In Arcadia: the art of Tomislav Nikolic & uncomfortable stuff about God

Tomislav Nikolic, 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

I understand the relationship one is expected to have with art today, the intellectual’s rhetoric. Take for instance Tomislav Nikolic’s recent body of work in arcadia, a strong collection of paintings that could be described in terms of colour field, formal abstraction, colour theory, insert references to Rothko & US / European abstractionists, terms that can categorise to the point of malleability enabling us to digest but also at times coolly aloof. What I really take away with me from this show, my true experience, is less sophisticated – feelings, memories and private thoughts that I cannot articulate.

Most particularly the diptych leaves me strangely exhilarated, the combination of scale and hallucinogenic qualities of the palette produce an uncharacteristic (for me) optimism and an altogether unreasonable thrill that – sigh, I just know that something good is going to happen. The optical illusion that one is larger than the other – first the left one, then the right one – produces an anthropomorphic rhythmical breathing pulse. The colours of in arcadia are saturated, they are beaming, they are the colours of Titian, the colours of the Masters, the colours of religious art; the blue of the Virgin Mary, the gold of icons, the light of Mystics.  And that is perhaps what I’m not supposed to talk about in this day and age, in the age of the intellect. I don’t want to throw my hat in with religion and the rhetoric of new age spiritualism leaves me squirming with ill ease, but where does that leave me?

DEATH. It’s still fairly sexy right now in contemporary art. Actually, over the past 5 years or so it has become positively mainstream. You can doll yourself up from head-to-toe in skulls. What underlies this fad? Could it be that the combination of the outing of atheism, plus the witnessing to mad behaviours of religious mania, encourages us to become less afraid of death? Are we becoming more present? It would be lovely to think of it is an awakening to the fragile beauty of our mortality: “Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have.” – Dr Gordon Livingston

Or perhaps we are afraid that the true death is looming, with the effects of climate change ravaging our world emblematic of an innate self-destruction, and the cold inaction of those in power, perhaps we now see that we might bear witness to the death of us all. If we are all gone, then death is absolute. There is no remembrance; we have fallen into nothingness.

Non omnis moriar, said Horace’s Odes – I shall not wholly die. Yes, and he was right. As long as people remembered, then death was not complete. Only if there were nobody at all left to remember would death be complete.” – Alexander McCall Smith, The Charming Quirks of Others

Nicolas Poussin, The Arcadian Shepherds, c 1628-9, 101 x 82 cm, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House.

Et in Arcadia ego – Even in Arcadia there I am.

Arcadia – the pastoral idyll, the classical Utopia; at one with nature, ourselves, life itself, it is pure contentment, Heaven on Earth.  But even in Arcadia, Death exists.  As I know Nikolic painted Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the land of fantasy, in response to Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, c 1628-9, he too must have been thinking of death.

6:Tomislav Nikolic, Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the land of fantasy, 2012
acrylic, marble dust and 22.5ct champagne leaf on canvas and wood
104 x 85.5 x 6 cm

Poussin’s first version of this work is a classic Memento Mori allegory, telling the audience that even saucy bare breasted nymphs, and partying shepherds at one with nature must succumb to death, inscribed in stone ET IN ARCADIA EGO and a skull staring down at them to boot! Today the theme has a more interesting dimension to it, we can ponder our own mortality not as a Christian did with Poussin –  do not succumb to vanities, obey God in this life to ensure your place in Heaven, etc., etc. We can ponder Memento Mori with the tiny voice of Dawkins in our ear, ‘there is no God!’. Aware of our own mortality, without responsibility to secure an afterlife of bliss, our reasoning forces us to realise we are responsible for each other. The reprieve from suffering in this world can only come from ourselves; the responsibility for the continuation of life is ours.

But it’s not quite as easy as that though is it? The conscious process of considering our own mortality is going to lead us into the unknown. It is going to lead all of us in different ways because we are bound by our own experiences, intellect, capabilities, personalities, ability to process thoughts and emotions, not to mention ye olde family and culture. Some people need religion, others only for a short time, and others not at all.

