Two major shows are finishing up shortly, at their only venues in Australia.

William Kentridge: Five Themes, ACMI, Melbourne

Why, why did I wait so long to see Kentridge at ACMI? Partly it seemed to be on for ages; partly I wasn’t sure I liked his work, d’oh. The show is gobsmackingly tremendous; K and I spent four unintended hours there. It’s political art, and brought to mind Anselm Kiefer and Kara Walker — certainly he belongs in the heavyweight division. His themes are grounded in South Africa, but resonant everywhere: power and brutality, the rational and the tetherless, the lyrical and coarsely physical.

There are sculptures and collages, prints and drawings — some at immense scale — lining the walls. But the crucial work is his filmmaking; all short but in abundance; many of them interrelated, spread across five rooms. They’re handmade, often with the artist performing in them (he is as iconically shaped as Hitchcock) and backed by rackety lo-fi soundtracks that evoke antique films, sometimes with bits of joyful SA music.

The ones I like best are his charcoal driven animations — when you tune into the aesthetic, that sophisticated crudity (his is not a beautiful draughtsmanship) the smudginess of his medium is expressive and persuasive, and the charcoal is most accommodating of the animation process. Kentridge is a resolutely black and white artist, though ocassionally accenting with rust marks and a bright blue for water, which seems to stand for relief or welling emotions. The image above, from Stereoscope, ends that film — and it is at the finish you feel the reason for that overbrimming.

His side-glancing, appalled visions have no obvious messages: that is to say, they are useless as propaganda, but very memorable as art, and utterly distinctive.

Especially catch The Black Box, a quirky, mechanical puppet theatre show — charm, beauty and horror. Ends Sunday, May 27.

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The Clock, MCA, Sydney

Get yourself to the new MCA for The Clock. It’s a work now so art famous it seems redundant to write about it, but I will anyway, soon. It’s the 24-hour movie collaged from thousands of film clips, all of them with some indication of the time, often with a clock or watchface in view. You can wander in and out, and on Thursdays — two left — you can watch it around The Clock. At exciting midnight, at scary 2 am, at dreamy 3:30 am. If the main point of contemporary art is to make you look, and supposedly to make you think, this is ConArt par excellence. (It can get obssessive — I’ve spent five hours on those couches.) Film of the year. Free, ends Sunday June 3.

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Gallery crawl: hippest and blue-chippest

I’m always interested in seeing how critics see the things I’ve just looked at — to check if they agree, or have other views, or because I have no idea myself. And my current MO is to see what I make of the stuff in galleries while avoiding as much background information as possible — watching my raw reaction, to be mildly cooked by later reflection and reading those critics.

Earlier last week I crawled around a triangle of galleries — the hippest and blue-chippest — on my way to a rendezvouz. At Tolarno is Benjamin Armstrong; there’s Alasdair McLuckie at Murray White Room; and at Anna Schwartz is Shane Cotton. Dan Rule, who reviews art for the Age and elsewhere, had also written up the shows — a perfect opportunity to virtually compare notes. (I have cited his writings here, poking it for being like “art writing”.)

Giant Ginseng

Benjamin Armstrong is an extremely talented  artist, who at 37, has already created a distinctive oeuvre — organic and strangely sensual though not erotic.

At groovy blue-chip Tolarno he is exhibiting an extraordinary bunch of over-life-sized sculptures carved from wood glued in great layers — the construction is self-evident, but the mystery of their arrival as images and the technique of their creation remain mysterious. They seem organic but also unprecedented, awkward but fluid — which is the absolute centre of contemporary groove.

At 215 cm tall Conjurer III looms over you, lightly propped up on its rooty limbs. You may find yourself responding to it and its mates as we do to dancers dancing or kung fu fighters fu-ing — tilting this way or that, or feeling the weight on our feet anew. (If you think it looks odd in my drawing, right, check out the gallery images.)

