the name suggests, was a compendium of beasts, real and legendary, that contained descriptions and illustrations accompanied by moral lessons. Although the document goes back to the 2nd century (the first one was in Greek, titled Physiologus), it became popular only in the Middle Ages. Nature was perceived to be God’s second book of revelation after the Bible, and animal life, in all its variety and adventure, was interpreted through an allegorical lens and investigated for hidden spiritual/religious significance.

Adam naming the animals from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Professor David Brown of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland explains in his book God and the Enchantment of Place (2004): “Even today some of these stories survive in the corporate memory, as, for instance, the parallels between Christ feeding us in the Eucharist and the pelican reviving its chicks with its own blood. So too do some of the associations, such as the snake or the ape with evil, the hare and rabbit with lust and fertility or the dog with faithfulness. On the other hand, even those well versed in Scripture might have difficulty conceiving how particular biblical verses were expanded to make the eagle a symbol of renewal, the stag of perseverance, or the lion of resurrection, far less of the lessons without biblical underpinning as in the association of the beaver with chastity, the hydrus with salvation, or the peacock with resurrection. Although in the latter cases ultimately derived from paganism, it would be a mistake to dismiss such borrowings as no more than that, for in the process of adoption they have usually also been thoroughly Christianised… Likewise the strange hybrid creatures that are depicted were far from being cultivated as mere ‘freaks’ but more as object lessons or even as themselves worthy of salvation.”

A manticore from 13th century Rochester Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Read an excerpt from a bestiary kept at Bodleian Library in Oxford, translated by historian Richard Barber: “Deer by nature like to change their homeland, and for this reason seek new pastures, helping each other on the journey. If they have to cross a great river or lake on the way, they place their heads on the hindquarters of the deer in front, and, in following each other, do not feel hindered by their weight. And if they come to a place where they might get dirty, they jump rapidly across it. Another peculiarity of their nature is that after they have eaten a snake, they hasten to a spring and, drinking from it, their grey hairs and all signs of old age vanish. The nature of deer is like that of the members of the Holy Church who leave this homeland (that is, the world) because they prefer the new pastures of heaven, and support each other on the way; those who are more perfect help their lesser brethren through their example and good works, and support them. If they find a place of sin, they spring over it at once, and if the devil enters their body after they have committed a sin, they hasten to Christ, the spring of truth, and confess, drinking in His commandments, and are renewed, laying aside their old guilt.”

Such presentations might strike us moderns as too fanciful. But in our disenchanted world where noisy engines have expelled much mystery from the natural world, it is refreshing to encounter such grandeur, luminosity and sense of wonder.

Written by Tulika Bahadur

Painting and feelings – my journey with art

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine.

Luisa, one of our resident Friday morning Drawing and Painting students, has generously shared her reflection on her time at MAC, and how art has impacted her life.

I have been attending at Melbourne Art Class for a year. And in that year, I have not only discovered more about art, but also about myself. Art, and specifically painting, unlocks stuff. Opens doors you did not know existed. It can best be described by quoting Joan Mitchell, who in 1986 said:

Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling “living” … Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends; movies, ideas, and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.

Yves, 1991. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches (280 x 200 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Mitchell was one of the few female abstract expressionist painters who gained critical and public acclaim in the 20th century. I read her quote often and only slightly disagree with her views on music. (Yes, music depends on time, but where does a note start and where does it end?) Abstraction in art, is by its very nature, abandons objectivity and moves into ethereal exploration.

One of the leading avant-garde jazz pianists, Craig Taborn, produced a recent album Daylight Ghosts. Taborn modified the sustain pedal of his piano in order to imagine a note when it is no longer audible. He then plays different notes and chords to talk to that note wherever it exists. He often visits art museums in New York to collect ideas for his music.

Once upon a time, I was a lawyer. And every day felt like groundhog day. Only voices, places and faces changed. The constant was a treadmill, self-doubt and a vulnerable ego. A mistake, a lost case and everything imploded. Happiness was as elusive as a good night’s sleep. The lawyer was moderately successful, but that only meant groundhog day was longer and more intense. People said the lawyer was eccentric, thought outside the square, had a creative streak. All I wanted was to feel the wind on my cheek and have the fragrances of plants and flowers linger forever. I wanted to step into every soft pastel orange sunset.

