The need to know, the Requirement to Understand

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,

and critiqued.

Knowledgeably - which is where I stop right now.


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