The Finkelstein Files: The Art of Living Joyfully

Tolarno’s, a St.Kilda gastronomic institution for many decades of loyal customers gathered regularly to partake the bonhomie and Mirka Mora murals which festooned the walls with ducks, serpents, floral and doll-like motifs.

One of Australia’s best-loved artist, Mirka Mora has passed this week, aged 90, much to the distress of the visual art community. Her work has been revered, enjoyed and collected for as long as Mirka has been creating it. Mirka, one of Melbourne’s most famous bohemians, transformed the culture of her adopted home town since emigrating to Australia in the 1950s from war-torn France.

“Art is the child of the imagination and gives life”, Mirka famously uttered.

Throughout Mirka’s life, art was a constant. Her sensuous, cherubic figures — described by one 1960s art critic as ‘medieval imps’ — are instantly recognisable. Mirka created a prolific output of work spanning across six decades, with a range of media including drawing, painting, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll-making.

 

Mirka Mora with her Soft Sculptures, August 29, 1979. Image Courtesy: Fairfax Media.

 

With more than 35 solo exhibitions throughout her career, including a retrospective at Heide Museum of Art in 1999-2000, celebrated 50 years of her work. Later this year in October, Heide will mark her 90th year with Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls, with its curators have written a book, Mirka and Georges, to coincide with the exhibition.

 

It seems nearly every Melbournite who has worked, lived and breathed amongst the artistic milieu has a Mirka tale to tell, each more arresting and controversially charming than the next. She was the pied-piper of the art tableuax, weaving her special brand of magic-like pixie-dust wherever she went. What a life worth living! Mirka seemed to leave a trail of art-lovers; charming them with her whacky yet wise stories of her colourful life, led with joy. Her joy was infectious, with people often referring to her child-like approach akin to madness – Mirka was perhaps the most sane of all.

 

Mirka’s studio wall, 2014, Tanner St, Richmond, Melbourne.

Widely respected art dealer, son William Mora explains the magic which was Mirka, “an artist and mentor who touched the lives of thousands, she has had an indelible effect on Australia’s cultural life. The joie de vivre she has shared with so many will continue in her immense legacy of art and her spirit of generosity.”

“Her colourful, sensuous iconography has emerged from the breadth of her interests and reading, her love of classical mythology, her desire to reclaim and make sense of childhood and familial relations, and her recognition of the power of sexual desire”.

 

Mirka Mora, Mother and Child, 1984, Gouache on paper, 18 x 13cm.

 

Carrillo Gantner AO, expresses his heart-felt memories in the forthcoming book Mirka Mora, A life of Making Art by Sabine Cotte, published by Thames and Hudson Australia and  due for release in 2019:

“Many years ago my wife and I were sitting with Mirka in the café at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. I asked her to tell me the story of her miraculous escape at age 13 from the train heading to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. She started to relate how she wrote a note with the names of the stations she was passing on a scrap of paper addressed to her father in Paris and pushed it out through a crack in the cattle truck in which she was being transported. Someone picked it up and sent it on to her father who worked out where she was headed. He bribed the Nazi authorities and she was released at the gates of Auschwitz with the eyes of the inmates staring out at her through the barbed wire. Then in the midst of the café crowd, Mirka burst into wild, incongruous laughter.


Mirka Mora, Friends and Lovers, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 119.5 x 119.5cm.

 

“Those large round eyes staring out at her are there in so many of her paintings and other works. So is her laughter in the face of death and in her commitment to the outrageous and colourful miracle of life. You cannot help but fall in love with Mirka. Everyone who meets her or stands before her work feels the sense of joy and of life lived to the max. If Australia had National Living Treasures as they do in Japan, Mirka Mora would undoubtedly be one of ours”,

 

Mirka Mora, Medieval Gathering (1987-1992), Oil on Canvas, 122.0 × 214.0cm, Image courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

 

“Mirka always said that my mother bought the very first painting she ever sold, and many others in the decades that followed. They remained the closest of friends and I grew up with regular injections of her art, her delicious French accent and delicious French cooking, her laughter and her occasional behavioural extremes. She always managed to put herself at the epicentre of attention, punching her fist into my 40th birthday cake, grabbing my hand and jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed at a polite Toorak party, turning a thank you speech at a Town Hall dinner in her honour into a dissertation on the delights of the clitoris, or hoisting her hospital gown to show me and her delighted hospital roommates her generous surgical scar and so much more. 

