Trevor Liddell at Duchess of Spotswood

trevor liddell

Who is he?

A talented painter and drawer, about whom we have posted previously, Liddell has recently opened his first solo show at the Duchess of Spotswood. The show comprises a series of seven pencil sketches with a focus on Scandinavian landscapes and fragmented representations of the architecture of Richard Neutra.

The pieces explore the interpretive qualities of drawing, carrying built elements into abstract formations that extrapolate the geometries of Neutra’s architecture. Furthering his engagement with the traditions of architectural representation, all seven works float serenely in large expanses of white space, overcoming contrasting subjects to unify the series and highlight Liddell’s selective depictions of building and landscape.

What do we think?

Theory, technique and discussion aside, it is a pleasure to see such fine works of art crafted in pencil. In many ways, it is an under-appreciated medium that typically plays second fiddle to oil and acrylic. Unlike the layered construction of a painting, works in pencil are flat, demanding foresight and precision. This control combines with a charming fragility that in Liddell’s hands suggests both careful thought and freedom of expression.

Four of the pieces have already been sold, a triumph for a young artist exhibiting in an open space and, we hope, signs of significant future success.

Secret Walls – a graffiti showdown

Finished artworks – Hancock on left, Reliable on right

What is it?

Secret Walls is a live graffiti showdown between two street artists. Armed only with black markers and paint, they have 90 minutes to each transform a large, white wall into a work of art. The audience watches as they sketch in outlines, block out shading and render detail, and contributes to the judgement of the works with the volume of its cheering. The winner proceeds to the next battle, where it all happens again.

Secret Walls was founded in 2006 by Terry Guy, starting life in a small bar in East London and since spreading to the rest of Europe, Russia, the United States and Australasia. The Australian events were initiated, and continue to be coordinated, by Shannon McKinnon. Last Wednesday, the first battle of the 2012 Melbourne tournament between Hancock and Reliable took place at The Order of Melbourne in front of an enthusiastic crowd of what we estimate to be 300.

What do we think?

Watching an artist at work is a unique experience every person should have at some point in their life. The technique of applying paint or marker or charcoal or pencil to a blank surface, the construction of layers of depth and detail, can be as revealing as the final work itself.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum, the National Gallery of Victoria recently announced that drawing and even painting within the gallery is permitted. Somewhat sheepishly admitting that this has been allowed for many years, though never strongly publicised, the NGV now steps into line with many other major art galleries and museums around the world. We can only see good things arising from this – amateur artists will learn directly from the masters’ works, experienced painters will study advanced form and technique, and the public will witness art as it happens.

Secret Walls takes this process a significant step further. The need to avoid detection during late-night train bombings, wall-taggings and team-murals imbues the street artist with a loose and rapid method of execution. When the fuzz is bearing down, agonising over the precise weight of a line is a luxury the street artist cannot afford. Combining this natural speed with the condensed timeline of a graffiti battle permits original artworks to unfold before our very eyes. Indeed, neither Hancock nor Reliable truly needed the full 90 minutes – the works were mostly laid down within 45, the remainder used for extra shades of detail.

Undoubtedly via pre-arrangement, both artists satirised the other, using their names, attire and images for clever word and picture-play. This was graffiti at a far more sophisticated level than “Daz Wuz Here”, not only in content but in execution also. Hancock used a clean style with clear influence from comic book art, while Reliable had a grittier feel dominated by jagged text and rough shading. We particularly enjoyed the small but elegant city behind Reliable’s central character, and the dramatic curvature of Hancock’s prison cell, a classic comic book technique. What follows is a short series of photos taken during the Secret Walls battle:

In the end, though we voted for both, Hancock earned a 116.4 decibel cheer from the crowd while Reliable could only manage 114.

The 2012 tournament comprises four Round 1 battles, of which last week’s was the first, followed by two semi finals and one grand final showdown. The battles take place once a month until November. We look forward to attending many more.


What are they?

Sculptures, art installations, kinetic experiments, inorganic life forms. Dutch artist, Theo Jansen, designs the Strandbeesten (or Beach Beasts in English) to mimic the natural biological processes underpinning digestion and mobility, with oscillating sails to feed on wind energy, bladders to digest compressed air, and muscles to operate spidery legs. Built from PVC tubing, bottles and sheeting, the beasts roam Dutch beaches, following wind patterns in a new and fascinating artificial life.

Jansen’s most recently evolved Strandbeest, the 12m long Animaris Umerus, will soon be coming to Australia. It will spend February roaming the central piazza at Federation Square.

First seen in an article in The Age, viewable here.

What do we think?

