art on james

fortitude valley, brisbane
2 - 9 June 2011

On a balmy Thursday in Brisbane, the afternoon rains loomed but thankfully held off, for a crowd was gathering in front of a large blank wall on James Street, Fortitude Valley. The 250+ spectators waited with anticipation as the most recent artist to take out the Archibald Prize, Ben Quilty stood before them poised to tackle a live painting and some questions posed by co-curator of Art on James, Alison Kubler.

As the fluid black lines took shape upon the wall and revealed a kangaroo, an emu, a quasi-religious image of a snake and a trademark skull in the Quilty coat of arms, the artist spoke candidly about the phenomenon of tagging and the voiceless young men in our society who use his favourite medium, aerosol, to pronounce their presence upon public buildings. Clearly concerned with masculinity, macho gesture and the inequalities between artists and sportsmen in our country, Quilty’s work appears to be becoming more political as he attempts to define the human aspects of quintessential ‘Australian-ness’.

Quilty was gallerist Jan Murphy’s star player at Art on James. The week-long inaugural event presented the work of some of Australia’s finest contemporary artists, from the stables of Brisbane’s leading commercial art galleries, in the retail spaces of Fortitude Valley’s affluent James Street strip. The enterprise, organised by the James Street Initiative, was borne out of a desire to integrate art, fashion and design into a combined retail and cultural experience.

Co-curators of Art on James Alison Kubler and Louise Martin-Chew of MC/K Art Consulting were responsible for marrying represented artists with each of the participating retail stores and programming the festival. In a fusion of art and fashion they tactfully and adroitly presented institutional quality artworks within the architecture of retail environments.

Three Adam Cullen paintings from Heiser Gallery did not look out of place hung high on the lofty walls of the fashion boutique Calexico. They reflected the edgy yet laid-back vibe that the boutique projects. The John Young digital print, Figure Study XXXIX (2009) from Phillip Bacon Gallery looked as though it was commissioned especially for the front room of viridian beauty spa Outshine. The colours of Rosslynd Piggott’s oil painting, Window: Expanding White Flower, Expanding Dark Cloud (2011) from Milani Gallery, were mimicked in the greys, pinks and creams of the sheer fabric garments in the window of the stockist, Kisses. Piggott’s painting conveys the ephemeral quality of nature and, in situ, served to highlight the transience of fashion.

Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton of Sass and Bide personally selected two large Michael Cook photographs from Andrew Baker Art Dealer. The prints, which depict a striking young indigenous woman, adorned with nothing but gold epaulets atop her slender frame and a masculine imperialistic naval hat, lined the entrance to their Kelvin Ho designed space like sentinels guarding the threshold.

Other successful pairings included Rebecca Ross’s meticulously pinned antique map collages in the flagship Tom Gunn footwear store, the display of four Alex Chomicz films on the latest flat-screens in the Bang & Olufsen showroom, the projection of Judith Wright videos in Cru Bar and Peter Madden’s intricately cut collage sculpture in Tognini’s hair salon. On the opening night of Art on James, the precinct was abuzz as retailers traded late and many held in-house parties and promotions with unofficial talks by the artists and gallerists for their VIP guests.

It may at first appear that the premise of Art on James is simply a commercially driven double promotion of established artists and their respective galleries which further commodifies and objectifies the art by placing it within the retail environment of mass consumers. However, presenting art outside the hallowed white walls of the private gallery environment and within the public domain makes the art more accessible and introduces it to new audiences. The event went beyond the mercantile to showcase art from all echelons of the Queensland art world.

Local artist-run initiative, Level, presented the work of emerging artists in a vacant two-storey cottage on James Street, that is ordinarily rented as a pop-up shop. They staged Subdivision, a pop-up art fair. The cleverly presented, female-only show, featured standout works by Elizabeth Willing, Megan Cope, Nicole Gillard and Alice Lange. Three second-year students from the Queensland College of Art, Gold Coast campus, successfully responded to the James Street Market windows, creating large site-specific works. There was also commissioned alleyway paintings, performance-art parties and a series of conversations chaired by the co-curators, which were designed to stimulate discussion about the interactions between art, commerce and design. These events gave audiences the opportunity to be directly involved in a dialogue, possibly learn something new and meet the involved creatives.

Fashion aficionados joined Lydia Pearson and Pamela Easton of the iconic label Easton Pearson, in a conversation about the transference between the two creative forms of fashion and art. The duo spoke about art having connotations of elitism and fashion being totally commercial due to its utilitarian nature, but how these boundaries are shifting. They also spoke of their artistic influences and previous collaborations with artists on their prêt-à-porter meets demi-couture garments and the cachet that large fashion houses can attain when choosing to work with ‘the right’ artist.

The politically inclined joined Sydney artist Alex Seton in a debate about whether Australia should become a Republic, which was chaired by writer Phil Brown and fueled with the opinions of Republican, Dr Glenn Davies, and Tristan Rogers from the Australian Monarchists League. The debate was developed from Seton’s recent solo show at Jan Murphy Gallery, and the politically motivated flag works that were installed in Harvey’s restaurant for the week.

Rounding off the week’s discussions was a conversation on the art of collecting that considered how and why one begins building a contemporary art collection. Insights were provided from the perspective of the artist (Michael Zavros), the collector (Richard Williamson) and gallerists (Jan Manton and Renai Grace).

It is refreshing to see an arts event that is not reliant upon public funding, that supports all levels of artists and the local art economy, whilst also raising money for charity. (Proceeds from a black-tie dinner, silent art auctions and other events over the week were donated to the AEIOU Foundation for children with autism.) The Art on James initiative was not focused on selling works as much as the facilitation of new audiences. Artists, just like designers and sports people, should be more readily supported by private enterprise, budding collectors and the general public, and Art on James ultimately encouraged and nurtured the deepening of these relationships.

Ben Quilty at 'Art on James', 2011. Photography Ashleigh Bunter.