Mar 16, 2018

Smokework: UQ Art Museum 2018

Smokework: photo Michelle Caithness

Detail of Smokework: photo Michelle Caithness

On Friday 9 March at 6:00 pm I presented Smokework for UQ Art Museum, the event formed part of a  pair of related exhibitions, Robert Smithson TIME CRYSTALS and insite process, performance, documentation. This was a restaging of Smokework from 1971.

Of course there is no small chunk of deja vu associated with seeing an idea from 47 years ago being resurrected very close to the original 1970s site at the University of Queensland. 

An artist talk/interview followed the next day, shared with Glen O'Malley and hosted by Michele Helmrich from UQ Art Museum. Glen and I realised that our paths and interests from the "good old" 70s had crossed many times and may have provided the audience with some valuable insights into modern art and even the teaching of art in Queensland all that time ago.

I'm fairly slow to realise the full implications of my art the day after it is exhibited and ever since the artists talk I've found myself unpacking the work in the present rather than relying on my memories of it so long ago.

These thoughts were probably caused by David Pestorius who asked an interesting question during the talk. Broadly speaking he wondered why I'd used the very old fashioned and traditional word "sculpture" in the 1971 title, Smokebomb Sculpture when a significant idea of the work was to challenge tradition.

I admitted it may have been an oversight but then the old brain kicked in, most likely because of the presence in the audience of Lisa Le Feuvre, inaugural Executive  Director of the Holt-Smithson Foundation. She had been the director of The Henry Moore Foundation previously. The link made me notice that there was no small part of Henry Moore in the smoke: a work in two parts, organic and amorphous forms, holes, horizontality, the fortuitous accident, truth to materials and a powerful connection to landscape.

So in retrospect the smokework owed more than a passing reference to what I would have seen at the time to be very traditional.

Along with David's question I'd noticed something as the smoke was being blown around. Somehow I felt that the smoke was giving form to invisible air, making the invisible visible. I think this is one of the corner stones of art making.

So after 47 years what do I think of Smokework?...... it's actually a neatly formed thesis work that contains, in an amorphous way, most of the issues that started then and have stayed with me all my life. The similarity of form between the lumps of marble now and the shapes of smoke is a little uncanny. While smoke is affected by the forces of nature in the present, marble was so formed in the past.................there is, however one question that I have no real answer for................... why are people so attracted to both the natural forms of marble and smoke?

all photos by Michelle Caithness

Apr 22, 2017

Clive Murray-White / Michelle Caithness: a Collaboration

Michelle Caithness Michelle Caithness Michelle Caithness

Clive Murray-White / Michelle Caithness: a Collaboration

This is an exhibition of drawing and sculpture by two artists who have discovered that they share an almost identical set of artistic values.

Clive makes marble sculptures about or based on Michelle whilst Michelle draws Clive in his studio making the sculptures of her. Both ask numerous questions about the evolution of portraiture and neither pressures the other to create flattering “realistic” representations.

Portraiture, of any kind, is inevitably collaborative and possibly invasive but when two artists are both artist and subject, things can become doubly interesting. In this case each has progressively encouraged the other to accept new freedoms and experiment with the intention of getting closer to his or her true expressive potential. 

Simon Gregg, Curator Gippsland Art Gallery, opens the exhibition.

Installation view

Installation view

Michelle Caithness

I have never considered myself to be a portrait artist, having only produced two such works in my life. Given the opportunity to draw Clive at Cowwarr in 2016 I was confronted with the reality of a sitter and the inherent formal obligations of the process.

A traditional approach to the task pulled me into using old art habits: The classical frontal or three quarter pose and a search for ’likeness’, both fell short of revealing Clive in context.

A person as a subject is made of many things. The challenge of portraiture became fresh and exciting when the three dimensional nature of artist making sculpture, within an architectural setting, loomed as a distinct possibility.

 My subject lives and breathes in a spectacular setting, with sculptures and lumps of stone, within an illuminating landscape.

Installation view

Observing the sculptor working in his studio with works completed, works in progress and amongst the tools and detritus of creation, presented intriguing compositional opportunities.

Michelle Caithness Spring Studio: Number One

Clive’s physical characteristics became animated through the repetitive act of working and contemplation.

The relationship of sculpture to drawing through the act of mark making on surfaces and the play of light on stone led me to new exciting formal discoveries with charcoal on rough paper.

