Friday, August 26, 2011

No reason for a llama

The Alpacas' Teaparty, Kate Bergin (2011) Photo by Pants. Thanks to
Mossgreen Gallery, South Yarra for allowing the Kodak moment.

I went to Melbourne to buy some art. Nothing strange in that. I work now and, although nepotism is obviously a huge factor in my unexpected accelerated disposable income, (i.e. from next to zero to multiples of thousands in 0.5 seconds), I do a good job and more than earn my keep at Larrikin Shire Council.

I am determined to spend my salary wisely. By wisely, I mean I only intend to invest in quaffable wine, readable books and whatever usable else takes my fancy. I don't want to buy shares. Speculation doesn't interest me. Accumulation is nasty unless it makes the world more tolerable. If I invest at all, I want to invest in wit and intelligence, not greed and stupidity.

My walls, as I may have mentioned, are reasonably well adorned with my own cack-handed efforts but I am keen to inflate the tone by throwing in the occasional masterpiece to augment my signature Whiteley print.

It was with this aim that Ms Ann O'Dyne and I set out for South Yarra and a gallery trawl on a sunny Melbourne Saturday. Our first mistake, you could say, was not to have done our homework. I was under the misapprehension that artists wanting to sell their work and agents able to make the connection between keen sellers and equally keen buyers would be easy enough to find.

Our start was glaringly inauspicious. We were on a tram labouring along Toorak Road and several minutes from our randomly chosen disembarkation point when Ms O'Dyne began to speculate aloud about whether or not I needed to inform the Department of Transport of my imminent alighting by shoving my day ticket into the same slot that clocked my boarding. I, of course, had no idea. I know only Oyster Card and the Pantibago. She turned her attention to the hermetically sealed female seated beside me. Ms O'Dyne needed only to utter the words, 'excuse me', to be sliced in two by the most cut-glass Sloane Ranglish imaginable.

'Are rare lair couldn't sir', spaketh she of the realm and further informed us that she'd been in Melbourne only a week. This, apparently, absolved her of any obligation to be pleasant, not to mention civil. Ms O'Dyne noted that the young ma'am in question was wearing Vivienne Westwood earrings. I really can't comment further.

We got off the tram without blood being spilled or alarms sounding. Remarkably, Melbourne's Montmartre failed to leap out and embrace us. We approached this new problem more strategically. Once bitch-slapped, twice shy and all that. Ms O'Dyne looked for someone not wearing Vivienne Westwood earrings.

A freshly latte'd middle-aged man with laptop and iPhone on alfresco table and contented dog at heel proved more approachable. He obligingly used said iPhone to GPS us to some galleries within roaming distance. And then he suggested we get one of these phones or make a note of goal destinations before setting out next time. Well, I guess, no suave man in late middle age is perfect, even if he does have a near-perfect dog.

More good luck than able management brought us to the door of Mossgreen Gallery, an attractive viewing space with an open-air cafe attached. By chance, (ours not the gallery's - presumably they'd planned it well in advance), an exhibition of paintings by Kate Bergin entitled Wild Things had opened the night before.

Surrealism. Well, I'm a fan. I did rush to Dalí's funeral after all. And I can see why people would want to keep painting in that style, especially if they're master technicians, as Bergin clearly is. And then there's the added attraction of the vast numbers of people who want to own paintings that are as beautiful as these. It's not something one needs to guess at. Of the eleven paintings on show here, priced from $6,000 to $30,ooo, ten were sold within twenty-four hours. But as supply and demand skip blissfully off into the sunset together, I'm left wondering.

Could I have bought one of these pictures had they not already been sold? Absolutely. Would I have? Categorically, no. Here's why. I'm one of those crazy old-fashioned people who wants to be challenged by art and shown a new way of looking at the world. Or, at the very least, enticed by satire clever enough to make the old ways seem new. But what we have here is cut'n'past cliché, albeit meticulously composed and executed. Gorgeous and distracting but, ultimately, shallow.

The very beautiful catalogue produced by Mossgreen tells you all you need to know. It consists of exquisite reproductions of the paintings, accompanied by what can only be described as a collage of words, organised into paragraph-like shapes that obey no rules of explanation that I can recognise. I could have picked any one of the irksome fourteen on offer but here's a random example,

'We fall in love with the creatures and engage with them. It is certainly no co-incidence (sic) that Bergin has won many peoples (sic) choice awards in recent times, as well as receiving critical acclaim from the more hardened art critics.'

I can't help myself, here's a bit more from the unattributed introduction,

'On speaking with the artist on the relevance of each ingredient, be it a spoon or the strings or the telephone, there are hidden messages, but the artist does not make this a requirement to enjoy her work.'

Gobsmacked? Read my swollen lips. Hidden messages? Don't make me laugh. What we have here is a collection of artefacts associated with the golden age of Surrealism transported into a classical still life format with a dollop of Australiana tossed in for good measure. And yes, yawn, I do get that telephones, spectacles, spoons, wild and domestic animals and even string all carry intense symbolic meaning. The key to rendering all that meaning meaningful is intelligent arrangement.

André Breton, the founder of Surrealism said,

'The imaginary is what tends to become real.'

This is exactly what I'm not seeing in these pictures. They are frivilous and fun and decorative, but nothing more than that. It does make me wonder why people who write catalogue blurbs feel that they have to insinuate a mysterious secret knowing onto an object simply because it's an oil painting - as if there were no audience at all in Australian capital cities for vacuous but visually striking and expensive wall candy.

Exhibition at Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra until 15th September.