Pop and rock

In a week of spirit-sapping humidity and daily thunderstorms, I (mostly) dodged the weather and got out and about regardless. In your FACE, rain! (I just sometimes had really, really wet feet.)

On Wednesday night I saw the Pop to Popism exhibition at Art Gallery of NSW with friends. I love galleries at night. There’s just an excited vibe that’s lacking during the day – it’s kind of like being allowed to go into a sleepy library and yell swearwords at the top of your voice or something. It’s like an art party.

I think it can be easy for your eyes to start to glaze over sometimes with pop art – the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell’s soup cans, the Lichtenstein comic-strip panels are so well known it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes. But imagine how unreal it would have been when they first popped up (eep) on the scene, in the face of the art establishment and everything it upheld. Must’ve been wild times!

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would - his hair is totally boss.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would – his hair is totally boss.

I loved Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol – who wouldn’t? We noted it would’ve been spectacular back in the day when the silver spraypaint was spanking new, but it’s still got it.

Really enjoyed the Roy Lichtensteins (because hell, it’s Lichtenstein) – especially In the Car. Not sure why; maybe because the guy looks like he’s on the verge of a murder spree and it’s INTENSE.

Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It's just about a delicatessen counter. Right?
Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It’s just about a delicatessen counter. Right?

My fave artwork was of course painterly – Wayne Thiebald’s Delicatessen Counter.

On first look I don’t know why I was attracted to it, I just liked it – that was indeed a fat, juicy-looking wedge of cheese, for example. And it seemed pretty straightforward and accessible. Thankfully I passed it again and was drawn to the electric outlines/underpainting leaking out between the smallgoods: vibrant oranges, reds, greens in a mostly white and blue palette. This painting, well, POPS. Sure it’s about meat and cheese, but it’s about So. Much. More. (But really, it’s just about meat and cheese, I’m pretty sure.)

Martin Sharp, Mister Tambourine Man (1967). Pretty groovy, baby.


In a movement dominated by giants like Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, et al, it was great to see a roomful of Australian pop art. Martin Sharp’s works appealed and I particularly liked his Mister Tambourine Man screenprinted on gold foil, plus Richard Larter’s The Hairdresser is decidedly cool and of the time.

Great to see the women representing too, as there were so few female artists in the movement to begin with and unfortunately most have disappeared from its history. Rosalyn Drexter’s Race for Time is hot-hued, action-packed and movie posteresque, and Bridgid McLean’s fascination with the testosterone-laden world of car racing is demonstrated in Untitled (1969) among others – the brushwork and tones are so meticulous and subtle the painting looks like an airbrushed work.

Rosalyn Drexter, Race for Time (1964). Hottt.

AGNSW has ensured visitors immerse themselves in the pop era of the 1960s–70s – it’s about the art but also the origins, the events of the time, music, film and other cultural products. Beatles songs and other ’60s tunes serenaded shoppers in the Pop Shop. There are fun interactive elements alongside the exhibition. We joyfully partook of pop art Twister (putting hands and feet on Marilyn Monroe’s face, naturally); decorated soup can outlines; and when we sat down to dinner and wines in the AGNSW café later, we did so with pop art–related colouring-in and activity sheets. Okay, these all might’ve been for kids, but why let that stop you?

So I need a segue into Friday night . . . Speaking of 1960s music (!), my Friday night involved an impromptu trip to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville to see Dog Trumpet. I saw them this time last year with friends, but before that I had been largely ignorant of this rock band featuring ex Mental as Anything members (and brothers) Reg Mombassa and Pete O’Doherty, as well as Inner West institution Bernie Hayes.

Dog Trumpet: 'Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW'.
Dog Trumpet: ‘Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW’.

I can’t really classify myself as having been a fan of ‘the Mentals’ exactly, as their heyday was slightly before my time, but they were certainly a feature of my formative years – kind of like the familiar geometric wallpaper of my childhood home. On the night, Dog Trumpet played the Mentals hit ‘Berserk Warriors’. Instantly it transported me back to being five; for Christmas my sister was given the compilation ‘1982 with a Bullet’ featuring that song, and it enjoyed high rotation at our house throughout the eighties. So there’s sort of a special place in my heart for Reg and Pete to begin with.

