ALL FOR ART
ALL FOR ART AND ART FOR ALL ISSUE THREE MARCH 2013 SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA allforartandartforall.com firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on facebook
WORK AND PLAY Turn our virtual pages and you will find all kinds of stories in this, our third publication and first for 2013. We hear first-hand from an art critic about the ins and outs of his profession; we travel to China and Bangladesh with two Sydneysiders who make the most of their working holidays; we speak with a Russian artist in Sydney; we snap openings in Paddington; we find a lost genre; we learn to stop worrying and love the art world... ALL FOR ART AND ART FOR ALL... itâ€™s that simple.
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What’s in this issue?
‘Tell it Like it Is’: An interview with John McDonald
Give a little bit
15th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh 2012
An interview with Vika Begalska On Painting Lost Genre?
Jessica Holburn Bryan King Ross McLean
‘Tell it Like it Is’: An interview with John McDonald Chloe Watson
As longstanding senior art critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald is one of the few Australian art writers who actually ‘tells it like it is,’ aiming always for honesty and objectivity when appraising an exhibition. I spoke with him in a Korean restaurant near Town Hall, to a backing of K-Pop, about his career, criticism and the Sydney art world.
CHLOE WATSON: How long have you actually been writing for the Herald and how did you end up there? JOHN MCDONALD: I think I’ve been at the Herald on and off since about 1983. CW: So it’s your anniversary? JM: Yes, this year will be about thirty years... Basically, I owe my break in art criticism or journalism, or whatever you want to call it, to the fact that I was in the right place at the right time... I took some of my student newspaper articles in to The Australian and I asked to see the arts editor. I walked up and said, ‘this is what I have been doing, I’d like to do some writing for you.’ She had a quick look and said, ‘OK, what would you like to write about?’ And so I became a freelance arts writer for The Australian, just walking off the street.
I interviewed counter-tenors and architects, I wrote things about books and did different profiles. This went on for a few months and then there was a vacancy for a second string critic job at the Herald. I applied, did a couple of trial weeks and got it. Then I was second-string critic to Terence Maloon for six to twelve months. I was like his apprentice. We would go around to the galleries together on Saturday and look at things. He eventually left and got a job at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. But by that time I had taken another post, which was the vacant critic job at the National Times, as it was then, which was one floor above – this was when Fairfax was in Broadway – and I worked at the National Times on Sunday for another six months or so. Then when Terence made his departure from the Herald I basically walked one floor down stairs and took that job. So I was senior critic for The Herald at the age of, I think, twenty three and I am now fifty one and I’m doing the same job with a few significant interruptions. [For example, McDonald has had stints as Head Curator of Art at the National Gallery of Australia and as editor of Australian Art Review] CW: Do you still enjoy it? JM: Well I still do it, so I suppose I must be enjoying it. But I’ve given it up twice when I’ve been at the height of my form – something else came along so I grabbed it and stopped what I was do-
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ing. If something brilliant came along I might do the same. But at the moment I’m still enjoying it and in fact the film thing [McDonald is now film critic for the Australian Financial Review] is giving me kind of a new lease of life and, quite frankly, nowadays I hardly have the time to stop and think whether I enjoy it or not – I just do it. CW: A compulsion? JM: A compulsion. Obsessive compulsive. I’m one of those people who has to be constantly busy, which makes me a difficult person to be around all the time. I have to be busy, and if I’m not, I’m edgy, I’m scratchy. I have to have something to do. I have to have pressure. I find it hard when I don’t have something hanging over my head… CW: What was the first art exhibition that you reviewed? JM: The first art exhibition I reviewed… I’m not sure that I can even remember it. What was it? It was a bunch of things every week; shows at Performance Space and Ros Oxley’s
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and Coventry Gallery. One I wrote early on, which got up everybody’s noses, was a piece in which I reviewed a John Nixon show at Ros Oxley’s, which was most pretentiously titled [cue “serious” voice] ‘Twenty Years of Monochrome Painting’. There were these incredibly boring bits of brown hessian, well hessian with brown house-paint, and bits of board with brown house-paint, and little bits of pink cardboard, like from a stationary shop, tacked to the wall. Underneath they would have little labels saying, ‘Brisbane, 1979’ or ‘Stuttgart, 1983’, and he had a few one and two cent coins stuck on them as well. So when I reviewed it I said, ‘perhaps the one and two cent coins stuck on these works give us a clue as to their interpretation, since with this artist, from show to show and work to work, one notices very small change.’ CW: I assume you got a few slaps from that? JM: I got a furious manifesto from the artist. It indicated to me that I was doing something right. Or rather, that I was doing something that other people weren’t doing, because it was always taken for granted that when some big deal artist, or some self-important big-deal artist, has a show, everybody has to say, ‘Oh how wonderful, oh how great.’ Criticism is not like that. Criticism, to me, is having a response; having an opinion and asking yourself seriously, what am I seeing in this? You have to make some judgement of intention with
the artist’s work – what is the artist trying to do? And you have to say, does this artist succeed or not? To my estimation, that show, I could see what it was trying to do and it either wasn’t worth doing or it was a big failure, and it was done in a very pretentious kind of way. I felt then and I do now that you’ve got to be actually honest with your reviews, you can’t bullshit just for the sake of sucking up to people or being in the right cliques or the right places. On the other hand, you have got to make it interesting. I couldn’t find any interest in writing same old same old stuff, which is what you find in press releases. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got to have a point of view and I’ve got to have something I can get my teeth into; I’ve got to be engaged with it. That’s the great thing about what I’ve been doing for so long, because every week it’s different – some weeks better than others, some weeks more inspiring than others, some weeks good topics, bad topics, but you know, you’ve got to find a way of animating it. That’s the fun of it. CW: Now, you’ve started talking about the way you approach an exhibition critically. Is there a set of criteria, perhaps a checklist, which allows you to think, ‘oh, so they have done this but they’ve not done that’? JM: There may be a checklist, but it’s internalised
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by now. It’s a bit like those artists who say they never draw. They don’t draw because the process of drawing is internalised. They feel like they know exactly where things are, you know, in terms of the landscape or the body. They don’t have to carefully draw it all in first. It’s a bit the same with me, I feel like a lot of it now is instinctive. When I go to a show, a lot of the things I’m looking for I just instinctively know and the more significant bits tend to stand out. So, there are a lot of things that you take for granted – context, for example. Shows change, really, depending on the context. The work that you see in one venue looks totally different in another. If it’s a group exhibition, or a big museum show, how it is put together is very important, it really changes your whole engagement with the show. A good curator can make anything look good. Terence Maloon put together very good, interesting shows, with really only secondary materials. Whereas, somebody like Tony Bond could get the greatest works of art in the world and make a mess of it. It’s easily done. CW: I asked you in a conversation a while ago about your favourite work of art and you had an interesting answer, which was something along the lines of, ‘that doesn’t affect how I am as a critic.’… JM: I was talking about taste wasn’t I? Taste and judgement – it’s the most fundamental pairing of all time. Kant talks about it, everybody who talks
