Skulls & Swirls at the NGV

It was all colour, shape and excitement at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibition which features the works of over 100 artists from 32 counties. The artworks explore international perspectives through art, design, technology and architecture.

One of the first Triennial pieces is encountered in the entrance hall and summarises some of the most interesting ideas in art at the moment. Xu Zhen’s monumental sculpture, Eternity-Buddha, replicates the reclining Buddha from the High Tang Dynasty.

Xu Zhen, Eternity- Buddha in Nirvana, 2016-17
Covering the colossal body are replicas of some of the most iconic sculptures from the Western canon, including the Farnese Hercules, Milo of Croton and Crouching Aphrodite. It is a hugely powerful piece, not only in its extreme scale, but in its wider commentary on heritage, culture and the arts. Zhen has merged such disparate imagery to create something remarkable, showing Western and Eastern arts should compliment one another. Yet, Zhen has also made the Eastern figure far larger than the Western ones, perhaps questioning whether there is an imbalance in the Euro-centric art market that needs to be addressed. This beautiful, thought-provoking and international artwork represents many of the themes explored by the Triennial.

Francois Poncet's 1782 Venus pointing to Ron Mueck's room of skulls 
The artworks are spread throughout the gallery’s permanent collection, as well as in separate exhibition spaces. It is an all-encompassing display that encourages visitors to take part in the gallery experience. This is not an exhibition that allows for passive wandering through turgid white rooms. As viewers we must look, what is part of the NGV’s permanent collection? What is new here? What is interactive and what can’t be touched?

Ron Mueck's skulls are spread across two rooms, contrasting with the NGV's permanent collection
Ron Mueck’s large scale sculptures of skulls are positioned in the NGV’s international galleries, amongst paintings by Canaletto and Rembrandt. Particularly with regards to Dutch still life symbolising death and mortality, these skulls seem to have rolled straight out of a 17th century painting. In this way, they encourage fresh understanding of older paintings we may feel we already know. Mueck’s artworks are startling, morbid, and yet strangely intriguing and beautiful. They allow for interaction, encouraging visitors to walk through the maze of skulls.

Pae White's installation was a maze of colour and shape 
Pae White’s graphic installation uses acrylic yarn to warp our viewing of the world around us, infusing our space with colours and shapes. It blurs the line between art, craft, technology and architecture. Visitors in this room seemed unsure where the artwork started and finished. It was fascinating to see the NGV security guards tirelessly trying to protect the piece ‘Don’t stand on the string!’ ‘Don’t touch the string!’ It became part of the art itself. At what point does the art become part of our own environment and cease to be art at all? 

Lying on Alexandra Kehayoglou's hand tufted rug, Santa-Cruz River, was incredibly relaxing and almost hypnotically calm
Jonathan Owen's Untitled (2016) was displayed alongside sculptures by Rodin, and provided additional insights into changing views of the human body in art
It would be impossible to give justice to the entire exhibition in its enormity by writing about each piece in turn. It is simply too large and also too interactive and personal. Each visitor will see something different, experience something more. It is successful, not only in its selection and content, but in its display. By viewing contemporary pieces alongside older, more traditional art forms, we are able to better appreciate art in its power, and its transcendence over time. As something that has been recommended by every Melbournian I’ve encountered during my first week here, it is definitely worth visiting.


Seeing Squares- Seurat and Riley

A chance to explore these illusions first-hand

When Bridget Riley, aged 30, began working on her experiments with shape, she wanted to address if there was ‘anything new to be found in a square.’ In short, yes there was. Riley could not have known that her Movement in Squares (1961) would contribute to an explosion in artworks exploring perspective, form, colour and illusion. The movement would become known as ‘Op Art’ and was a defining artistic moment of the 1960s.  An exhibition at the Holbourne museum, Bath, traces this development from its roots in early colour theory to its manifestations in other areas of culture.

Michele Eugene Chevreul, The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast, 1839    

Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception begins the exhibition with a brief history of artistic interest in colour and form. Beginning with Michele Eugene Chevreul’s works into colour theory in 1839, the exhibition sets itself a large scope to cover. It points to the huge impact Chevreul had on the Impressionists of the late 1800s, as they explored how dabs of contrasting colours could depict the effects of light. Perhaps one of the biggest examples of this is with the work of the Pointillist, Georges Seurat. He explored how, rather than mixing colours on a palette, dabbing complementary and contrasting colours together makes more vivid effects, as the eye itself mixes them when viewing them from a distance.

Georges Seurat, The Morning Walk, 1885

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the curators have aimed to draw parallels with this Impressionist artist and the later endeavours of Op Artists. It is a well-made argument, as clearly, Op Art too is interested in the effects that can be achieved when viewing colour. However, it was perhaps weakened by the fact there was only one Impressionist artwork on display, Seurat’s The Morning Walk, meaning the argument was made more with accompanying text, rather than with visual material.