I come away from Nikolic’s work thinking about the notion of Agape.  As he, the artist, peeks into the esoteric material of Alice Bailey, the Seven Rays, and Theosophy. It reveals (to me anyway) a longing to discover the mystery of what one feels but can not explain. Love. The love that connects and overwhelms us, that identifies the energy of life as something sacred, an ancient pre-God notion where the concept of Agape was so powerful and confusing that it somehow transformed into God. God is easier. With him we don’t have to think so much, he just is, and tells us what to do.

Tomislav Nikolic, 7: a constant overlapping, a cyclic development and a process of fusion, which is most confusing, 2012
acrylic, marble dust and 24 ct gold leaf on canvas and wood
85 x 108 x 5.5 cm

Let’s return to Ancient Greece for a moment. Andrea Mantegna painted Parnassus (1497) and Triumph of the Virtues (1502) for Isabella d’Este.  500 years later Tomislav Nikolic, using Mantegna’s works for inspiration, paints Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes and Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, for us. This is the exhilarating diptych I referred to earlier, recalling the language of the Mystics – Agape.

“What is this which shines on me and pierces my heart without hurting it? I shudder and am aflame at the same time: I shudder, because I am so dissimilar to it, and I am aflame, because I am so similar to it. It is Wisdom, Wisdom itself which shines on me, breaking up my cloudiness, which yet covers me once more as I fall away from it through the darkness and rubble of my troubles.” – St Augustine, Confessions, I I.9.

Andrea Mantegna, Parnassus, 1497, Tempera and gold on canvas, 63 x 75 1/2 inches

Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Virtues, 1502, tempera on canvas, 63 x 75 1/2 inches. Louvre, Paris

Parnassus, home to the Muses – Goddesses who inspired knowledge in arts and sciences. It is the land of poetry, literature, and learning. Another woman, Minerva Warrior Goddess of Wisdom, ejects the Vices from the garden of Virtues. Out says she to idleness, sloth, hate, lust, avarice and ingratitude. She, the powerful symbol of Wisdom, and Protector of the arts and sciences.  How telling that Wisdom is represented by a woman. I always thought Eve’s act was not a sign of weakness, but represented an admirable and courageous intellectual curiosity.

Arts, mythology, science, they were intimately acquainted, the combination of which was believed to be the path to wisdom.  How thrilling are those conversations that twist and turn from conjecture, allegory, evidence, to build stories that can teach us so more effectively then the retelling of facts.

It is ironic that our capacity for religion is seemingly intrinsically linked to our own extraordinary survival and evolution as a species. Our human drive to discover, to find answers to this painful human existence, this extraordinary world wherein we find ourselves. Our feelings of  ‘something bigger than ourselves’ developed our minds, imagination and intellect (actually, discovering red meat was delicious to eat had quite a bit to do with that too).

Like Tomislav Nikolic who travels to Arcadia, bringing back with him a plethora of confusing emotions and ideas, and pop lyrics, will we permit ourselves to delve into this layered conversation?  I do not believe in God, but yet I find myself talking to a God that I know my kind invented, when I need to. It gives me comfort, helps me to understand, and I am the wiser for it.  Only if he starts to talk back will I begin to worry.

PS: Tomislav Nikolic is represented by Jensen Gallery, Sydney. His exhibition in arcadia is happening now until 22nd December 2012.
PPS: I saw a preview of the show in Melbourne at Greenwood Street Projects. You can find out more about the artist on his website page, and see the complete body of work on-line here.

Detail: 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

Detail: 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

Miss April Advises: Taken for Granted – Artists are peeved!

Dear Miss April,

I’ve been reading your column. It seems you are quite knowledgable when it comes to the arts and aesthetic issues.
We all hear that the arts industry is unregulated. Its a well publicized and expolited fact. We know that in opposition the goverment is leaden ,bureaucratic and unresponsive. Its a well publicized and expolited fact. What happens when these areas overlap, say with the Australian Council?

