On The Rocks

Art Life , Reviews Dec 21, 2007 No Comments

Ian Houston reports from parts unknown…

After their kind invitation to visit the egalitarian suburb of Woolahara, The Art Life team have upped the ante somewhat and decided to send me to “The Rocks”, home of “the personality gallery”. I’m not entirely sure what to think. With no less than four permanent galleries devoted to the works of individual artists, it is indeed Australia’s epicentre of “limited edition prints on high quality gallery paper, with your very own certificate of authenticity”. Indeed, barring the august Museum of Contemporary Art, there is very little art, as we the elite readers of The Art Life understand it. But that won’t stop me from bringing my very own personal and highly authentic, limited edition, sensibilities to bare on these four very unique artists.

Ken Done is often vilified by the “art elites”. I imagine that this would be on account of his strong engagement with the capitalist system. Personally I would rather be waterboarded than have to live in a home with Ken Done Manchester or visit the Icebergs swimming pool wearing Ken Done togs. But there is another side to the Ken Done phenomenon. There is the lonely voice crying out desperately to be recognised as a serious artist. I hear that voice and I’m going to do my best to listen, because I don’t think Ken Done is all bad, just a bit misguided.

Ken Done’s Art Cars… “From the very first moment Ken Done had definite ideas how to decorate the BMW M3 after it was given to him by the Australian BMW Motorsport department. On the one hand, it was to express something of the fascination which this high-performance vehicle held for him. On the other, it had to be typically Australian and reflect the vitality of his home continent….”

Done lacks discrimination. So, whilst he can create some decent paintings, he too-often sullies them with populist corporate commodifications or, even worse, the kind of painting that he thinks is “worthy”. I remember, albeit, indistinctly an entry of his in the Archibald, Meeting Jagamarra Nelson, in which he depicts himself rushing to embrace one of the Papunya painters in a style that echoed the desert painter’s own. I remember the painting less than the gesture, the idea that he should be imagining himself as part of the fraternity of desert painters sent shivers up my spine. He is a man who can choose from a number of Sydney city waterfront studios to paint in. He sells his work as a commodity form that seeks to derive the greatest possible profit from his images. How can he possibly compare himself to these people whose expressions are so much a part of their experience as a traditional indigenous society dispossessed of their land?

So one enters his Sydney gallery heavily aware of the man’s failings. Even the very idea that he has his own gallery rankles. Particularly one in such a desirable location. Yet the thing to do upon entering is to endeavour as best as possible to keep these dark thoughts from your mind. Don’t look at the merchandise, ignore the foolish Harbour Bridge paintings. We can’t possibly have any truck with the notion that these are his Rouen Cathedral the man must have painted the Harbour Bridge more often than Paul Hogan. Instead, turn immediately to your right into the exhibition of current work, noting that this encompasses paintings from 1992 to 2005. Here, there is a small, colourful (that goes without saying) work titled Unloading the Blue Boat, Toberua 2004. In oil, acrylic and gouache on paper. This is a sweet lyrical painting, that is at once compellingly naïve in execution and yet sophisticated in composition and palette. It doesn’t seek to bludgeon with colour, atmosphere or theme but seduces instead with a muted ambience that is richer for its quiet contemplation of an idyllic tropical scene. Though not quite as successful, Man in a Duck Egg Blue Rowing boat has a similar sense of quiet contemplation that suits its subject, producing a harmonious picture of blues with restrained yellow highlights that serve to structure the figure ground relation.

Then there are the more difficult pictures, such as, Opal Reef 1992 in his permanent collection. When I say “difficult” I mean in the sense of judging their true worth. It is a painting of tropical fish on the barrier reef, rendered with a loose impressionistic technique that draws heavily on notions of abstract expressionism. There are scribbled lines, smudges, splatters and drips but the paint is handled with an expert’s touch. The fish and reef blur together with the paint, each emerging from the canvas as your eye moves across the painting. The colours are brilliant and attractive, the purples, golds and lilacs reminding you of Bonnard‘s sun warmed interiors. And in a certain regard it’s a worthy subject, that’s been captured appropriately. The reef is an extraordinary place, its beauty worth interpreting. Yet for some reason the painting seems trite, its brilliant colours nothing but candy, its resonance an afterburn on the retina. Is it because he has tarnished his legacy with the reproduction of his images? Is it impossible to look at this painting without seeing in your mind’s eye busloads of tourists waiting to buy the same thing reproduced on tea towels and sheets? Still, I am willing to stand up for Ken as being an artist of some worth, this is not a position I can take with Charles Billich.