about aesthetics talks about taste and judgement, sometimes taste versus judgement. Indeed, when Turner was doing his thing in the mid 1800s, Sir George Beaumont loathed him and railed against him because, he said, what he does offends the taste. That is what they called it, ‘The Taste’. The taste was the absolute of what a landscape should be and what a good landscape was. In polite society, they knew it was something like what Claude was doing. But Turner, who was also a great believer in Claude, wrecked all that by introducing all of this atmosphere, bright light and choppy seas. The things you would never find in a perfect, calm, lucid painting by Claude. It’s a sterile thing where taste completely and utterly overrules any sense of being able to look at a painting beyond those boundaries, because you have to look at Turner’s work and say, well it doesn’t actually fit into the parameters of what I understand to be good taste, but there is something going on here. And what was going on was this unbelievably strong, close engagement with nature: being able to look at things... so instead of seeing the perfect mountain shape in the distance you would see it obscured by mist and clouds and you would see all sorts of smoking, hazy things happening. It was what you didn’t see as much as what you did see which gave it that sense of realism.
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With any work of art I think you have got to be able to separate your taste, which is something intrinsic to you and which is sometimes a question of instinct – I mean sometimes you have a taste for chilli, or a dislike of cucumbers or some-such and that’s part of you, it’s part of your DNA if you like. Some things are learned, in terms of cultural behaviour, I mean I think some of my tastes and attitudes obviously go back to childhood, where I was born, what I did, how I got away from where I was bloody well born… There are all sorts of things that influence your taste at particular times. But your judgement is a different matter. Coming to a work of art or an exhibition you have got to try to be as detached as you can. We all bring cultural baggage, we know that absolute objectivity is impossible, but we have to try to stand back, we have to give things the benefit of the doubt and that’s what I try to do. But on the other hand, when I go to see a show that is hyped and praised, while trying to give the benefit of the doubt I am also nurturing a certain skepticism. That, to me, is the balancing act, between your willingness to embrace it if it’s good, and your residual skepticism that it has to prove itself to you, you have to see something in it that transcends all of your misgivings and doubts. With Shaun Gladwell’s skateboards and things like that, I’ve tried and I’ve tried to find something in that, I’ve watched them, I’ve read all the propa-
Photograph: R. Ian Lloyd
ganda that comes to hand, and frankly I can’t see anything very interesting about it, my melancholy conclusion is that it is a lot of hype. CW: And you would say that this is not your opinion, that this is somehow the truth? JM: Well it’s certainly my opinion, but opinions are cheap. Everybody has an opinion. What you have to have is an argument and it’s almost a legalistic process... You really want something to provide you with the proof of why you should take it seriously… Being in a Biennale or exhibiting at Ros Oxley’s or winning a prize, it means nothing. So taste and judgement are things that you have got to keep a reign on. I absolutely think you have
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to have a sense of responsibility if you are writing in the newspapers, in the journal of record, to tell it like it is and if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake, you have to take responsibility for that… Perhaps if you change your mind, own up to it. Because I’m always changing my mind, little by little, but some things haven’t significantly changed. I had one experience where I was writing about Tom Roberts in Volume 1 of the history [The Art of Australia Vol. 1: Exploration to Federation, Pan Macmillan, 2009] and I thought, I’ll look up what I wrote about that in a lecture about eight years ago. So I looked up the lecture, which is a long piece on Tom Roberts, and I found I had written, word for word, the same paragraph, absolutely word for word; about six lines. I knew it was familiar, but I didn’t realise I was plagiarising myself. So in a way it made me think, that is obviously what I really feel about that. CW: Do you ever feel pressure from friends, or, as a part of the Sydney art world, from your connections and associations? JM: Well, what is the expression? “I am in the art world, I’m not of the art world.” Because I know so many people I try to be even handed. I feel like I try to get around and see as much as I can. A lot of things I can’t see and I regret that, just because of time mainly, because I am so harassed
by deadlines and things I have to do… but you do know a lot of people and you would be a liar if you said you didn’t get to know artists and have friends who are artists and have favourites and non-favourites, and I think some people over the years I have probably reviewed lots of times. But it’s not because I am friends with them as people, it’s more to do with the fact that I think they are actually good artists. I think you can only be friends with people if you respect their work. I think those people who are really nice people but you don’t like their work, there is always a bit of distance. On the other hand, there are lots of times when people I know really well have shows and I don’t review them, because simply there is something more important, there is something that demands my time, or I feel like it would be excessive to go in there. Somebody like Angus Nivison, I’ve given a lot of reviews over the years – I like Angus and I like his work, I think of him as a person of integrity. What I liked about his last show is that this was the biggest exhibition of Angus’s work and it struck me as being much stronger than I imagined it was going to be. It was a pleasant surprise to see that Angus, who is a nice guy, produced a body of work that I thought was really powerful. And, being a survey show, it was a great time to review. I’ve got less qualms about reviewing people in survey shows than I have, say, in solo shows at
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commercial galleries, because there is always massive competition for those few spots that I get nowadays. Same thing with Linde Ivimey, the other week up in Brisbane - a survey show is a much better opportunity to review rather than a solo show at Martin Browne’s. I do the solo shows now when I have a spare week, but most weeks are taken up with one project after another. I regret not having done more of those survey shows, which slipped by. I would have liked to have done Peter Sharp’s show when he had it up at Hazelhurst but somehow I didn’t quite get to that. I got to Ildiko’s but I didn’t get to Peter’s. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw because you’re travelling or you are preoccupied, you’re caught up with stuff… you know you do have a private life, albeit rather slender in the scheme of things. CW: One last question, before we finish the interview. Which Sydney artists are you watching for the year to come? I can hardly say actually. I’m not really a talent spotter because I’m not an art consultant, I don’t do any of that sort of stuff. I think I’m more willing to go along and watch and take a certain interest. For instance, I see that Maria Kontis has a show at the moment at Darren Knight and I’ll definitely go and see that, because she is a very interesting artist. I haven’t seen anything by her for a while. So, little names make a click for you and then you
want to go and see it. I’m certainly watching a lot of Chinese artists who are doing a lot of amazing things. I can’t really say. I take it as it comes and there are always good things out there. There are always people like Peter Godwin, who Campbell Robertson-Swann shows, who I think is just a fantastic painter and no museums have picked anything of his up, they will really have to at some stage because all of the collectors are going into a feeding frenzy with it. But it’s almost like when the collectors are interested the museums hold back… Sullivan & Strumpf have a whole lot of really quite interesting artists, Barry Keldoulis had some interesting artists, Darren has got some good ones, Damien Minton has got a few good ones. There’s a whole bunch of them out there who have people on the up and up. Now Utopia has a dual identity between indigenous and non-indigenous and the main-stayers, people like Angus and John R Walker. There’s a whole undercurrent of things that are always bubbling to the surface with artists. I don’t think a good artist is ever going to really miss out – quality will make its own space.
