Posts Tagged ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’

Sometimes too much Art seems barely enough. Sometimes too much Art is just too much.

After foolhardily taking in the MCA’s Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration and the AGNSW’s POP to POPism within hours of each other, I have been left shellshocked by the sheer scale, size and slammin’ power of the experience.

They don’t call them blockbusters for nothing, Jim.

At the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chuck Close show stand two huge portraits ­– as impassive and monumental as Easter Island moai heads. The two works span time and process: Bob, from 1969 is rendered in greyscale airbrush, cool and smooth; 2012’s portrait of Lou Reed, Lou, is a Jacquard tapestry, bristling with tiny digitally-mapped woven threads.

POP Lou, Chuck Close 2012

The two pictures say a lot about Close: they are pictures of pictures, images of photographs; they also show his restless search for media and process, whatever the material or labour-intensive cost involved. The show is subbed Prints, Process and Collaboration and is curated to reveal the mind-warping amount of planning, prep and plain hard graft involved.

The pictures also raise questions about where Close sits in current Art: he has always been a hard one to place, as his work, once aligned simplistically with photo-realism, actually seems closer to minimalism and conceptual art, based on grids of small cells as it is. He works on these small square cells, and, as they disappear, a monumental (photo-realistic) image is revealed.

The range of processes he adopts is staggering – from the (digitally mapped) 19th century Jacquard Loom weave, though plate-etching processes such as Spitbite and Mezzotint, to traditional Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints – the hours of painstaking labour involved suggest a meditative onanism as much as a saintly work-ethic masochism. This is the man who said “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.POP Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat), Chuck Close 2013

The craft element alone can take your breath away, but of course it is the startling beauty of this work that rivets you to the spot. The coloured self-portraits, broken as if seen through facetted glass, the deep rich earth tones of the square grid images, the delicious grays of the pulp-paper pictures are a spiritual experience, beyond craft.

And each face is coolly inscrutable, giving away no secrets apart from their planes, surfaces and shadows. Close’s hours of process seem to have seeped into the very fabric of these pictures, causing time to slow when you are in their presence.

Enough of this cool stuff: time for something hot!

Up the hill to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ POP to POPism to see banners shouting Warhol! Sharp! Lichenstein! Haring! hanging along the front of the old girl.

Inside, we are reminded yet again how well the AGNSW does these things: 200 works (mainly killer, some filler) from over fifty lenders worldwide, have been brought together and divided up into seven themed areas for bite-sized consumption.

We are also reminded how heavily calorific Pop Art is – making each bite-sized chunk a gourmet junk food feast in itself.

‘Swinging London’ has Hockney, Peter Blake (that well-known album cover designer) and Richard Hamilton (that other well-known album cover designer) all in fine form. The art and music that zapped the world from London in the 60’s was unstoppable. That energy is here.

But it was ‘The American Dream’ that set Pop solid in history and stamped its icons into our DNA. Looking at Warhol’s Marilyns, Lichenstein’s comics (with their obsessively hand-drawn half-tone dots) and the super-slick billboard cut-ups of James Rosenquist (originally a pro commercial billboard painter) you are still stunned by their power, electricity and in-your-face sex.

POP In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein 1963

The American works dwarf anything else here. With exceptions such as Martin Sharp, or France’s Niki de Saint Phalle (her 1968 ‘Black Beauty’ raises the smile that good Pop should), the Euro and especially Australian work seems almost timid by comparison and less sharply focussed. The Annandale Imitation Realist work of Australians Colin Lanceley and Mike Brown cloyingly piles junk on junk, where Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of street trash speak with poetry and a dusty grandeur.

Andy Warhol is said to have been “the only artist who truly understood the Twentieth Century”. His work here reinforces that smart idea: his Marilyns are confections of sex and repetition, his electric chair pictures too cool. 1965’s ‘Electric Chair’ has a casual, ill-considered cropping (though of course exquisitely considered) and is rendered in a magenta and lime-yellow colourway. The nearby pictures of Jackie Onassis are black on sky blue. It is all the same. We read of an execution and flip the magazine page to see who Jackie has married now. Our feelings are deadened by repetitive sensation. Warhol’s frustrating interview style – all boyish ‘gee’s and ‘I don’t know’s, often misunderstood as irony – mirrored this. He truly understood that history was rolling over us too fast and he nailed it again and again.POP Electric Chair, Andy Warhol 1965

Other Americans such as Claes Oldenburg – here represented by a huge ‘soft’ cloth electric fan – and the gutsy hot-rodded Ed Kienholz, say the same thing in their own big, bad American way.