One day I did a Google search for art classes in Melbourne. The first one I stumbled upon was www.melbourneartclass.com. I enrolled in the only class available at the time, Portraiture with Marco Corsini. It was a fortuitous decision. In the beginning, I believed I was hopelessly out of my depth, wasting everybody’s time. At the time I did not realise the reach of Marco’s empathy and patience. Four weeks later I could produce a fairly accurate self-portrait and a week later I began painting with oils. It speaks volumes about the quality of the classes; the extent of their reach. I now paint things as I imagine and feel about them. I am no Joan Mitchell or Craig Taborn, but I think I know what they were aspiring to. There is more to life than survival or winning or being better; best; most.

I believe everybody is blessed with creativity. Granted some are more aware or talented than others. This “more talented” thing is an aberration, not an excuse. We meet more talented people every day in every aspect of life and we try to manage it without thinking or resentment. I also believe that we should not to confuse skill with creativity. Anybody who is reading this has a wealth of experience that feeds intuition which, in turn, is the basis of creativity. Do not compare or be judgemental. Artists, like Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Rauschenberg were not great technical painters. They were magnificent artists and their influence will continue to resonate and open doors in our minds.

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine. Feel the wind on your cheek, smell the flowers and paint it. Integrity cannot be faked and it is often what makes art great. Everything else, like a prize or a sale, are simply bonuses. The reward is in expressing yourself on a canvas without rules, comparisons or judgement.

I am not a good technical painter. I am rather rough. Everything I do, is intuitive. Despite that, I have against all expectations, sold three paintings. It was not supposed to happen. The bigger reward is that I am content with my lot in life and happy that I no longer live groundhog day. The black shutter in my mind has lifted.

For me the key to painting is fluidity. The movement away from temporal to “a temporal”. Observing to feeling. For me it is spiritual; in a material world, everything has time limits. The idea I am exploring is to transcend this, to emphasise the nature of metaphysics as something that is forever. A place where time does not exist.

I recently looked at some eucalypt leaves in various states of decay that a friend of mine painted. I told her that she painted delicate evanescence and that it was beautiful. I could see a forever. Evanescence suggests the leaves will fade away. It does not mean they are gone. To make my point graphically, I enlarged her paintings with the edges of the leaves cropped off. Separated content from form or borders, her work entered a new dimension. Something that I saw and felt. It is beautiful and stirs curiosity.

Another way to phrase it is to “stop and smell the roses”. They linger in memory or on a canvas.

I love walking in the bush after the rain. Thousands of fragrances hanging in the air and my nose weaves through them. I pause when I enjoy something more.

‘Struggling artist’ sounds good. Should have tried it decades ago.

Written by Luisa Blignaut

 

Kate Kondakova – Winner of Black Swan Youth Portraiture Prize!

Kate Kondakova with her portrait (right) of Morris Gleitzman

We are extremely proud to announce that Kate has won the Black Swan Youth Portraiture Prize (Year 9 and 10), with her painting of her favourite author, Morris Gleitzman.

Kate has been a MAC student and now works as a teaching assistant for our children’s classes. Congratulations Kate on winning this esteemed portraiture prize!

Kate’s animation work is also being shown in an exhibition at ACMI.

Kate Kondakova, Portrait of Morris Gleitzman, oil on canvas, 2018

The problem with high standards and the benefits of micro goals

“High Standards” (Credit: PxHere)

In a YouTube video from 2015, British author Howard Jacobson (born 1942), who won the 2010 Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, is seen making an impassioned admission related to the creative life that will resonate with many serious writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, singers, actors and dancers. He says that he always wanted to be a novelist but could only finish his first novel after the age of 40 (and out of sheer desperation!) because something had slowed him down over the years—the experience of his Literature BA at the University of Cambridge.