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Give a little bit Steve Lopes
One of the core reasons for creating art is to communicate with others, but this is sometimes the very thing that can be forgotten in the course of forging a career in art. Ambition, ego and selfishness can come to the fore amidst the perceived glamour of art world machinations, creating an artistic blind spot of sorts that can separate us from meaningful connections. Some artists become hell bent on climbing out of the primordial ooze to gain attention for their work. Given the modern media is obsessed with the cult of celebrity, ignoring the waves of hubris and maintaining a balanced perspective is more important than ever. Communicating with other artists, being open to what other artists are doing and having the ability to embrace different sensibilities would seem central to becoming an interesting artist. However, the competitiveness of the art world, its perceived glamour and the “what’s in it for me” mentality of today can creep into art practice. Have you ever noticed as an artist that during summertime when a lot of the galleries are closed, people are away on holidays and the commercial distractions of the art world are gone that your creativity seems to flow better? There’s time to catch up and the work/life balance slips into a more manageable mode. Why is it sometimes harder to maintain that sense of equilibrium
throughout the rest of the working year? We don’t have to always get hung up on image and the slickness of the glossy end of the art world – it’s better to try and be a poet than an image conscious pamphleteer. Why not to some small degree embrace the notion of generosity? In these gloomy economic times, and especially for those of us living in Australia where audiences and budgets are small and there are even smaller levels of philanthropy, it makes sense to help each other out a little, even if it’s only for moral support. The do-it-yourself ethos of artist-run spaces and urban art has always had an element of the nonexclusionist approach, fostering young talent and exhibiting a willingness to embrace a wide range of influences - something we can all learn from. Artists should support each other in small ways, share more information. By even the smallest deed you can have a positive affect on other artists lives. We’ve all come across those artists unwilling to reveal their techniques, feigning interest in others work and then clamming up when asked for a helping hand or advice. It may sound naïve but who benefits from that approach? Many of the world’s greatest artists shared their knowledge and the good ones remained humble. Take, for example, the New York artists of post
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WWII who met in cafes to exchange ideas and took inspiration from each other. That famously important era was a hotbed of creativity, where the network revolved primarily around the art. Painter Larry Poons once told of New York in the early 60s in an interview: “It really wasn’t a community as much as a telegraph network at that time, but there wasn’t money involved, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of commercial interest which is not wrong... but it just wasn’t there. I mean Pollock might have sold six or so paintings before he died - I don’t know (exactly) but none of us were really selling anything.” Art is a tough existence and there are countless stories of artists who end up withdrawing from the world and wrapping themselves in a bubble. For some that’s fine, but what if every artist were to think like that? It’s important to remain engaged even during difficult patches. Artists can ‘cocoon’ themselves as an excuse when it all gets too hard. We need to stimulate debates, be active and inspire others. If you’re an artist who thinks they’ve seen it all – you haven’t - that’s the time to put in that extra effort and give a bit back. If you are in a living, working relationship with life and the joys of what art can bring, you Steve Lopes studio view
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shouldn’t feel exhausted or emptied out. It’s easy to get despondent; most artists will have periods of being ignored, when their shows are received with indifference and emails go unanswered. In the grand scheme of things these are trivialities. There will always be a raft of deluded artists taken away by their own selfimportance - it can be hard to keep your ego in check when everything’s going well. Being aware of these traps and focusing on the act of creating art - and the reason you started making it in the first place – should be the primary motivation that keeps you going. Bring that sense of passion and, to a degree, idealism back into your interactions with other artists and the art world. You don’t have to end up a crusader like Bob Geldolf or Bono, but your actions should mean something. Self-absorption is becoming boring. The connections you make, the ideas and the intangible concepts are what makes being an artist interesting. One simple thing you could do is to make an extra effort to see a friend’s show. If you see a good exhibition, send an email or tell the artist directly if you know them. Tell each other about grants, residencies Steve Lopes studio view
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or award opportunities. Your rigorous pursuit of ideas, craft, subject matter are what attracts others to what you are doing, and what others are doing should inspire you too. Art is a broad church and it can be hard to be all-embracing but don’t feel that you have to leave it to dumb luck, chutzpah or being accepted into ‘inner circles’ to achieve anything meaningful. Some artists play coy, pretending to be above petty rivalries. In reality they see other artists as a threat - what’s the threat? Are they going to stop you making art? I’d like to think that if the work is good, time will bring it forward or it will be appreciated in some capacity. Time also relegates the work of the not-so-deserved. Be excited about the work of others that affects you; try giving a few more compliments and hold back on one or two of the snide remarks that can sometimes slip out too easily. If you’re dissatisfied or grumble that the art world would be a better place if you had more say, it doesn’t really matter - art is bigger than everybody. Get used to its ever-changing nature, make the most of it and be positive. And if your small actions help someone else along the way all the better.