Michelle Caithness Spring Studio: Number Two

Clive in his studio held all of the information I needed. His process of discovery mirrored my own need for formal invention. I became free to interpret the notion of portraiture in my own way.

Michelle Caithness Summer Studio: Number Two

Clive Murray-White

Michelle has a face shape that is deeply etched into my subconscious. For at least the past 25 years whenever I doodle this has been the face I draw. To me finding the living version just seems like a moment of well-deserved fate. I can draw a recognisable representation of her in a matter of seconds. This tempted me to make my first sculpture of her somewhere between a relief and a drawing on stone that concentrated more on how I perceive her than being chained to the restrictions of slavish representation.

Clive Murray-White Michelle One

Whilst that little work, Michelle 1, is most definitely recognisable as one of mine it blasted through some self-imposed restrictions on what I would or would not allow myself to do. 

Clive Murray-White Michelle Five

The fact that Michelle could see and appreciate this liberated me to push my expressive and formal boundaries into corners I have not dared to fully explore before.

Clive Murray-White Michelle Three

Each sculpture goes through a series of approximations from roughing out to finishing.  Each tool leaves graphic evidence of its work. Up until now I would hurry through the initial activities and rush towards a finish.

I now stop, even in the very early stages, to thoroughly assess what may be there in case it could be expressively useful. 

Michelle Seven

This simple procedure, discovered while making the Michelle heads, seems, from my perspective, to have added a new vitality to my work.

Michelle Caithness Winter Studio: Number One

Installation view

Michelle Caithness Summer Studio: Number One

Clive Murray-White / Michelle Caithness: a Collaboration runs until May 1 2017 at the Cowwarr Art Space but during its 2 month exhibition period the collaboration hasn't stood still!

Michelle seen here with Soula Mantalvanos installing the second version of the exhibition at the Queenslcliff Gallery and Workshop, for her residency during the Streeton Prints exhibition. And yet another version of the collaboration will be going to the Charles Nodrum Gallery in Richmond, Melbourne in September.

And back in Cowwarr, Michelle Eight has been completed, it represents the first sculpture that we both worked on together with Michelle drawing on it to suggest changes. This spurred us on with the start of Michelle Nine to both work on the actual carving together. 

Michelle gets stuck into her hair!!!

its not all hard grind, see mugs of tea and then a cold one at the end of the day

Nov 2, 2016

146 E going North

For years I've stared out at this ever changing and beautiful view, it's due North from my place; many people have heard me say, "One day I'm going to drive North through that view and on to where the road meets the sea". 

Even though I talk about this adventure quite often I've never actually worked out where my path North would really take me, I didn't really want to know and was quite content to just follow the compass in my car. Well curiosity killed the cat! I just googled my town Cowwarr and discovered it was on 146 E and saw that I'd hit the sea just South of Cairns opposite Fitzroy Island. I then thought I'd go one step further and checked out Cowwarr to Cairns by road and happened on the "walking" option, the only one that genuinely kept as close as possible to due North all the time. No I'm not even contemplating walking anywhere but now I know.

After clicking a few more buttons I managed to depress myself, my dream of this road trip was completely shattered. I'd just realised that I had actually driven on many of the roads several times before. Google earth and street view depressed me even more as now there were no surprises left at all.

I think I've worked out why I find this so saddening; once I knew my destination the chances of discovery along the way was severely diminished, each little dot on the map just became something to go through until I finally arrived at Fitzroy Island.

As a sculptor I rarely know how any work will turn out, it would bore me senseless if I did.

Tracking through my memories for a moment in time when I may have been introduced to the sheer pleasure of not knowing where I, or things, may finish up I remember this wonderful precedent. 

Back in the early 60s my girlfriend and I decided to have a hitch hiking holiday in France, we usually had some idea of where we wanted to go but one day we were picked up by US serviceman on holiday. Yes, perfect, a massive pastel coloured convertible, with roof down. Its driver had set himself up nicely and had squeezed a big box of cigars and a bottle of bourbon between the two front bucket seats. Not really PC these days but from our perspective this was about as cool as things could ever get.

But the coolness continues...........our driver, while occasionally passing us the bottle and offering us cigars explained the concept behind his touring holiday around Europe. He would only travel on minor roads and had no idea at all where he may actually go. This was because as he left a town he'd pick up some hitch hikers and drive them to wherever they wanted to go, in our case it was La Rochelle. Presumably after dropping us off, he'd check the town out, taste the local delicacies and pick up another couple and drive on to any number of new destinations crisscrossing Europe in a wonderfully randomly way. If his new buddies were into art as we were and said that there was supposed to be something worth looking at in a town on the way he'd stop and check it out too.