This might sound confusing. Isn’t a good education, formal or informal, supposed to activate us? When you read the biographies of acclaimed artists, whatever their medium, you are bound to find descriptions of powerful, almost epiphanic, encounters with great works of art already produced. And it is precisely such encounters that turn them into conduits for more (great) art. Take the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray—he launched his career soon after discovering Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) along with 99 other movies of his time. Picasso developed his style after being exposed to figures like El Greco and Edvard Munch. J. K. Rowling has a solid canon of mythology and fantasy that includes everybody from Aeschylus to Kenneth Grahame behind her Harry Potter series. The truth is straightforward—a proper act of creativity demands a deep immersion in prior examples of creativity. The more aware you are of what has been tried and accomplished before, the greater the chance that you will produce something reasonable and respectable yourself.

But there is another side to the story, and Jacobson understands and articulates it accurately. Too much knowledge of the arts can also become a veritable impediment to the artistic task. What made the author postpone his childhood dream? The very high standards of writing that he had encountered at 20 in the classroom. Jacobson read, and therefore, wanted to write books like The Golden Bowl by Henry James and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky but the problem was they had all been written. “I wanted to write at that level and it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t writing novels and submitting them and failing,” he adds. “I just wasn’t getting beyond the page, and then I became an academic, and the years go by and the book’s not appearing.”

This problem is all too common. Very often, well-informed and highly-talented people in the arts can find it hard to execute their ideas, while totally mediocre ones can go on finishing project after project with utmost confidence. Why does this happen? It turns out that many who have had a taste of the heights of human creativity (read the best books, watched the best films, seen the best paintings, listened to the best music) experience a paralysing horror before the blank page or canvas. So conscious are they of all that is possible by members of their own species that whatever they may attempt can seem lazy, incompetent or plain foolish. They want to pursue perfection and so they keep deferring real work and sink quickly into a pit of doubt and despair.

“Many who have had a taste of the heights of human creativity experience a paralysing horror before the blank page or canvas. So conscious are they of all that is possible by members of their own species that whatever they may attempt can seem lazy, incompetent or plain foolish”. Top L to R: Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio (public domain), a portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Barbara Krafft (public domain), a still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (fair use), a portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov (public domain). Bottom L to R: A still from The 400 Blows by François Truffaut (fair use), Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) by John Everett Millais (public domain), the Beatles celebrating a Grammy win in 1965 (public domain), The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí (fair use).

 

Is there a practical way to get past the resistance? One effective tool is provided by the American entrepreneur Tim Ferriss (born 1977), angel investor in tech brands and the author of bestselling books on personal development and entrepreneurship like Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. His proposal is that creative people who procrastinate in the face of big ambitions break their plans into extremely tiny tasks. His own mantra has been to somehow end up with “two crappy pages a day”, not ten spectacular ones or even five average ones. Stephen King prefers to pump out 2000 words per day but that can be too unrealistic a target for most people. “Two crappy pages”, on the other hand, will compel you to show up before your notebook or screen without pressure or fear, do something—anything—and move forward to the next dawn. Your seemingly insignificant achievements will, over time, add up to a big and important outcome.

Ferriss’ suggestion could be applied to media other than writing. If you are an emerging painter with the lofty visuals of Caravaggio and Dalí in your head and a blank canvas on your easel, try micro goals like the following:

  • Spend just 10 minutes daydreaming daily. Let your mind wander wherever it wants to. Record three things that you see. Perhaps you will find a pattern a month later and that will lead to inspiration.

    ”Spend just ten minutes daydreaming daily.” (Credit: Pixabay)
  • Choose a subject–psychology, technology, botany, politics–Google it and read a few sentences on it. Make a note of any one new piece of information that you discover. Create an image out of it in your mind.
  • Select two colours and meditate on what they mean to you for fifteen minutes. Experiment with them on paper over the next half an hour and notice the relationships that emerge.
  • Take out a minute to think of a shape and go where it leads you. Say, if you settle upon a triangle, it might change into a pyramid, which might make you think about hierarchies, which might cause you to consider the difference between the rich and the poor, which might then open a whole host of ideas.
  • Open a dictionary and pick up a single word. Keep sleeping on it for six months. At the end of the period, draw something related to it.