They are damn impressive musicians. The music is a mix of 1960s influences, roots, blues and light country, and it’s earthy, lively and fun – despite some potentially heavy subjects – and they just have a great time on stage. Highlights from the gig include the tribute ‘Made in the World’, which lists off important global figures who’ve all made significant contributions somehow, many of them now dead. ‘With Good Reason’ has a happy, upbeat melody that belies the lyrics laden with the number of ways things are a bit shit right now: ‘Oh Lordy what we gonna do, if the world is going to end then so will you’. The brothers joked at the end how Tony Abbott hates that song and refuses to acknowledge its existence, and a couple of Abbott impressions ensued and were much appreciated by the audience.

And then they broke out ‘Little Red Rooster’, with Bernie Hayes on vocals and acoustic guitar, Reg on face-searing slide guitar. Woo boy, it was goood. ’Cos it’s not enough to be one of Australia’s most well known and beloved artists, the sinewy-armed old bastard can PLAY. The whammy got a workout on a couple of songs too – bloody brilliant.

Reg and Pete working away in their studio on their amazing art and stuff. You know, just knocking up some freaking etchings before going to play a gig.

So you might think it’s enough that Reg and Pete are such talented musicians, that Reg and, it turns out, Pete are prolific, successful artists. But no, they also seem to be two of the hardest working artist/musos walking around: ‘Equally successful in the visual arts as music, these creative dynamos were asked to produce a whole exhibition’s worth of prints and etchings in seven days, all the while also strapping guitars over their shoulders and playing a few gigs around town.’ Wtf, guys.

They’re also very funny, laconic men. For me, their warm, witty banter between songs is an integral part of the show. Reg has a dry cool wit; his Wikipedia page reveals he is inspired by ‘the wind, semi-professional birthday clowns, heavy machinery and the behaviour of domestic animals’. (Actually, he might’ve been only half-joking.) And they’re just plain nice and incredibly down to earth, as evidenced when I sidled up to Pete after the gig for a signature and he was only too happy to oblige, apologising for the fact that his brother had ‘buggered off – but you’ve got the most important one so that’s good’.

Oh and did you know that an artwork by pop artist Martin Sharp appears on the Dog Trumpet album Strange Brew? Me neither until right then. Aaand there’s my pop art segue. Bam!


Art day out

At the start of the week I was lucky enough to have a day out in Sydney, seeing art with an old art school buddy I hadn’t seen for a long time. We ate, we drank, we got stoned (okay, I barely inhaled), looked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, old buildings, the underside of the harbour bridge, marvelled at Circular Quay and we saw art.

We checked out the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert, with beautiful, brightly coloured collaborative Aboriginal paintings from Western Australia, and the slightly underwhelming and very French retrospective show of Annette Messager’s work.

Then we moseyed on over to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Pop to Popism show. It wasn’t on – not on till November. No, I did not read the calender correctly – bummer! So instead we meandered around some of the permanent collection, then lost time in the book shop. I ended up on my own wandering through a European prints and drawing show and then the Australian collection.

Oh my god! There was a Clarice Beckett painting outside the book shop. A new one, acquired last year: Evening, St Kilda Road.

St Kilda
Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Evening St Kilda (c. 1930), 35.5 x 40.5 cm, oil on board

Clarice Beckett is one of my favourite Australian artists – her tonal approach and dawns/dusks really appeal to me. This one is so brief and gestural and flat, a spare impression of Melbourne in twilight. I just love it. What really does it for me are the cheery streetlights going up either side of the road, shining heartily in the smog or dusk. It also covers some of my favourite painting subjects: road, sky, romantic urban setting.