I suspect if he didn't like his travelling companions he'd invent an excuse to put them out at the next town. So with travelling North along 146 E out of the question its back to the drawing board in search of some lateral thinking for hitch-hikerless random driving around this huge country :-)

Oct 4, 2016

Little Lincoln leaves lasting impression

Kevin Lincoln Burning off - Gippsland 1997
3 panels each 38.5 x 46cm overall 38.5 x 138cm
Watercolour and charcoal on paper
col: Gippsland Art Gallery

A friend and I spent a couple of hours intently the studying the John Leslie Art Prize (for landscapes) at the Gippsland Art Gallery a week or so ago. To get into the main gallery we had to pass a small show of works on paper, mainly drawings from the gallery's collection titled A Fine Line and one work jumped off the walls at us, it is shown above. We looked at it, discussed it at length and wandered off wondering what was making this rather feint scratchy little work stand out so much.


The more closely we looked at it the less we found that could possibly be the cause of its power, and maybe worse as drawing lecturers there were many aspects of this work that we would have advised any student to avoid, these could include lack of focus, form, structure, purposefulness or high quality line, shape and tonal delineation. It is probably a good candidate to be called "a bit soft" (about the worst thing any drawing can be called).

Maybe that's a rather perverse way of looking at it, a naughty kind of criticism; choosing a whole lot of things that this work doesn't even attempt to include and then bag it for their omission.

Still marveling we made our way into the John Leslie Art Prize, dutifully looking at each entry and discussing our perceptions of the intentions, degrees of difficulty, levels of achievement, place in historical thinking and even whether we felt it was even worth making in 2016. 

Things weren't going well for most of the entries in this process of our's! I've written a short piece on the winner, Amelda Read-Forsythe's Under the Storm, in my previous blog post which is coincidentally another quiet understated masterly work. And unsurprisingly we both gravitated towards what we thought of as the more classy controlled and reserved works that often take a hammering from the often cynically conceived blockbusters all too well represented in prize shows.With me getting very excited by Tim Bukovic's 2 little entries and my friend spending a great deal of time pointing out the sheer class of Ken Smith's The Road to the Sea 1.

Deep in conversation and deep into the body of the prize show we glanced at the little Lincoln that seems miles away down the other end of the gallery, it was still weaving its magic.

Maybe this was one of those “don’t try this at home until you really know what you’re doing” artworks, there’s more integrity in it than most artists will muster in their lifetimes, and more class, control and restraint than most will ever be able to see.

Sep 4, 2016

Amelda Read-Forythe: Under the Storm

Amelda Read-Forythe: Under the Storm 
winner of the John Leslie Art Prize - 2016 
oil on wood 60 x 90cm

I’ve been away from my blog for a while and was contemplating presenting a recent work from day one to completion but this picture by Amelda Read-Forythe has infiltrated itself into my mind in such a big way that I feel it takes precedence.

The John Leslie Art Prize is held every two years at the Gippsland Art Gallery and just like every time before, prior to the prize announcement, I and many others attempt to pick the winner. This year I did and it surprised me because it was the kind of painting that I wanted to win but felt that other more obvious blockbuster entries may overpower it.

And as I try to work out what’s going in this picture and why it’s a puzzle to me I start to realise that it may be because it’s a work that only a woman could make, and I find that very exciting indeed.

There are two distinct components in this picture, the way it is actually painted and the historical precedents that it alludes to.

In terms of technique it has a very large dose of the, “how the hell did she do that”, that’s always a major suck-in, its surface is perfectly flat and eggshell smooth; there’s no evidence of actual brush strokes, they just seem to be embedded in the picture’s ground! The physicality or is it material quality is truly arresting. Possibly more interesting is the fact that this surface takes our memories to places we don’t expect in painting. For me it’s directly to my Mother and Aunt, decorated porcelain and nice silk scarves.

I have to admit I love art that can trigger me to think of other places, times and artists and it is this area that Under the Storm really excels. Way beyond my childhood memories of the scent of my Mother this picture has taken me to the first colonial efforts to comprehend what they thought was an alien landscape comprised of formless fauna and impenetrable space, the artistic nightmare that confronted our ancestors. Where they tried to shackle that amorphous and maybe hostile landscape into the Western tradition Read-Forsythe simply accepts it and lets it live.