In his column, Dan Rule also mentions the ink drawings in the show:

‘Armstrong’s sculptures entwine and distend and lurch as though primordial ogres … There is an eerie silence in here. The beasts summon both that which grows from the earth and that which once trod upon it; they are ancient and imposing … Armstrong’s trio of ink and watercolour paintings form the milieu. A god-like face in the clouds shoots rainbow life-rays … a squall of electricity crackles through the air, as if a portal to this peculiar dimension. It is from that threshold that we are delivered, to wander Armstrong’s antediluvian world, minds agape.’

That poetic description is certainly colouful, and fits my notion of “art writing”. My feelings were not quite as high as Rule’s. In any case, the show is eminently “successful” with the five sculptures sold at $18K a piece. Ends May 26.

Pink Lion patterns…

At übercool Murray White Room is ‘Pink Lions”, a show of Alasdair McLuckie’s picture-things, the most conventional of which are geometric drawings on a grid that recall Picassoesque cubism. Then there are wooden painting stretchers, without canvas — drawn with biro pen to suggest frame mouldings. And then large linen stretched and sewn canvases tinted pink, or black, with slices of agate tinyly stitched slightly off-centre (here, no permalink). I have no idea what they are about, none. They look nice, if thin.

Dan Rule:Pink Lions includes … a suite of vast canvas stretchers (sans canvas), their wooden frames riddled with hyper-detailed drawn patterns that reposition the credence of the painting and pose questions of the traditional flat surface. The most stunning, if not unlikely, works are his collection of softly hued, hand-sewn linen canvases, each bedecked with flat cross-sections of polished, pink agate stone via fragile needlework. They represent a bizarre, beautiful meeting of mediums and worlds.’

Which leaves me no wiser. (McLuckie’s work looks generally interesting.) Ends June 9.

…and Cotton games

Finally, at the other cool bluechip gallery, Anna Schwartz, is a show of Shane Cotton’s paintings. (Info I couldn’t unknow: Cotton is a painter sharing the peak of the Kiwi art world and I remember seeing his work in a small gallery (Darren Knight) in Collingwood back in the ’90s. He was making very attractive large paintings filled with small figures, like hieroglyphic narratives cum political comentary.)

His new show, ‘Smoking Gun’, comprises two large and over a dozen small canvases. They are slightly stylised, realistic, painterly renderings of mostly mysterious structures and objects against airbrushy dark skies. You’ll just have to see for yourself, or at the gallery site. I couldn’t decipher these attractively made pictures.

In an article, part interview, not quite a review, at Broadsheet, Dan Rule writes: ‘Stunning … Taking the first generation of contemporary artists to challenge the tropes of traditional Maori art as his cue, Cotton’s paintings recast a series of sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s, merging traditional totem-like figures with signposts of Western art. Indeed, Cotton’s paintings reveal cubist forms and Picasso-like touches amid more traditional folk-art motif … What Cotton brings to the mix is a playful, surrealist inflection. Symbolic gestures, objects and beings perch and float amid his compositions.’

Ah well, they’re handsome, anyway, even if I still no idea what they’re on about. Till June 9.

Update: Dan Rule has reviewed this in his Age column: ‘At the heart of the stunningly rendered images from this leading New Zealand artist is the totemic Maori sculpture. But these central figures — based on a series of radical, culturally divisive sculptural appropriations to come out of the contemporary Maori art movement in the 1960s — sport formal elements that question their very posture. A cubist vernacular reconfigures the towering forms, while surrealist fragments and motifs tease and loosen the works at their edges.’

Nope, I can read the words, but I can’t really see it in the pictures.

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Me and P White

Last night, Constant Gardener said, come up and see this doco on Patrick White. It was to mark his centenary. Near the end a friend was texting me: ‘Is that you on TV? Just your hands and cnr of your glasses and print of PW.

It was; they filmed me cutting the lino for the print of Patrick White I made last year — for “eye candy” just before the credits, as the producer put it. Video on demand at ABC Artscape.

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Cover art and Aussie Classics talk, May 31

I’m giving a talk on how to read an Australian Classic and make a picture from it. Details on my previous post, or at the Wheeler Centre site to register. Free, Thurs May 31, 6:15-7:15 pm.