Australian art exposed

Feathers Fly at Red Parrot Reunion

The much-anticipated Red Parrot Reunion gig went off last night, 4th May 2013, some 30 years after the iconic Perth venue hosted Perth’s alternative-music snobs and local and international bands. Along with the Perth Underground, the latest in punk, ska, electronic and “post punk” alternative music, usually British inspired, was showcased at the original Parrot venue along with local and international alternative bands, which the Underground did not have the space for.

Nostalgia was flowing freely among the Gen-X crowd, some of whom had scraped, gelled and dressed their ageing forms in impressive garb of the day. Bizarrely, a surprising number looked like they had just stepped out for a pizza and stumbled in the door in shabby flannel shirts. Perhaps the memories of the time were hazy. The Bakery venue was packed to capacity with people many of whom probably hadn’t got their groove on in years, but seemed to remember pretty fast. The bar staff were completely overwhelmed at the start. Apparently, The Bakery didn’t think middle aged people would be that thirsty.

The most nostalgic feature was being reminded of the culture clash that existed in Perth at that time. Perth was dominated by cover bands, slick, professional, well rehearsed replicators of commercial music who ruled over beer gardens. Red Parrot and Underground were mainly for the marginalised misfits, the music snobs, the gays, the intellectuals, the fashionistas. The evening highlighted that sociological divide.

Live music harking back to the period was provided by an odd selection of musicians, with a selection of DJs sourced from the era. The much loved Errol H. Tout kicked off the live set with his expertly rendered guitar solo, “Helicopters”. The crowd stood in quiet reverence for a living legend of original music.

Then came those anchors of the independent Perth music scene of the 80s, Jill Birt and Alsy Macdonald, veterans of The Triffids. Survivors, who reminded us of the much respected and departed David McComb. I gritted my teeth through the opening chords from two excruciatingly out-of-tune guitars. It failed to improve. Ms Birt had a tedious and lacklustre voice 30 years ago, last night she could not find a note for trying. As bizarrely as in 1980-something, there was quiet appreciation nonetheless from the very hungry crowd. Songs selected were downbeat dirges, such as Raining Pleasure, the Triffids number where back in the day everyone would vacate the dance floor to get a drink or visit the loo.

And this is the thing about 80s Perth independent music: much of it was crap. Respected, fostered, intellectually defended against the Cover Band dominance, but almost universally with no work ethic, no ability to edit, and no great future as international performers or songwriters. This correspondent, veteran of two small-time original Perth 80s bands, can relate with authority.

The cultural divide was further illustrated by the second act, Femme Fatale. In the tradition of Perth cover bands, they were slick, professional and polished. They were also, technically, anathema to the original Parrot culture. They delighted themselves with a cover set, which fortunately featured the work of bands such as The Cramps. Back in the day, the hardcore Parrot denizens would have decried such heresy; last night, their professionalism and “cool” song choice got them over the line. Denise Di Marchi (The Kind, also sister of ex- Baby Animals Suze) stepped on stage towards the end of the set with a superb voice undiminished by the passage of time. Cover bands: 1, originals, 1.

Enter the DJs. General Justice, a legend of vinyl, gave an inspired mix of superb period alternative type music. It was spoilt by one thing only, he seemed to have no idea how to crossfade tracks for a seamless dance experience, just abruptly cut disparate chunks of music together. Brent Smith: some good things there, but why do DJs often indulge their ego by imposing their eclecticism? Take a hint dudes, when you play Andean panpipe music and the dance floor clears, it is a vote.

The Parrot supergroup featuring many original music veterans promised much, but delivered confusion. As one Facebook post had it, “Pretentious:- When the band starts strumming Joy division and the Vocalist tells us how he hates New Order! And then launches into a woeful cover of Black Sabbath…”

DJs Claude Mono and Snuff saved the day, and the real beneficiary of the night was the two AIDS/HIV charities supported by net proceeds. The unpaid hard work by the self-appointed tragics of the Committee in getting the event together deserves a big vote of thanks. If this turns into a recurring event, I’m sure it will be supported and will give all of us another opportunity to be insufferable music snobs once again.

But please, more vinyl next time?



Imported Art Saves Cultural Desert

The Financial Review carried a story last month about an exhibition recently held in Perth’s Peppermint Grove, in one of the houses of wealthy property developer Nigel Satterley.

Peppermint Grove is a quiet coastal suburb near the heart of Perth, demographically like Toorak or Mosman. For a week the gentle denizens witnessed an invasion of well dressed art tourists, keen for a slice of Real Art Culture. A fashion show and an exclusive wine tasting had the aspirational upper-middles drooling over their couture accessories.

Don’t get me wrong, Tim Maguire is good at what he does. If he can shift a light box for 20k and a canvas for 200k, good luck to him, he’s hit paydirt. But it’s the commentary reportedly offered up by Satterley that makes me gag.

“We find that people in Perth appreciate art but it’s hard to get in on the ground floor. Not a lot of exhibitions come to Perth.”

Wait… so there are no artists in Perth? No exhibitions? What rock are you living under?

And since when did $20,000 to $200,000 constitute the “ground floor” of art? Those poor sad deprived Perth people, they really want to put a million dollars worth of canvas on their walls but they have to start small with 20-200 large.

Reporter Jonathan Barrett went on: “The city has obvious potential in a difficult national art market. Underpinned by the highly paid mining “fluoro collars”, West Australians’ average weekly earnings are more than $1500, reports the Australian Bureau of Statistics, compared with $1345 nationally.”