Once I had traveled back to John Glover and the colonialists the dominoes of time rocketed me past the Rococo all the way back to Roman frescos. Once there I was pointed forward to Milton Avery, Arthur Boyd, Vincent Van Gogh, some Symbolists and maybe the Nabis.

The strongest reaction I had to this picture was emotional; It reminded me of a strange short story by Raold Dahl about a canoe trip on the Danube where the paddlers were being brushed by hanging willows, making them feel as if the trees were the spirits of some malevolent ancestors, intent on their destruction. 

Under the Storm, under which storm I ask? The storm of the artist’s daily existence? The storms that shape the future and on we can go, not bad eh! for a sparsely painted 60 x 90cm piece of wood.

Jun 22, 2016

Goosebumps: Frisson from Art

Goosebumps: Frisson from Art

Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate. 1871-2. Gustave Courbet 
at the National Gallery London

I've often wondered, how or why this rather dingy picture gave me goosebumps, every time I go to London I visit it, but no goosebumps since, just the once when I was 17 or 18. Obviously it's surrounded by many other masterpieces, Goya's haunting portrait of The Duke of Wellington, comes to mind but no goosebumps for me from that picture.

I had every reason to completely ignore this still-life, I was, after all, an art student at the time and felt forced to draw and paint what I thought was the pretty mindless subject of rotting apples on a regular basis. On the same day that this picture got to me I could have just come from seeing my first full blown show of Robert Rauschenburg's work at the Whitechapel, Feb - March 1964, which also stays firmly planted in my mind (though no goosebumps), or the best survey show I've ever seen, Painting & Sculpture of a Decade 54 64 organised by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation at the Tate April - June 1964.

Before writing this I Googled "Goosebumps from Art" and learned a bit, not much actually talking about visual art but mostly about music's ability to cause goosebumps. Amusingly, to distinguish between normal goosebumps caused by coldness, the French word "Frisson" (a sudden shiver or thrill) became a popular name for the phenomena.............of course someone had to bump up the heat a bit and cheapen it by calling it "Skin Orgasms"!

Over the years I've loaded this humble picture up with all sorts of heavy interpretations, like, here's Courbet's way of expressing what it's like to be in prison, the apples represent the rotting people huddled together etc etc, and the two standing on their own are really having a bad time of it....enough, enough already. Anthropomorphising apples is just going too far.

But really, the answer to why Mr Courbet got me that day is amazingly simple, it was most likely the split second when I was introduced to all those things art didn't always need, like big pronouncements, heavy meaningful subjects, huge inventions, grandeur or even intentional expression. 

It has probably led me to prefer the quiet artists like Alberto Giacometti and Giorgio Morandi.

There is a lot to be said for that once compulsory raft of art school studies, you know the kinds of thing, still-lives, figures, heads, interiors and landscapes.

May 14, 2016

Small Town Transformations 2016 Winners


Any reader of my blog will know from past posts that Regional Arts Victoria's Small Town Transformation project makes my blood boil; its badly designed, it is based on a poor concept and benefits no one. What makes it appropriate to revisit this topic at this time is that the second incarnation of this monstrous project should be announced in the very near future against the backdrop of massive cuts to arts funding in Australia. This recurrent project is Federally funded and is a complete waste of arts funding money.

What is also appropriate to mention is that this project enshrines many of the arguments that claim the value of arts to society as providing quantifiable benefits. Coincidentally I stumbled across this article discussing the findings of a UK government commissioned study by the Arts and Humanities Research Council - they completely debunk the quantifiable concepts and prove them to be false without implying that the arts serve no purpose at all. They are, instead, necessary expressions of our level of civilsation:

How we’ve got it wrong about the arts by Ivan Hewett

In reality the idea of suggesting to small Victorian towns that they should transform themselves in some artistic way is grossly insulting as it implies that they are sub-standard. Many small towns see themselves as living national treasures and, for this reason, would prefer to maintain that status. That said there wouldn't be a small town in Victoria that couldn't identify all sorts of items, services, facilites or policies that would improve their lot. The glaring problem with this project is that it is a classic example of the highly patronising and elitist, "let them eat cake" approach.

My view is that through a very aggressive advertising campaign Regional Arts Victoria appealed to the greed/desperation of the small towns that did apply with a $325,000 carrot. 

So congratulations to all the small towns who had the moral and ethical strength to turn their backs on this one. You are the real winners.