Jansen’s background in physics led him 20 years ago to develop a computer program that utilised a genetic algorithm to emulate natural evolution. In it, virtual creatures competed against one another to determine which would reproduce. The Strandbeest project, ongoing since then, brings this early program to life.

The use of simple, limited materials – PVC, nylon thread and adhesive tape – to create creatures of great complexity mirrors nature’s own production process. Jansen observes that in nature, almost everything is made of protein used in various ways: from it come nails, hair, skin and bones. He explains that “there’s a lot of variety in what you can do with just one material and this is what I try to do as well.”

Jansen’s constant references to natural processes – skeletons, digestion, self-preservation and catacombs – are no accident. Though his media are inert, he is nevertheless conducting a long, slow dance of evolution: each Strandbeest learns from the mistakes of the last, is built to survive better and for longer. Recent improvements include high-wind sensors linked to sand anchors that protect the Strandbeesten from toppling over, and bottles that store compressed wind energy and drive pistons in their legs to move to safety at high tide.

What have we learnt?

There is a lot of science to Jansen’s project. His use of materials, the sophistication of his creatures’ limb joints and his inclusion of ancillary systems, have all improved significantly over the last 20 years, a clear indication of a systematic, scientific approach. However, like nature itself, there is also a lot of art. The Strandbeesten have a magical quality to them, evoking the multi-faceted movement of crustaceans, the ponderous size of elephants, the alien forms of the imagination.

Jansen’s dream, like the dream of any parent, is for his offspring to outlast him. His poetry lies in the Strandbeesten continuing to roam the beaches of Netherlands long after he himself has passed on.

We look forward to meeting the Animaris Umerus in person next month. Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with this short and beautifully-shot documentary, A Portrait of Theo Jansen, by Alexander Schlichter.

The Real Thing

The Real Thing (2008) – Feathers detail

The Real Thing (2008) – In flight, in use

What is it?

A 2008 installation by Sydney artist, Jordana Maisie, that combines the traditional tube construction and fractal forms of the kaleidoscope with interactive digital technology. A large, polished tube is erected in a gallery space, with a viewing point at one end. A camera mounted to the lip of the tube captures a small segment of the viewing area, replicates and fragments the image and projects it onto the reflective inner surface of the tube. The “large-scale kaleidoscope has been created with digital technology… yet without the tangible, physical realm inhabited by the viewer’s body, it simply cannot function.”

The work is a continuation of Maisie’s “exploration of the ways in which technology is constantly shifting the relationships between physical and digital space.”

What do we think?

This is a fascinating work, both cerebral and beautiful. It exists at the intersections of craft and high technology, digital space and real place, algorithmic modelling and the physical body. From all of these contradictory, or at least mutually exclusive, pairs, The Real Thing establishes a synergetic experience that smoothly integrates them all. Starting with a viewer’s body, the artwork digitally samples its details and re-interprets it as a shifting, real-time kaleidoscopic pattern, returning the viewer to an awareness of his position and movement. By bending, twisting and flapping his arms, the viewer is “encouraged by the very nature of the work to experience a heightened awareness of his own physicality”.

The work sits comfortably within Maisie’s larger oeuvre. More recent works include the aptly named Liminal Space (2010), a low-key installation that utilises the natural friction between positively and negatively charged particles in soil to generate light, and Close Encounters (2011), an interactive UFO that encourages passers-by to engage via text-message with provocative comments displayed around its circumference.

Liminal Space, 2010

Close Encounters (2011) – Want to talk?

Each of Maisie’s works combine high technology and natural materials in engaging and thought-provoking ways. Not only do they reach out to their audiences and encourage thoughtful exploration, they do so in a way that highlights the dependence on technology that is ever-encroaching upon our previously biological lives.

We look forward to future contributions from this smart and talented artist.

Hiding in the City

Hiding in the City – The Temple of Heaven, 2010

Hiding in New York – Magazine Rack, 2011

What is it?

A series of installation artworks by Chinese artist, Liu Bolin. Dubbed The Invisible Man, Bolin photographs himself in front and part of urban environments, his clothing and body painted with exacting patience to mimic his surrounds. A student of fine art and sculpture, he is both artist and muse, posing for anywhere between 4 and 10 hours while his assistants paint him into the cityscape.

Bolin’s works aim to reveal the tension that exists between the rulers and the ruled in China, whose people don’t always figure in their government’s relentless pursuit of economic growth. His art “represents the diminishing humanity in today’s society, a retrospective [appraisal] of culture, the environment and fast economic development.”

First seen on Unique Design Obsession, here.

What do we think?