The Amazing World of Charles Billich. “Perhaps the greatest living artists of our time, Dr Charles Billich. An amazing multi-lingual, multi-talented man, Charles allowed me to video his amazing works depicting the Terracotta warriors of Xian, China as 2008 Olympic athletes. Thsi one of two warrior videos I made of his Bing Ma Yong works…”

I find it confounding to think that Billich sells enough work to maintain his own gallery, particularly three stories situated on some of Australia’s most expensive real estate. His prodigious output is scattered throughout the gallery in an eye busting array of media arranged loosely around themes such as “sport”, “cityscapes” and disturbingly “couples” amongst others. Each subject is dealt with by the arrangement of highly idealised figures or architecture or both, the final composition then being accented with various gewgaws intended to illustrate the intellectual intentions of the work. The resulting pictures are to my mind, shallow, ugly, at times pornographic, tasteless (in the worst possible way) and on occasion, poorly drawn. Here and there he seems to have difficulty with foreshortening, whilst other figures suffer from unlikely proportions, and we’re not just talking about breasts here.

I can appreciate on some level, Billich’s ability as an architectural illustrator, but beyond that his talents seems to have become stretched, his brittle technique and crass commercialism making for some very tawdry work indeed. But regardless of my views, the people love it. A medium sized canvas starts at $30,000, and there were dozens available, many featuring attractive young ladies. Sadly his copyright restrictions don’t allow us to show any of his work, but you can avail yourself of the delights of his oeuvre by visiting his gallery online.

Experience The Presence of God… “Devotional insights are perfectly complimented and enhanced with Ken Duncan’s heart-stirring photographs from the Holy Land. You will be transported – in both words and images – to the moments, the places, and the ways that God has worked and is at work in the world – and in your own life – today.”

The Ken Duncan Gallery is not really a gallery, it’s a shop. So any criticism that I make of this work is about as reasonable as me walking into a K-mart and then making acerbic commentary about the aesthetic failings of their collection of “Attractive prints for your home”. Ken Duncan is no Ansel Adams, but then I doubt that he’s trying to be. Instead he’s found his own niche, which is glossy and very, very colourful and for the most part panoramic, widescreen, 16:9, saturated and filtered. They are indisputably attractive snapshots, but the most interestingly thing about them is how strongly they concur with our prejudice of the idealised Australia. Rainforests are emerald green with still clear waters and brilliant blue skies overhead. There are no malarial swamps, crocodiles, leeches or monsoonal rains. Beaches are endless with perfect barrelling waves, mountains are majestic, cities vibrant, rivers meander and deserts are mystical. The prints are attractively framed and come individually signed with a lovely title. Its all pretty much what you’d expect, which is after all the idea. No one wants to buy ugly things, do they?

The Special AKA, Free Nelson Mandela.

Our whirlwind tour of the “Personality galleries of the Rocks” ends with the Touch of Mandela Gallery. Now if you think I’m going to say bitchy things about Nelson Mandela then you have the wrong end of the stick entirely. I spent most of the eighties dancing to The Special AKA‘s Free Nelson Mandela and nothing is going to make me criticise the man now. Especially when you see the heartwarming Matisse-like sketches of Nelson’s life as a prisoner on Robben Island. Like, what can you say? The man fought the good fight and won. Needless to say his drawings are excellent examples of restraint and taste and say everything that needs to be said by being silent. I am not worthy, but you can be, just by purchasing one of the strictly limited edition prints on gallery quality paper. All proceeds go to the Mandela Trust.

The Art Life

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