Modern Pop – or the Art that continues Pop’s sexy throb down the years – is represented here by reference to ‘Popism’, a brief local movement and 1982 NGV exhibition, the shining light being the hypersexualised Juan Davila who carried the shock element of Pop aloft in his pornographic vistas.

Of course, the spirit of Pop is most alive today in the marketplace that spawned it – the world of advertising and popular entertainment. References are made every day to Pop Art, the movement which referenced mass marketing and junk TV in the first place.

Sometimes too much Art seems barely enough. Sometimes too much Art is just too much. The work of Chuck Close fills you up with beauty, lovingly made, a strand or cell at a time. The blast of Pop Art at POP to POPism fills you up with electric energy, splashed on and plugged in at high voltage.

Sometimes too much Art is just too much. But if you can handle it, it is worth the wild ride.


Published December 2014 on




Once again, the Biennale has taken over Sydney – adding hyper-excitement, colour and zing to a number of venues around our already zinging, parti-coloured city.

2014 Biennale curator, Juliana Engberg has situated what she terms the Festival’s more “liminal, libidinous and liquious” artworks at Circular Quay’s Museum of Contemporary Art, recognising that the works use “the psychological language and semiotics of Surrealism…

Douglas Gordon Phantom

The 2014 Biennale’s rallying cry “YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE” already has more than a whiff of Surrealism’s dreamy erotic perfume about it, and a surprising number of the MCA works, directly or indirectly, pay homage to Surrealism.

Much of post-war Art has been the spiritual spawn of DADA, Surrealism’s ADHD, glue-sniffing sister. Late 20th Century and current political realities, corporate barbarism and historical brutalities often call for that tougher-edged and punked-up response. But, away from the barricades people still dream, and people still love dreamily and there will always be a place in Art’s heart for Surrealism.

Its poetry has been accused of being too often escapist, but the paradox of Surrealism is that its escapism seems to drive further into our human reality than away from it. The best of it gets us right where we live, in our subconscious.

john stezaker mask XXXVThe works at the MCA of British artist John Stezaker achieve this mysterious soft shock with the barest of means. Taking nothing more than two photographs – usually a publicity still of a forgotten actor and a holiday postcard – and combining them at just the right point, Stezaker sets up some stunning dissonances of repulsion/attraction, beauty/horror, dream/reality.

They are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s early 20th Century surreal collage novels such as The Hundred Headless Woman. However, where Ernst created complex, densely detailed images, Stezaker’s works seem almost randomly applied, as if one photo came to rest on another in a pile, in the kind of ‘accident’ the Surrealists loved.

Collage pops up again in the collaborative cut-and-pastes of Gerda Steiner and Jórg Lenzlinger in their series Souls. Images of flight – birds, insects, wings, propellor-like flower petals – float in cluster over pastoral landscapes. The images have been cut from natural history books and are illustrations; the backgrounds are landscape photographs: the effect is dislocating and dreamlike. Eroticism pants from the wings; Ernst et al would be well pleased.Gerda Steiner and Jórg Lenzlinger Souls_

The Surrealists also loved madness and extreme eccentricity. One god of their swirling Pantheon was Le Facteur Cheval. This postman built his ‘Ideal Palace’ in his garden over 33 years (completed 1912) from odd-shaped volcanic rocks, wire, wood and other junk. The aesthetic was old-world glory – places, tombs, mosques, minarets – the effect was a swirling mash-up of styles and architectural references so incongruous it could only be beautiful.

Belgian photographer Aurélien Froment, in his series Tombeau de Ferdinand Cheval has chosen not to shoot wide shots of the postman’s palace, instead concentrating on small elements – a face, an animal head, some lettering – often separated out by draping black cloth around the object. It’s a smart move, as, in toto, it gives you an insight into Cheval’s view as he built this edifice one stone at a time.

Other works here may be less intentionally – even accidentally – Surreal but their dreamlike nature and alien/familiar dissonance evokes a similar sense of reality shift.