Self portrait dreaming of eating with Li Jin, 2013, oil on canvas, 130 x 100cm
Contemporary Corners Sarah Cottier Galleryâ€™s arrival opposite Martin Browne Contemporary in Paddington makes for a very nice double act. ALLFORART caught their opening nights in early March.
Lesley Kernaghan and Ian Plater
Peter Rayner and Roy Jackson
Ashley Barber and Georgia Hobbs
Tai Shan Tony Twigg
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Tony Twigg climbs the Chinese mountain Tai Shan, remembering Ian Fairweather.
Ian Fairweather went on holiday from his Shanghai job in 1932 for a fortnight to Peking (Beijing). Someone had told him about Tai Shan, a sacred mountain that he would be passing on route, and that it was an easy 2-hour walk to the summit. When his train stopped at Tai’an, the town at its foot in Xiandong Province, he took the opportunity to climb it. But the hike took a lot more than two hours, and as he reached the top, snow started falling. It was dark and Fairweather found shelter in a monastery there.
Fairweather-style for us! My plan had us arriving early afternoon, finding the entrance to the climb, then a hotel and sleeping before a fresh start the following morning.
Walking back down the mountain he was faced with the galvanising vision of intense perseverance - Chinese women with bound feet patiently making the climb up. It probably wasn’t the beginning, but it was close to the beginning of Fairweather’s journey to the meditation that is his sublime painting Monastery of 1960.
There are plenty of shops in China. Tai’an has its share catering to the needs of locals, pilgrims, tourists, and rock collectors. The city is decorated with rocks. Entire shops are devoted to galleries of rocks from small pocket-sized rocks to hotel lobby sized rocks. People sell rocks at stalls in markets and from blankets spread out in parking lots. Tai Shan is one enormous rock emblazoned with a carved script seemingly over its entire height. I had to have a rock of my own. Pretty soon I’d bought another for Murray Bail, another for my sister, two more for good measure and then to Gina’s great amusement I was preparing to climb a mountain with my pockets full of rocks.
Last year when I went to Beijing with Gina on our own holiday, thinly disguised as a 1-month residency with Redgate Gallery, climbing Tai Shan was our high order objective. We set out on the subway to Beijing South Railway Station then caught the bullet train, averaging 300km per hour, to Tai’an. No freezing in a 3rd class carriage
“The sprit of Mount Tai, Tai Shan (is) a deity who ranks in the Taoist pantheon almost on a level with the Creator”, is how the Thomas Cook guidebook of 1917 described the mountain. The map I picked up on the way there flatly states, “Mount Tai is…number one among China’s (five) most famous mountains…the symbol of the Chinese
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nation, the epitome of the great oriental culture and the birth place of ‘unity of heaven and human’ thoughts.” And that, “It has become a charming story that Confucius considers that, ‘on top of Mount Tai, the whole world becomes smaller.’”
As our walk began, one of my five rocks made its way to Gina’s pocket - vindication! Her mirth silenced. Now that rock sits patiently on a shelf in her office. The way is defined by a profusion of rocks along a path that begins in temples straddling a city street. Leading to rocks and inscriptions on
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boulders, and tiny rocks tied with red ribbons thrown into the trees. This is “the first Chinese calligraphy famous mountain” and should not be confused with Cold Mountain, Han Shan, and the poet of the same name in Zhejiang Province who deeply inspired the American painter Brice Marden. We reached the Red Gate on a clear sunny day, our winter jackets shoved into a bag over my shoulder. I star ted noticing the first people heading in the opposite direction, people wearing enormous padded coats looking like Red Army leftovers. Had they spent a night at the summit to catch the dawn, the first of the four wonders of Mount Tai that likely greeted Fairweather? We paused at temples along the way; left a memento for Fairweather and, as the path got steeper, took our first rest. It was like an instruction to begin noticing the people around us. They weren’t tourists and they weren’t the cool young Chinese who flock to the temple parks of the Western Hills near Beijing. They looked poor and they were old. We walked on, we paused, passing and repassing people who started waving and smiling, shouting words of encouragement that I imagined was the camaraderie of the pilgrim. I wondered if
Fairweather had found it, and if it was what guided him to the monastery? We saw no women with bound feet as he described, but there was an old woman easily 80, walking with her son I suppose. They kept pace with Gina and me. We waved, we smiled, we walked, and last saw her at midway the Mid Gate To Heaven. Gina had looked at her watch when we started and timed the entire walk at seven hours. So, from the halfway point that is connected to Tai’an by a bus service, the summit would be about three hours, matching Fairweather’s recollection of the walk that took ‘a lot more than two hours.’ Perhaps Fairweather came on a bus to midway? We walked on and then in the distance, tiny and way above us, the West Gate to Heaven – a glimpse.
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Even if it had been renovated since 1932, the emotions of proximity – so far and so near – of impossibility, doubt and resolve, were thoughts that Fairweather would have entertained and which we shared. As we approached the summit the stairs were so steep that we, like almost everyone else, were clinging to the handrail, awkwardly passing the people coming down. We were wearing our jackets against the grey sleet and bitter wind. The way went on to more temples and, of course, a monastery perched in the shadow of the summit. Fairweather’s description is on page 47 of Nourma Abbott-Smith’s book Ian Fairweather, profile of a painter. They are the recollections of an old man filtered through a writer’s romance for his work. Now, sitting in Sydney looking at a reproduction of Monastery, Fairweather’s more reliable recollection, I wonder, could it be a landscape of boulders? Swirling with calligraphy, lifted as Brice Marden lifted the words of Cold Mountain, perhaps? It’s the
sense of looking through that I see. Go to another work, Painting iii of the same year, on page 116 in Murray Bail’s book Fairweather, and see the same idea much more obviously presented. With its distance there is a mood that is more pervasive than any particular association thrown up by the painting. We didn’t spend the night in a monastery or at one of the hotels up there. We came down in a cable car to pick up a bus at midway and then the bullet train back to Beijing. Fairweather, who’d already walked down, skipped Peking and went on to spend his holiday exploring the Western Hills instead.
