Updated: Apr 1, 2021
The need to know, the requirement to understand.
As at February 2021, recent times have not been conducive to confident strides
forward in any area other than the capacity we people have discovered, of
producing medical vaccines ‘at warp speed’ and of course financing Netflix and
similar online entertainment sites. The former requires pause for appreciation of
the advanced capabilities of well-educated people; the latter requires patience
allied with critical awareness.
As the Covid-19 plague became obvious in February/March 2020, there was no
proposal about government financed decade of research to find slowly a
vaccine. No dreams. No potions. Just make it happen. With notable, memorable
pace the process of finding one or more vaccines occurred, driven in part by
Pfizer’s initial ‘gamble’ as its CEO said, followed by other pharma companies,
At the time of writing, about one year from first Covid deaths, vaccines are
being provided; they are newsworthy, they have been ‘approved’ by the various
regulatory bodies. Pharmaceutical sciences have excelled in the face of a global
health crisis, and in planning for appropriate finance from investment to returns.
In other areas of human enterprise, 2020 has been a stagnant pool, from simple
social interactions to advanced space exploration with the SpaceX rocket taking
off but exploding on approaching earth - again. A piercing metaphor of the times.
However four of us have struck out together to find Art Spaces to welcome the
new CStudios, to commence EASEL Art Space last Tuesday, and to establish
three web-sites: Trim Art Online, Easel Art Space and CStudios (revision). We
have not sat around on our hands ‘waiting for Godot’. This is in itself has
proven to be an enlivening approach to an enervating year and more. Last
Saturday, 20 February 2021, resulting from the festive French Twilight Markets
at The Station in Newcastle CBD, the Workshop Space, Easel Art Space,
welcomed visits by some two thousand casual, relaxed people. At the close,
about 8.30 p.m., it was obvious that Easel Art Space Workshops and Gallery are
really in ‘the right place’. Right now.
Visitors of all age ranges, demographics and many nationalities met us in the
Gallery, drawn in by novelty, attracted by the demonstration work done by
Steffi Clark, a current Tutor for the Workshops and of course a very well known
artist in pastels. Steffi’s works are hung internationally; she is particularly
highly regarded in France.
Youth were part of the visiting crowd, showing close interest in the art on
display, in the skills and artistic vision of Steffi, in the concept of the
Workshops, in the exquisite art jewellery in the gallery shop. It seemed to us
that many visitors were new to Newcastle, have become residents, and are
bringing a keen cultural interest with them. This observer, watching in
particular the response of children, youth and early adults to both the displayed
art and the work being shown by Steff Clark, was confronted again with the
question: how then shall we proceed? What has art to offer locally and
internationally that people of good mind and heart simply must know?
In the months of planning and establishing Easel Art Space Workshops and
assisting in the re-location of CStudios to the East End 2300, it has become
apparent that the ‘art world’, in all the arts of any medium or character, is a
risky area, aided and abetted by social media. On this latter observation, no one
is sure. If like this writer a person ignores much of social media like Twitter and
similar ‘bogs’, as one writer described the instant opinion platforms, each day
does not ebb and flow according to social media – especially instant opinions.
However in any review of Instagram and its companion ‘platforms’ the power
of photography as an art form, but also as a medium of capturing the art image
and conveying it around the world, must not be ignored. Mechanical,
immediate, capriciously satisfying, easy. Throughout art from cave paintings
and earlier to right now the art works which outlast their maker, and the
observers are not mechanical, immediate, capricious. They are substantial,
edifying, as far as this physical world allows, eternal.
But in 2020/21 it is also true that the Archibald and Wynne and Sulman Prizes –
famous for bringing to people enticing, often confronting, often unforgettable
images - were all three horribly disappointing for me. Possibly for many. The
art criticism in The Weekend Australian, commenting on the three exhibitions,
gave some hope that perfunctory flattery is not actually the gripping dominant
subject matter of painting; the brief for the Archibald demands portraits of
prominent Australians. So often over quite some years, the portraits have
seemed themselves uncommunicative. Flat.