You will not be able to make easy excuses before starting points that are so simple and standards that are so low.

Written by Tulika Bahadur

Banana Flower – Georgia O’Keefe

After visiting the MoMA exhibition recently, I was struck by the power and dynamism of the art movements from the 1880s onwards. What also left an impression on me was that I was in the company of incredible male artists and figureheads who drove the direction of modern art. Female artists were definitely in the minority.

Within the exhibition, to the left of Dali’s Persistence of Time (which was so shockingly smaller than anticipated) were two modest drawings, both charcoal on paper (though with their incredible execution, you could have mistaken them for ink or oils). They were drawn by Georgia O’Keefe, America’s “Mother of Modernism”. The drawing in particular that spoke to me was Banana Flowers, pictured below. It hung silently, yet confidently on the wall, and the masterful skill and the sensitivity of the drawing compelled me to examine it up close. It was unlike any other work in the exhibition.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Banana Flower, charcoal on paper, 1934

These drawings could have been easily missed amongst the intriguing worlds of Giorgio de Chirico and others in the same space. Hopefully this was not the case, however I wanted to highlight this one incredible drawing in this month’s newsletter.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887 – 1986) studied art formally, however she found that being taught how to draw and paint like other artists was not inspiring. After a hiatus, the work of artist/teacher Arthur Wesley Dow piqued her interest and she begun drawing and painting as she liked. She spent many months of the year in New Mexico, where she fell deeply in love with the landscape. She had an intense response to nature and a need to recreate the equivalent in art.

Her relationship with photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz proved challenging to O’Keefe when he applied Freudian interpretations to her abstract art, which, in turn, influenced art critics’ opinions. She had also posed nude for Stieglitz’ photography, and the link between exploring her sexuality through art was even stronger for it. However, this was not at all the case. She turned to creating works of recognisable objects, still lifes, and her famous close-up, large-scale flowers to try and dislodge this falsely created persona. Flowers, however, did not escape the same interpretation.

To this day there is still discussion around whether O’Keefe’s flower works depict female genitalia; in 2016, Tate Modern curated a Retrospective with 100 or her works offering alternative views on this theory. The exhibition aimed to dispel these myths by presenting works spanning six decades. The large-scale, cropped flowers for which most of the clichés about her work persist, were influenced by modern photography of the 1920s. A love for nature and landscape inarguable flows through her work and the exhibition portrayed this as her most persistent source of inspiration.

Written by Lauren Ottaway

Honouring Vale Pam Hallandal 1929 – 2018

Former Head of Drawing VCA

A brief perspective from a past student, colleague, and friend.

Pam Hallandal was committed to, and passionate about drawing. She regarded it as an important discipline that informed other mediums such as painting, printmaking, graphics, and sculpture. Pam was devoted to her own art practice which initially consisted of sculpture, then drawing and printmaking. Her teaching career spanned four decades, and her personal focus was always to elevate the status of drawing within the art world.

Portrait of the artist’s mother. Pam Hallandal. Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery collection

Pam was appointed Senior Lecturer of Drawing at Prahran College of Technology in the 1970s. Later named the Prahran College of Advanced Education, the institute eventually merged with the VCA in the early 1990s. Uniquely, this course enabled students to exclusively study the discipline of Drawing in a full-time capacity, achieving a Bachelor of Fine Art.

As a brief overview of the nature of the Drawing Department established by Pam, first-year students were required to participate in core subjects including weekly classes in Life Drawing, Structural Drawing and General Drawing. In essence, this meant drawing basically between the hours of 9am to 4pm, four days a week. On Wednesday, Art History, tutorials, and electives such as Painting, Sculpture, Photography or Print Making were taken.

During the second year, the course enabled participants to pursue more personal approaches to drawing and select relevant subject matter. In the third year, students were allocated individual studio spaces, but were still required to participate in weekly Life Drawing classes.