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15th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh 2012 Todd Fuller
As the plane door opened, my first impression was of being hit by a wall of heat and air like nothing I had ever experienced before. Disembarking, I couldn’t help but be amused by the sign at Customs that asked me to declare my chandeliers and firearms on entry.
of Bangladesh where we were met by Taikos drummers and local musicians. The Biennale sprawled across four floors of the building and featured artists from 34 countries across the Asia Pacific region including many Bengali artists.
I eventually entered the arrival hall and was chuffed to be met by a sign:
The opening ceremony commenced almost exclusively in Bengali but out of it we suddenly made out Todd Fuller - Australia. Confused, I was being ushered on stage where I was handed a medal, trophy and wooden box while shaking the hand of the Minister of Cultures. Thankfully it was sorted out between photos as he explained that I had won an Honourable Mention Award.
Australia Todd Fuller I was then ushered into a large black van and despite being tired, I marvelled at the thick traffic, registering the cacophony of horns and sirens, brown city lights like haunting spectres on the horizon, while darting under bridges in various stages of construction. Cars oscillated backwards, forwards and sideways in a race where rules didn’t seem to apply. Even at midnight the road was teeming and I bounced from one side of the van to the other, delighted by the spectacle rushing past the windows. Welcome to Dhaka, Bangladesh, home of the 15th Asian Art Biennale.
As the week progressed the foreign exhibitors continued to travel as a group. The bus trips featured loud communal singing lead by the artists from across the region; Oman, Iran, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, East Timor and Nepal, among others. Each time it came to Australia’s turn, Ida Lawrence, my fellow Australian exhibitor and I, both struggled to muster an Australian song, unfortunately Kookaburra sits in the old Gum tree just didn’t cut it by comparison.
The following day, in a slightly jet lagged state, our group was escorted to the academies auditorium before later heading to the National Art Gallery
We were treated to many lavish functions, toured through the local commercial gallery scene, Shilpakalah Academy of Fine Art and the homes
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of some of the benefactors and gallerists who supported the event. The Bengali artworks were a stand out, with a potent political history that is still evident in everyday life. As our local minders (art students from the academy) shared more of their stories of their countryâ€™s struggles, these works became even more intensely touching. Across the Bengali section of the exhibition we were confronted by a fierce technical training, regularly united with stories of liberation and oppression, questions of identity and meditations on tradition. Mid-week the Biennale seminar, â€˜Crosspolination and Regional Perspectivesâ€™, was suddenly cancelled and we were informed that a national holiday had been called for the following day and that we should stay in our hotel. It soon became clear that there was political unrest and as foreigners, it was not safe to be on the street. The next day, travelling with two of the local guides (Akash and Lucky) in a wonderfully dishevelled yellow ex-taxi, we ventured to Tambri to experience the local bronze casting community including a man who was introduced to us as Golden Gandi. By candlelight, the lost wax method felt particularly ritualistic - all the while monkeys outside watched on. We ended up on the Indian border viewing a large temple constructed entirely from intricate, hand made terracotta tiles, featuring
all sorts of totems, patterns and animals. In a stark contrast to the city, villages and plantations were sprinkled along the dusty roadside. Vast river systems with blossoming water lilies slipped through the plains and the sense that this place was yet to be touched by the outside world was extremely refreshing (in fact at one cafe we were met by a poster advertising domestic tourism which stated: Bangladesh-see it before the tourists come). On the final day we returned to the city and despite the warnings we left the hotel and hired a rickshaw driver but because of the demonstrations, we now found the streets to be eerily calm and quite surreal. Without the torrents of traffic, the city functioned remarkably well with a calm pace even in the markets by the roadside. This was not to last as chaos fast approached - other rickshaw drivers were suddenly riding towards us while waving us back and yelling and in the distance we could hear whistles, yelling and the banging of drums. Our driver ejected us from the rickshaw in order to mount it over a concrete barrier putting us onto the opposite side of the road. Straddling the rickshaw once more, we darted up a tiny side street where again we were forced to turn around. Returning to the road we headed back in the original direction, straight towards the far off sounds and chaos! Sure enough, the cries grew closer until
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we were met by a moving wall of people. To the right, a wall of green policemen in full riot gear, to the left, a mass of protesters in action as we peddled politely and speechless directly through the ever decreasing pathway between the two. *Unfortunately, it was later reported that there had been a bus fire and many deaths in the riots that we had inadvertently stumbled into. A few hours later I was again at the airport, this time preparing for the journey home. I declared the many chandeliers I had accumulated throughout
the trip and came to realise that what had been one of the greatest adventures of my life was the day to day existence of 161 million people who populate Bangladesh. Our Bengali friends had quickly welcomed us with an overwhelming spirit of generosity, of all the beautiful things I encountered while in Bangladesh, this sentiment was without a doubt the most moving and memorable. Sketchbook in hand I returned home, its contents heavy with mixed feelings and a bag full of memories.
Fuller was invited to Bangladesh to participate in the 15th Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh 2012, where he was awarded an Honourable Mention for his hand drawn film â€œOne and Onlyâ€?. Todd Fuller is represented by Brenda May Gallery, Sydney.