 

Mirka Mora, Together, 1996, Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 61cm.

 

“For my mother, Mirka represented the freedom of the artist’s life that she wished she herself might have led were it not for family pressures and social convention. For my children, Mirka almost came from another world, bearing the pleasures of surprise and fantasy. She would draw some strange creature for them and inspire them to repay the favour with their own imaginative scribbles. They loved her. Absolutely everyone loved her, whether they were children or elderly students at her Adult Education classes who imagined once again that they just might be.”

 

 

“First and always foremost, Mirka was an artist. She loved to paint or build soft creatures or embroider pictures or set mosaics. Every day of her life she worked tirelessly at her art, always sketching or pulling out her watercolours or researching images in ancient art books, always with the intensity of someone who treasured life and valued time. Even as she grew old, she told me that she had to work at her easel for hours every day, summoning mythological angels, animals, birds and plants in vivid colours. And always there were those eyes.”

Mirka’s vivacious personality and her vitality pegged her as a creative who blurred the boundaries by speaking with spirited sense of humanity. Thank you Mirka – you will certainly always be remembered for your exuberance and for exemplifying the art of joyful living.

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The Finkelstein Files: Gravity System Response

Greta Costello Photography

Artist Ash Keating photo credit: Greta Costello Photography

A hypothetical question: could Ash Keating’s paintings win the Wynne, or any other prize for landscape painting? His new Blackartprojects exhibition, Gravity System Response, features abstract paintings that, with their undeniable horizon lines, gesture towards the landscape tradition. The works are created on large linen frames using the spray technique that Keating made a trademark in earlier projects more literally situated in the landscape.

In those he “camouflaged” huge warehouses to blend in with their natural surroundings. Anyone interested in seeing how these new paintings fit in to a career encompassing performance, video and large projects disrupting the flow of waste materials destined for landfill may have seen  Ash Keating: Selected Works 2005-2015, this April at Benalla Art Gallery.

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Keating says he painted as an undergrad art student, and though he’s been painting strongly again since 2012, after his outdoor West Park Proposition, he left the medium early on because, “I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a painter … I had a lot of different things I wanted to talk about, which led to the waste-based works.”

Artist Ash Keating about to paint a 19 meter x 7.5 meter art instillation on the side of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. The art work has been commissioned to start the Melbourne Now exhibition at the gallery. (AAP Image/David Crosling) NO ARCHIVING

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NGV International North Wall Billboard Intervention (2013)
synthetic polymer on vinyl billboard painted in-situ on the opening day of the exhibition ‘Melbourne Now‘ 2013

2015 has seen Keating step away from the large public paintings he is known for and return to the gallery wall. Melbourne has built up an impressive collection of Ash Keating’s large-scale public art works. For example, his work at Melbourne Now painted on the north wall of the NGV in front of an audience, and his commission for RMIT’s basketball courts. His latest, an exhibition called Gravity System Response, has moved away from the public sphere and into the traditional confines of a white-walled gallery.

In such a tame space, Keating’s work has an altogether different impact. It encourages the audience to look longer, to see perspective and depth in the canvas. But it’s no less attention grabbing. “It’s hard to really say I’m trying to create works that are immersive when they’re brought down to this scale, but I still am. I still want them to have the capacity to have people get lost in them.”