Bolin’s photography is created with great precision, a number of cues revealing highly focussed and deliberate compositions.

First, his environments are carefully chosen, mostly urban settings with recognisable landmarks (the Great Wall of China, Wall Street, il Ponte di Rialto) or indicators of consumer culture (magazine racks, sawmills, supermarket aisles). These are places that refer to consumption and commerce. They are symbols of tourism, finance and industry. They immediately force us to reconcile his (non-)presence according to the cultural capital of his surrounds.

Second, he almost always places himself front and centre in his images, a decision that both highlights and subverts his importance within his surroundings. The former because he is like any tourist posing in front of the camera while on holiday, and the latter because he is in fact so perfectly camouflaged as to be almost invisible. That his camouflage is uni-directional i.e. only appropriate from a specific angle at a specific distance, further reinforces this duality of meaning.

And third, his process is in-situ, achieved using backdrops that are not fabricated but already exist in the world. The obviously painstaking preparation for a photo clashes with our understanding of the way his environments are normally used (hordes of tourists flocking along the Great Wall, investment bankers marching down Wall Street, consumers populating supermarkets).

Ponte di Rialto, 2010

Bolin’s work is layered fiction on top of non-fiction on top of fiction on top of non-fiction. He aims to question the costs to humanity of the capitalist machine, but offers far broader insight into the importance of places and their value in our lives. He creates worlds that are pristine in their emptiness, though should never be, and fills them with an absence both bizarre and sublime.

VCA art workshops exhibition

What is it?

A recent exhibition of graduates’ work from three casual workshops held by the Victorian College of the Arts. The three workshops run across a full year, covering drawing, painting and sculpture disciplines.

The casual workshops have no entry prerequisites, trying to appeal to the widest possible audience. This is a commendable philosophy that establishes a great diversity in students, though it also has the inevitable result of a wide range in quality. Most of the works, we have to say, were not memorable. Trevor Liddell’s drawings and Angela Pye’s sculptural installation were exceptions – both real gems in the rough.

What did we think?

Liddell’s drawings, Neutra Series (above), are re-workings of photos of Richard Neutra’s modernist architecture. He successfully combines both cerebral and craft-driven techniques into vivid renderings of the great architect’s famous imagery. Through mirroring, selective deletion and exaggerated perspective, Liddell filters the original photos through a lens that exposes the core geometries  of modernist form-making. The fine line-work and warm tones of the drawings reveal a meditative process of making that further sharpen the works’ inherent beauty. The resultant, semi-abstract images are architectural, graphical and iconic.

Angela Pye’s sculpture, In Between, is a field of 200 slip-cast porcelain noses. Taken from the noses of 30 friends and family (including Pye’s own), both the finished work and the process of making them are experiments in proximity. Pye states that she is “intrigued by the distance between noses… as one of the protruding parts of the body and a defining feature as one gets closer to another.” Viewing the work, the first thought that comes to mind is how awkward and intimate its production must have been, a sentiment echoed by Pye: “It was fascinating to feel the initial awkwardness of being so close to someone and see this slowly dissolve.” In Between is a compelling work in equal parts empathetic and humorous.

Both Liddell and Pye demonstrate the consideration, technical skill and immaculate attention to detail typically found amongst experienced artists. That both have other “day” jobs and neither work full time as artists makes these attributes even more remarkable. We congratulate them both on their engaging works, thank the VCA for providing them the opportunity to practice and exhibit, and eagerly anticipate future contributions to the wider artistic discourse.

Creativity is subtraction

This post is part 10 and the final instalment of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

10. Creativity is subtraction

Back at university, I was often shackled by the need for each of my design projects to somehow encapsulate my entire philosophy of architecture, to express every thought I had ever had and would ever have on the subject. But this is not how good architecture is made. Good architecture is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. Some of the best architecture I have ever experienced engages with only a few simple ideas, resolved thoroughly and with conviction.

One of my lecturers, the insightful and generous Alex Selenitsch, once taught me an invaluable lesson I have since come to call the teacup principle.

Architectural ideas require a reference frame to be understood. If your idea is to take a shape and transform it into something new, using an unidentifiable blob is no help at all. Instead, use an instantly recognisable form, like a teacup, so that the changes you make can be perceived as having originated somewhere.

This principle holds true for all architecture – subtracting the peripheral ideas that confuse or compromise your central idea will make your design more rigourous and your ideas more legible. In this age of abundance, the challenge central to all our lives is to cut out the white noise: less is most certainly more. If you can figure out what to leave out, you will be the one to get ahead, because you will be concentrating on what’s important to you.

Creativity is subtraction.