On Painting Bryan King talks about his latest exhibition at Watters Gallery
These are perhaps the most light-hearted paintings I’ve done. Many are of our back yard; in the garden there’s such an incredible sense of space and life. One catalyst for the paintings is piles of dead leaves - that might be where the mountainous effect comes from. Everything is stacked up and shown at the same time. Auburn is mostly single story compared to where we lived before and I’m amazed by the horizon line. At the end of our street is a river. Quite a bit of rubbish collects there. I’ve painted that scene a few times in this show too - junk, tennis balls, hundreds of plastic bottles. I don’t mind it, I think it’s interesting. I almost don’t care what I get a picture of. I’m always aiming for ambiguity in my work; for my own interest and for people looking at the paintings. I like it when a painting is trying to be an image and not an image at the same time. I’m a figurative painter, and as much as I’d love to be an abstract artist I find that the figure always forces itself in. I’m always battling the figure, it always wants to be in the painting and it will do anything, I mean anything at all, to get in. One painting has flesh tones across, that’s a figure disintegrated across the canvas. Sometimes paintings turn recognisable
really quickly and I battle that; I’ll paint with my eyes closed if it’s getting too clear, or paint that section out. There’s lots of overpainting in my work for that reason. I go to the canvas not knowing what I’m going to paint, but I know as soon as I start whether it’s going to be animal, vegetable or mineral. Most of these are vegetable. One is the same scene as another after being sprayed with Roundup. I draw on the canvas with a thin brush for a while until it suggests something and then I add colour, shadow, and then marks slowly evolve from marks. I go with the mark. I’ve learnt to trust them; I think that’s the thing I learnt painting this show, to have enough courage to trust the marks. I used to think they were just marks, but now I’ve learnt to see what’s in front of me. At the back of my mind is the sense that some colours are menacing but I try not to bring it into my conscious mind. I don’t want that much control. I use a limited palette because the paint I like to use only has a limited colour range. I use virtually no water; it’s cheap acrylic, and it has a little bit of glaze to give it a shine.
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The artist in his garden
Bryan King, Vacant Lot after Roundup, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 91.5 x 76cm
An interview with Vika Begalska Jessica Holburn Translated by Maria Sigutina
“Where there is power, there is resistance.” Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality 1: An Introduction. Russia remains a society where freedom of speech is denied, where authoritarianism and patriarchy continues to prevail, yet within this dire situation an art community thrives. I have the pleasure of meeting Moscow based painter and performance artist Vika Begalska the day after she arrives in Sydney. She is jetlagged, sandy and sunburned.
JESSICA HOLBURN: What are your first impressions of Australia? VIKA BEGALSKA: We went to the beach today so I would say severe nature; hot sun, very salty water… Sharks! JH: How do you feel about life in Moscow at present? Are you disappointed? Cynical? Frustrated? Pessimistic? Optimistic? VB: Russia is in a difficult political situation, Putin’s longevity puts a strain on everybody, we are tired and annoyed at the prospect of Putin’s reign for another 12 years. I’d say I feel all of the above and then some.
JH: Your paintings and performances have often been quite politically satirical and playful, The Severe Youth in 2008 depicts Putin posing in red hot pants with his dog and bicycle and in another portrait With a Choker you have Putin fingering a noose. In one of your video works, The Lord of the Rats and Nutcrackers, you show your subjects in the midst of the Red Square. How has the authoritarianism of the ruling regime in Russia shaped your understanding of art? Particularly in terms of censorship? VB: Politics influences my work a lot, my art is based around the effect the regime has on people and the whole notion of protest. Humour is my personal reaction to what is going on in Russia, a way of dealing with my frustrations, whereas I think others look at protest in a perhaps more forceful way. My portrayals of Putin are humorous in a dark sense, those paintings I did of him posing with the dog and with the noose belong to an exhibition entitled “Am I Really Bored?” This is a reference to a Russian saying, a joke that when times are bad, folks will say “Well, at least I’m not bored.” So yes I am making fun of the situation, but I’m also making a serious comment about being on the edge of things that couldn’t get much worse, to the point where you’d rather be bored. I also painted riots in this series of work, to exemplify the collective reaction against what is happening.
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JH: Do you feel that it is the role of the artist to be just as much of an activist as an observer in society? VB: No, I think there needs to be a separation. Art is indirect, it should not posit a single truth or impose any one view. The artist knows of multi-layered meanings, the activist is far more direct. For me to be an activist would mean too much involvement in that world to the detriment of my art. I also feel that in activism one might lose a clear understanding of what is going on, I’d like to have a more balanced vision. But if you take the infamous Pussy Riot as an example, you see where activism and art collide, this is “actionism” at best, attracting attention for all the world to see, a movement that challenges and exposes corruption, revealing just how far the government will go to oppose freedom of speech. While I’m not an activist per se, I’m launching a collective project via a website feminkitchen.org, in which we are developing a union for sex workers, inviting the community to support and join the union. I want to integrate my skills as a filmmaker to communicate the objectives of the union, one being the legalisation of prostitution in Russia. JH: Your most recent show at Pop/Off Art Gallery in Moscow entitled “Sigi” (nickname for Sigmund Freud) features surrealistic portraits of deformed, sometimes smiling faces, they are like demented ink blots. Using bold and bright colours of Fauvist portraiture styles, Vika Begalska, Brull, oil on canvas, 200 x 100cm
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this series has a playfully juvenile quality to it, although on another level it’s a commentary on psychoanalysis, schizophrenic personalities, the struggle of identity, torment, anguish, disturbance, fetishized genitals and imaginary selves. Are any of these selfportraits? VB: They are not self-portraits, they are more impressions and manifestations. I want to tap into a creativity based on childhood memories and sublimation. I’m also trying to illustrate the way in which femininity is a social construct. And I also want to show how identity is becoming an increasingly anonymous phenomenon in society. I will continue this line of work here in Australia in my upcoming show. JH: Performance artist Marina Abramović once said she never got much out of therapy and that she always thought the more fucked-up a childhood you had the better the artist you became. She says “I don’t think anyone does anything from happiness. Happiness is such a good state, it doesn’t need to be creative. You’re not creative from happiness, you’re just happy. You’re creative when you’re miserable and depressed. You find the key to transform things. Happiness does not need to transform.” Do you agree with Abramović on this issue? VB: I like Marina’s work a lot and to an extent what she says is true. I wouldn’t create what I create if it weren’t for the things I observe. My childhood was not Vika Begalska, Doolick, oil on canvas, 200 x 100cm