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Gravity System Response #1 (2015), synthetic polymer on linen, oak frame, 2 panels, 202 x 564 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blackartprojects

“I’ve painted on canvas like this some time ago – back when I was at art school,” says Keating. “But then I quickly moved into lots of different projects. The new works in the studio are an extension of the recent large-scale works, but a much more refined and laboured version of that.” There are technical differences that Keating is keen to point out. These new, Rothko-esque works take longer. The creation of each painting involves several stages, using an airless spray gun, paint and water. These painting are a response to the natural processes of erosion and Keating’s process reflects this.
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The paintings develop the concept of the RMIT work, which was called Natural System Response. “That was also about marveling at natural processes. This is using those same systems that the environment goes through naturally – like a dirty window covered in dust, eroded by rainwater. It’s almost like what you’d see coming from erosion in the landscape. This time it’s about controlling it and making gravity work for me, drawing the paint down to the earth. It’s partly controlled, but I’m also allowing it to take shape by itself.”

Keating has created a number of large-scale works on canvas in response to the surrounding natural environment of Cradle Mountain, a visual journey to the heart of Tasmania. View the link of Remote Nature Response at MONA for DarkMoFo until mid-September.

See Ash’s AUSiMED artwork here

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The Finkelstein Files: Sculpting Scenes with Deborah Halpern

If a Melbournian like myself, the iconic Angel signalled the entrance to the NGV as the tram trundled toward what I came to think of my second home by the mid 1980’s. Now situated along the banks of the Yarra river, opposite the ‘hill’ near the city end of the Birrarung Marr footbridge and has now become a landmark for a new generation. Artist Deborah Halpern lives in Warrandyte, with her own view of the Yarra River. Growing up, she remembers the fun of having a swim on the way home from school with friends and sliding down the slopes near the footy ground until she was completely and joyously covered in mud.  She also remembers the early days of the Potters Cottage (her mother was a founding member) where as a very young child she made and sold her first works.  She learnt from her mother, very early in life, “that you just make stuff and sell it”.  There was never any question that was what she would do in life.

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The Finkelstein Files: What attracted you to mosaics and ceramics? Deborah Halpern: Well I’m not really attracted to mosaics. I know that sounds completely bizarre but I’ll give you the short version of trajectory. In my upbringing, both of my parents were ceramicists and I grew up surrounded by potters so I was always making colourful, whimsical and funky pieces of pottery. But as a potter I was always restricted to a certain size. Even when I was making things in a modular manner, I was still working with specific sizes. When the National Gallery of  Victoria asked me to make a sculpture for the gallery I had to look at how to make a really big piece. (see 1988 video here). I thought I had to make a form and paint it, and then I thought paint doesn’t have the same quality a ceramic glaze has. From that point on, I started to think, maybe rather than have a painted ceramic tile, I could just make up the picture from coloured tiles. Then it went from coloured tiles making up the form to what we would now call mosaic even though I’ve been resisting this word for a long time.

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TFF: Why have you been resisting mosaic? DH: I think the mosaics I have seen in Australia have been mainly done by amateurs and I don’t mean amateurs are bad, but they are people who are thinking of it as more of a hobby. In my studio, I have my team. We are so precise, you wouldn’t imagine the level of skill required to get these works done. I suppose there’s a whole part of me which says please don’t call me a mosaic artist. The mosaic is really a means to an end. However, having said that, I am now surrendering to this being a really interesting area of study.

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TFF: How have you seen your works change? DH: I notice now that I’m working with glass that there are so many different colours and textures to play with that it’s almost like being a pointillist. But instead of putting a dab of paint on a painting, I’m actually placing a dab of colour onto a sculpture.

TFF: Where do you normally look for inspiration? DH: The people whom I’m really responding to at the moment are people who haven’t been at the forefront of my mind before. People like Joan Miro and Gustav KlimtThe works of Klimt I used to think were too much and over the top … but funnily enough it’s really having an impact on me right now. For example, the way he puts his peaceful figures in the middle of this fantastic over-the-top design with colour … the contrast really represents life as it really is for me.

As an artist, I’ve been working for a long time now and I see artists who are doing works that are a commentary on something, or coming from an academic point of view, and I look at those works and sometimes I may not understand them or I may not respond to them. I think there must be something going on that I don’t know anything about. And so I look at those works and I have respect for it, and then I look at my work and I think, well the work I make is something which is truly spontaneous.