We have all seen the self interest, nepotism, shallow thinking and ego pyrotechnics at work, but happens when you get the arts industries heightened pitch overlaid on this gravelly platform provided by the goverment? Well, sometimes its self interest, nepotism, shallow thinking and ego pyrotechnics. It doesnt make for a sure footing.

The grant system seems to help in a direct individual way and the artists/ creaters/ creatives sometimes get some money too, but this cash injection is the most impotent of the boards traits. Perhaps if there were broader impacts than turning up at private openings and previews at the opera house for the bereaucrats. What about lobbying for a better tax position for artists? Imprisonment for lazy curators? Ensuring the funding goes to the artist not their dealers who write the applications? Why hell, even making their web site user friendly? Beneficial longterm outcomes!!

Do you think its time they put down the Chardonnay in Sydney and had a good look at what theyre offering the arts community and the tax paying public?

Best

Taken for Granted

Dear Taken for Granted

Stop, please, don’t! You’re making me blush! It is true that art woes seem to have predominated this advice column, but I believe that may be less about my own knowledge and more about the mindset of our local community. Lucky to have such woes!

Oh, wouldn’t it be a blessed thing to have arts funding policy decided by an Agony Aunt column, the power is making me swoon! It is interesting to note though, that yours is not the only frustrated voice (like him, him , him & her) regarding our nation’s major arts grant body. Why, I do believe our federal fund is currently under review‘transparency please!’ – is the cry upon the winds. I ask you though, what is it that you really want from Miss April? Much of what you say are statements, opinions, questions which demand a nodding and smiling agreement.

I’ll tell you this. Clogging up our prison system with yellow-bellied curators would probably exhaust our arts funding, not relieve it! We’ll have another grant category just to cover it – legal defence funds for dull curators. It is sad that we have a national tradition of ‘I’ll have what he’s having’ when it comes to acquisitions, grants, curatorial inclusions, publicity, etc, etc. All a rather big yawn isn’t it?

I agree, a user-friendly website would be helpful. I mean have you seen this clip? I agree, the system has led to accusations of nepotism! I agree, seeing the same commercial gallery being awarded tens of thousands of dollars year-in and year-out, despite them being the most successful and fiscally liquid business in the industry is rather eyebrow raising. I agree with many of your points. And that is all I can do for you here. Or is it?

Dear Ms/Mr Granted, may I call you Taken? I infer from your moniker you see yourself as a victim of said system? An artist yourself perhaps, a musician, actor, dancer, painter, writer? The frustration at the inequity of the system feels worse because you see yourself at the short end of the stick? Then I would like to impart some advice to you before I sign off here today. Put it behind you. If you spend your energy rallying against the system, not only will you go mad, you will be spending precious time and energy away from your craft. I can imagine it is frustrating that grants are awarded to others under perceived dubious methods, but fear not, because the artist does have the last laugh. Do you know the secret of becoming an artist, truly? The secret is: just do it. Don’t wait for grants, don’t waste your time thinking about policies, don’t waste your time stewing on the system, concentrate on your work.

Not to say that you should not submit your grant requests, continue to do so if you so wish. You’ve got to be in it to win it! Here is a case study where an artist is talking about their approach to writing grant applications. There is some good advice there. However, it also emphasises the need for the artist to be adroit at influential writing skills, not a skill all have, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage. So my advice for you here would be to draw upon your friends and family, if you know someone who can help you prepare – ask them. The video also inadvertently points out a bittersweet element of the grants system – multiple successes for the same artists & organisations, means no success for others. If you want to get involved, why don’t you register as a Peer? If you want to critique or suggest improvements – write, email, call them. Contact the board members. Also, you could contact the Department directly in Canberra. Make yourself KNOWN.

To be honest with you Taken, there could be vast improvements, they could inject some fresh blood and new ideas, and transparent assessment processes; and perhaps I could spend my years pondering such matters, perhaps you could too. But I would rather get back to my typewriter, and you should get back to work. 