The structure of the course was clearly defined. Pam encouraged students to work from observation in the studio and develop the language of drawing primarily through the use of black and white mediums, such as charcoal, pastel, pencils and ink wash on paper. Alternatively, students would be encouraged to make small studies out on field locations in sketchbooks and in visual diaries. From these initial responses, more sustained drawings were developed back in the Drawing Department studios.

Pam was never interested in teaching set techniques, regimented rules, theories or formulas. She believed in allowing the drawing to develop intuitively in response to the subject matter, and in students developing a personal vision through a visual dialogue expressing one’s own intentions. She presented drawing as an exciting prospect requiring discipline, dedication, understanding, and practice. She intrigued the imagination of her students, encouraging, enlightening and provoking the curiosity of those who came into contact with her.

Periodically, Pam would arrange for visiting artists to teach a “block” of study in addition to the regular course. This provided further insight and stimulation to a specific topic in their area of expertise. For example, Rick Amor would take students for a workshop related to the urban environment, drawing buildings and the Chapel Street area. He would discuss the application of the Golden Mean and other compositional devices. Guy Stuart would accompany students on day trips to the Botanical Gardens, providing the opportunity to work from public statues and exotic plant forms. Other strategies included presenting a series of personal drawings to a prominent artist in a group critique situation. Guests included Brian Dunlop and Michael Shannon.

Regular lecturers within the Drawing Department would take groups out on day trips to draw at the Melbourne Zoo, St Kilda foreshore or perhaps to a local dancing studio. The focus was often on gaining an understanding of the importance of “gesture” within a drawing.

Students participated in annual Drawing camps and would head off to a beachside or river location, for example, to immerse themselves in a rugged and unruly natural environment. This provided a strong contrast to the College Studio located in the heart of busy Prahran, surrounded by people, trams, trains, cement buildings, power lines, and bitumen roads.

Pam orchestrated a rich and fertile learning environment for her students, personally monitoring their progress throughout the course, and afterwards as they forged their own identities, careers and status in the art world and workplace. She led by example – her own hands and fingers were usually embedded with and stained from constant use of black compressed charcoal.

Many have been fortunate to benefit from the rich experience of her teaching practice. Others have simply enjoyed viewing the quality of her drawings, prints and sculpture which now belong in national and state gallery collections, as well as in universities and libraries collections throughout Australia. Pam’s career highlights included winning the Australian Dobell Drawing Prize for excellence in drawing in 1996 and 2009 (the only female to do so). This prize has been held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Pam has been included in “Backlash” at the NGV in 1986, in many major drawing related exhibitions at Heide, Mornington Peninsula, Gold Coast City Art Prize, The Centre Gallery, S.H. Erwin Gallery, Sydney, Kedumba Invitation Art Award, NSW, Australian Drawing Biennial, ANU and a recent major solo at Ballarat Art Gallery.

Past and current tutors employed at Melbourne Art Class have benefited directly from Pam Hallandal’s teaching, wisdom and expertise. These include Maree Woolley, Michelle Caithness and myself.

Written by Michelle Zuccolo

 

 

Kate Kondakova – Black Swan Youth Portraiture Prize

Melbourne Art Class student Kate (who is in her teens!) has been selected as a finalist for the Black Swan Prize. The prize invites secondary school children to paint a portrait of a well-known Australian, an Australian they respect/admire, or undertake a self-portrait. Kate painted author, Morris Gleitzman.

Portrait of Morris Gleitzman, oil on canvas, Kate Kondakova, 2018

“I painted my favourite author, Morris Gleitzman.

He wrote a series of books about children during the Holocaust; this touched me and made me conduct more research on the topic, making me interested in 20th-century history in general. Gleitzman’s books are very kind and teach young adults important life lessons.

When I was deciding what Australian citizen I should create a portrait of, this author was the first thing that came to mind. I made the piece using oils on A3 canvas.”

Congratulations Kate on creating this incredible artwork, and for being recognised for it! We wish you all the best in the prize!