Bridget Riley, Fall, 1963
Apart from this limitation, the exhibition was thorough with the rest of its collection of artworks. They have acquired many of Bridget Riley’s important early pieces, such as Pause (1964) and Bridget Riley, Fall (1963). These pieces alone make the exhibition worth seeing, as one can only really appreciate their effects in person. Fall in particular is an astonishing work of art, and one you will both want to and struggle to look at for long. 

Bridget Riley, Rose Rose, 2011

Alongside these works are some of Riley’s rough experiments, showing the true scientific nature of her experimental works, involving careful calculations for every shape. As well as these monochromatic pieces, the exhibition includes her later works exploring colour, such as Rose Rose (2011). These are the less famous pieces, as they lack the optical illusory effects of some of her other works, but they are still worth seeing to fully appreciate the vast career of this artist.

Logo for the Mexico Olympic Games, 1968 
These pieces are complimented with a range of other famous Op Art pieces, including Carlos Cruz-Diez’s 3D illusions, and Jeffrey Steele’s Harlequinade (1964). With many of the pieces on show, you will not believe they are simply monochrome or 2D. We are also shown the deep-rooted and widespread influence Op Art had, as it reached everything from the Mexico Olympic Games of 1968 to David Bowie’s album covers, a real strength of the collection.

Victor Varasely, Space Oddity, 1969

From contrasting colours to questioning how far a shape can be pushed, these artists truly had a real effect on visual culture and our way of seeing. It is worth making the trip to Bath to see these illusions first-hand.

Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception is on display at the Holbourne Museum, Bath, until 21st January 2018. 

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Things You Will Learn From Rebel Girls

A must-have for every person you know.

If you saw me opening my Amazon package last week, you’d know just how excited I’ve been to read Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It’s been critically acclaimed all over the world, and deserves every rave review it’s had. Styled as a children’s alternative to princess stories, this book was initially funded by a $1 million kickstarter campaign and can now be bought in beautiful hardcopy.

Everything from the yellow and red constellation inner cover to the inspirational quote as the dedication is new and different and exciting. Here is a book filled to the brim with fascinating stories of women from all over the world, spanning millennia, and fighting stereotypes. It is perfectly done, striking just the right tone in the text and accompanied by stunning illustrations.

Geri Stengel of Forbes has described it as ‘a must-have for the nightstand of every girl or young woman you know.’ But I’d disagree. I think this book is a must-have for every person you know, regardless of gender or age. Everyone can learn something from it, and to prove my point, I thought I’d compile a list… 

·      Rebel Girls come in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities
With stories of 100 women, this book shows once and for all that women are amazing. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, but this is perhaps the most thorough survey I’ve seen, presented so well. Just flicking through the pages you’ll see women of all different skin colours, all different looks, and all different ages. Unfortunately, in the West, historical education is still heavily Euro-centric and based in classical education, meaning whereas we may know the name Cleopatra we don’t know the name Jingu. It’s books like these that can begin to target this imbalance.

·      Rebel Girls don’t have to be sweet and perfect the whole time.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this book covering political leaders too, such as Margaret Thatcher, even if their legacy has been controversial. All too often feminist works like these, aimed at young girls, can be too sweet, and brush over complicated issues. This book shows that sometimes women are just as aggressive as men. Women can make mistakes or make harsh judgements. Girls should be given all types of role-models and women to admire, even if it’s not pretty and simple to do so.

·      Sometimes there’s Rebel Boys too. And that’s ok.
Another thing feminist literature tends to brush over is how important men can be in the lives of great women. It doesn’t delegitimise women’s strength by saying men can be great too. From Orazio Gentileschi first giving his daughter a paintbrush to Pierre Curie working alongside his wife, it’s important to recognise where men have played a part, and this book does this perfectly.

·      Art is universal.
One of my many favourite parts of this book was the choice to use many different artists from all over the world for the illustrations. The works are almost as important as the text in showing young girls that differences are amazing. Each artist uses her individual spin to make the profiles beautiful and current. The choice to use artists from across the world shows us these women can be relatable to everyone, regardless of where they were born.   

·      ‘Rebellious’ can mean anything and everything.
Yes, some of these women were pirates or activists, literal rebels against a regime or idea. But many of these women rebel in less obvious ways, such as coming up with an amazing scientific invention or creating poetry or sailing around the world. Not everyone has to fight against a regime to be powerful. 

·      The stories are fascinating, not just empowering.

Even if after reading all this, you’re not convinced. Even if you’re the most empowered person out there. Even if you don’t need anything to tell you how great women are. You should still read this book. Because, fundamentally the stories are adventurous, creative and exciting.

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