Geoff Dyer, Stephen Bird, Etsuko Fukaya, Joanna Braithwaite

February 11, 2012
Stephen Bird, Eliza Day, 2011
Stephen Bird, Eliza Day, 2011

When Thoreau wrote: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he probably wasn’t thinking about art dealers. Yet the phrase springs to mind when one considers the sluggishness of the commercial art scene over the past couple of years. While the art market weathered the GFC better than was generally expected, an extended period of inactivity is now starting to take its toll.

It is another illustration of the way our two-or-three-speed economy is helping a few but hurting many. If those who are making billions from the resources boom suddenly decided to become patrons of the arts the pain might be lessened. But with very few exceptions, notably Santos, this does not seem to be a priority.

On the whole, the most consistent art buyers in this country are middle-class professionals such as doctors, lawyers and those in the finance sector. When these people begin curtailing their spending it makes life hard for those in an industry whose products are usually considered a luxury rather than a necessity. When Australia is finally convinced of the necessity of art we will be able to call ourselves a fully mature culture.

With this in mind it may seem a strange time to be starting a new venture in Sydney, but this will be the second season for the Jensen Gallery, which features some very high-profile international artists; and the first full year for MiCK the Gallery, run by Megan Dick who previously worked across the road at Wagner Gallery.

MiCK is one of the more unusual names for a gallery, and if you google it, be prepared to scroll through mick the miller, mick the pirate, mick the dogg, mick the cat, and a few unprintables. There is no doubt, however, that MiCK means business. Megan and her colleagues have brought together a diverse, promising stable of artists and are busy plotting all the value-adding extras that dealers have to pursue nowadays in order to attract and retain customers.

This translates into lunches, parties, social media, excursions, lectures, film screenings, and numerous other ideas. It may sound like fun, but it also sounds tiring. The days are gone when dealers could sit behind a desk and wait for buyers to come through the door, although I’m not sure those days ever existed.

MiCK is currently showing new Tasmanian landscapes by Geoff Dyer, probably best known for winning the Archibald in 2003, with a portrait of writer, Richard Flanagan. Dyer might be described as an occasional portraitist, much more at ease painting seascapes, or the rivers and forests of his home state. When I say, “at ease”, this is not to imply there is anything laidback about these turbulent, sweeping panoramas, produced with great swathes of the brush or palette knife.

Dyer says that the major influences on his work have been Turner and Constable, and this is fairly obvious in his preference for stormy skies, choppy seas and other atmospheric devices. Like those artists he is preoccupied with light and its effects, both physical and transcendental. But Dyer probably owes just as much to an expressionist such as Nolde, or to the American Abstract Expressionists. He does not labour over his compositions: a motif is selected, and then painted with speed and vigour.

This is not a method that ensures uniformly successful results, and I’m sure Dyer destroys a good percentage of pictures that don’t make the grade.

Some of his paintings show the earth dominated by a lavender-grey sky pierced by shafts of pure light. Other works capture sunrise or sunset as an incandescent blaze of red, orange and pink. Then there are forest pictures, drenched in a cool, aqueous green. In all of these works Dyer is willing to sacrifice the sense of the landscape for the sheer pleasure of putting paint on canvas. The longer one looks at this show, the more it feels like a collection of abstract paintings.

There is nothing abstract about Stephen Bird’s Where the wild roses grow at Rex Irwin’s. This is a show of ceramics to make most potters wince in horror. Bird’s works may conform superficially to the shapes of plates and bowls, but they all possess tiny narratives – ribald, scabrous, grotesque and irreverent. They are also very funny, which is a rare quality in an art exhibition.

The title, as you may know, comes from the Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue duet that ends with Eliza Day being bashed to death with a rock. Bird thoughtfully provides a plate depicting the murder in 3D. This is not his most tasteless exercise by a long chalk, as there is an entire series of plates piled high with ceramic eyeballs. The saving grace is that each of these small tableaux has been created with exceptional skill. Anyone who has dabbled in ceramics will know how difficult it is to manipulate coloured glazes, let alone sculptural pieces made up of many small parts. Bird makes it seem easy. All that most of us will see is the finished work, not the hours of labour invested in these fastidious creations.

Bird’s gags with Christian iconography would give even Reg Mombassa pause for thought. Adam and Eve stand in their customary upright poses on either side of the infamous tree, but Adam has an erection while Eve is foraging between her legs. Another theme that occurs in several variations has two figures of Jesus Christ firing golden guns at each other. Man of Nazareth meets James Bond.

Art that is made specifically to offend usually leaves me cold, but Bird’s relentlessly funky ceramics are much better than that. The way he arranges objects in deep and shallow relief on a plate comes across as an oblique homage to the extraordinary works of the French Renaissance master, Bernard Palissy. The way Bird manages to get the texture of a dry biscuit into a sea of smooth glazes demonstrates a mastery of materials that belies his fondness for crude gags. I’m amazed, but offer one word of caution: Bernard Palissy was condemned to death when he was almost 80, and died in the Bastille.

Pottery can be a more dangerous occupation than is commonly believed.

While Rex Irwin has the most startling ceramics in town, Darren Knight is starting the year with an astonishing, eye-straining exhibition of etchings by young Japanese artist, Etsuko Fukaya. These are the kind of works that virtually need to be studied with a magnifying glass to realise the level of detail in each piece. Fukaya’s prints are packed with birds and animals, flowers and shrubs, and an explosion of cosmic circles reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama’s dot obsession.

These fantasy pictures are visual prayers offered in celebration of the natural world. They have strong family ties to the traditions of Japanese print-making and display the painstaking care and attention that is characteristic of that nation’s arts and crafts. On the other hand, the repetitive pattern making and occasional sense of horror vacui, are close to techniques used by many so-called Outsider artists.

Fukaya is no Outsider, being able to balance areas of densely compacted imagery with areas of blankness when she feels like it, but nobody could make such works without a profoundly obsessive streak in their personality. She might prefer to use the word “meditative” instead, and that fits just as well.

Fukaya’s complex, time-consuming works are small in scale, and take up only the downstairs room. Upstairs, viewers have a last chance to catch Joanna Braithwaite’s Pecking Order, which was the gallery’s final show of 2011.

It’s a good juxtaposition, as Braithwaite is no less preoccupied with birds and animals than Fukaya.

The paintings in this show are large, rather comical portraits of birds. Braithwaite has tried to capture the expressions one might discern on a bird’s face: quizzical, proud, benign or stern. A magpie wears a crucifix around its neck, like a priest in his sober black-and-white. A smug duck sports a gold chain with a dollar sign pendant. Parrots are draped in head scarves, as if observing the conventions of hijab.

Unlike the riotous jibes of Stephen Bird, Braithwaite’s bird humour is muted. These pictures have a similar presence as portraits of human beings. The subjects have been formally posed and show the same stiffness as judges, politicians or professors sitting for portraits that will hang in some grand hall. One could probably slip one or two of these bird portraits in amongst a collection of these often stodgy pictures, and nobody would be the wiser. Plenty of galahs have attained to the highest public honours.

Geoff Dyer: Recent Tasmanian Landscapes, MiCK the Gallery, until 26 Feb.

Stephen Bird: Where the Wild Roses Grow, Rex Irwin Art Dealer, until 25 Feb.

Etsuko Fukaya, until 25 Feb & Joanna Braithwaite: Pecking Order, until 18 Feb, Darren Knight Gallery


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 2012