Thank you most sincerely for entrusting me with your worries,
Yours, Miss April

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Miss April Advises: Knee Deep – kid’s parties get complicated

Dear Miss April,

I have been placed in charge of an extremely unfamiliar task. A children’s birthday party, under 10’s to be exact.
My memories are of sugary phantasms, sprinklers on lawns and throwing up in the car. I’m sure times have changed, what with child obesity and peanut, wheat and lactose intolerance in the under 10 set filling the newspaper.

I’m not sure how sparking mineral water, imaginary tea, crudites and felafel’s will go down with the pink outfitted ruffians I will be hosting.

Any catering tips would be appreciated?

Soon to be

Knee Deep

Dear Knee Deep

Good old blogs and Facebook pages now hold host to plenty of information about such topics. There is a Thermomix page (for those dedicated to the hot right then 1960s Italian kitchen technology now popular in Australia) where eager food obsessed mothers recently swapped some children’s party food ideas such as: fruit kebabs, rainbow cupcakes, cake pops (very ill-advised IMHO), or even the chocolate beetroot cakes and magic bean chocolate cakes (made with red kidney beans) for those who take delight into tricking children into eating a healthy ingredient cooked to death.

One time-blessed mother listed her complete menu: vegetarian sausage rolls, cinnamon scrolls, apricot and coconut balls, fruit platter with yoghurt dip, popcorn, mini-quiches & pikelets.

Another suggestion was homemade hummus served in individual plastic shot glasses, each fitted with a carrot and a celery stick. Healthy yes, but then you risk the ire of those who condemn such perverse overuse of plastic. A tricky balancing act at party time.

All of these are wonderful suggestions, but really most kids go straight to the cheezels that one’s husband/brother/uncle decided to serve up and ignore all healthy options. All of a sudden there are party pies, fairy bread, and bowls and bowls of lollies that seem to come from nowhere. Well-intentioned mother has wasted her time, and no-one seems to empathise because by golly its a party and time to kick back. One soon finds out, that behind the facade of conversations eye-ball deep in healthy matters, most parents are sick to death of thinking of gourmet options subconsciously suspected as pretentious brainwashing and fantasise about halcyon days of sugar highs, and food full of hyper-real colour.

This pickle of a situation recalls a story I once heard. A story of upright, disciplined citizens with only the best in mind for their child. No additives, no sugar, no fat; only a fully controlled diet for their little boy. But they understood that other parents were not so strict so chose to have their little one’s party at McDonalds, with a large food-colouring fantasy of a cake. Isn’t that nice of them? Their son, of course, could only watch on, nibbling at his rye wrap while his best friends devoured their starch and fat, and delighted in his birthday cake from which he did not taste a crumb. Model parents. A quiet boy.

But I would be remiss to treat lightly the seriousness of food allergies and child obesity. I can solve the latter by simply stating, a child’s birthday party is no place for you to worry about the Western world’s obesity problem. Leave that responsibility where it rightfully lies, with the parents, broader community’s attitudes to fast foods and capitalism. If you do have a guest with food allergies I am certain you would be duly informed, and it is then your responsibility to supply  suitable options for their needs. That’s where the magic bean cake comes in handy.

So take a page out of the child’s manual to parties, put on your tutu and join in the fun.

Bon appetit!
Miss April

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Miss April Advises: Underdazzled

Dear Miss April,

I have attended a performance by Rufus Wainwright at the revised Hamer hall. The performance was dire, underwhelming, phoned in; but that’s not what I’m writing to you about. I had a pre dinner drink and went down to the underworld of the theater to take my allocated seat. I endured the show and with the lumpen throngs exited conventionally up a sets of escalators planned like jack knifed semi trailers tumbling through a cement boot. Arriving at the top and facing away from the exit then redirected by doorstop docents, I trudged with the masses to the exit, like so many heifers at the RNA show toward the front door. An object caught my gaze on exit.At first I thought it the new chandelier as is expected of great concert halls. But it emitted no light, merely reflections from a series of carbuncles growing from tubular space frames. My stunned look elicited a comment from a passer-whizzing-by. “Its art” they blurted. It was in fact forgettable but what I do remember was that it was like an enlarge reproduction of an accessory from my little unicorn that had been vajazzled or some new organic surveillance system.
If you’re passing pop in and tell me what you think it might be.
Even under the heady influence of a dragging performance and now appropriate numbers of pre show drinks , I’m still unsure what I saw.

