Art

Open only by appointment due to Covid-19 restrictions, two exhibitions at Melbourne gallery Neon Parc provide a chance to reflect on the unseen labour of artists and arts workers. By Lisa Radford.

Exhibitions at Neon Parc, Melbourne

The installation of James Lynch’s Stranger at Neon Parc in Melbourne’s central business district.
Credit: Neon Parc

When the Morrison government relegated art to the Infrastructure portfolio late last year, my inherently contrary and perverse sense of humour detected an unconscious error in the ideological allocation. The etymological roots of the word “infrastructure” are French, and it was originally used in a military sense, meaning “the basis for any operation or system”. The government’s decision unwittingly placed art into perhaps one of the most important social portfolios – that of transport, regional development and cities. Things we build together, are responsible for together; things that move us around together – civitas.

In trying to hide us in an obscure corner of government, they instead framed us with origins pertaining to war. In their desire to bury us in bureaucracy, they indeed made us louder.

But in this uncertain moment, it is important to show – to make visual – who artists are. Much of what we do goes unseen, unreviewed and undiscussed. The way art is made, and by whom, is as complex as its funding.

Just prior to the lockdown, my accountant told me every professional artist employs something like seven other people – framers, designers, builders et cetera. Writers, including Alison Croggon and Ben Eltham, have been reminding us that the arts contribute $111 billion to the economy. In their 2017 report “Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia”, David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya account for us: 50,000 people who identify as being a professional artist, plus 600,000 art workers – curators, writers, administrators, installers, lighting managers, ticket office operators, casual teachers, technicians, festival organisers, to name but a few.

After weeks in isolation, I messaged artist, director and friend Geoff Newton and organised a visit to Neon Parc, his beautiful gallery-cum-Kunsthalle in Brunswick, Melbourne. Matthew Linde’s curated exhibition apparel stood there as a mediator of social exchange, materiality, space and thought. His exhibition of haute couture pieces by four local and international designers – Maison Martin Margiela, Jessie Kiely, Tallulah Storm and H. B. Peace – confronted me as a gathering of lifeless forms: silent, still, staged.

Pushed to the rear of the large space, framed by emptiness and two theatre lights, the installation was introduced by a 1998 document of a Maison Martin Margiela street-warehouse-runway exhibition, with French brass-band jazz emanating an eerie soundtrack. Be it lockdown-influenced or not, the collection of po-faced yet beautiful mannequins – some seemingly suffocating, their heads wrapped in plastic; others formed with heads of exposed wire, limbs carefully crafted in timber draped in elegant, fine fabric – was strangely dystopic.

Later, as I walked to Neon Parc’s city shop, located above a small and strangely open newsagency in the now-deserted Bourke Street, I was reminded that we went to art school during a recession. By “we” I mean Geoff Newton, myself and the artist whose exhibition I was about to view by appointment, James Lynch.

Lynch’s Stranger is the antidote to apparel – a gathering of things seemingly alive and of life. Rendered in watercolour as isolated objects, tools and structures, Lynch’s drawings and paintings, along with some sculptures, reveal the zeitgeist of our present isolation in works made in the four years prior.

These are items of infrastructure for artists themselves: domestic, civic and industry specific. It presents the inanimate as existent – ladders and scaffolding, a scissor-lift and barren plinths. A painting of a theatre flat frames implements as characters – the depiction of a wall drawing, half painted over. An oversized sculptured enamelled timber toothbrush rests on a Primecoat Solicore Interior Flush Door from Bunnings and Ikea trestle legs – the standard workstation of the artist who’s forever moving from one affordable space to the next.

Subaru Outback depicts a hotted-up family car that yearns to be a DeLorean time machine. Elsewhere, there are apparatuses and machines that have been isolated, activated, reordered and used. A spirit level holding up a wall, a robot carrying a box, a roller resting against a wall. Every title declares the image or form itself. Toolbox with timber found on Radford Rd (2020) shares my name and evokes the border of the suburbs Reservoir and Coburg,  places Lynch and I have called home.

A hammer, a clotheshorse. A man doing toe touches works on his core in Adidas slides – the worker from home and/or father.

Lynch’s work has always played with the edges of the reality we experience, and other realities we imagine, dream or interpret – juxtapositions of normality in spaces of the imaginary. What we encounter materially, and what we experience psychologically.

In the small office of Neon Parc, there is one last drawing, Security Guard, which depicts a solitary sleeping security guard resting beside a classical bust on plinth. It is a lonely image, asking me: What are we protecting, and who is doing the labour?

I have written before about Lynch’s work being a collaboration, inextricably linked to the work of its participants. His 2008 work Doubleday combined an installation reminiscent of a backyard party on a stage – plastic chairs, a cane stool and party lights – and a video documenting the in-house gallery cleaner doing their work, around the art, as art, accompanied by a soundtrack by Evelyn Morris. There was a distinct melancholy in Lynch’s work, then and now, a kind of humble beauty. This is the work that is done, this is what we use, we are the people who do it.

In isolation, we flex a new lexicon of terms as we become amateur virus modellers and economic theorists – while waiting on the whims of new government policies that protect the market and impose massive and potentially irreversible changes upon us. A complex ecology of workers from diverse fields and forms have been corralled into Keepers and Seekers – the essential, and the expendable.

Esther Anatolitis and the National Association for the Visual Arts unsuccessfully lobbied for the regulations around JobSeeker and JobKeeper to be changed so that the time requirement for casual employment would be reduced to three months – better capturing some of the arts sector, which has been so savaged by this lockdown.

Anatolitis speculates that when the lockdown eases, it will more than likely be the galleries to open up first, as audience numbers can be readily managed. With an easing of restrictions recently announced, some smaller private galleries are moderating audiences and access to accommodate visitors. Among the larger institutions, the Art Gallery of South Australia has announced it will reopen from June 8, though for others it’s not clear what comes next.

Geoff Newton ruminates on how he might get through the next few months: the lawyers he can’t afford for rent negotiations with landlords, the exhibitions Neon Parc might put on for isolation-only viewing, the art fairs he won’t be attending. The gallery’s next exhibition, featuring the works of artist Jamie O’Connell, is set to open on June 12.

Speaking to Irene Sutton, who started her Sutton Gallery during a recession, leaves me feeling inspired and hopeful. Her humble care for her artists, small gallery team and collectors, and her strong desire for art to have significant monetary support, has seen her weather downturns, the global financial crisis and the many anarchic twists and turns of the art world. She and Newton share a belief in bricks-and-mortar galleries and, more importantly, for the material and spatial experience of art.

I can argue that art is an infrastructural national body, a body consisting of artists, art workers, curators, writers, performers, universities, museums, galleries, theatres and publications – both offline and online – that primarily sit outside the (at times advantageous) lens of the government. It is a sector that’s able to twist, subvert and question thought, laws and the media’s narrative – keeping sacred and protecting the private, domestic and intimate.

Lynch’s exhibition Stranger reminds us of the importance of being outside. This is his gift. To be reminded of this position is to be able to welcome another we don’t recognise – be it an object, a place or a person – or something that may be out of place. Lynch’s own work as an artist, educator, art installer and curator has seen him occupy this very philosophical position. He has honoured gallery cleaners, collaged synchronous events and worked with art collective Damp for a quarter-century. He makes work of love, and love of work.

To work with others is to work with strangers – an ongoing desire for exchange by means of locating oneself in a world whose co-ordinates are forever changing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Where the art is".

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Lisa Radford
is an artist who writes and teaches. She currently lectures in painting at the VCA, University of Melbourne.