The artist as thief or as innovator? Damien Hirst’s Hymn

Guest blogger: Amy Davis

In 2000, Damien Hirst was ordered to pay an undisclosed settlement to the makers of a toy which he had copied, resulting in a massive sculpture with very little change from the original’s appearance. Hirst’s strategy is called appropriation, but what does this mean, and is it stealing or is it innovation?

Appropriation in art is the incorporation of pre-existing images, ideas, or artworks with minor transformations or little adjustments to create a new work. Although appropriation has been used in various ways throughout history, it has now become a common practice for artists to remix and resample images.

Damien Hirst’s Hymn (1999), is an exact replica of Humbrol Limited’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set. The toy sold for only £14.99 while Hirst’s sculpture sold for one million pounds. Hirst has magnified the scale of the toy to a sculpture of about six metres tall and changed the materials from plastic to bronze, gold and silver. Hirst has also altered the art piece’s context from a medical toy to its placement in the contemporary art gallery. His minimal change of the original toy design resulted in a court case accusing him of plagiarising. Hirst was found guilty and was ordered to pay a settlement for his appropriation.

Source: Damien Hirst, 1999-2005, Hymm, bronze, gold and silver sculpture
Source: ZapWow, 2015, Young Scientist Anatomy Set Bluebird Toys 1996 Hirst Sculpture

Whilst Hirst’s sculpture appears to merely be a copy, it also operates at a deeper level; referencing religion and art history. The title, Hymn, is a pun on the masculine pronoun and reflects a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god. This sculpture is obviously not a poem or a song, but perhaps could be identified as an image that reflects a representation of an object used in worship. The sculpture’s materials include bronze, silver and gold components just as in idol worship around the world, where it is common practice for statues to be made using the finest and most expensive materials, detail and precision.

Hymn also conveys a modern representation of ancient Greek sculptures. During the Classical Period, Greek sculptures rapidly changed from using various clays to metal elements in order to keep the shape of the figure, regardless of how intricate they were. Bronze became a popular medium to use as it could be steadied inside the hollow of the feet by using lead weights. Typically, Ancient Greek sculptures are nude, have their arms hanging close to the body, and were created in appreciation of the human anatomy, sometimes representing a god. Making the naked form the subject of many art forms showed the great skill and technique of the artist. Not only were these art pieces created using metal elements, but scientists have also discovered artists would sometimes also paint them, like Hymn’s bronze statue that has been painted.

Source: Unknown, 2018, Male Torso (Mercury?), Museum of Fine Arts Boston

From an aesthetic point of view, the experience of the now-massive toy design, significantly extends our understanding and perception of the original object. It does this by creating an entirely new context of size and location with which to appreciate the original design. The title of the work indicates that there is a conceptual consideration being encouraged in the viewer. Whilst Hirst’s Hymn looks like theft, and in some ways possibly is, it is also the innovative use of appropriation to create a new art piece that has its own scale, context and intelligently references religion and art history.

Guest blogger: Amy Davis

 

 

Identity and its refusal

Australian artist, Gordon Bennett (1955 – 2014), spent most of his life and career struggling against how he was perceived. This struggle went from being an experience of extremely low self-esteem to producing a powerful and highly articulate art practice. Several years after his untimely death, Bennett’s work illuminates our understanding of how identity operates in our society.

Bennett was raised in a cultural climate where, until he was twelve years old, his Aboriginal mother was not a legitimate Australian citizen. For, it was not until a 1967 referendum when ‘Aborigines’ where given the right to be counted in the census as Australian citizens. Until Bennett was in his early teens he believed his father’s Scottish and English origins was his only heritage. He then realised his mother was Aboriginal. This began Bennett’s struggle with his self-identity, for at this point, his identity shifted from identifying with being in the mainstream of Australian society, to being Aboriginal. Overnight, Bennett went from being the ‘cowboy’ to be the ‘indian’, from ‘light’ to being ‘dark’. Of course, the binaries of dark and light are not true or real identities, but their ingrained pervasiveness and how he was perceived by others, created turmoil for Bennett.