It must have been completed so quickly, and it’s only small. Clarice cared for her ageing parents and would duck out early in the morning and at dusk to paint en plein air. Which unfortunately, is eventually how she met her end – she got caught in a storm while painting the sea at Beaumaris, got pneumonia and died, aged 48.

So many paintings in the nineteenth-century galleries off the main foyer caught my eye with their skies. I’ve visited them a number of times but I like to see them again and again. You see different things every time. I’m suddenly having a love affair with W.C. Piguenit (who I don’t think I was aware of until this week), especially The Flood in the Darling 1890.

W.C. Piguenit (1836-1914), The Flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), 122 x 199 cm, oil on canvas

It is stunning, absolutely entrancing (also, the joint might’ve been kicking in).That is how to do overcast afternoons – warm purpley clouds and cool grey skies. The clouds are somehow comforting – sure, they’re rough, ragged-edged pillowy ones but the water reflecting them back up is calm and smooth. Kosciusko (1903) also took my fancy with its deep blue mountain shadows and misty ethereal cloudage.

I spent a good amount of time in front of Sydney Long’s Decoration – apparently also known as Sadder Than a Single Star That Sets at Twilight in a Land of Reeds, which is a bloody mouthful and I can see why it didn’t make it onto the gallery label, but I much prefer it.

Sidney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star...(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.
Sydney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star…(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.

This painting’s gorgeous and haunting – it looks like a quintessential art nouveau bookmark. You can’t see the woman’s face, just the moon like a halo behind her head, the shadows dark on her face and the sketchy marks of black in the lower half are a great contrast to the creamy peach skin of her decolletage and arms. The edge of the left arm seems to continue in a wavy line down her side almost to the hem of her dress.

I love how rough and expressive the background is, and also the exploratory squiggle marks over the dress, the nice rust patina, the blues within the olive of the fabric and the thin blue loosely tied ribbon. That ain’t no plain green dress; there’s a lot of colour and action going on there. I like the ‘unfinished’ look at the edges of the painting too, and the gaps of light where the background meets the subtle curves of her arms. Syd didn’t even really do the hands; when you look at them directly they’re just 2D suggestions. Crafty beggar.

I left this painting wondering ‘What is going on in this picture?’*

Other highlights were George W. Lambert’s radiant portrait of fellow artist Miss Thea Proctor (1903), resplendent in her blue gown and fetching hat.

George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.
George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.

They were so having an affair. Okay they probably weren’t, and George was seemingly happily married, but his relationship with Thea was ‘enigmatic’, she was ‘doggedly devoted’ to him, and they spent lots of time on the art scene together. Also, let me present Exhibit A (a charcoal portrait George did of Thea):


I don’t think you labour over a drawing like this, capturing your art pal’s exquisite likeness, without some underlying feelings, do you? Go George.

I enjoyed some of the works in the European prints and drawing exhibition as well; I wasn’t really in the mood for prints for some reason but I did find some old favourites of mine I had looked at many times but never seen in the flesh. Seeing Peter Behren’s The Kiss was a lovely surprise. Years ago I loved this image so much I did a copy of it in coloured pencil.

Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.
Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.

And I spent ages looking at Edgar Degas’ drawing After the Bath – it’s so raw and lively, and the linework is quite rough at times yet it works, gives it movement and keeps it alive.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1900), 74 x 60 cm, charcoal on tracing paper mounted on board.

Reminds me yet again that a drawing doesn’t have to be polished, perfect; it can be completely free, rough and gestural, yet still be finished and beautiful.

I emerged from the gallery after 4 pm, the day just about done. I was chock-full of ideas for holing up somewhere in the city or inner west sometime soon to do sketches on the go of places around me, trying to capture that freshness you can’t get from a photo. Time to get back to experimenting with cloud paintings too; there’s that lightness and depth – that cloudness – I haven’t nailed yet.

And I’ll be back to the galleries soon no doubt, to revisit my favourites . . . and finally see the pop art show.

*Just read something about Sydney Long being briefly engaged to Thea Proctor in 1898. Hello! A year before he completed this painting? Wonder if that’s what it’s about…