Please advise.

Underdazzled

Dear Underdazzled

You appear to be undertaking the role of Aesthetics Arbiter with noble dedication. Do be careful to not exhaust yourself!

I visited the venue with the mind to formulate arguments in support of artistic interpretation and to dispel your disquieting disdain. As I gazed upon the suspended artwork I found myself painted into a wee bit of a corner, and felt rather amused at my pickle of a situation.

Firstly, let me say if you know of anyone who vajazzles unicorns please slip a note to their therapist. Secondly, I would write a stern letter to the toy manufacturer enquiring as to why they even made it possible to vajazzle their weird little horse dolls.

That said, are you aware of the practice of lauded Australian artist Robert Owen? Geometric abstractionist, interesting colourist, successful public architecture collaborationist? No / Oui? Well, you might be surprised to learn the installation you refer to is in fact the collaborative efforts of Mr Owen and lighting designer Rachel Burke. They are very happy and very proud of Silence. The staff at the art centre are a little more divided perhaps. One kept mentioning that the ‘big chandelier’ is not coming back because it ‘doesn’t fit’, with genuine sadness in her tone. Another younger, eager spokesperson was much more enthusiastic and very proudly told me that no less than 22,000 (!) Swarovzki crystals – I believe that is called Bling Power in TV shopping network circles – were used in the creation of the new Hamer Hall suspended masterpiece.

Alas, we can’t win all of them can we? And that does go for talented artists as well (there is also another dubious construction by way of a building in Southbank which I don’t believe quite makes it either, in my humble opinion). I acknowledge the reference to the art centre spire – the fractal geometric design that seems mandatory for all key Melbourne developments these days. What I do find interesting is the philosophy behind the Art Centre’s decision to ‘reclaim’ it as their own, to point out to all and sundry that they were the originator of this architectural signature and not bleeping Federation Square. A little too insecure for my liking, I mean surely the cute logo spire would have sufficed? However, the light, shadow and movement which the installation achieves also designed with this same message – I was here first – should be appreciated as a worthy effort.

But my responsibility is to defend my position, and I do. I applaud the emotion and the reasoning, but sadly I do think you are right, the installation screams more of My Little Unicorn rather than glamorous artistic achievement. The steel constructions appear paltry and thin within their surroundings, and dare I say it, I believe it would have benefited from more obvious wizzbang rather than the glitter dust and craft kit bedazzling it seems to have received. The distance, the height, the lack of weight of the sculpture does not compliment the materials. I entered absolutely determined to like anything I see if it achieved one thing: inspired the venue going audience to dress well for their event, and abolish this insulting fad of wearing jeans to the theatre. Sadly, I can see that it would only encourage said audience to ornament their prison garb with a home-made bedazzler kit and feel right at home. But it is here to stay, so we should feel lucky that we have kindly neighbours to inform confused guests that indeed ‘it’s art’.

So alas Underdazzled, let us mourn Arcturus together for that brightest star shines no more at Hamer Hall.

Don’t fret too much it only encourages wrinkles, yours in good faith
Miss April

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Invisible Architecture at Greenwood Street: string, sex-appeal and Sandback

In actual fact I’m referring to the memory of walking into the house on my favourite street in Melbourne. It’s possibly my favourite house in my beloved city. It is a modernists dream,  I was trying to concentrate on the friendly lady inhabitant but the impact of the experience of walking into larger space was almost overwhelming. I’m talking about SPACE. Not walls, rooms, building, home, decor, house, architecture, these all melted away  – that was all completely invisible. All I experienced was being in a space, seeing into other space where I could wander, a flow of SPACE. It was all so fluid – a little invisible architecture waterslide for my visual perception. It was brilliant.

