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The must see art shows of summer (Victoria)

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Here are my summer art recommendations in and around Melbourne while the year is still half in bed and the roads are not quite so crowded.

Cartoons Are Us
David Shrigley : Life and Life Drawing at NGV Melbourne, St Kilda Road until March 15
Mambo: 30 years of shelf indulgence at NGV Federation Square, Melbourne until February 22
See these two shows on the same day and make some enjoyable and instructive comparisons. Shrigley is the British Bad Boy anti-art star whose “bad drawing” can seem too “easy” and while often amusing can also seem a bit “so what” — at least they’re the comments I elicited from three pairs of older viewers at the show; the younger folk were too busy pointing and gabbing and snapping pictures with their phones. The Mambo brand, of course, needs no introduction — the show here assembles their greatest hits of the last 30 years, led by the great, inimitable Reg Mombassa, also a “fine artist” in his other life as Chris O’Doherty.
The most obvious distinction to me is that the Mambo show looks “packaged”, like a commercial outing, relegated and crammed chockers into the downstairs street space,  while the Shrigley show comes with full art institution imprimatur, framed as an important show by an internally renowned Artist, very spaciously mounted, with the centrepiece of a viewer participation (V.P. is very a la mode) life drawing room. Make of that what you will — it’s easy to see how you could extract the Reg Mombassa work by itself and give him an equivalent show to Shrigley’s — Mombassa’s would be fully as strong an exhibition. In any case they are both Geniuses, and truly funny in their wicked, unpredictable and original fashions. And they are both very conscious of the relationship between their work and the “Art” world.
The NGV has a Shrigley pop-up shop in the foyer behind the waterglass — T shirts, mugs, key rings, books etc. Shrigley is a great bookmaker. Get David Shrigley: Brain Activity if you want to read some good essays about him. Also, that book has installation shots of the works presented as wallpaper-murals. For some reason I find the wall presentation more appealing than his book work. Maybe it’s the scale, maybe it’s the randomness or sensurround quality. (It will be fun to hear local cartoon hero Oslo Davis riff on Shrigley, NGV, Saturday 24 January).

Through the Lens, Starkly
Richard Avedon People at Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne University until March 15
Curated by Christopher Chapman of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

A couple of photographer friends commented that this didn’t showcase Avedon’s greatest work. But I reckon you see what you can get in this far flung land of ours. There is plenty of fine stuff on the two floors of works, and a handful of the great pieces: the Dior model with elephants (teh set-up would never pass today’s WHS regulations); Marilyn by herself.
There is the remarkable portrait of Dorothy Parker — you suddenly notice her teeth, which are almost black; her reaction to her portraitist seems appropriately suspicious. Upstairs tuckwed into a corner is a great, simple shot of Chet Baker, with a startling crop –demonstrating that brilliant way Avedon had of isolating his subjects on a white background; and proves Avedon’s quality doesn’t need the huge scale of the adjacent pictures.
As my camera friend said, the technique is not difficult — it’s a given that he has a great eye; but it’s all about the connections he makes with his subjects; what he sees in them, what they see in him. That’s a lesson for anyone with a lens in hand.

A Book on the Walls
Ian Fairweather: The Drunken Buddha at Tarrawarra, Healesville until March 15
Curated by Steven Alderton
Fifty years after the publication of Fairweather’s book, The Drunken Buddha, translated from the Chinese, Tarrawarra presents nearly all the illustrations he made for it in their main gallery. (At the opening, Asian art maven Edmund Capon was joshed for his sniffiness at Fairweather’s translation.)  It’s an impressive show, and very poignant, as almost any sizeable showing of Fairweather’s work tends to be. (The pathos of his chosen hermit life; the visual evidence of his living conditions can’t help but make you think of artist-matyrs, the Vincents — “how you suffered for your sanity” as Don McLean put it in his bathetic classic.) It’s fascinating to see how Fairweather treated these pictures merely as illustrations — some are a bit crude compared his less instrumental works; you can see how he signed his signature in marker across one picture. But it’s great to see them all together; and UQP have reissued the book too.

Sculpture in the Bush
The McClelland Sculpture Survey 2014, Mornington Peninsula until July 19
My favourite summer art thing — this sculpture biennial is a great day out. There’s a cafe or bring a picnic. This year’s crop, strewn along a longish bush trail, has the full range of styles with a good choice of current art fashions to enjoy or disparage — in the bush no one can hear you critique.
I didn’t warm to the winning piece, Matthew Harding’s Void, which seemed to me no more than (very) highly accomplished foyer art, but I did like the runner up, the very weird Re:Generation by Sonia Payes. Anyway, the website has individual pages for all the invited artists — an excellent resource with text about and pictures of the works. My own favourites include:
Simon Perry’s witty and monumental (an impossible double!) Return of the ID — because each piece has its own site, the encounter with this piece has a before and after effect; he also has the best artist’s statement, a wrestled piece of honesty. In contrast, and an admonition to Bigness and Grandeur, Dorota Mytych’s long tiny parade of figures, The Small; Lisa Roet’s coughing Sneezing snub nose — ridiculously charming; Tunni Kraus’s quirky comment on consumption Suburban Time Capsule — a totem of supermarket trolleys.

Portrait of the Artist
Mr Turner at the movies
Directed by Mike Leigh, starring Timothy Spall
Finally, and hot days, Mr Turner –one of the best films about an artist I think I’ve seen. Set early in the Victorian era, in the last years of his life, it manages to convey how it was to be Turner — this obsessive, proud, self-assured, visionary artist from the wrong side of the tracks.

It’s very hard to show an artist being an artist but this film gives a good sense of the time and space in between being in front of the canvas — how the world seeps in.

Wonderful: Leigh’s poetic, non-linear screenplay; the beautiful camera work by Dick Pope; and Timothy Spall’s tremendous star performance. The very touching realtionship between him and his father, the other Mr Turner; his complex relationships with several women; that very unusual choice of an end scene. Spall’s spectacular grunting. The very funny, scabrous depiction of the young Ruskin. The way they talked back then — as per usual in a Leigh film there is a great deal of improvised dialogue.
I sent some friends to this very early on, and they came back to me saying it was the worst film they had seen in years. You could construe whiffs of misogyny about it, but I think that would be a retrospective reading. Other friends I have sent fully endorse its gritty realism. Worth seeing and arguing about.

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