Monday, December 5, 2011

Contemplating the Yarts

A weekend in Canberra in early summer - crisp nights, bright sunny smogless days. Lovely! Despite Canberra having a reputation as a soulless place a town is really the people you know in it, and we have good friends there which makes Canberra for us an enjoyable and interesting place to visit. We stayed with one of them on Saturday night, as we'd been promising to catch up with he and his wife for ages.

It's been a bit of an arty week for us - Picasso on Wednesday, and on Saturday we visited the Canberra Glassworks and watched glassblowers making - or in one case breaking - glass ornaments and paperweights. I hadn't been to the Glassworks before; it's in Kingston, next to the markets, another favourite haunt of mine when I'm in town at the weekends.

Sunday morning we all looked at each other: what to do, what to do?  We hadn't brought decent walking/hiking shoes with us so a march up the hill behind our friend James' house wasn't in order. It's apparently quite a nice bush walk but our shoes weren't made for scrambling over rocks.

The boys muttered something about the War Memorial but given they have both had time serving their countries it's the kind of place they'll spend hours at, talking at length about each item. (My husband spent 3 years as in the Territorial Army in the UK and you'd think it was a lifetime's service. He bangs on about it like Gavin in the UK sitcom The Office. James spent almost 30 years in the RAN and Royal Navy and cynical doesn't begin to describe him.) I visited the War Memorial with t'Other Half last year and enjoyed it, as it does have some fantastic and heartbreaking exhibits, but that two hours was enough to last me for, oh, five years, say.

We all decided finally on the National Gallery. We hadn't been there since March last year and I always enjoy the ground floor, with its paintings that range from impressionist through fauvism to post-impressionist, pop art and modern. It's free, too.

But I hadn't really truly factored in James. James is great, but he's very opinionated, and a lot of those opinions are negative, or at least negative balanced by what he'd do to set the ACT/Australia/The World to rights.

James and Modern Art don't mix.

I began to see it was a mistake once we'd wandered through the fauves and found our way to postimpressionist. There were Picasso and Braque drawings side by side, from their cubism phases. "This is shit," James declared quietly, and moved on.
Nexus II by Morris Louis, painted in 1959. According to the NGA,  "'Nexus' means connection or link. The painting, made in 1959, marks the transition between two series of important paintings by Morris Louis, who created a new style of Abstract Expressionism in the last five years of his short life". According to James, 'shit'. You decide.

"This is shit," was applied by James to almost every painting after that. His response to Blue Poles was unprintable.

But I had to agree with him on some of it. We all pondered, whilst looking at a diptych of two huge white canvases with nothing on them except a carefully painted narrow black and green border around the edges, who was being taken for a ride. The canvases were titled "Untitled" by Jo Baer. Apparently it is a classic example of 1960s minimalist art. The Government had kindly purchased this work on the taxpayers' behalf, undoubtedly guided by a very expert critic.

The art world is full of bluff, fluff and wankerism. Who decides that a blank canvas with a thin border is art? Expensive art, more to the point. Are we all being conned?

To view the diptych we had to carefully avoid treading on an installation on the floor. A 2 metre by 2 metre white painted board with a dollop of brown foam on top. It looked like something my dog Rosie would shit out if I feed her something a bit too rich for her digestion. Unsurprisingly it too was 'untitled'.

I'm guessing there are people who know a lot more about art than I do who will rave about the Gallery's acquisition of these pieces and explain why they are so important in the world of The Yarts. I'd like to meet them so they can enlighten me and I too can gasp in delight and nod knowingly, and look sadly on people like James who call these works shit. But could it be a case of The Emperor's New Clothes?

We had a moment of levity with Yoko Ono's arse though. Or arses. There's a massive - and I do mean massive - image by Yoko which consists of photos of somebody's bare bum repeated over and over. It's called Bottoms. My husband peered a bit too closely at it trying to ascertain if it was the same arse repeated or a number of arses in the same pose, and his face, close to the arses, triggered the alarm.

He apologised to the nearby guard, and I came out with one of those one-liners you always long for just at the right time. 'Come away from there, it's not scratch and sniff!'

His roar of laughter must have echoed into the next three galleries.

After that we went upstairs, James was soothed by more traditional stuff and I was still pondering who would find real appreciation in the white canvases and the dog shit in one hundred year's time. I guess the public pondered the same about Van Gogh, Picasso, Klimt and Matisse when they first started showing their work and experimenting. Those outside the world of art and artists, the conventional people like my grandparents or great grandparents would have shaken their heads and muttered, 'Ooh, give me a nice Rembrandt any day. Nobody's going to appreciate YOUR work.'

Oh heck. I'm starting to sound like James!


  1. LMAO this was really funny! I remember back in 5th grade (at the 2nd school) doing an art assignment and selecting the very topical (then) Blue Poles as the subject and crafting a rather large abstract piece titled "Green Squares". There was such outcry when the Whitlam government purchased Blue Poles and actually it has turned out to be one of the most profitable government purchases ever. It's current value justifies it's purchase (apparently). Perhaps your untitled doggy doo will also appreciate - let us hope THAT is not scratch and sniff!

  2. Blue Poles has grown on me - there's a lot of structure in there and it has for me a lot more merit than some of the other modern art the NGA displays.
    Ooh, a scratch and sniff doggy doo installation - you're giving me ideas >;-) (Local art show organisers, WATCH OUT FOR MY NEXT ENTRY!!!)