Oh, right. The Maguire exhibition is sure to have gotten Perth’s tradies wild with excitement.

Satterley seems to think he’s some sort of a modern Moses come to liberate Perth from its cultural desert.

Hello Nigel: Listen up. PERTH HAS LOTS OF ARTISTS, AND VERY GOOD ONES. If the locals want to buy art, and I mean cool, cutting-edge art, they just have to open the local paper. Exhibitions get advertised every week. They can go to any opening, get free drinks and a chance to see what’s really happening. They can add something to their wall which will really impress, for prices less than a tenth of Maguire’s. This really is the ground floor, and is a hugely fertile and innovative market.

The most galling thing is the patronising attitude. “The show had been ‘good for Perth'”, Barrett quotes Satterley as saying. Words fail me. The people who can pay 200 grand for a painting can just as easily pop over to Sydney or London to buy it. This sort of distortion is part of the malaise of the art industry, where people with too much cash and barely a clue are relieved of staggering amounts of dosh, and great artworks and artists remain undiscovered. It does nothing for Perth, for its people, and certainly not for its artists, and believe me there are relatively unknown artists in the town of Perth who can make even the likes of Maguire look ordinary.

But they won’t see the light of day if the punters are really as gullible as some people hope.


Art Competitions – The Good, the Bad, the Dodgy

The Australian art scene has seen some challenges in recent years and the punching bag always finishes up being the struggling artist. Issues such as the global financial crisis and widespread tightening of the buyers’ purse strings, superannuation changes which reduce the attractiveness of artworks as part of self managed funds, intellectual property rights reforms which promise the artist a “cut” of the resale value (worsening the attractiveness of art to investors), all have had the unfortunate effect of depressing the market and making the life of a professional artist worse than ever. Gallery owners are not immune, as the product sales decline, there has been a shakeup of the private gallery scene with operators downsizing, retiring or simply closing their doors.

The surviving private gallery directors have even more power over the professional artist than before – they are going to be picky, they are not necessarily interested in the innovative or the eclectic, they want to sell product. Get that deep pocketed punter in, give them wine, fawn a lot and tell them which artwork to buy so as to look cool.

The salvation of many an artist, or at least a way to keep the rent paid for a few more months, is the humble art contest. Open in theory to all applicants, the pros line up against hopeful amateurs and the winner can often pocket a five figure acquisition fee. Even the minor prizes make a big difference to the artist’s bottom line and can keep them in the game. There are a lot of these around. Most are run by local councils, some are done by schools or colleges and a few are backed by corporate or other sponsors.

The authority running the award gets various benefits. They get to tick the “cultural” box in their brief as an exercise in community engagement. They get a nice picture on one of the office walls, something the Experts they have brought in tell them is cool. They get some sort of an investment. They are happy.

However, the artists, who have put the work in, had the judgements and try to make sense of it, are often far from happy.

Nobody begrudges somebody a win with an unusual or controversial work. After all, that’s what art is, isn’t it? An attention grabbing work well executed in any medium could be worthy.  But the grumbling and discontent starts when it dawns on some of the participants, who have stumped up an entry fee from their limited hard-earned, that the recipient is none other than a former student of one or two of the judges. Or a financially-strapped friend. Did this sway one or more of the judges? Did they talk about that between themselves? Did they rate the work independently of the other judges or just have an agreement over a chardonnay? Did they vote in the winner because they’d won their last two competitions and are Obviously Therefore Cool, and the judges want to be cool by association? Anything is possible. When was the last time, for example, a judge withdrew from a contest due to a conflict of interest. Ever?

So how are these run, and how are they kept truly open and fair?

The answer is, there are no rules.

I have checked with the National Gallery, the State Gallery, the Department of Local Government, the WA Local Government Association, Arts Law, NAVA and other authorities. There is no unifying code of conduct which ensures fairness. Maybe the operating manual of a local council could be a governing document, but does anyone really check or care?

“The decision of the judges is final, and no correspondence will be entered into.”

Stuff that. I’d like to find the author of the cliché and choke them with a well worn rule book. No correspondence? Sorry, but what if you cheated? What if you don’t really have a clue and just came for the council funded posh dinner and drinks, or the free holiday? What if you voted for your own students because it would make you, the academic, look good to have given birth to success stories?

The industry needs a code of conduct. A quality-assured system like companies in the real world use. Pull the shutters off, let the sun in, make the hidebound vampires collapse hissing into piles of smoking ash. So what do we need to see? Well, here’s a few things:

1. Fully independent judges, ideally from interstate.

2. Diversity of judges. Not all academics, not all painters, not all sculptors

3. Brief CV of judges

4. Declaration of interest of judges.

5. Exclusion of judges and their scores if any conflict of interest

6. List of definitions of conflicts of interest.

–  personal friendship, family or other relationship  (as opposed to just knowing the person)

–  prior professional representation of the person

–  judge recognises the artwork or believes they know the artist

7. Completely de-identified artworks, no CVs to be allowed until after the judging is complete.

8. Curator to take no part in shortlisting of artworks, this to be done by the judges alone. Exception: exclusions based on not fulfilling the brief – e.g. wrong genre, wrong size.

Oh, and one other thing. A white knight. The National Gallery, State galleries, maybe a Minister or three. Get a code together. Endorse those contests which adopt the Code, and withdraw patronage from those who don’t. Artists boycotting the dodgy ones who won’t cooperate. Justice for the Artist – well, there’s a first time for anything.