As in a dream, the burned remains of a Steinway on a stage side by side with an intact grand piano in Douglas Gordon’s “Phantom” installation seem quite natural. A huge, heavily mascara’d eye beams down upon the whole operatic scene like the slit eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

Belgian artist David Claerbout’s “The Quiet Shore” – a series of black and white images projected in a darkened room – is so deeply nostalgic it seems you are dreaming someone else’s sad seaside childhood holidays. The highly polished floor – like wet seashore sand – both reflects the images and, since you are standing on it, puts you in the picture, draws you into the dream.

These waking dreams, of course, are not all the Biennale has to offer, yet it is gratifying to see Surrealism’s milky poetry, draperies and moonlight return to the conversation of Art. And interpreted with a contemporary twist, these artists show it still packs the same lovers’ punch it always did.


Published March 2014 on



Conceptual art divides people as fiercely and clearly as it divided the Old from the New early in the 20th Century. Art that can be an idea, or a mere instruction or a thought – often independent of a material resolution or form – is anathema to many.

And all too often, conceptual art is itself to blame. By creating impenetrable layers of obscure meaning or by expressing an ultra-personal iconography (as in the work of Joseph Beuys) it can lose people, who can see it as coldly intellectual, its poetry alien.

The work of Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono is different. Although highly conceptual and loaded with many layers of meaning, Ono’s art has always carried a very human message. Almost everything she creates can be immediately felt on some flesh-and-blood level, which can be a doorway to the deeper storeys of stories within. Ono’s work is outwardly simple, but it is as loaded as a bear-trap.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece,1965

War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono recently opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It gives us a unique and wide-ranging look into Ono’s world (and through it, our own). The title comes from massive billboard posters that Ono and her husband, Beatle John Lennon placed across the world’s cities in Christmas 1969 as a message and gesture of peace.

Peace is a theme deeply associated with John and Yoko and many of Ono’s pieces express a yearning for peace, both on universal and personal levels. Her ‘Play It By Trust’ (1966) is a chess set where all the pieces are white as are their squares. As the players play, they lose track of which pieces are theirs and which are those of their opponent, and soon the idea of ‘sides’ is blurred – we realise, just as fraternising trench troops during World War I realised, we are really all the same. The simplicity, the whiteness, the life-affirmation of this piece are pure Ono – her emotional palette as well as her colour palette is white, water, clouds, dreams, love, peace. Blurred edges of personality that connect us all in a universality.

This universality of humanity is equally expressed in her 2006 piece ‘We’re All Water’, a row of identical bottles containing identical amounts of water, but all with a name attached – Groucho Marx, John Coltrane, James Joyce, John Lennon – different names, identical containers and contents. A simple idea but one which grows many thoughts, like branches, upon reflection.Yoko Ono, We're All Water 2008

But it is not all sweetness, love and light. Ono’s meditations on sexual politics – especially as they relate to women – can be disturbing in their power. Footage of her famous ‘Cut Piece’ from 1964 – where audience members are invited to cut away the clothes of a passive, kneeling Ono with sharp scissors – is shown on a wall here, adjacent to a more recent performance from 2003, where the piece is carried our on the artist, now 70 years old. Aside from the power of the obvious sexual and political connotations here, it is remarkable that the piece takes on even greater depth and raises new questions when ‘Cut Piece’ is now applied to the artist as an elderly woman.

‘Touch Me III’ from 2008 is a series of boxes, each containing a silicone replica of an erogenous part of a female body – lips, breasts, pubis. We are asked to wet our fingers in a bowl of water and touch the flesh-like silicone. The sense of violence here is inescapable, even though all is dark and still. When ‘Touch Me III’ was first shown in New York, the silicone was left with so many cuts and gouges by visitors that the gallery decided to remove it. Ono declined the idea, leaving the damaged ‘flesh’ in view of all.

Ono has created a specific artwork for Sydney – ‘Wish Tree for Sydney’ – six lemon-scented eucalypts on the Sculpture Terrace with materials to write and attach their dreams and wishes to the tree. Inspired by Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood in Japan, these Wish Trees (the first was made in1998) are a simple, heartfelt emblem of positive human aspiration.