Fast Forward. Add Keanu Reeves. He’s dressed in a black trench coat and looks exotic, super fit and really serious. We are standing next to a Fred Sandback sculpture/thing/idea/installation. This is our matrix. We do black flips, kill baddies, my hair is perfect, we land on our feet and then we pash. Sexual fantasies ensue. Thank you Fred. I figure if a multimillionaire can open a private art museum to meet chicks then poor people can go to art exhibitions and indulge in fantasies. The string hums.

I like art that is cleverer than I am. Because art demands an emotional response before before an intellectual engagement. So it is must more satisfying if it is a challenging destination at the end of the road.

At the moment there is vibrant blue string tautly tormenting me and delighting me, because it is smarter than I am.

String.

However it does have brass fittings. There you go, it has some complexity to it. It zings, it hums, it has created space. No, not delineation, not replication of a room, nothing so literal, it has created a sense of something that suggests to me that one day I might even slightly understand quantam physics. It’s there, it could be there, its next to me and I’m in it, and here again I’m outside of it. For some reason, its also kind of funny.

I am not dedicated to abstraction. I wrote a 25,000 word thesis on erotica in religious art for God’s sake. But you know, I understand the dedication. Some people need God, some people need aliens, some people need abstraction.

Fred Sandback installation at the Fox/Jense & Greenwood Street Project in the left corner. Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction), 2008 (& 1982), Blue acrylic yarn. Fred Sandback Estate number 2566 110 x 140 cm. USD $185,000. Photo taken August 2012.

If you want to experience Fred Sandback’s work in person and you live in Australia you will need to save up for an international air fare, or wait. The only way to see it down here is to keep abreast of Jensen Gallery’s exhibitions. I was lucky enough to have my experiential happening at Greenwood Street Projects during Melbourne Art Fair time. Word on the street is that there is also an installation currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I’m not sure if we really understand how completely cool it is for a commercial gallery to provide access to work of this international calibre. The internet, photographs, books, only go so far. For some work, it’s all about the experience.

FRED SANDBACK
Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction) 1982
Blue Acrylic Yarn
Fred Sandback Estate Number 2566
Image courtesy Jensen Gallery

FRED SANDBACK
Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction) 2008
Blue Acrylic Yarn
Fred Sandback Estate Number 2566
Detail from Greenwood Street Projects installation.
It just looks like a close up of string? That’s because it is.

Awww. We wear our sunglasses at night…and inside. Photo just for the hell of it and from the public domain. From the Matrix film.

It continues! Hayes’ show at Dark Horse Experiment has been extended so you still have this week to go and see it. It’s attracted great attendance, media attention, academic interest – not bad for a cancelled show! The gallery is open Wed – Sat 12 – 6 at 110 Franklin St, Melbourne.

Museum of Love and Mortality

In 2004 I helped Cameron Hayes put together a publication to accompany his solo show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. When I went to deliver some to be stocked at the Arts Bookshop a rather peeved employee there complained: “but you don’t have any information in here about the artist!”

It’s true. I did try, but he refused, genuinely seeing it as erroneous information. “Just show the pictures”, Hayes instructed, “and the only text should be about the stories.” So that’s what we did.  No biography, nor exhibition history, not even a birth date. This time however, I happened to get a bit more out of him. So here goes:

Cameron Hayes is first and foremost a narrative painter. Usually his style of work consists of densely painted large scale canvases filled with figures and scenery, animals and architecture, playing havoc with retinal activity. Have a look at Mathias Ulungura…

View original post 2,354 more words

That art show I wrote about is on

A couple of months ago I posted a piece on the forthcoming show of Melbourne based artist Cameron Hayes. The ‘forthcoming’ aspect of the show was rather short lived, but was reborn again at Dark Horse Experiment, 110 Franklin Street, Melbourne. The exhibition The Incomplete History of Milikapiti is currently on so have a sticky-beak before it closes on the 1st September.

The artist explains in a bit more detail the events surrounding the cancellation of the show in this report on the ABC’s current affairs show 7.30 which aired on the 3rd August, 2012.

Click here to watch the report

Cameron Hayes, Waiting for a confession – 31 October 1976, 2012,
Oil on linen