Gordon Bennett, Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys), 1990, oil on canvas, 150.0 x 260.0 cm
Private collection, Brisbane © Courtesy of the artist Photography: Phillip Andrews https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett/education/02.html

Bennett’s 1990 painting, Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) describes this turmoil well. There he is, as a boy in a cowboy uniform, seemingly oblivious to the complexities of social identity operating upon him. But it is Bennett, the man who has chosen to paint this as his Self portrait. A Self portrait that is not attempting to describe his own physical appearance, rather it is describing how he has been represented by others. Bennett appears caught between the words, I AM LIGHT, I AM DARK. A colonial battle is placed in the background of the right panel. Bennett’s own identity has become a colonial war. The title (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys), suggests that this is an expression of desire to be perceived as being on the right side, the light side, the good guys. Bennett seems to be describing himself as torn away from the mainstream identity he thought he enjoyed and cast into the place of being ‘other’, the bad guy, the ‘indian’. But the painting is not a lament and Bennett never comes across as feeling sorry for himself; rather it is about the exposure of the structures of identity operating within Australian society. These structures are primarily based on a binary; if you are not part of the mainstream, you are something else, you are ‘other’.

When Bennett left school, he took on an apprenticeship with Telecom. During the years of working with Telecom, he witnessed considerable racism towards indigenous Australians until he quit to then go on to art school at the age of thirty. After later becoming well known as an artist with a powerful Post-colonial project, Bennett had to struggle against the politics of identity that continually labelled him as the ‘Aboriginal artist’ or ‘urban Aboriginal artist’. During considerable success through the 1990s, Bennett just wanted to be known as an artist, refusing to be labelled by race. It was not until he gained international recognition in the last years of his life, that Bennett began to be considered a ‘contemporary artist’.

Colin McCahon,Victory over death 2 1970, synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas, 207.5 x 597.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978
© Colin McCahon Research & Publication Trust

The large letters I AM, are appropriated from New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon’s (1919–1987) Victory over death 2, of 1970. McCahon uses ‘I AM’ to question his own Christian faith and subsequent identity. ‘I am that I am’, from Exodus 3:14, is God’s response to Moses who had asked after God’s name. God’s response is actually a refusal to a name, or to be named. With letters towering at over two meters tall, McCahon’s monumental I AM impressed me powerfully when I saw it as a teenager. It seems to embody the sense of God being origin and of being infinity, all without being named.

Bennett’s appropriation of the I AM works on several levels. Firstly, it references a Judeo Christian tradition of spiritual identity based in God as origin and seems to be referencing a similar quest for identity as McCahon has. Except Bennett appears to be locked out from I AM by the experience of being labelled the ‘other’ identity. On another level, Bennett is quoting the words of a God who refuses to be named. Bennett’s painting is all about names and Bennett seems to be indicating that he, as a person, cannot be defined by the names being applied to him. So it seems that, if as in the Judeo Christian tradition, men and woman are made in the image of God, a God who refuses to be named, then Bennett exists beyond the names being placed upon him. With two powerful words Bennett seems to indicate his true identity as existing beyond all that has been placed upon him. Bennett refuses to be named.

Colonisation has been effective in taking hold of land, peoples, and resources by stripping away a true, complex and self-articulated identity expressed through culture, ritual and language. It replaced these identities with an imposed name, which, in many different ways, disempowered the bearer by denying their true nature. Bennett’s work often articulates the oppressive mechanics of identity in Australian society which have their origins in a colonial society. Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) gives us a clearer understanding of how these imposed identities operate, but it also goes deeper by indicating the nature of the human person as being an un-namable I AM.

Written by Marco Corsini

Capsicums are not just for cooking

Our teens’ Studio Art class produced some incredible drawings and paintings in the – of the humble capsicum.

Zoe, acrylic on canvas, 2018

Michelle Zuccolo presents the class with different materials each week, including still life and examples of famous artwork and gives students the opportunity to try drawing and painting in the same style. The last few week’s classes featured capsicums and the students used charcoal and pencils, creating beautiful tonal drawings. Once exploring the structure of the capsicums, students recreated them with acrylic on canvas. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

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