And it is this desire for a better world, a better future, that runs through all of this work. Ono lived through the nuclear devastation of Japan during WWII; she has starved and known the dreadful suffering of the vanquished side. So this yearning for peace is not an abstract tissue of lip-service, as it is in too many artists, but her gift to us and her gift to the future.


Published November 2013 on

I was going to call this review ‘Anish Kapoor: The Joy of Size’. Then, for obvious reasons, I dropped that in favour of  ‘Anish Kapoor: The Joy of Surface’; then settled on ‘Anish Kapoor: The Joy of Looking’. And then settled on none of the above as I realised there are too many joys to the work of the superstar Mumbai-born, London-based sculptor, the above being only three of them.

Kapoor rose into international pop-consciousness during the 2012 London Olympics with his design of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the controversial public sculpture made in collaboration with architect Cecil Balmond to celebrate the event.

kapoor memory

The works assembled for the current Anish Kapoor exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art could not be more different from the Orbit. And yet, in common with the London piece they are audacious, utterly transfixing and, yes, a joy to look at.

Looking at a work of art – looking without thinking, without looking through a latticework of artspeak and high theory – is a rare pleasure in 21st century Art. Of course, Kapoor’s work has as much depth as you like – the artist himself speaks of “layers of meaning” (while rarely suggesting what these meanings might be).

A good example is the first piece we see inside the MCA. ‘My Red Homeland’ fills an entire room with a circular mound of red wax that has been gouged by a slowly rotating block of steel. The block moves as slowly and as uncaring as a glacier through the fleshy wax. The red could have an allusion to Kapoor’s saffron-Hindu homeland but the inescapable impression is one of meat and the relentless grind of violent history through human flesh. After all, our bodies are our closest homeland.

Up on Level 3 we first see ‘Untitled 2012’ (many of Kapoor’s works are untitled – in other artists often a quasi-misterioso conceit, but in his case perfectly suited to their featureless, surface-as-substance conception). ‘Untitled 2012’ is one of Kapoor’s ‘void’ works, a series that goes back to the 1980s. It shows perfectly how he plays with our perspectives and perceptions – how he shows us that looking is not as simple an act as we may believe. From the distance ‘Untitled 2012’ is a richly pigmented circle; closer we see it is a cup shape, coming out concave from the wall. But as we continue to look, our minds flip it to convex, bulging out at us. Which is it? It is all three – a trinity of co-existing mental constructs.

This play with our eyes and minds continues through Kapoor’s use of extremes – ultra mirror smoothness or impossibly dense velvety texture, super-saturated colour or polished steel colourlessness. A piece such as ‘My Body, Your Body’ is so dark and saturated, it is only after your eyes adjust do you see that it is not flat at all, but a circular void that pulls back into the wall – like a black hole in physics that is so dense it sucks the very light from the sky.

His ‘S-Curve’ and ‘C-Curve’ – two huge highly polished stainless steel pieces that take up an entire room – are equally existent/non-existent. Kapoor talks of his ‘Sky Mirror’ which sits on the MCA lawn outside as ‘both a space and an object’ – and this applies to these two staggering fun-park mirrors as well. Because their surfaces are only mirrors they have no skin except what is reflected – the gallery walls, the people, all distorted and topsy-turvy due to the curved planes – they are there, but somehow not there. Once again, it is our mind putting it all together (somewhat unbelievingly).

This might be High Art but I am sure the people goofing off and pulling silly faces into the distorting mirrors of ‘S-Curve’ and ‘C-Curve’ would make Kapoor grin. It is also that silliness in that gallery that makes the piece in the next room, 2008’s ‘Memory’, even more somber that is it (if that were possible).

‘Memory’ is a work so big it fills an entire gallery to the extent that there is no room to walk around it. The idea is that, since our view of the whole object is restricted, we need to knit together our separate (remembered) views of it in our minds. That is the concept but the effect – like ‘My Red Homeland’ – is entirely visceral. ‘Memory’ is a huge, bulbous, bomb-shaped structure made of segments of rusted Cor-Ten steel, bolted together. To anyone who lived through the Cold War, beneath the shadow of The Bomb; to anyone who lived through any part of the twentieth century – the century of two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea and endless mechanised slaughter – the memories stirred up by the rusted, pregnant bloat of ‘Memory’ are deep and sad.