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great. I remember living in Ukraine and we lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building and I could see the tip of a poplar tree out of my window. I was overwhelmed with a desire to escape my life there and to wake up one morning and not see the tip of that damn poplar tree ever again. But I think that therapy does have a place in society, I think it’s important for people to take care of their wellbeing and not necessarily feel the need to be self destructive for the sake of art. My psychoanalyst asked me if I wanted to get married, I said yes. My analyst then talked to my boyfriend to ask what qualities he wanted in a wife. They concluded that for me to not get jealous was the most desirable attribute and with that in mind we got married. But that was very hard for me to suppress. Jealousy is a natural instinct and was the cause of many arguments. People are surprised to know that beyond my shy veneer I do have a very fiery personality, I’m emotional and sensitive, but also very social and cheerful, does that make me schizophrenic? No, but perhaps I’m a little nuts, a bit psychotic. Art is an effective therapy for schizophrenia and many artists that inspire me have been drunks and mentally unstable. But I make a point not to drink and paint. JH: In your work, sexuality is overtly eroticised. You maintain a strong opposition to pretty and superficial portraits through your depiction of subjects that deviate from norms. Would you
agree that your work celebrates a post-feminist ideology? Do you identify with yourself as a postfeminist? VB: Yes. I read a lot of theory connected to sexuality and power, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault. I also tend to Joseph Butler for his ideas about the transience of identity and so on. I’m in the midst of working on a project to promote post-feminist artists and to invite those artists to join the sex workers union in Russia. I believe in the legalisation of brothels in Russia to ensure that the women are better cared for if they are in need of medical assistance or legal protection. One of my endeavours while I’m in Sydney is to conduct interviews with union members and sex workers to gain some insight on what it’s like for women here. JH: Your work explores the aesthetics of the ugly, or as you have said in an earlier interview, finding “beauty in ugliness”. People are attracted to the unattractive, particularly when you consider Francis Bacon’s retrospective at the AGNSW for instance, his depictions of the body without organs, distorted faces, images of horror and terror, the show has had a wonderful public response. What is it do you think that artists and audiences alike share in their fascination with deformation? Is ugly the new Sublime? VB: I can’t speak for all artists but for me I am
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majorly influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche who claimed that the truth is ugly and that art is the thing that keeps us from perishing. It’s about deconstructing and exposing the truths of human existence that we are so fearful of: death, decay, degeneration. My work resides in the neo-expressionist vein of art, because as much as my work is dealing with darker themes and inner emotional turmoil, it uses more of a psychedelic palette rather than brooding colours. I really enjoyed the Francis Bacon retrospective, we saw it earlier today, but Bacon does differ from where I’m at aesthetically. I draw more from artists of the New Wild movement, of whom I would like to mention Kippenberger, Baselitz, Oechlen, Fetting, Immendorff, Lupertz and Penck. These artists influenced me as well as my favourite contemporaries, who include Daniel Richter for his intensity of colour and composition, Peter Doig for his abstract landscapes, Cecily Brown for her eroticism, Jonathan Meese for his postmodern allegories and sculptures. These artists are sexually provocative, offensive, some of them are also making commentaries on dictatorships in the way that I am. JH: In one of your video works, you step into a corporate building, presumably for a job interview, take your clothes off, lie on a CEO’s desk and erotically lick the soles of his shoes. This is clearly a comment on female subservience in the corporate world and it’s pretty confronting stuff. Sexual
perversion and subjugation have been continuous themes in your oeuvre, do you find that you can express these themes through video in ways that you cannot through painting? VB: Painting always has layers of meaning. With video work the meanings tend to be far more straightforward. That video you speak of was a result of a friend who tried to get me to go to a job interview. I went so far as to buy the clothes; the high heels, the suit and everything. When I decided not to go to the interview, I needed to find something to do with all the clothes I bought, so I thought it would be a good idea to use them in my next video work. JH: Do you ever have doubts while you perform, do you ever think to yourself “is this shit?” VB: I am in such a state when I perform where I am so engaged and focused on what I’m doing that there’s no room for doubt in my mind. It’s a process, you never think of the result at the time that comes after. JH: In your conversation with Anatoly Osmolovsky, you said that you would like your viewer to be emotional about your work, be it positive or negative. What has been some of the most astounding feedback you’ve had thus far on your work? VB: When somebody told me they were shocked
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that they were shocked about my art. JH: What’s your daily routine like in Moscow? VB: I get up early and paint all day in the studio, it’s like a 9 to 5 job I guess. And then by night I go to openings and support the art community. I think it’s an important part of being an artist, to support your fellow artists and be aware of what others are creating. JH: What ambitions do you have for the future? VB: To continue painting and performing. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Vika Begalska’s exhibition Podes and Antipodes will be held at Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks Street Waterloo until March 16, 2013. She will also exhibit video work and live performance pieces across several venues in Sydney including At The Vanishing Point at 565 King St, Newtown and an experiential installation show at Alaska Projects, Wednesday February 27.
Vika Begalska, Hloa, oil on canvas, 200 x 100cm All images courtesy the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery.
Lost Genre? Ross McLean
Euan Macleod, Up and Down, 2012, oil on polyester, 182.5 x 286.5cm. Courtesy of the artist and Watters Gallery.