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TFF: Do you think this influences the type of person who collects your sculptures? DH: Sometimes you might have a work that is commenting on what’s happening on this planet and it’s really powerful and confronting. I think that’s really valid and all credit goes to that work, but I think people can buy those works and think that by having something like that in their space equals making a difference when it doesn’t necessarily. I guess we just need to be mindful that making a difference in reality and making a difference superficially are really two very different things.

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For more insights into Deborah’s practice view MossgreensThrough the Forest video here.

See Deborah’s AUSiMED artwork here.

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The Finkelstein Files: Unconscious Landscapes

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Within Kirstin Berg’s series of sturdy sculptural bas-relief works lies a subtle undercurrent of fragility. Raw edges are exposed and inner structures of the materials are used to create monumental assemblages of paper and pins. At once heroic gestures yet quietly gestural, these works express a need to establish order from chaos and express power within beauty.

“I am fascinated and driven by the drama and randomness of life; by the primal forces that occur in nature and how these forces mirror our psychological and physical experience. I grew up in the bush of North-East Victoria that, over the years of my childhood and early adolescence, was continually ravaged by bushfire, drought or flood. So, the bush for me was, and still is, an amazingly free yet ominous playground where I was both witness to and an active investigator into the brutal and inevitable cycles of life and death. I have always been drawn to the tragic and ecstatic aspects of nature as a source of emotional power for my work” Kirstin Berg
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“Most of the compositions and forms I use are inspired by elemental forces and/or the juxtaposition of organic matter that I have photographed or drawn directly from the bush; the convergence of water and granite, fire debris butting up against fallen branches or weathered tree stumps, all of nature in various states of growth and decay. I am not at all interested in a literal interpretation. I am tapping into the emotional gravity and dramatic tension that lies beneath the surface. My works on paper have often been described as ‘Unconscious Landscapes’. They are a combination of sculpture, drawing and painting techniques that I began developing in Berlin, Germany, whilst living and working there on an Australia Council grant. My frustration at the time with the limitations of a flat pictorial space literally led me to start tearing things up. I was also greatly affected by the devastation of Berlin’s recent past. It was still a city in the process of rebuilding itself, fractured and transitional, and I naturally began tearing and reconstructing in response”.

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My process involves hand colouring and ink drawing on 2-3m lengths of watercolour paper. Primarily I use fire ash (made from burning bush debris), pure pigments, watercolour and spray paint. I use black India ink in a calligraphic-like gesture when I want to create specific forms. I push the paper to its material limits by total water saturation, vigorously rubbing ash and pigment into it, or applying excessive amounts of paint. The idea is to obliterate and transform the paper surface to give it colour, texture, weight and history. From these coloured sheets and ink pours, all the fragments and shapes for building the composition can then be torn, cut, layered and pinned into new configurations.

I generally work on a scale that is much bigger than myself. I want to set up a feeling of intimacy yet at the same time create an awesome distance that is similar to the experience of being IN nature (rather than just looking at it). I aim for total intellectual, emotional and physical involvement. Working on a large scale demands everything from me. Most works are a battle, rarely are they effortless. It’s the battle that compels me.

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Art allows me to meld ideas of past, present and future into a space where contradictory systems and meanings can coincide. When I was in my 20s I read a quote by Louise Bourgeois that has stayed with  me since. She said, “if the past is not negated in the present you do not live, you go through the emotions like a zombie and life passes you by.” For me this is incredibly wise and true. It has become a personal philosophy for my art and life.

My past and growing up in the bush have been and remain great sources of inspiration for me and although there is often a sense of longing in my work, I am not bound by nostalgia and this gives me great freedom. I think it is easy to be cynical in the world today and art can be an antidote. I combat cynicism by being very active. I am always looking to create a new space and am always hoping for something profoundly unexpected. I can never repeat myself because the randomness of the process and life does not allow it. For me it’s all about the ability to change and reinvent.

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See Kirstin’s AUSiMED artwork here.

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Sculptural Niches – Louise Paramor

Last Christmas, locals could’ve been forgiven for doing a double-take whilst travelling the freeway to work. One minute a barren uninspired vista of nothingness. Later the same afternoon, Panorama Station appeared, a vision of colossal scale and whimsy.