Some many years ago when I met socially or professionally some artists in daily
life, the subjects of the Archibald always seemed to be admiring artists pumping
the tyres of other artists, much as they might be from different arts genres. The
outstanding difference, for me, was William Robinson’s 1995 self-portrait with
stunned mullet. This work had, still has to be seen again and again.
I have wondered therefore for a long time what has happened to the momentum
and vitality of the 1905 Post Impressionists exhibition (Fauves…) by the time
of the current Archibald Exhibition 2021. Not being versed in the analytical side
of things but rather being keenly involved as a person like millions of others
uplifted by superlative artistic work, by such piercing insight and skilful talent, I
am not moved by contemporary art exhibitions. To my discredit though I was
ardently in support of criticism of John Olsen’s Five Bells when it was
unveiled at the then new Opera House. I was wrong.
Therefore I claim no authority to praise of condemn other than this: when I stop
and stare (Brin Newton-John, Newcastle 1965) I seek works that stop and stare
back. I want to know; I want to understand.
Accordingly the article by Dean Kissick (Spike Magazine, Royal Academy)
in The Spectator Australia (January 2021) pulled me up. No casual reading
possible. Among the observations he makes, are the following:
“Bad figurative painting is today’s hottest trend. Last autumn Artnet listed the
top ten ‘ultra-contemporary’ artists (meaning those born after 1974) with the
highest total auction sales so far that year. …All are figurative painters, though
some play with bad abstraction as well. None are (sic) particularly exciting.
Many, many others are climbing after them….It has been clear for a while that
art’s running out of ideas. Back in 2014, the critic Walter Robinson coined the
term ‘zombie formalism’ to describe a trend for market-friendly abstract
painting that took the dead formalist aesthetics of mid-century abstract
expressionists and brought them half-way back to life. It was soulless, going
through the motions, and had nothing new to say….It’s taken only a few years
for a zombie figuration to rise up from the graveyard of art history and take
their place….” and “Emily Mae Smith’ noted Alex Greenberger in his essay on zombie figuration last summer’ has gotten an unlikely number of artworks out of no more than
recreating famous paintings with the human subjects replaced by broomsticks.’
Her Alien Shores (2018) which sold for a record $AU600,000.00 at Philips last
autumn, shows a broomstick gazing wistfully at a cosmic subset under twin
moons. It’s the first-ever portrait of an household cleaning object experiencing
saudade. Edward Hopper meets Space Odyssey meets Homebase…”
and “…There’s a lack of new ideas in art, and so slipshod and incoherent bootlegs
of worn-out aesthetics are revived and presented once more as the next big
thing. The canon is reimagined with twists, in paintings with the uncanny appearance of having been designed by algorithm and made by Snapchat or Instagram filter…” (my emphasis). and finally “Just as socialist realism produced accessible images of contented lives under communism, today’s figurative paintings reflect the banality of modern life
without passion or criticality….We’re served Instagram-friendly cultural objects
that anyone could come up with and anyone can understand without thinking.
It’s zombie entertainment. It’s ‘Let people enjoy things’ culture. Don’t let
people enjoy things. Enjoying things has brought us to the edge of the abyss.
What we could with instead is more challenging and unconventional painting.”
The article strikes home. I am keen to think that in our work establishing the
two new art-sites right now, we will seek out a range of arts practice which will
include both the timeless - such as I have personally come to understand still
life for instance which fixes the ephemeral in time and space, artistically - and
the tuneful. The need is for right now, at the doorway into a much better,
invigorating and life-affirming future.
Thanks for reading this: I commend the article to you, much as it needs to be
critiqued for its own dependence on ‘shock value’. Nothing can be taken as it
seems, but resonance needs to be received, and critiqued. And criticism read,
Knowledgeably - which is where I stop right now.