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Ross McLean ponders a genre of painting forgotten in the hype of contemporary art
For most of us, the experience of contemporary art at biennales, arts festivals, at public galleries and as exhibited at the major commercial galleries is of works and artists that are ordained by the art market as having significance. How does this colour our viewing, our judgment and discrimination, our choice of what we look at, and what we buy and keep looking at? Does it result in art that is fated to be lost because it is of little interest to those who shape and benefit from the contemporary art market? These are among the questions addressed in Lost Art by Julian Davies, one of two thoughtful and vigorously argued essays in a slim book of the same name that was published last year by a small Braidwood press. Davies argues that the art market’s sifting process is corrupted by politics, influence, personalities and money. The market promotes and celebrates success in order to create marketable brands and commodities. This corruption of the sifting process also involves a fixation with invention, newness and distinctiveness, which Davies argues increases the likelihood of certain art forms and artists being marginalised and lost. It is not the point or corollary of Davies’ argument that more “traditional” or conservative art is better or that what he calls “lost art” is just as good as the contemporary art that the market values as more worthwhile. Nor is the essay an attack on con-
temporary art. Indeed, it celebrates the rewards of looking long and hard at all serious art. Rather, Davies emphasises that in looking at art we need to work hard to drown out the noise of the market and to discount received opinions because they are not a safe guide. What is lost art to the market may reward enthusiastic looking and can be worth encouraging, commenting on and supporting. Davies points to an example close to him, a now deceased English woman who was a dedicated older artist who nurtured him when his enthusiasm for art was taking shape. Unfortunately, the essay includes no examples of her work. Davies’ engagement with the work of this serious artist, whose work was based on close observation and imaginative transformation of what she saw and what was alive or important to her, was rewarding even though it was lost art. Davies’ thesis is thought provoking. Beyond artists, are there currently genres that have largely been sifted out by the market and therefore consigned to be lost from view? Arguably, one such lost or threatened genre is figure in landscape painting. Of course, some would say painting at large is out of favour but any survey of the major commercial galleries would not bear this out. However, many such galleries would represent no painters of fig-
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ure in landscape work. Painters with high market profiles working in this genre are few. Euan Macleod and a handful of others come to mind. The prospect of one of them being shown in a Sydney Biennale or being Australia’s Venice Biennale representative would not be high. And yet figure in landscape in large format digital images or video works (think Henson, Gladwell, Moffat) is a staple of those art forms. Why is contemporary painting in this genre largely filtered out by the market? Is it because it lacks relevance and interest in our time? Unlikely, the relationship between man and nature has never been more important and in any case transformative images of what artists see will always meet these criteria. Is it because most of the contemporary art in this genre is of poor quality? This case would need to be made. Why would this be so in this genre and not others including landscape itself where there is no shortage of artists and work exhibited in commercial and public galleries. Is it because large format digital images and video works are better adapted to this area of expression? This is difficult to sustain. Painted portraits or landscapes co-exist with photographs, digital images and video works addressing the same subject mater. Or is it because most such work is not sufficiently new, inventive or distinctive so that the market sifts it out as too conservative, not truly contemporary in some constructed sense of that
word? Lost Art perhaps suggests that part of the answer might lie in this direction. No doubt any complete explanation will be more complex and multiple factors will be at play. In any case, if we do not have much of an opportunity to engage with contemporary figure in landscape painting, are we missing much? Reflecting on two experiences of figure in landscape painting in 2012 brings home to me the rewards of looking at this type of work. First, Euan Macleod’s South Island exhibition, particularly the large central work in that show – Up and Down, and then a small plein air painting Wet Morning, Manly in Haydn Wilson’s exhibition of works centred around the Manly area where he lives. These are arguably conservative paintings, even within the oeuvre of these two artists. Neither features a panoramic or sublime landscape – a broad expanse of brick paved beachside promenade in one and a rock strewn icy slope in the other. In neither are the figures heroic or participating in actions that communicate clear or known stories. They are walking. But the figures are central to each painting and its emotional or psychological charge. As Euan Macleod said in the catalogue note for his exhibition: “As usual, the figure seems to have a necessary and central role, and I tend to look at the places that the paintings are based on as useful in rep-
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Haydyn Wilson, Wet Morning, Manly, 2011, oil on canvas, 66 x 82cm. Courtesy of the artist and Frances Keevil Gallery
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resenting something emotional, rather than being about a specific location.” As a genre, figure in landscape painting is particularly suited to addressing aspects of what it is to be human in the world today. Our relationships to nature, to each other. How we shape and tame and use nature, or ignore it. How it ignores us and our ambitions and efforts to get ahead, to make a life. Of course, digital images and video artworks can address the same subject matter, but with different strengths and limitations. Artists who paint in this genre enjoy several advantages. They are not limited by the need to travel to and use real locations and to put real people in their works. The composition, palette, editing and degree of verisimilitude are choices that allow for a greater level of imaginative decision-making and touch. Consider the strong diagonal composition and repeated triangular motifs in Up and Down which create an optical, abstract effect and a sense of characters on edge, in an extreme, shifting and harsh world. Or the restricted palette in Wet Morning, Manly where the same murky yellow green and purplish blue tones feature through foreground, figures, beach and sky to integrate the composition and figures into their environs. These paintings also point to some of the problems that a painter in this genre must address, and different approaches to those problems. How to
avoid the figures unbalancing the composition so that the viewer’s eye does not travel around the work? How to convey gesture, movement, stillness, without figures seeming like posted statues? The pace, rhythm and movement in these two works is very different but in each case I think quite successful in defining their mood and emotional charge, their particular poetry. Finally, as with any good painting there is the magic of a few strokes of a brush conjuring what might be difficult to convey in a digital image or a video work; here the character of two very different dogs, or a backpack. Of course, contemporary figure in landscape painting is not really lost unless you judge what is worth looking at by reference to what is shown in the public galleries, chosen by curators for their contemporary survey shows or written about by the same group. These are not works that are “difficult” so that we need them to be explained to us or intellectualised in order to appreciate their charge or significance. They are connected to the history of their genre, but are nevertheless contemporary. As Davies reminds us, there is no substitute for looking, for developing and exercising our own discernment. This allows a more open and generous approach to all genres, artists and works than that which suits the narrower interests of the art market.
Thanks for reading! Contributions to ALLFORART are welcome and we will publish them when we can. Articles should be relevant, informative, positive and about the Sydney art scene, its artists, personalities, galleries, issues... the list goes on. We are accepting submissions for our next edition until 31st May 2013. Whilst this magazine is about the artists of Sydney and their representatives, it is also a platform for writers and thinkers to get their ideas out there. Like the Three Musketeers, everyone pulls together to support the cause. And because it’s everyone in, all in, it’s not about egos, it’s not about individuals, it’s about a collective voice to support the visual arts... It is not for one person’s gain, but for everyone’s gain, and of course, for the gain of art.
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Published on Mar 14, 2013