So much large-scale sculpture is only about surface and shape and space with little room for joy in its edges and curves. This exhibition has joy in abundance – but also contemplation, spirituality (‘When I Am Pregnant’ was inspired by the artist’s 1991 trip to Uluru) and new questions.

While you were just looking, Anish Kapoor made you do so much more.

Anish Kapoor runs till April 1, 2013 at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay, Sydney

Published December 2012 on

The MCA is a jewel in Sydney’s crown that many of us – distracted by beaches, bistros and beer barns – somehow miss out on. Since its opening in 1991 as the flowering of the John Power Bequest it has shocked, bemused and confounded Sydneysiders – as all good capital ‘A’ Art should.

Under the directorship of the astonishingly dynamic Elizabeth Ann Macgregor  – forget The Avengers, this woman is a real superhero – the MCA (and with it Contemporary Art) became not only – horrors! – popular but something that corporations and the influential fell over each other to be associated with.

But even though the old Customs House building was big, it could not hold the ever-swelling – and phenomenal – MCA collection of Modern and Indigenous Art.

In 2005 a redevelopment was mooted – money was pledged, plans were drawn up, machinery chugged and rattled, time passed. On the 29th of March this year the MCA opened up to us again with now much more space for Art – the refurb increased the MCA’s total size by almost 50 per cent with the addition of 4,500 square metres, including a new five-storey wing.

And they have used all of it to fantastic effect.

Volume One: MCA Collection displays a great slab of the MCA’s collection. One is initially pulled up by Stephen Birch’s Untitled (2005) – a lifesize Spiderman pondering a snake-necked old man who leans out at him from the wall. Wonders abound: Hossein Valamanesh’s The lover circles his own heart (1993), a fabric cone that rotates unsteadily in dim light; Tracey Moffat’s Something more #3 (1989), glossy photos with glossy people taking us to some unglossy places; Rebecca Baumann’s Automated Colour Field (2011), flipping colour cards, beautiful, familiar and unfamiliar in one.

Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are represented by a staggering wall of extraordinary bark paintings – there are also woven bags and baskets as well as video, photography, drawings and collage. It is worth the trip just for these – one can get lost in their earth tones, fine cross-hatchings and dot rows which are of the here and now, yet suggest the infinite in time and space. Yet another treasure right under our noses.

The exhibition Marking Time, curated by Rachel Kent, is an exhibition it seems hung off one its major works. Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24 hour film that is synchronized with real time. It is a collage of film snippets from existing movies (Marclay claims to have had to obtain clearances for over 5,000 films – such is the world we live in…) that all pertain to the time of day outside in the real world. As fascinating as the concept is – and as mesmerizing the pop-culture miasma feeding into one’s brain is – The Clock seems one of those art pieces more exciting in concept than experience, like Andy Warhol’s movies 5 ½ hr Sleep (1963) or 8 hr Empire (1964). Also, The Clock is impossible to watch as intended – although the MCA allows you to stay overnight to watch it, it doesn’t allow for toilet or meal breaks – only those with bladders of iron and no need for nutrition could physically withstand it. There, see? – I have already written much more than intended about The Clock; such is the PR power of a cool concept…

The Art works surrounding The Clock and making up the rest of Marking Time are jaw-dropping though, in both concept and experience. Around the unwieldy idea of Time, Kent has brought in some stunning works: Katie Pearson’s player piano playing the Moonlight Sonata recorded from distorted waves bounced off the moon (!); Tom Nicholson’s vast wall drawing (writing) of geo-political dates throughout history done in spidery, ephemeral pencil; Lindy Lee’s almost religious burned-hole paper works or ‘weather drawings’, Conflagrations from the End of Time (2011) which suggest space and time rotating off in all directions.

Are these about Time? Well, go on – prove that they are not. Daniel CrooksStatic no.12 (seek still in movement) – brings home in more convention (rational?) how time works: that we exist static in frames, slices of time, that move forward making the movie that is our lives. Showing an elderly man going through his graceful tai-chi arcs and swoops, it freezes him mid-movement, stretching and drawing that movement across the screen. It all is so gracefully and musical one almost forgets how elementally disturbing and unsettling it makes one feel – as all good capital ‘A’ Art should.

Published May 2012 on