Now a permanent public sculpture commissioned by Southern Way for the Peninsula Link Freeway at the EastLink interchange, Panorama Station is based on an assemblage of found plastic objects. These include items such as 1970’s cassette towers, lampshades, spice jars and toy parts. The origins of the fifteen separate components are largely obscure, but there is an underlining sense of nostalgic familiarity embedded within them. Built from aluminium and steel, its highest point reaches 17 meters, its base over eleven meters long. The artwork resembles a space-station, a rocket launch-pad or a futuristic engine, conjuring up images from popular culture, as seen, for instance, in the cartoon serials The Jetsons or Futurama: a retro-futuristic feel – technology imagined on a human-scale. See the Installation time-lapse video here courtesy of Bison United, incredible stuff! 

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The artwork blurs the lines between sculpture, architecture and machinery and thus infers a direct affinity with the ways of the road, while the overall skyward thrust of the piece inspires a feeling of buoyancy and optimism. Sculptural artist Louise Paramor has spent her artistic career pushing the boundaries of her practice by re-appropriating found domestic and industrial objects as her primary material source. Over the course of two decades Paramor has achieved considerable recognition for transforming these discarded objects into distinctive assemblage sculptures, as well as figurative and abstract collages and transient public space installations.

Glen Eira City Council Gallery is housing an expansive retrospective exhibition, Emporium that surveys her diverse creative practice through the thematic concerns that have preoccupied Paramor. Notions of desire, seduction and stereotypical clichés that reside in popular culture and romantic literature have long fascinated and fed into Paramor’s curiosity with transforming urban waste into, as Paramor herself puts it, “eccentric and poetic ensembles”.

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Survey of Emporium Exhibition 1990- 2013 , open to the public until 3 November.

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Louise Paramor at her exhibition at Glen Eira Gallery. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones.

New and older works have been assembled for Emporium. Typically, she’s worked with chairs and tables and all manner of plastic and fibreglass objects. Critics read into her works evocations of consumerism and urban and domestic history. Paramor sees it as more straightforward. ”I chose the title because the world’s my emporium … I juggle objects and let them make the work themselves. It’s like a magnet in how these objects come together in my mind.”

Shopping online or at suburban mega-stores selling pots, she eyes the right buckets, bowls, balls and bottles for her assemblages. With a hot glue gun in hand, she makes instinctive decisions about form and colour. For the upcoming exhibition, Paramor has assembled new work with ready-made animals who seem playful or perhaps sinister, depending on your reading of their antics. Curator Diane Soumilas leans towards the latter: ”Although seemingly humorous at first glance, darker unsettling forces prevail, arousing a sense of disquiet and intrigue.”

Wild Card # 5 (Panda), 2013, plastic, fiberglass, 246 x 75 x 115cm
Courtesy the artist and the Southern Way Collection.

Emporium brings together work from private and public collections as well as present sculptures from her newest series Wild Cards – commissioned specifically for this exhibition. Bringing together these works will present the overarching narrative of Paramor’s forty-year career as one of the country’s highly regarded and influential contemporary sculptural artists.

Her assemblages and ephemeral installations are created from recycled domestic and industrial remnants, evoking concerns with the everyday, transience and mass consumption. Paramor delights in elevating found materials and consumer items salved from market emporiums, hard rubbish and second-hand shops into powerful works embedded with references to urban and domestic life and history.

Froggy, 2011, oil enamel on glass, 85 x 60cm
Courtesy the artist and the Southern Way Collection

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Installation detail of Stupa City 2010- 2011 (Assemblages) Plastic, Courtesy of the artist.

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Her work is represented in major public gallery and museum collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, Heide Museum of Modern Art and Monash University Collection, Monash University Museum of Art. She has received numerous sculpture awards and public commissions including the prestigious 2010 McClelland Award, McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery for her assemblage Top Shelf. 

The exhibition can be seen at the  Glen Eira City Gallery corner Glen Eira and Hawthorn Rds,Caulfield from September 27 to November 3.